Rain Don’t Go Away: myNoise launches a new business on waves of ambient sound

5 minute read

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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.”

Happiness
Plan

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!”