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Illustration by Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail
Illustration by Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail

Noise

The BEEP goes on. But why? Add to ...

If you were anywhere near a television set, June was the month of B-flat. That was the predominant pitch of the vuvuzela, the plastic horn that soccer fans in South Africa blew non-stop throughout the World Cup.

The vuvuzela was so obnoxious to so many people that broadcasters tried to filter it from their game coverage. But nobody, it seems, is doing anything about a much more prevalent form of single-pitch noise pollution: the beeps emitted by supermarket scanners, ATMs and other machines that need to tell us they caught that key-stroke or bar code.

I walked into my local No Frills shortly after the World Cup ended, and it was like the vuvuzela's drone had shattered into a staccato barrage. It was supermarket rush hour, and all 15 cashiers were scanning as fast as they could. I could hear the perfect storm of loud beeps even before I got inside the store. In front of the registers, it trumped every other sound, including background music.

I asked my cashier if it bugged her to listen to that sound for hours on end, day after day. She looked at me like someone awakened from sleep, and said, "I'm used to it." I heard similar things from other cashiers. Natural human resiliency had dulled that part of their aural sense and prevented them from going insane. But was it necessary to do that to them, just so they would know a jar of pickles had been scanned?

In the old Road Runner cartoons, the coyote was often undone when an unexpected beep from his prey startled him over a cliff or into the path of a moving vehicle. Abrupt near noises engage a primitive brain function that evolved to protect us from predators. Dial that response down several notches, and you have the basis for a whole industry, if not several. You have the biological trigger that a beep, somewhere, is just waiting to pull.

Illustration by Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail

Telephones were the first widely public product to manipulate this response. Before Bell's invention became part of daily life in the late 19th century, the only kind of mechanical aural warning the average person heard was a factory or train whistle, or the bell on a horse-drawn fire truck. Telephones were made to ring because a ring couldn't be ignored. It tugged at our primitive brain stem.

The same logic came into play in the early 1970s, when the retail food industry began searching for a better way to control inventory. A committee chaired by a Heinz executive selected a 12-digit bar code developed by IBM, and in 1974 a pack of chewing gum became the first product to be sold via a bar-code scanner, which announced the deed with a beep.

In April, the world's leading manufacturer of in-counter supermarket scanners celebrated production of the one-millionth. Datalogic Magellan scanner, with a promotional video and world tour of 17 trade shows. A lot has changed inside the Magellan since it was first designed, but it still blurts the same raw beep tone that scanners have been making since the disco era.

Bank machines make the same sound, though ATMs tend to be quieter than supermarket scanners, and gather in smaller numbers. Checking your balance is a more private act than unloading your jumbo pack of mini-pizzas onto the store conveyer. If the ATM represents the chamber music of beep tones, my No Frills is the rock 'n' roll, without the sex, the drugs or the music.

Does it have to be like this? Couldn't we find a more pleasant way for machines to tell us that the product is scanned or the money is deposited?

"Maybe they could sample a soft vibraphone or marimba sound," says Darren Copeland, a composer and artistic director of New Adventures in Sound Art, a Toronto-based group whose current Sound Travels festival (on through Sept. 25) focuses on acoustic installations and environments. "Something that has more complexity, and is a little more pleasing to the ear than a raw beep tone."

Perhaps some variation in tone would help. Most of these machines make only one beep tone, but the pitch differs from one to another. The Magellans at my No Frills sound an A. The NCR machines used by CIBC are pitched at C, as are TD Canada Trust's Diebold ATMs. Scotiabank's Wincor Nixdorf machines sound a soft D, and the NCR models used by RBC play an F, with a wacky high F-sharp for some operations, like when you hit the cancel button.

Musicians will spot two familiar patterns in these pitches: an F-major and D-minor chord (flipping to D-major when you trigger that alternate tone at RBC). What if we took a chord or scale that sounds good in any iteration (such as the pentatonic or "black key" scale), and randomized it? Every time you hit a key or scan an item, you'd get a different tone, but within the same consonant chord. The result, in a big supermarket, would be something that sounds like a wind chime, or one of the ambient-music constructions of Brian Eno. You wouldn't have the same pitch hammering at your ear without cease.

John Oswald, another composer who created a sound installation for the Royal Ontario Museum's Spirit House (that partially enclosed space opposite the ticket booths), thinks bird calls might be a good alternative. "For most people, a bird tweet is a reassuring sound, a reminder of the natural world in an unnatural setting."

The details can be worked out, but first, the companies that make these things have to accept non-obnoxious sound as a design goal, right up there with good ergonomics and stable software. Datalogic refused a request to air its thoughts on this issue, maybe because the company hasn't been thinking about it. Most appliance manufacturers don't: There's a vast array of beeptastic gizmos out there, including my microwave.

"There's no shortage of composers in our society," says Copeland. "What we really need are sound designers."

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