Building 104 at General Motors’ Milford Proving Grounds is rather unremarkable, except for one thing. Deep inside, behind the cubicle-lined offices and down several corridors, there’s a room that never existed at GM until last year.
It’s GM’s Sound Design Studio and its lone occupant is Jigar Kapadia, known as Jay. He’s a 36-year-old classically trained musician with an engineering degree. He has worked with rock stars, and royalty runs in his blood. But more on that later.
In the studio, Kapadia taps out a few chords on an electric keyboard and records them. A yoga guru, Kapadia briefly closes his eyes, inhales deeply, exhales and listens to the recorded tones. He awaits an internal sentient response.
“I like to take a pause, artistic freedom, and consider how something is being translated from a recording to a feeling,” said Kapadia. “Sound is very close to the divine energy within us. It has to resonate with the creator first.”
In this case, Kapadia is the creator. He is GM’s senior performance engineer and sound director. GM has tasked him with designing the distinct sounds Cadillac vehicles will emit to warn of a front-end collision, a door ajar, low tire pressure, turn signal, an unfastened seat belt and 15 other notifications.
He is also creating the external pedestrian-friendly alert sounds for GM’s future electric vehicles, which without an internal combustion engine are silent when idling or moving.
“Sound is a very, very important pillar and totally underrated,” said Kapadia. “But from our research, sound evokes emotion and that’s why sound becomes one of the most critical aspects of a car purchase.”
Taxes 2020:What will my tax refund be?
Stock market corrections:How bad can they get and how long can they last?
It’s fair to say that no car buff would want to start a muscle car and not hear the thunderous reverberation of the V8 engine. That full-throttle roar is sex on wheels, and sex sells.
For that reason, many carmakers have played with vehicle sound for decades. About 20 years ago, Aston Martin started to fine-tune the exhaust sounds, said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, California.
Ford Motor Co. produced specific exhaust tones for the 2001 Bullitt Mustang, Brauer said. Ford wanted the car to sound like a bullet and remind the driver of the movie that made it famous. So Ford engineers gave it a high-pitched exhaust tone, said Brauer.
But exhaust tone was the extent to which engineers could manipulate vehicle sound, until now, said Brauer. Car engines are increasingly muffled with hybrid and start/stop technology. Also, more technology is in cars to alert drivers to hazards. It means the sounds that come out of cars have shifted from internal combustion to synthetically enhanced sounds engineered by humans, he said.
“If I get in my car and I don’t think about sound, that’s probably because a bunch of sound engineers did think a lot about sound and made sure it didn’t annoy me,” said Brauer. “And, if a driver is hearing sound, it now has to be something that enhances the experience.”
Engineer known as prince
Kapadia’s journey to GM’s sound lab started in Mumbai, India, where he was born and raised. His parents came from Indian royalty, part of the clan of Rajputs, originally from the town of Gujarat just north of Mumbai on India’s west coast, he said.
His great grandfather was a king until British occupation in the mid-1800s stripped him of the title. Kapadia says people in his hometown still consider him a prince when he visits.
“It’s embarrassing,” Kapadia said. “I’m just an engineer at General Motors.”
Fascinated by healing at a young age, Kapadia spent each summer during his teens in the Himalaya Mountains studying yoga and Marma therapy, which is similar to acupuncture. He also learned how sound affects health.
“Any issues with your thyroid or issues with your throat, there is a frequency associated with it and if you play those frequencies for a few days it will help soothe the symptoms,” Kapadia said.
At 18, Kapadia invented the application for Ektara, an app that features a one-string instrument at a particular frequency used to relieve throat, heart or gallbladder issues, Kapadia said. He continues to do sound healing for people suffering from insomnia, depression and anxiety with his business Sparsh Healing in Bingham Farms, Michigan.
Rock star work
In search of self-sufficiency, Kapadia left India for New York at age 22. He enrolled in New York University and earned a master’s degree in music technology on top of his bachelor of science degree in electronics and telecommunication engineering from Swami Vivekananda Institute of Technology in Mumbai.
At NYU, Kapadia rubbed shoulders in show business. One close classmate was Stefani Germanotta, better known now as Lady Gaga. He also set up the sound equipment for then-mayor of New York and now Democratic presidential contender Mike Bloomberg.
“We would crack jokes,” said Kapadia. “He’s an amazing guy.”
Kapadia learned the logistics of studio work at NYU. He also performed as a singer and musician and was able to merge his musical skills and sound studio acumen to work for such artists as Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, to name a few, both in the studio and in live performances.
But in 2014, he married a woman from Ann Arbor and they fled the Big Apple for Bloomfield Hills. Soon, he was frequenting a Starbucks across from GM’s Warren Technical Center where he’d sit and contemplate whether he could work for the car company.
Right brain, left brain
In 2016, Kapadia got that chance.
GM hired him to work on vehicle speakers and amplifiers. But his boss saw potential for more out of Kapadia and soon he was creating car sounds.
The vehicles featuring Kapadia’s 20 new sounds for Cadillac include the 2020 CT4 and CT5 SUVs and the 2021 Cadillac Escalade full-size SUV. All of Cadillac’s new vehicle rollouts in the months ahead will have the sounds from the “library” Kapadia designed, he said.
The process of creating and choosing just one sound to signal something in a car takes about a year, Kapadia said. The work also requires him to use both his engineering skills and his artistic senses — a true right brain, left brain endeavor, he said.
First, Kapadia has to understand the design and engineering of the vehicle. Here, Kapadia often works at GM’s Tech Center in Warren with other engineers to understand the in-vehicle hardware abilities.
As GM’s luxury brand, Cadillac’s speakers have a 100- to 10,000-hertz bandwidth, he said, giving Kapadia a wide frequency spectrum for sound creation. Mediocre quality speakers have a 500- to 5,000-hertz bandwidth, he said. The advantage of having a lower frequency available, he said, is it can deliver more subtle and relaxing sounds.
“A hip-hop song is lower frequency because it’s more bass,” Kapadia said. “So a bigger speaker can play that kind of sound and lower frequency gives you a better feeling of luxury.”
Next, Kapadia draws on his musical and healing background to select tones that resonate with him to alert without annoying the consumer. The job calls for the early shift.
“I make sounds between 4 and 6 in the morning. That’s my energy booster, we call it the divine time of the day,” said Kapadia. By “we,” he is referring to his 93-year-old guru, A. Parthasarathy, who teaches philosophy in India. “We all wake up at 4 a.m. and pursue our spiritual study. Between 4 and 6 the intellect is available to work in a concentrated fashion.”
And when he creates sound, he thinks about what a customer would like to hear.
“We want to differentiate Cadillac. How can that sound help the wellness of customers?” said Kapadia. “Sound is nothing but information and we want to make it pleasant and if it can contribute to the customer’s wellness even better.”
Once Kapadia has several sounds he likes, he presents them to “sound juries” comprised of 10 to 50 GM leaders. They winnow it to a few sounds. Then, customer clinics make the final selection.
But even then, it’s not done.
Kapadia heads out of his studio, through more long corridors inside Building 104 to a room about the size of a football field. It’s called an anechoic chamber — anechoic means non-echoing.
The massive room is designed to absorb any reflections of sound. Lining the walls are about 50 microphones to record any sound, even a pin dropping. In fact, the human ear pulsates with mild pressure just entering the room.
GM has about 10 other anechoic chambers across its campuses, but this one is the biggest. Kapadia spends several minutes pushing the heavy, hulking, padded doors shut on the chamber.
Then, he climbs into a 2021 Escalade to test his sound creations, such as the seat-belt indicator or turn signal. He’s happy.
“You hear it? It’s subtle and elegant. The sound needs to convey information, but be subtle,” Kapadia said.
If it were a prototype and the sound was not quite subtle or elegant enough, Kapadia would record it in the chamber, then walk back down the hall to GM’s Sound Design Studio to edit it to perfection before final production.
Philosophy of work
On this day, Kapadia’s work is complete. He pushes the chamber’s massive doors open and walks back to the studio.
As part of his amalgamated work process, Kapadia keeps a book of inspirational quotes, compiled by his guru in India, on hand. He also keeps in mind the words of his other gurus, GM CEO Mary Barra and GM President Mark Reuss, which is that the customer is the focus.
Then, he does what he always does, he marries the two ideas.
“My philosophy teaches us how to act in the world and it’s not for paychecks, not for vacations, but how you can give back in a good way to this beautiful world,” said Kapadia. “I chose music, engineering and wellness. That’s what I do.”