It’s nice to know that the FIA are bringing in “experts” to review the new sound test in which Mercedes will use—what has been described as a megaphone—a new exhaust apparatus in order to amplify the decibel level of the cars in this weeks test in Spain.

Increasing the decibel level is one thing but the sound itself—or what pundits of the new regulations are now calling “noise”—is the key with much of the concern.

The head’s natural speaker

Decibel level is one thing and perhaps the most tangible element that is missing due to the lack of a comparative visceral experience that uses bone conductance to color the experience. You’re not only “hearing” the sound of the car but your skull feels the vibrations as well and all of it adds to the auditory experience.

Sound pressure is a unique element in the equation but sound is also very subjective. Some of us—and I’m not saying that Paul or I lost any of our hearing from those early rock and roll days—have gaps in their hearing. If you consider the audible range between 20hz to 20khz, then you are closer to understanding the range of the human ear.

Who was Fletcher and Munson?

The ear is sensitive across all those frequencies but we don’t hear all of those frequencies at the same level. For example—if you had all of the frequencies playing at one time and the Volume was set at 10, you would not hear all frequencies at 10. Some would be at 10 while others would be at 7 or 5. You may have heard people say that we don’t have flat response hearing. That’s what this means.

This is why—if you are one of those dudes—you had an 800-watt amp in your car with a cross over and it pumped out the bass in a big way. The reason is we don’t hear low frequency—think bass—at the same level so we put big amps on those low frequencies to increase the volume and artificially “make” our hearing flat in response.

This has a lot to do with something called the Fletcher-Munson curve (yes, they are two guys who invented the equal-loudness curve in the 1930’s). It basically says—and this is putting it very generically—that our ears are very sensitive around 1,800 cycles to about 5khz. This is scientifically explained by the size of our ear canal and other internal oddities like ossicles.

That’s all nice but it’s really much easier than that. You see I believe we were made that way because for one simple reason—the human voice is in that range. We were designed to hear each other although we all do a really good job of not doing that very thing. We have learned to tune that out pretty well haven’t we?

Wait…61 feet?

All things vibrate. Everything oscillates. A 16hz frequency—meaning it oscillates 16 times per second—is 61 feet (18.75 meters) long and if you have a speaker sitting on a long wooden floor, the floor will resonate using 61 feet of the wood. The key to the “megaphone” will be having the appropriate length of material so the frequencies emitted from the exhaust couple with the material and resonate at the right wavelength to make the best use of it and amplify the sound.

The frequencies are much higher from the exhaust so we don’t need 61 feet of material but suffice to say, we will lose much of the low frequency stuff regardless. Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter.

Dude!  We need more power!

If we can amplify the sound of the exhaust that would be great wouldn’t it? Well…maybe. You see when you double your power, you increase the gain by 3dB. Now keep this in mind when you are buying your stereo—adding more power is not always the best investment. If you go from 300 watts to 600 watts, you’ve increased your gain by 3dB and you can barely perceive that. You have more headroom but in the end, it is much better to get a more efficient speaker than continually doubling your power.

So the Formula 1 megaphone needs to be efficient at how it conducts with the frequency as a speaker needs to be efficient with how it uses the energy you send it. Can in we increase the overall gain output of the sound of the exhaust? Sure but is that enough? In my opinion, it is only half the battle.

What’s the frequency Kenneth?

You see the frequency is a real issue here. When a motor revs at 18,000 rpm it emits certain frequency characteristics that we have become used to. These new engines do not come anywhere close to producing the same frequencies at the same levels and the overall gain is down due to one exhaust outlet—among other things. It is the color or nuances of the sound that F1 fans are missing as well as the visceral gain structure of the sound itself.

In short, you have a gain and frequency issue. They may be able to solve on but they will never solve the other, naturally, without the engines revving at a much higher rate and when you add more cylinders it gets even better. Couple this with phasing issues and more and you have a right mess.

Speakers breathe?

Regarding phase (remember the notion of 45 degree angles), here’s a top tip. Always make sure your speaker cables have the “plus” connected to the “plus” and the “minus” connected to the “minus”. If you don’t, the easiest way to think of this is that when one speaker is moving outward or exhaling if you will, the other one is inhaling or moving backward. That’s out of phase and that’s not good. Phasing is how your Bose QT headsets work too but I won’t get into that now.

Now this becomes important for one reason, fixing the overall gain of the exhaust is one thing but broadcast has a completely new curve to throw this whole issue. Compression ratios of the audio in the broadcast and how microphones around the circuit are placed and if they are in or out of phase etc. It get’s very complicated if we’re trying to get the sound on TV better too.

Here’s the real black art that could fool us all

Here’s the black art of what they could do for us couch pilots at home though—Digital Signal Processing (DSP). You see you could easily run the circuit microphones through a DSP and modify the frequency and gain with relative ease. You could pump the low frequency up and make the response as flat as possible. You could even find high frequency harmonics and amplify to crap out of those and make us believe we’re hearing a little bit of a wail like we did in the old days. I even know the product that can do that well but F1 will have to call me for that solution—but I’m sure their “experts” will do just fine. This is like the Adrian Newey area of audio and much can be done at this level but it doesn’t impact fans at the track.

Broadcasters know how to bounce video off the Clark Arc 22,300 miles away really well but they wouldn’t know audio if it bit them in the arse. They believe that audio is just something that comes free with video. Tragically audio is the most complicated part of the broadcast because of what we mentioned above—it’s subjective. Paul may be sitting at home with a huge hole in his hearing between 12khz and 16khz and he’s thinking this sounds like dog poop when it actually sounds fine.

So there you have it. The challenge before F1 is trying to increase gain and also to somehow hope that fans will still like the quality of the sound via its frequency characteristics. Louder crap is just louder crap. If Force India’s Bob Fernley is right, then we may grow accustomed to the “crap” and find the increased gain is fine. Time will tell but I wish the “experts” well. While they’re there, maybe they could take a look at the circuit sound system and test the free-air cone resonance for each speaker at the track.

An F1 fan since 1972, NC has spent over 25 years in the technology industry focusing on technology integration, AV systems integration, digital media strategies, technology planning, consulting, speaking, presenting, sales, content strategy, marketing and brand building.
  • Perfectly well summarized NC. Exactly.

    However all this reinforces for me (and possibly other F1B bloggers) is that the liklihood of FIA or F1 Strategy group getting their heads around it and doing a proper job of resolving it is in the order of -60 dB (good/bad decision ratio) on any octave. JF

  • Julian

    They should be putting microphones not megaphones. That way they can broadcast the noise over a trackside FM station, and you can experience the deafening noise simply by turning up your FM radio whilst wearing ear buds. Either way it is contrived and fake.
    I can imagine the conversation with my son at the track…
    “Daddy, why are the F1 cars so loud?”
    Well son, it’s because they added something to the exhaust to make a lot of noise”
    ” Wow, and that makes it go faster”
    ” Actually it probably makes them slower”
    ” Isn’t that dumb”
    ” Yes, I suppose it is”

  • dude

    Wow Todd, never realized you are such an audio expert / enthusiast. I would love to check out your home audio system.

    I think it is ludicrous to be resorting to these artificial methods. Whatever they have to do, it needs to be on the mechanical level of the car. Sure it can be tweaked, but a V6 is still a V6, it will never have that same visceral feeling, especially if you are spectating live. At the very least, they could do something with the frequency responses, due to the reliability issues and limited number of engines allowed, it ain’t going to happen. I simply love the sound of aspirated engines more. F1 cars sound like lawn mower farts right now what with its efficient power units.

    • That’s my day job mate, the business of audio and video integration in commercial applications and the integration of technology in emerging distributed work environments. :)

      • Cool post; I’ve built a few speakers (from brilliant designers on Parts-Express/Madisound, nothing I could design myself), so find the sound issue interesting from a design process. I rather like the sound, but for discussion’s sake will ignore your and Jack’s contention fans hate the sound.

        Some questions:

        -As speaker soundwaves are a compression artifact rather with no expulsion component like waste exhaust gas, is there any difference in how the sound is tuned? It sounds like you’re equating the exhaust cone concept w/ a compression driver and horn waveguide; curious if they’re the same.

        -What about boundary-induced phase nulls(street circuit walls or grandstands)? If one’s shaping for specific frequency emphasis/attenuation, doesn’t environment play a role as well?

        -How would DSP (and I hate the idea of any digital sound manipulation on a car) compensate for Doppler?

        -Microphones. I mentioned in a past post that track organizers are responsible for mic-ing races; with your experience, is there something that can be done to capture more of the sound already present?

        I personally want more volume if a somewhat “natural” solution. For those that dislike the tone, I’ve no problems as long as the changes are performance-neutral and a byproduct of the vehicle, not post-editing.

        I’ll share as-balanced-as-possible impressions about the 2014 car sounds next week, but until then, still wonder why any fan would entertain non-car sound manipulation.

        • The exhaust and the driver for a speaker are different things but I am speaking of frequency vibrations and amplifying those frequencies. Tuning an exhaust is certainly different than tuning a speaker but both are converting energy and no matter what the energy source is—electric or exhaust—the human is ear is the same. I always tell the Stereophile magazine readers that no matter how digital your system and speakers are, from the speaker to your ear is analog. They’ll have to reckon the reality of an analog world when concerning hearing. That’s why it is a black art.

          To that effect, your Monster Cable speaker lines? Are we jump-starting cars? If you tell me you can hear the difference at 19,500khz, you’re not human. That’s a galactic waste of money in my opinion although my spectrum analyzer can see the difference and the reduction of skin effect from the cable. Whatever, my ear doesn’t know the difference because it isn’t as cool as a spectrum analyzer.

          Phasing. Environment is always a huge issue. To consider Monaco versus Spa is a good mental example of how the sound is impacted. To take it home, your speaker box is tuned to the speaker, speaker efficiency and power etc. Think of the box as Monaco and the exhaust as the driver. It will always play a role in the sound.

          DSP- they use DSP now, do you notice any Doppler effect?

          Mics- Great question and I do have a few ideas on mic placement, microphone type—dynamic or electret—and mixing but they will have to call me for those ideas. ;)

          • Interesting, thanks.

            -I was unclear re: speaker sound waves v. exhaust gas sound waves. Was asking whether since there’s exhaust gas actually moving in and along the sound component’s molecule compression, the tuning method had to change.

            -Add pre-amp isolation pucks and bi-wiring as other snake oil voodoo. High end audio can be such poopy. Although, have you heard a TAD 1 or Magico Mini? WOW.

            -DSP/Doppler. It’s used in exhaust tuning now?? Where? Yes, we’re hearing it as the cars pass us/the mic’s. Since either us/the car/both are moving, I wonder how the potential sound engineer would choose which freq’s/harmonics to (de) emphasize, and the subjectivity of what sounds good.

            Man, lots of knowledgeable F1 fans willing to share their experience; good stuff.

  • dude

    I don’t understand why not fixing it on the root level than to go through all these complicated network of sound systems. Next we’ll get “Formula 1 powered by BOSE and Dr. Dre”.

  • The problem isn’t the volume (dB/SPL). The real problem is exactly as NC suggests – louder crap is still crap, and quite frankly, the sound of the current, fart-worthy power units is not worthy. While the volume is certainly one of the thrilling spectacles of motorsport, it all has to come together in holistic symmetry (errr??). In other words, more of “some thing” is not necessarily better. More balance is always better to our artful minds. The proposed exhaust megaphone will not cut it.

    Listen to these lower revving F1 cars from the Monaco Historic races last week. No lack of sonic thrills here.

    Oh, and by the way. . . ouch! Turn, plz, turn.

  • Tom Firth

    Did the FIA really underestimate the response of fans in relation to the sound when developing these regulations ? I’m confused because to me right now, it appears all people want is the sound, Is that what the sport has become, a loud visceral sound and nothing more ? Am I completely missing the point ?

    Could we just have V8 engines on an outside display rack and no racing at a grand Prix, would people still turn up just to hear it, Is sound that important to F1 that it’s become more important than the concept of open wheel racing ?

    I’m not trying to be awkward but I’m confused and increasingly disillusioned, particularly when things like this – seem more important to the future of the sport than real factors which could result in its extinction in the not too distant future.

    • Hi Tom,

      Hamlet, F1, The World Cup. . . it’s all theater. We, who are invested, see F1 (ne – racing, period) as our life’s blood. Sadly, it really is just another piece of theater, all-be-it, wonderful theater. It’s not just the sound. It is the total theatrical performance – lights, sound, acting, script, directing, sets. . .

      The current state of F1 is all so much ‘method acting’, where in – “I am my character. . . I shall “be” my character. . . to hell with the audience. . . if they don’t get the play and the import of what we are doing, they aren’t really theater people. I shall play to the truth of the character and the script. True believers will appreciate me.”

      Crikey, when audiences don’t like the performance being forced on them from the stage, they head out to the nearest bar at intermission and do not return for Act 2. They, also, frequently do not return at all, nor do they advise their friends partake in the local theatrical presentation.

      F1 is lunging down the road of “we know what’s best, so f*&% ’em if they don’t want to come along. Sadly, F1 is trying to force the issue. Hell, conservation, hybrid technology, road relevance are going to come, all on their own. It doesn’t need to be forced down everyones’ throats. F1 does not need to, should not, force this issue. All things in due course. Right now, F1 is acting just like Microsoft where they promoted XBox1 to the total disregard of their core, gamer, base. And, what do we see? Scurrying by MS to make amends while PlayStation eats their lunch.
      Change comes at it’s own pace, with a little nudging. Right now, F1 is attempting to force feed change down everyone’s throats. Won’t work. . . never has. Better they nudge.

      • Michael,

        I don’t see the sport pushing its current form and rules as a purist mantra, excluding a certain viewership’s interests. Rather, it seems an attempt adapting to an ever-changing economic climate. Auto manufacturer support is critical to a developmental motorsport; as their interests change (alternative propulsion and “green” messages), so too must the formula. Endurance racing, the other major developmental formula, has done the same, and look who’s participating w/ new technologies; Porsche, Nissan, Mazda, and all the exposure and the brands bring. Whether the message F1 presented the public was well-thought I question, but feel the technology shift, in some form, was an economic necessity.

        The only thing FOM/FIA needed be concerned about was maintaining a large enough field to hold races, thus accessing for them the venue fees and broadcast rights. In retaining Merc/Renault and enticing Honda, they’ve done so (Ferrari was admittedly dragged kicking and screaming.)

        I actually pity the non-manufacturer teams, who rely upon revenue rather than exposure to core brand products to cover expenses. There is no collective bargaining agreement, sharing multiple players/teams merchandise throughout the league; each has a tiny merchandise pool (only 2 drivers), lacking the retail exposure a consortium would bring. There are no City/State/Gov’t subsidized stadiums teams access for merchant and ticket revenue. The money comes from performance-based income and sponsorship to cover unique technology and development costs that by history account for something like 70% of a budget. Here’s where I feel the sport’s failed its participants, rather than the formula shift. Little teams would still be spending X millions of dollars, it’d just be on a new wing cascade rather than PU’s.

        As to what F1 actually is on track, no need to reiterate my stance; we disagree, and that’s totally cool. A question I’ve asked before is what SHOULD F1 be if not its current iteration? Is it port-injected NA V10’s, a product of old technology.? A static formula like 09-13, making for minor diffusor tweaks? Is it screaming 1500 hp monsters that no track can contain safely? What about Newey’s X1, a regulation-free formula that no entity could afford?

        I don’t have an answer. I’d like a roaring, 1500 hp monster, or at the very least more volume and more car variation, but only if pushing one or other technological frontier with scope for evolution, that I can attend safely w/ little fear of death or witnessing death, with enough participants affording the costs to make up an interesting grid dynamic. Short of that, the apparently-challenging car dynamics for drivers, interesting track battles, and evolving technologies is compelling theater to me. It screams of classic F1 values, but of a new variation; looking ahead, as F1 always should.

    • Tom, I saw the AMuS pictures as well; hysterically cartoonish. However, we all “sorta” got used to the Ferrari looking it got punched in the nose and many others just drove by Scarlett Johannsson in a bikini, so…

      On serious note, I’d think Merc/F1 is simply testing the loudest solution possible, and will continue refining the cone until they either reach a pleasing volume/note for it/them, or abandon the idea as ridiculous. If not… break out the party kazoos.

    • I don’t watch F1 for the sound… I watch it for the quickness, racing, and the tech. I’m fully into the new sound because it is the sound of the pinnacle. Crazy efficient hybrid engines.

      that said… I’m also stoked for Formula E.

      if i find myself in need of loud i can always head to a nascar race.

  • I rest my case: read Joe Saward
    especially the 4th to last paragraph where he states, “The racing today is good, if it is properly explained to the viewers.” Good theater does not need to be explained.

  • Jason

    Excellent article Todd. I worked as an audio engineer and now lucky enough to be working in F1 for the last 14 years. The engines themselves sounds amazing when you are at the track, albeit not the screaming wail we used to have, it is an amazingly complex sound full of subtle notes and inflections. The real issue is how that sound is delivered to the viewers at home. I recently suggested, as you have, that signal processing could help massively. I hope that my and your suggestions are taken on board…

    • You’re the man!! working in F1 and living the dream mate. I hope they do but there isa lot that can be done. Not just DSP but at the source as well.

  • Well, it’s definitely louder:

    Be advised, both are at slow speed, part throttle. I hope I’m right, that the tests are just experimentation (it’s illegal as the current regs are written anyway); that poor Mercedes sat on a trumpet.

  • Todd… this one deserves to be picked up by one of the big outlets. great article

  • Reed Figley

    It’s a little known fact that back in the 1980s, Todd leveraged his budding career at Pacific Stereo, where he masterfully shamed and hoodwinked many naive teenagers into buying hideously marked-up stereo components, into a cameo appearance in a low-budget film starring Sean Penn. Alas, after he deflowered and impregnated one too many Ridgemont High coeds, he had to skip town, settling in the Midwest. There, he lost all his hair (and what great hair it was!), started following Formula One, and moved on professionally to fleecing much higher paying customers.

    Fast Times indeed.

    • Lol. I act like wherever I am, that’s the place to be. ;)

  • Get Patrick Head on the case; he’s a great engineer and I don’t recall him needing a megaphone to get his voice heard – hell, he’d dry your hair at the same time.

  • Just don’t ask him to oversee steering column design. :-(