Sound, the Cinderella of ‘multimedia’

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I was looking at the Aston Martin site this week, because the company has just been sold. Staring at the home page I knew there was something wrong, but could not work out what. Then I realised – the cars racing round the track at the top were not making any noise, which was like watching an opera on mute. It is not surprising though: website owners and designers are terrified of using sound. Often they have cause, but I think they need to be a little braver.

Sound is the Cinderella of what we used to call multimedia. The web has always been able to generate it, and most computers can handle it. On business sites it has had its place in investor relations webcasts and the like, but the use of sound as part of the site as a whole has been restricted, generally, to chirpily down-market brand sites.

Good thing too, you may think. Who wants a website to make a noise, especially when you are using it in an office where you cannot turn the sound up? Nor are you likely to be convinced by the one of the few corporate sites that does offer a home page sound track.

EDF (www.edf.com) breaks into an electronic melody when you arrive at the site – it accompanies a gradual unfurling of the page using Flash animation. The noise is not particularly objectionable at first, but as you move around the site you will probably find yourself going back to the home page over and again, because it is the hub of a somewhat incoherent presence. And every time the track and animation start again. There is no option to skip it, and while the music can be muted during playing, it comes bouncing back each time you hit the home button. The animation is the really daft bit, but it is the music that will make you hurl your computer through the window.

It seems to me that the problem is not that the EDF site has sound, but that it uses it badly. Detail is the problem. I will come back to corporate sites, but I would like to return first to Aston Martin. Its site (www.astonmartin.com) is a lush affair that makes good use of Flash video on its home page – if you can afford an Aston, you probably have a computer than can display it nicely. If it had given us sound – preferably the noise of the engines, though a music track would so – it would complete the experience and boost the brand nicely. Adding sound would have been technically trivial – was it just not thinking, lack of nerve, or some other reason I cannot guess?

You will find a fair amount of sound on brand-driven sites, but the hit and miss success suggests that not enough thought – or attention – is given to otherwise expensive affairs. Absolut, the vodka, has a site (www.absolut.com) that plays a burst of slightly spooky electronic music over and again. It does not change wherever you are on the site, and its monotony will drive you quickly loopy. Perhaps the track has been carefully chosen – but somehow I doubt it. Sound here and on many sites is an afterthought, when it should be considered side by side with the visual effect.

You do not have to be a giant to get it right. One of my favourite sites has been around for ages, and uses music with panache. Sublime Ailleurs is a hotel in Marrakech. Its pretty site (www.sublimeailleurs.com) has a track that sings pleasantly of Morocco – or rather it has three tracks. Click a number and you can switch between them, click Info and a box appears to tell you what you are listening to. The music is specially written, it seems – I wonder why they don’t sell the CD.

A second type of noise that can work well is the soundtrack. The idea of using videos on the home page has merit because it exploits broadband and can, if well done, grab visitors and keep them there. A handful of companies are experimenting. Cisco (www.cisco.com) was this week running a commercial featuring elephants in India, while Shell (www.shell.com) has a longer film that tells a story (an even longer version is within the site). Cisco uses mainly music, while Shell has music and speech. Both have high production values, and neither would make much sense without sound. We will surely see more of this kind of convergence (web with television/cinema), so we will inevitably hear more sound. A little point (more detail) is that it should not start automatically when visitors arrive at a page – otherwise you get the EDF driving-people-up-the-wall syndrome.

But the use of sound as a brandbuilding background – what EDF is trying to do – can that ever work? Well yes, I think it probably can, if well enough done. Nokia is well known for its use of ‘sonic branding’ – the jingle its phones emit as they start up is all about that. I have a loose connection with a sonic branding company, but know perilously little about it. What I do know is that while Nokia has kept its jingle off the web, it does use sound in a subtle and possibly even effective way. Go on to its home page (www.nokia.com) and you will be greeted by a few gentle electronic notes – not the familiar ones, thank heavens, and the more acceptable for that.

The page then provides three links – Business solutions, Phones and more, and Corporate information. Pass the cursor over each, and you hear a single note, each with a different pitch. I’m not quite sure of the point, but I can see how it could be heading towards a sonic equivalent of colour coding. I like sites that change their colour scheme when you move between different sections, because it helps navigation and also breaks the monotony. Could sound be used to help in the same way – a different note when you approach a link that stays in the section from one that leads out of it, for example? Or different notes for each section? Don’t know – worth considering though.

Sound is here to stay on the web. Give it more attention, and it could be a real benefit. If you don’t it will stay just plain annoying. Music or musak? Time to choose.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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