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Lincoln is using actual orchestra musicians to record SUV’s warning chimes

To create alert tones for the Lincoln Aviator, musicians were recorded on stage at Detroit's Orchestra Hall.

When you start your car without fastening your seat belt, you probably here a sound like “Ding! Ding! Ding!…” It doesn’t really sound like a bell, though. Usually, it sounds like a machine doing a pretty poor job of pretending to be a bell.

Lincoln, Ford’s luxury division, is trying to improve on the usual warning chime by using recordings of actual musicians playing real instruments inside a music hall. This way, when you forget to put on your seat belt, you’ll be reminded by a professional musician.

Specifically, Lincoln recorded three musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra playing short bursts of sound. Those sounds will be used as the warning and alert tones in the new Lincoln Aviator SUV.

Six different types of instrumental riffs — from friendly “non-critical” sounds to attention-grabbing “hard warning” tones will sound for 25 different situations in the vehicle. The sounds are played by string musicians Adrienne Rönmark and Eric Nowlin and percussionist Joseph Becker who plays the marimba.

“We were able to use the musical language that we use in orchestra every day,” said Nowlin in a video presentation. “We have moments in a concert where the music seems like something exciting is happening or something dangerous is happening or something more mellow or welcoming is happening in the music.”

The musicians weren’t given any sheet music to play from. Instead, Lincoln representatives described the overall mood they wanted to create and let them spend time in a new Lincoln Continental to soak up the ambiance. (The Aviator isn’t being produced yet. It will be publicly unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this month.) Then they described what the sounds needed to do and left it to the musicians to create brief tones.

“They were live on stage and they would bounce ideas off each other,” said Jennifer Prescott, supervisor of vehicle harmony for Lincoln. Prescott’s job involves overseeing everything from the warning tones to the feel of knobs and switches to the way the lights turn on gradually as the driver approaches.

The goal was to create sounds with a more authentic feel than would have been possible even with the best synthesizers, she said. That’s why the music was recorded on stage instead of a closed-in recording studio. One of the musicians was playing a violin produced in the 1700s. It would have been impossible to get quite the same feeling any other way, Prescott said.

A variety of instrumentation was tried, including brass instruments and a harp. More than 125 different options were initially recorded, then Lincoln held “listening clinics” to narrow them all down to a single type of tone. With that tone as a model, musicians went back and created a family of warning and alert tones using just the percussion and string instruments.

Becker’s work is most prominent in the final pieces. The “hard warning” sound is two rapid repeated notes struck on a marimba. The “non-critical alert” features plucked violin strings and the marimba. The “soft warning chime” comes closest to a real tune, something you could maybe put words to. It includes, again, the marimba as well as strings playing a cheery series of rising notes.

They were recorded on stage and at the Detroit’s Orchestra Hall. Before they go into the car, the tones will go through a final mixing process with music producer Greg Penny who has worked with Elton John and k.d. lang. Eventually, these new tones will be used in all new Lincoln vehicles, Prescott said, making them an aural signature for the brand.