Sound & Noise

Dear Reader

Sound is something you can make yourself, and if you do it is usually acceptable to you, or you can be quiet and make no sound; you have the personal choice. Other people’s sounds can also be acceptable to you, even exciting and stimulating, but they can also be unacceptable and then they become noise. Life’s problem is to be able to differentiate one from the other, and to know when to make a sound and when to make a noise.

There are many sounds that I enjoy, from music to the sound of a V10 Honda engine on full song, or Concorde flying overhead after take-off from London Airport; to many people my taste in music is noise, and racing engines emit noise, while Condorde drives some people beserk.

I have a personal rating value on sound or noise; it must be in proportion to the end result of the sound. For some people the sound of Concorde can almost reach the threshold of pain, but to me the sound makes the adrenalin flow with that prickly feeling up the back of the neck. Looking up at it and seeing it in full plan view silhouetted against a clear blue sky can bring tears of emotion to my tired old eyes as I watch it disappear into the bright blue yonder. No matter how often it goes over my part of southern England I love it. The sheer beauty of its shape always gives me pleasure and the sound evokes the feeling that I am seeing one of the wonders of the world. It may only be going at 250 mph, but you know that in a very few minutes it will be over the Atlantic and reaching for 60,000 feet altitude and twice the speed of sound. Added to that is the knowledge that by the time I have finished the small job I am doing and have had lunch, Concorde will be throttling back as it arrives In the United States of America.

No matter how often I hear Concorde the sound of the four Olympus jet engines is still exciting, and it always has been since the day I stood with thousands of other people outside the perimeter fence at London Airport to see and hear Concorde take off on the first schedule flight. In my book that sort of sound is justified. Mario Andretti put it in a nutshell when he said “Concorde? Man, that’s a racer.”

On the other hand I find a Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo’ makes a tiresome. noise, even though it is of a much lower volume, for though the size and weight are impressive it is a lumbering old elephant, compared to a gazelle, and on my scale it does not justify the noise. Similarly a 38 tonne diesel articulated ‘juggernaut’ makes unnecessary noise for what it is doing.

On the racing circuit a Formula One Honda, Ferrari or Renault can make all the noise or sound it likes, providing the end result is the fastest lap ever turned by a racing car; but the sound or noise from a BMW or Ford saloon is unacceptable if it is more than is justified by the performance. A top class ‘fuel’ Dragster can make all the noise it wants if it is trying to set up the fastest time for a standing-start quarter-mile, but lesser vehicles making the same volume of sound are unacceptable in my simple world.

So sound (or noise) must be in proportion to the end result, even if it is only in anticipation and you do not experience that end result. If you know your subject you can get as much pleasure from anticipation as you can get from seeing the end result. If I see Ayrton Senna going down the pit-lane during qualifying I can somehow sense that we are about to see a new fastest time. I may only see and hear the McLaren-Honda for a fleeting second or two during a record lap, but the sight and sound following on the anticipation as he goes out on the track makes a complete picture for me. Some of my colleagues like to sit in the Press room and watch it in silence on a television screen from the circuit system, but I get no feeling from that. I have to ‘be there’ to experience the occasion and feel the excitement of the anticipation. When he does a shattering lap time to take pole position I do not shout and cheer, I turn quietly away enjoying the satisfaction of the anticipation that I had when he started his run. It is very much like watching Concorde disappearing; you cannot see or hear it reaching 1400mph, but you know it is doing it and the sound it left behind is still with you.

Anyone who was at the VSCC Silverstone meeting last month will have seen the demonstration by ‘Mike Sparken’ in his Tipo 158/159 Alfa Romeo ‘Alfetta’. More important is the fact that they will have heard the wonderful sound of the straight-eight, 2-stage supercharged, 1 1/2-litre engine. A pure Grand Prix sound from the past which excited me when I first heard it in 1948 and it still excited me 42 years later. Apart from being a sharp, crisp sound it is a bit like Concorde’s Olympus engines. They are the battle-cry of aviation history, the ‘Alfetta’ engine makes the battle-cry of Grand Prix history. When I first heard a 158 Alfa Romeo it was the ‘state of the art’ of Grand Prix racing and to hear it today is to recall that very important part of Grand Prix history. When you hear a Honda V10 engine today you are hearing a part of today’s Grand Prix history, and in 20 years time if someone is fortunate enough to have a Honda V10 running, your children will be able to enjoy a part of the Grand Prix history of their past.

Many people enjoy the sound of the V16 BRM 1 1/2-litre, but to me it is a tiresome noise that does not get my adrenalin flowing, and never did right from the time I first heard it at a preview in 1949. Oh yes, it made a lot of noise, but it did not go in proportion. To hear a V16 BRM today is to hear the noise of a total failure in Grand Prix racing, the complete inverse of the ‘Alfetta’.

A lot of people swoon and become misty-eyed at the sound of a V12 Rolls Royce ‘Merlin’ engine, but even when they were in operation during the 1939-45 war or on the Royal Aircraft Establishment test-beds the sound did very little for me. The 24-cylinder Napier ‘Sabre’ was another matter altogether, it was my favourite aero engine for to me it was a ‘racing’ engine and it probably started my premature deafness, but I would not have missed it for anything. The ‘Sabre’ powered Hawker ‘Typhoon’ was my idea of a Grand Prix aeroplane. The Hawker ‘Hurricane’ and Supermarine ‘Spitfire’ may have been more successful and popular aircraft, the ‘Hurricane’ being a friendly aeroplane and the ‘Spitfire’ a pretty one, but the ‘Typhoon’ always struck awe in me, and that incredible engine, with all its faults, was my favourite. In later years I appreciated the V12 Ferrari engines, but I loved the V12 Maserati engine, and in recent years I admired the turbocharged Porsche engine, but I loved the turbocharged BMW engine. Maybe I have always been out of step with the rest of the world! (In my book Ayrton Senna can do no wrong. . . .) I have a feeling that more and more people are coming round to my way of thinking.

It is a good thing that one person’s ‘sound’ is another persons ‘noise’, otherwise life would be very monotonous and dull, but like most things in life you can overdo or exaggerate all too easily. There are people who are never happier than when they are complaining about ‘noise’ and they certainly have a wide variety to choose from. If all sounds were acceptable to everyone the complainers would be frustrated and unhappy, so bear in mind that if your ‘sound’ is someone else’s ‘noise’ you may be giving them pleasure, but don’t overdo it.

Yours DSJ