Harman's New Audio System Lets You Create Music With Your Car

By Rob Clymo on at

Consider yourself musical? Does that stretch to actually making music rather than merely singing in the shower? If so then you might like the sound of Harman’s bright new idea: The Ultimate Sound Machine. Although it’s really more of an innovative concept than a production reality right now, the experiment involves turning the whole interior of your car into a musical instrument. It sounds bonkers because it is.

Harman (or rather Harman/Kardon to use the official moniker for the brand behind this creation, although it's a subsidiary of Samsung these days) reckons the idea could redefine the future of the in-car sound experience. Your car’s interior could be the location where your passengers ‘become creators’, or so say developers at the specialist audio outfit. The company recently unveiled an all-electric BMW i3s, which had received The Ultimate Sound Machine makeover and subsequently transformed it into an interactive music-making instrument.

The project has been pretty involved by the sound of it. For starters, the whole interior had to be re-built. By doing that the Harman engineers were able to strip out unwanted components and install a cocktail of digital, sensor and audio technology. Included in that list are the likes of gesture controller Leap Motion, MIDI controller Seaboard and Next Gen Light Pads, all of which are already utilised in recording studios. On top of that, the Harman people had to develop and integrate their own custom hardware, which included kit for the accelerator and steering wheel to be able to generate sounds once they’ve been touched.

Just to keep things interesting for other occupants in the car The Ultimate Sound Machine can be played by up to three people. And, while most of the fun seems to take place in the front part of the cockpit, there are pressure-sensitive areas in the back too. So, if you’re a passenger in the rear who’s more normally used to twiddling your fingers on a run out then perhaps those digits will be better employed bashing out a tune or two in the future.

It has to be said that the front seat occupants get the lion’s share of the kit options though. The steering wheel, for example, allows you to tap on it to create drumming effects while built-in microphones capture the resulting audio. Meanwhile, the Seaboard MIDI machine located on the passenger side dashboard can be used to create three-dimensional sounds. The accelerator, by the way, is used with Leap Motion to speed up the mode. Leap Motion can also be used to produce audio from gestures, while the final pieces of the puzzle are the Next Gen Light Pads. Tap or swipe these and you can add in extra instruments, such as a bit of saxophone or for beefing up the bottom end with a bass guitar flourish or two.

Pulling all this together into some kind of tune however requires time, patience and not a little bit of skill. Harman experts, who’ve had the benefit of practice time, are rather good at it. In fact, the pair in these pictures did a very decent job of creating a funky tune or two, simply by working with their hands. While it’s a clever idea and the tech behind it has been used to great effect, there are obvious limitations for something that’s not going to work while you’re driving on the open road. That said, with the windows down at least people would hear you coming, which in an electric car is no bad thing.

Which brings us on to another Harman development, one that has been designed to announce to unsuspecting pedestrians that your eerily silent EV is on the way down the road. Recent EU legislation has seen a new law introduced, the Regulation on the Sound Level of Motor Vehicles law no less, which states that EVs must be fitted with an acoustic vehicle alert system. Enter then Harman’s HALOsonic, which can turn your otherwise silent electric car, or hybrid vehicle for that matter, into something that makes some noise.

The idea isn't new as such and some manufacturers like Nissan and Toyota, to name but two, have already implemented Acoustic Vehicle Alert System’s (AVAS) on their EVs. Harman itself has been working on its own AVAS since 2009, but the latest edition looks to be their best attempt yet and its arrival is very timely given the new legislation. The system is called external Electronic Sound Synthesis (eESS), which falls under the brands’ HALOsonic range of active noise management products.

Perhaps the most fun feature from this, aside from the helpful aspect of warning people you’re in the vicinity, is how eESS can be customised. Harman says that manufacturers will be able to create bespoke versions of the sounds eESS produces, so that the audible alerts will fit within the context of a certain kind of model. “Be it a sporty engine sound or a spaceship-like drone sound, HALOsonic is proud to be a key enabler for OEMs in their pursuit to stay a class apart without compromising pedestrian safety,” says Rajus Augustine, Senior Director Product Strategy & Planning, Car Audio at Harman.

The EU legislation came into effect on the 1st of July 2019 and the resulting requirement is that a minimum sound level at a speed of 20km/h is 56dB and a maximum sound level is 75dB (comparable to a conventional car) is now required. The ruling applies to all private and commercial vehicles with four or more wheels and needs to be activated for speeds of up to 20km/h going forward, with a sound also being emitted while you’re reversing.

What will this mean for our roads in the future? Considering the fact that eESS can be tailored to emit pretty much any kind of sound it could be interesting. Presumably the EU rule makers remembered to add in a clause stating that vehicle owners can’t drive around sounding too silly. Or maybe they overlooked that point. However, knowing how people love to personalise their cars you can’t help but wonder how long it’ll take before we have roads resonating to a cacophony of different made-up engine noises. Kind of like ringtones used to be, but even more annoying than that.