On The Sounds Of Finance

by Thomas Brett

I had been meaning to make a field recording of an ATM for a while, so last week, mid-transaction and realizing that I had forgotten yet again to hit record on my phone/recorder, I set a reminder for this week. When this week arrived I was ready to go!

On this recording you hear me approaching an ATM, one of eight in the ground floor lobby of a bank. I insert my banking card, type in my pin number, select an account, select deposit, insert a check, confirm the check amount, select further transactions, select transfer money, select from which account, type in the amount, select a receipt for the transactions, crumple the receipt in my hand, and then leave the lobby and head out to a busy street.

If there is a theme here it’s that my banking transaction consists, sound-wise, of a lot of beeping and zero talking. Listening to my recording and thinking about it now, it occurs to me that ATM manufacturers–actually, any maker of commercial electronic equipment–would do well to think about the sounds its machines make. Instead of just clinical, fixed-pitched beeps, how about other, more adventurous sounds? Sounds like chimes, crickets, or maybe giggling (for whenever you make withdrawals)? Carefully chosen sounds can create very different “user experiences.”

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Speaking of user experiences: I remember some years ago Amtrak had an automated telephone operator with voice recognition who you could “talk” to and who would “listen” to your Amtrak-related queries. Typical conversation:

Operator: “Okay, where would you like to go?”

Me: “Boston.”

Operator: “I think you said, ‘not sure.’ Is this correct?”

Me: “No.”

Operator: “Okay, let’s try again.”

Me: “—” (sigh).

And on the  awkward conversation went, with me speaking in ever exaggerated tones.

Operator: “If you require assistance, say “Operator.'”

Me: “AH-PURR-AY-TOR!”

Finally, I was understood.

But the best part came next, when the automated operator, feigning comprehension of my verbal request, would say “Hold on while I check that for you” and then make this strangely rhythmic percussion sound. It was kind of like woodblocks played with chopsticks–sixteenth notes at about 140 beats per minute. This charmed me when I realized that the operator’s mouth percussion was intended to represent the sound of someone thinking. Brilliant! I occasionally make this percussive sound myself, just for fun, when I’m not thinking about much at all.

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I don’t know if Amtrak still uses this “thinking” sound, but the ATM manufacturers could take a page out of that sonic playbook. In the meantime, here is the field recording from the bank:

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