I recently presented my work on the real-time sound synthesis of a propeller at the 12th International Audio Mostly Conference in London. This sound effect is a continuation of my research into aeroacoustic sounds generated by physical models; an extension of my previous work on the Aeolian harp, sword sounds and Aeolian tones.
A demo video of the propeller model attached to an aircraft object in unity is given here. I use the Unity Doppler effect which is have since discovered is not the best and adds a high-pitched artefact but you’ll get the idea! The propeller physical model was implemented in Pure Data and transferred to Unity using the Heavy compiler.
So, when I was looking for an indication of the different sound sources in a propeller sound I found an excellent paper by Martz et.al. (JE Marte and DW Kurtz. A review of aerodynamic noise from propellers, rotors, and lift fans. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 1970.) This paper provides a breakdown of the different sound sources, replicated for you here.
The sounds are split into periodic and broadband groups. In the periodic sounds, there are rotational sounds associated with the forces on the blade and interaction and distortion effects. The first rotational sound is the Loading sounds. These are associated with the thrust and torque of each propeller blade.
To picture these forces, imagine you are sitting on an aircraft wing, looking down the span, travelling at a fixed speed and uniform air flowing over the aerofoil. From your point of view the wing will have a lift force associated with it and a drag force. Now if we change the aircraft wing to a propeller blade with similar profile to an aerofoil, spinning at a set RPM. If you are sitting at a point on the blade the thrust and torque will be constant at the point you are sat.
Now stepping off the propeller blade and examining the disk of rotation the thrust and torque forces will appear as pulses at the blade passing frequency. For example, a propeller with 2 blades, rotating at 2400 RPM will have a blade passing frequency of 80Hz. A similar propeller with 4 blades, rotating at the same RPM will have a blade passing frequency of 160Hz.
Thickness noise is the sound generated as the blade moves the air aside when passing. This sound is found to be small when blades are moving at the speed of sound, 343 m/s, (known as a speed of Mach 1), and is not considered in our model.
Interaction and distortion effects are associated with helicopter rotors and lift fans. Because these have horizontally rotating blades an effect called blade slap occurs, where the rotating blade passes through the vortices shed by the previous blade causing a large slapping sound. Horizontal blades also have AM and FM modulated signals related with them as well as other effects. Since we are looking at propellers that spin mostly vertically, we have omitted these effects.
The broadband sounds of the propeller are closely related to the Aeolian tone models I have spoken about previously. The vortex sounds are from the vortex shedding, identical to out sword model. This difference in this case is that a propeller has a set shape which more like an aerofoil than a cylinder.
In the Aeolian tone paper, published at AES, LA, 2016, it was found that for a cylinder the frequency can be determined by an equation defined by Strouhal. The ratio of the diameter, frequency and airspeed are related by the Strouhal number, found for a cylinder to be approximately 0.2. In the paper D Brown and JB Ollerhead, Propeller noise at low tip speeds. Technical report, DTIC Document, 1971, a Strouhal number of 0.85 was found for propellers. This was used in our model, along with the chord length of the propeller instead of the diameter.
We also include the wake sound in the Aeolian tone model which is similar to the turbulence sounds. These are only noticeable at high speeds.
The paper by Martz et. al. outlines a procedure by Hamilton Standard, a propeller manufacturer, for predicting the far field loading sounds. Along with the RPM, number of blades, distance, azimuth angle we need the blade diameter, and engine power. We first decided which aircraft we were going to model. This was determined by the fact that we wanted to carry out a perceptual test and had a limited number of clips of known aircraft.
We settled on a Hercules C130, Boeing B17 Flying Fortress, Tiger Moth, Yak-52, Cessna 340 and a P51 Mustang. The internet was searched for details like blade size, blade profile (to calculate chord lengths along the span of the blade), engine power, top speed and maximum RPM. This gave enough information for the models to be created in pure data and the sound effect to be as realistic as possible.
This enables us to calculate the loading sounds and broadband vortex sounds, adding in a Doppler effect for realism. What was missing is an engine sound – the aeroacoustic sounds will not happen in isolation in our model. To rectify this a model from Andy Farnell’s Designing Sound was modified to act as our engine sound.
A copy of the pure data software can be downloaded from this site, https://code.soundsoftware.ac.uk/hg/propeller-model. We performed listening tests on all the models, comparing them with an alternative synthesis model (SMS) and the real recordings we had. The tests highlighted that the real sounds are still the most plausible but our model performed as well as the alternative synthesis method. This is a great result considering the alternative method starts with a real recording of a propeller, analyses it and re-synthesizes it. Our model starts with real world physical parameters like the blade profile, engine power, distance and azimuth angles to produce the sound effect.
An example of the propeller sound effect is mixed into this famous scene from North by Northwest. As you can hear the effect still has some way to go to be as good as the original but this physical model is the first step in incorporating fluid dynamics of a propeller into the synthesis process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_WX_O1BVds
A copy the paper published at Audio Mostly 2017 can be found here >> Propeller_AuthorsVersion.