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The sound of a thoroughbred engine is music to any petrolhead’s ears – but why? And how? Here’s Octane’s guide to pulses, pitches, firings and frequencies, and our reaction to them
Words Rob Scorah // M ain photograph Mark Dixon
The music that moves us
It’s a ‘bloke’ thIng, Isn’t It? A big engine in the Goodwood paddock coughs, splutters and snarls into life, quickly winding itself up to a full howling bellow. Ladies might frown and decide it’s time for another glass of Veuve Clicquot, but the gentlemen will stand entranced around the open clamshell lid, mesmerised by the chattering, singing, multi-cylinder monster. The more cylinders the better. It’s like it’s alive; it has a voice, an innate musicality – a soul. But why is its sound a symphony rather than a cacophony to the devoted, and why do otherwise sane men respond to its call so strongly? Maybe it’s because both we and engines produce sound in a fundamentally similar way, or maybe it’s because some of the principles that drive a good deal of the world’s music also govern the way our motors sing to us like mechanical orchestras. So before we go any further, let’s look at a few basic principles – as well as some exercises you can do. Sound waves are basically air pressure: one single wave consists of a rise to a peak of high pressure followed by a corresponding drop to low pressure. That wave repeats rapidly and we perceive it as a pitch, measuring those repetitions per second in Hertz (Hz). For example, at a concert the A the oboe plays for the orchestra to tune up to is 440 Hz. Now that orchestra, or a band for that matter, has strings you can scrape or pluck, various tubes you can blow down or things you simply hit. Although people and engines
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also have quite an array of inner tubes, their central sound-producing apparatus is none of the above. We and the V12s use what’s called a pulse-train generator. Your vocal cords produce sound as a series of discrete glottal blips (they’re your pulses), which, when strung together fast enough, form a single tone. Try it yourself; make a low, frog-like croak in the back of your throat and steadily increase the rate. If you don’t run out of breath, it gradually turns into a pitch – you are forced to sing a low ‘uurrr’. It’s similar to running your nail along the teeth of a comb. Now, in a four-stroke engine, for every two revolutions of the crankshaft, a piston goes up and down twice, but fires only once – that being its glottal blip/pulse. In a four-cylinder, for every turn of the crank two cylinders fire; in a V8, four, and so forth. So the more cylinders, the higher the pitch (potentially). Okay, here’s something else for you to try. Grab a V8, preferably an evenly balanced one with a flat-plane crank like the 3.2-litre Ferrari used in the 1980s Mondial. Now, stick it on a test bench, drag it into your front parlour and set it down next to the piano. Start it up and let it idle – it should settle around 968rpm. That’s 968 revs with four ignition pulses on each, making 3872 bangs a minute; 64.5 pulses a second. That’s our frequency; 64.5 Hz. Go over to the piano and, playing around near the bottom of the keyboard, you should find that a low C (actually 65 Hz) sounds pretty near. Of course, there’s lots of other racket going
as well as that basic pitch (the fundamental). 5:4. the sound might not be exactly harmonic – in tune – with its own song. you don’t have to dress up as a nun…) Okay. left: 1. b-bang. 6. That all sounds a bit dry and abstract. Bring out your copy of The Sound of Music from behind your copies of Octane and stick it in the DVD player. For example. again by using those small pulse building blocks. b-bang.ENGI N E musIc Left Rob Scorah trained in classical guitar and composition before turning to studio production in the 1990s. (Don’t worry. A given length of tube (flute. Now when an engine ‘sings’ up to that pitch. or more humbly brusque ‘fours’. you hear ‘harmonics’. uniform sound. Try it for yourself. Firing order and exhaust routing also have a musically dramatic effect. get the vacuum cleaner’s extension tube and sing-cum-raspberry down it. It’s the overtones that give a 1 14 J u n e 2 0 1 3 O C T A N E ‘The enthralling soprano banshee wail of a big V12 engine can carry a ghostly human quality’ sound its signature. He also lectured in sound design and digital recording. We understand their spirit and they resonate with ours. This drops the pitch a sort of inexact octave and gives our V8 its distinctive burble. of course) and therefore a very regular frequency and relatively homogenous. End . It is also much favoured in rock guitar power chords. ratio 2:1. with the ‘b-bang’ constituting a single pulse. Perhaps that is what enthrals their owners so. allowing them to get into the higher singing registers of the human voice. so we could do with reviewing some very basic acoustic theory. and two. so a longer pipe equals a deeper pitch (think piccolo versus Alpine horn). Irregularities in the basic pulse rhythm or changes to its attack and decay were (like the b-bang) subsumed in any given pitch. But don’t forget. 3. Unlike the guttural American V8s. their soprano banshee wail can carry a ghostly human quality. We hear the music generated by the numbers. ‘So’. you’re going to sing along to Doe. it might ring out as a whole different note (even assuming the same revs) or more likely. make it interesting or make us feel it’s alive. but each side pipe gets only half the pulses with yet more pauses and syncopations. on (and not just the neighbours banging on the door). The harmonics resonate more strongly if you blow harder down any given tube or drive the resonant system harder. The Ferrari’s flat-plane crank engine. Their multiple firings per second (and often less compromisingly routed exhausts) gift them the higher frequencies. is 3:2. at this rate. Back in the days when I was a university music lecturer. They’re the ones that probably emerge first. reinforcing itself. It proved quite a convincing way of replicating human voice sounds. Again. Instead of a steady bangbang-bang. wouldn’t you have something akin to an engine drone? But our motors have even more ways of playing chords.7-litre small-block. with its 180-degree-spaced journals. doh-re-mi-fa-so-etc and on up to ‘doh’. Why? Because it will teach you to recognise those ratios as basic major scale intervals. Now. Doh to doh is an octave. 5. followed by some higher dohs and ‘fa’. gave us very even firing (optimising power delivery and fluid flow. 7 and right: 2. But the small-block’s 90-degree crank produces asymmetrical firings that will have an acoustic signature. so most engine power chords will remain more complex than Amajor followed by E7. if you were to chop and loop that chord. 4:3. Even aftermarket exhaust manufacturers have woken up to our desire to hear our motors sing and have tuned their systems so the pipes come alive at a particular rev range. The award for best singing voice probably goes to the V12s. The wavelength is the same length as the tube and bounces back and forth. one of my areas of study was granular synthesis. But as with the Chevy. raising the pitch over time. the fourth. the small-block’s cylinders are numbered. These overtones/harmonics are multiples of the fundamental. the fifth.2-litre is fairly uniform. forcing them to spend fortunes on their upkeep. the engine isn’t just blowing air down the pipes like some fairground organ. Also. But it’s the ability of all our engines – from big old ‘singles’ to impossibly convoluted V16s – to sing and chatter to us in such a way that creates an intimate dialogue and deep rapport between us. they gave rise to added ‘overtones’ in the sound. the motor could also be said to have its own percussion in the valve train. a Deer. if we really want to strike up the band. Ferrari’s 3. You’ll notice two things: one. Still. 4:3. it’s effectively singing down them. their rapid snapping will be perceived as a pitch – most notably of the induction valves faintly singing in the intake manifolds at perhaps twice the engine’s pitch. Time for another exercise and a bit of music theory – with Julie Andrews. But it fires 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2. now we’ve connected exhausts to our engine. Going down a single exhaust system that might still sound fairly even. there will be a moment when you are ‘in tune’ with the tube. Crankshaft design and the evenness of the cylinder firing order can have a big effect. most likely having the ratios 2:1. but we don’t hear the numbers. let’s listen to something altogether more irregular – such as Chevrolet’s famous 5. clarinet. 8. 3:2. when your note hits its most resonant frequency. we’re effectively letting it play a wind instrument. side pipe) will produce a sound wave/frequency roughly a little longer than itself. we’ll get b-bang. Doh-so-doh is a commanding harmonic relationship that underpins a good deal of Western music. but the lure of writing about cars ultimately proved stronger than a PhD in the computer-aided writing of music. you look a complete plonker (more so if you did dress up as a nun). 4. Think of the opening chord to Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town – a sound also rich in Marshall Stackinduced harmonics. so. But there are moments when it all comes together perfectly. Spinning that up into running frequencies. as you raise the pitch. a different ‘timbre’ or tone to our engine.