More and more, people are looking for an alternative to gas-powered vehicles, and Fiat’s new electric car is one of those alternatives. The Fiat 500e was going to be unveiled at the Milan Auto Show, but the COVID-19 crisis hit, and new plans were made. Instead, the car was introduced via a video shot on nearly empty Italian streets by Fiat’s Olivier François.
Electric cars are quiet, so a lot goes into creating their sonic identity. For the 500e, Fiat called on music agency Syn, which worked remotely with Red Rose Productions and Helsinki-based voice artist Rudi Rok. They were all tasked to create something that sounded like a human voice combined with the melody of “Amarcord” by Nino Rota — marrying the innovative and the organic.
Syn creative director Nick Wood turned to Rok, who has given voice to a wide range of projects — from the engine sound of electric cars to games, movies, exhibitions and virtual reality experiences. Under the EU legislation, automakers must equip any electric vehicle with an Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS). This system emits warning noises when the car is moving at a slow speed. Rok’s voice became the interpretation of an engine sound where none exists, which was layered with the orchestral track for a sense of soaring beginnings.
While we typically cover audio for picture, we thought that others could learn from Syn’s experience in sonic branding and from this project in particular.
Syn created a making-of video that walks us through the process, and we reached out to Wood to find out more.
How early did you get involved?
We received a phone call at the end of November 2019 from Olivier Francois, the president/CMO of Fiat, and he explained they were looking for something unique for the engine start-up and hadn’t yet found it. I thought we’d have two to three months to really nail this, but he told me he needed our first presentation by December 18, so we jumped in.
What was the creative brief you were given by Fiat?
There is a legal requirement for the AVAS systems to generate a sound when electric road vehicles are reversing or running below 20kmh (about 12mph). The reason for limiting the speed is that at higher speeds, the tire noise usually drowns out the engine. The brief touched on both the practical and legal aspects, with strict technical requirements that would be tested and the creative opportunity to create a unique sonic identity for this car.
Olivier made it very clear he wanted the AVAS sound to have character and personality to enhance this iconic car and its established heritage and history. What they didn’t want was a generic-sounding turbine noise, the spaceship, Jetsons and other cliché engine sounds. The brief was more about what they didn’t want, with the expectation that our creative abilities would bring something unique, quirky and fun.
Were there any specific technical constraints in terms of approach or delivery for use in the car?
Yes, there were many. First of all, the quality of the speaker didn’t allow for any low-end bass, so forget anything inspired by THX or IMAX. The specifications for the playback system for the sound design were quite limited. The audio file had to be a mono, 16-bit Wav with a sample rate of only 32KHz, which is far less than our usual production output.
In addition, the sound frequency band had to be within 300Hz to 8KHz, again quite a limited range to work with when creating the sonic identity that would become the sound of the 500e engine. The additional challenge was to make sure that the composition could be looped seamlessly without any glitches.
How would you describe the sonic branding? And what aspects of the audio go into sonic branding?
Sonic branding is all about registering an idea or emotion, or both, that become interconnected with a product or company. Here, it’s human and machine that produce movement.
I was looking for elements that could be mixed together to give the engine sound soul and personality to create a recognizable sonic identity. In this instance, the sounds for the Fiat 500e feature the human voice instead of using synthesized sounds, and as the car reached 20kph, we seamlessly marry Nino Rota’s iconic melody from “Amarcord” with the engine sound, thus giving the car a very special sonic identity that we hoped would become synonymous with the Fiat 500e.
How did you come up with the creative approach?
We tried many approaches working with international teams of sound designers in Tokyo and LA, and they were all good, but they ultimately did not embody the specific personality and essence I was looking for. I traveled to Kyoto and was sitting in a Buddhist temple, and the idea of the human voice came to me when I heard the monks chanting. It’s at that moment I thought of Rudi Rok in Helsinki as the right person to collaborate with. He’s one of the world’s leading vocal artists.
Did you direct Rudi’s performance? How did that collaboration take place, virtually speaking?
I had worked with Rudi on a recent Disney project, and I knew he had the range and creative imagination to use his voice beyond typical sounds. We had several FaceTime sessions to discuss and brainstorm how to approach the legal and technical requirements whilst making this aesthetically inspiring. There were many, many revisions to get this right.
We went through so many variations; we tried adding in different layers and elements and had to mock up the pitch to bend as it would when the car’s speed increases or decreases. We were giving Fiat ideas right up to the deadline of the road test, when the sound had to pass the legal requirements.
What tools were used to create the sonic branding?
To record his voice, Rudi used a custom-made LDC (large diaphragm condenser) microphone straight into a Metric Halo ULN-8 interface. We wanted to capture the authentic voice/timbre without adding in any unnecessary coloration to the source.
Sound design and further manipulation of the source material were done in Ableton Live, also using plugins like the ones from FabFilter and Oeksound. For the mixing and mastering stage, we used Avid Pro Tools as the DAW, importing the files. These were then processed using iZotope’s Ozone suite, which provides a very useful set of clearly laid-out mastering tools, including filters, EQ and dynamics, which are ideal for this type of application. Of course, tools are only a means to an end, and the real magic is in the long-term creative collaboration.
How did the process of creating a sonic brand for a car differ from doing so for a brand campaign that would air on TV, for example?
One big difference is that this was a legally required sound; it has to be tested on a road track with microphones to ensure it passed sonic guidelines. We had limited sonic quality in the speakers that Fiat used, so we could not think big and audiophile like THX or IMAX, no bass.
The frequencies we used had to be checked and pass their tests, and it had to sound pretty interesting. I would say it was a drastically different approach with far more restrictions, and the objective of ensuring that pedestrians know there is a car coming was a considerable responsibility. Functionality and aesthetics combined.
You can see the making-of video here: