When you press the key for middle C on a synthesizer keyboard, you always get a middle C. No big surprise there. However, depending on which combination of presets, filters and wave envelopes you select that middle C might sound like a grand piano, a Trinidadian steel pan, or some Martian marimba no one has ever heard in their life before.
These amazing sounds are created and crafted by sound designers—sometimes musicians, sometimes passionate audio enthusiasts, and occasionally electrical engineers and sound designers with a specialization in signal processing. Like Dr. Stéphane Pigeon.
Tropic Rain, Tibetan Choir
Dr. Pigeon lives in Brussels—where he was born. He’s a serious scientist, and a high-level audio technician. He worked at the Laboratoire de Télécommunications et Télédétection at the Université Catholique de Louvain, initially optimizing MPEG2 codecs, then working on multimodal biometric person authentication. Eventually he signed on as a researcher for the Royal Military Academy working on data fusion, channel coding and audio processing.
Dr. Pigeon has also worked as a consultant for the Roland musical instrument company in Japan, designing sounds for their high-end synthesizers. And he’s built a number of audio-related websites—including one for testing your hearing.
But what really interests Dr. Pigeon is ambient sound. Soothing, comforting, calming sounds from the world of nature. Running brooks, distant thunder, falling rain. Sounds that mask a noisy office environment so you can concentrate on your work. Sounds that lower your stress and increase your feeling of well-being. Sounds that can be precisely customized to compensate for hearing loss, or limitations in your audio playback technology.
One of his web sites, myNoise, currently offers more than a hundred unique examples: Tropic Rain, Tibetan Choir, Coastline, Waterfall, Canyon, Ice World. And he’s just started a new site, Rain.today, with a unique sound engine optimized specifically to play the best rain sounds on the web. He employs a bank of random number generators to program a rain sound that changes constantly, just like the real thing.
Best of all, you can put your wallet away. Although Dr. Pigeon will happily accept donations, his ambient sounds are mostly free. What kind of business model is this?
That. I. Don’t. Like.
It all started with tinnitus. And white noise. (White noise is a combination of every frequency in the audible spectrum.)
Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, afflicts millions of people. For some it’s a minor annoyance. For others it’s a nightmare. For many years, one of the standard treatments for tinnitus has been the use of white noise—either to mask the ringing, or to keep the ears from ringing in the absence of sound. This technique doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s effective in many cases. Unfortunately, until recently, deploying white noise has been an expensive experiment.
“Initially, I designed the myNoise site to help people with tinnitus, Dr. Pigeon explains. "I was angry with people who were selling white noise generators or CDs with the claim that this sound was a miracle and it was guaranteed to cure your tinnitus—and they would sell that sound at a very high price. As an engineer, I use white noise on an everyday basis for measuring equipment, and it doesn’t cost you anything to produce it. People trying to make big money from selling such a sound are reaping a benefit from other people’s misfortune and fear. That. I. Don’t. Like.”
So that was Dr. Pigeon’s first sound on myNoise: white noise. It helped some kinds of tinnitus, but not every kind. “If it works,” says Dr. Pigeon, “Yah! Great! But maybe it will not work. There are so many causes of tinnitus, and some cannot be cured by playing white noise. That’s why I don’t ask for money.”
Rain With the Same Properties
His challenge was to create something different from what other web sites offered—and one big difference was a ten-slider equalization feature that allowed users to customize the sound for their own ears. Within a few weeks, myNoise’s white noise generator was one of the most popular on the internet.
Then Dr. Pigeon thought of something. “Why would people listen to synthetic white noise if I could provide natural sounds with a similar audio spectrum? Personally, white noise annoys me, it makes me nervous. Rain exhibits almost all the same frequencies as white noise, so it should be just as efficient at managing tinnitus. My second noise generator provided rain noise with the same acoustic properties as white noise.”
Dr. Pigeon had envisaged noise generators primarily as a cure for certain forms of tinnitus. But then he realized that some people were using them to block distracting noises, such as noisy colleagues in an open office. One noise would mask the other—but that’s not the whole trick. “When the masking noise is designed in the right way,” Dr. Pigeon explains, “the brain will ignore it after a while. The brain is good at ignoring constant stimuli. That means you have the illusion of working in a quiet place! I didn’t believe it myself before experimenting personally. But it works, and it works extremely well.”
As it turns out, rain sound is perfect for creating such an illusion. It can mask annoying sounds, then be ignored itself. All the sounds on myNoise have been selected and optimized to achieve this same effect.
Listener Supported Ambience
When Dr. Pigeon created myNoise in April, 2013, he was a successful freelance consultant with two full-time day-jobs. Money wasn’t a problem, so he decided to make the site listener-supported, like your local PBS radio station. This, as it turns out, was not only karmically correct, but profitable too.
“Living on donations is actually fantastic,” he observes. “First, you only get money from people who are grateful to you. You never face the risk of someone complaining about your product, since your product is totally free! Those who are funding my website are happy customers. Many times they not only send money, they take the time to write an email thanking me, and offering help to improve my web site.”
The biggest advantage of the donation model is that Dr. Pigeon doesn’t have to set a price. “Why would I set a fixed price,” he asks, “when that price would always be too expensive for some people, and peanuts for others? Some of my users are facing very difficult moments in their lives, and experience some comfort by listening to my sounds. Why would I charge them on top of their despair? The world is very unequal already, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction not contributing more to this inequity.”
Recently, when Dr. Pigeon lost both his day-jobs, he discovered to his delight that donations to the site were now strong enough that he could support his family without a day-job. “I get the same salary that I earned as an employee,” he declares. “People are really generous. However, only a couple of visitors out of thousands give you a donation. As long as the site drives traffic that’s viable. But when it comes to bigger businesses, I can understand why such a donation model doesn’t fit. This is probably why they don’t teach the ‘donations model’ in business school.”
Now that myNoise is a profit-making business, what’s the next step in Dr. Pigeon’s business plan?
“Ah, you are assuming I have a business plan,” he laughs, “but I haven’t yet, and I don’t plan to write one soon. myNoise is a business with a happiness plan. Happiness for my customers and myself!”