Pop producer Steve Levine

Record producer Steve Levine is now using his musical know-how to engineer soundscapes for electric cars.

There’s a cliché that the classic environment of the British engineer is a shed. Down the bottom of the garden, surrounded by all your tools, in your own space and with as many cups of tea as you can handle – what more could anyone want?

There is an element of shed about many of the workplaces where you’ll find engineers, but it was with some surprise that I found myself sitting on a camping chair in a shed at the bottom of a garden in West London, mug of tea in hand, talking to a Grammy-winning record producer about electric cars.

Different beat: what people want to hear in their cars differs from person to person
Different beat: what people want to hear in their cars differs from person to person

Steve Levine is a prominent figure in the recording industry, probably best known for producing Culture Club’s early albums. Starting out as a tape operator in the mid-1970s, he trained as a recording engineer and has worked with artists ranging from the Beach Boys to Mötörhead. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and practice of his art is regularly on display on his Radio 2 programme, The Record Producers, and a conversation with him will frequently slip down cul-de-sacs where names such as George Martin and Paul McCartney are dropped. And he works from an exceedingly well-equipped shed, bristling with mixing desks, keyboards, analogue synthesisers and microphones.

While still very much involved with music, Levine’s career has taken a new turn in recent years with his involvement in the HALOsonic project. Working with in-car sound-system specialist Harman and Lotus Engineering, Levine has been bringing his skills to bear on the problem of how electric cars sound, to listeners both inside and outside the vehicle.

Much has been written about the quietness of electric vehicles (EVs) and the danger this might pose to pedestrians, especially the visually impaired. This problem is being addressed by several projects, and the volume and direction of sound for EVs, as well as the overall sound itself, is likely to be subject to legislation – that is, cars will probably have to sound much like a conventional vehicle to avoid confusing cacophony. But manufacturers are also increasingly interested about what sound the driver and passengers will hear inside the vehicle because, Levine said, it’s an integral part of the driving experience.

The issue isn’t just that people like to be able to hear the car; the sound has a very significant effect on the way people drive. The rising note as the car accelerates and the sounds as gears change, for example, are part of the sensory landscape that informs the subconscious decisions that drivers make. Car manufacturers have long recognised this, and some of the noises that you hear when driving are, in fact, synthetic and only there for your comfort, such as the noise of the indicators.

Quiet concern: some think electric cars could be difficult for pedestrians to hear
Quiet concern: some think electric cars could be difficult for pedestrians to hear

’I was first introduced to Harman by [successful pop producer] Pete Waterman, because he’d been asked by Top Gear magazine to review a piece of equipment and he thought it was perfect for me, because he knows I’m technically savvy,’ Levine said. ’My background as a recording engineer has become an asset to me, because the industry is now very technically driven.’

His role in the HALOsonic project is to define what drivers want to hear when they’re driving. ’There’s a lot of research that’s been done into what people want from different types of car,’ he said; for example, drivers of family cars want a reassuring hum, similar to a dishwasher, while sports-car drivers value the noise and drama of a conventional engine. ’I’m involved with distilling that research, converting it into a soundscape and then working out how DSP [digital signal processing] can help us reproduce that.’

DSP is an increasing part of life in the recording industry; as in many other sectors, analogue devices are steadily being superceded by digital techniques. For Levine, this represents an opportunity. ’DSP can play back real samples, it can synthesise new versions of samples in real time and it can change the way samples sound,’ he explained.

Designing a soundscape for an EV is not that different from producing a song, Levine said. ’Working with pure sound is very similar to working with music. Part of what you instil into a record is this strange emotional quality, which sometimes comes from the songwriting but equally can come from the sonic landscape itself.’ This is even more marked in the world of cinema soundtracks, Levine added. ’Film music is a great example. Sometimes you’ll have a very tense scene and the soundtrack might have a very low, almost inaudible rumble, which gives a sense of foreboding.’

Levine is trying to combine this sonic soundscaping with techniques from video gaming. ’The gaming industry has developed very clever ways of combining recorded elements with real-time methods that combine to make a soundtrack that changes based on the speed of the gamer, the routes they take and the results they achieve. Those same techniques need to be applied, because driving is a real-time operation – you need to respond to what the driver is doing.’

Over time, Levine believes, defining the soundscape of an EV is likely to become another option that a customer picks when choosing a car. ’Tools could be available so that the manufacturer or dealer could customise the sounds, and customers could have some input themselves. Maybe there’ll be a market in swapping customisation.’ Something like ringtones? Levine, ever the musical purist, shuddered at the thought.

Steve Levine - Record producer - Harmon and Lotus Engineering

Steve Levine biography

Record producer – Harman and Lotus Engineering

Starting as a trainee tape operator with CBS Studios in 1975, Levine has worked with new-wave acts such as the Clash and XTC, as well as the Beach Boys and Sailor.

Moving into production and songwriting in the 1980s, Levine produced Culture Club’s first three albums, as well as working for artists such as Stevie Wonder, China Crisis, Gary Moore and Mötörhead.

Levine’s awards include BPI Producer of the Year, Musicweek Top Single Producer and a Grammy for his work with singer Deniece Williams. He is the current chairman of the Music Producer’s Guild.

Q&A Face the music

What sort of technologies are coming into the music industry at the moment?

At the moment, a lot of the hardware we use in the recording studio is being transferred through DSP to digital technology. That’s raising some interesting questions. For example, what does a graphical interface look like? At the moment, it emulates the traditional equipment, but the future is going to be with the pioneering developers who can align powerful DSP with a new way of inputting the same information in a different way.

When you develop an EV soundscape, do you use samples of real engine noises or do you use wholly synthesised sound?

For record production I use every kind of sound; those are the tools of the trade. The same applies with soundtrack composition and with this kind of work.

How might that work?

I think it’s likely to end up much like the sort of work a foley artist does; they’re the people who create sound effects for film and television. You’ll often find that they use things to make a sound that are very different from what they’re representing, because it almost sounds more like the real thing. They squeeze a packet of cornstarch to get the sound of feet in the snow and crumple sweet wrappers to get the sound of fire. So what I think we’ll end up doing for electric vehicles is somewhere between a games creator and a foley artist, with the same skillset a film composer might use.

How does the music world come in at all here?

There’s an element of writing; an element of musicality. For example, when you’re putting sound onto a film, there’s a musicality in the choice of tones you use, such as the tension of a chord that has a suspended sound. Another technique we’re looking at is one that’s used in synthesising sound today. For example, if you want to synthesise a piano, you get a more realistic sound if you emulate all the various components rather than just sampling the sound; you then put it back together from all the components that contribute to the sound. If you want to sample an engine, you break it down. What’s the sound the air intake makes? What about the fan? What about the individual pistons and valves? What effect does the layout of the pistons have? You use those components to build a bespoke version of the engine.