There are few objects in the world with the deep psychological draw of a switch. A switch is meant to be switched, after all. That fact lives right in its name.
The Ambient Machine pushes this phenomenon to the max. It’s a walnut box that features 32 unlabeled switches on its front. Designed by Pentagram’s partner Yuri Suzuki in conjunction with Japanese furniture company E&Y, the machine lets you create your own custom mix of ambient sound. With options ranging from white noise to ocean waves, the switches let you mix and match tracks, and add effects like reverb, to create your own ultimate serene soundtrack.
The device was born from the confines of the pandemic, as Suzuki and his girlfriend shared the same office space each day. While his specialty is largely sonic branding and helping companies develop the right sounds for their identity, Suzuki began to pay more attention to the ambient noises around him—specifically the road just outside his window that he couldn’t tune out.
“[I started] dreaming about creating a device where we could adjust or customize your idea of soundscape for everyday life,” he says. “A sound conditioner. It’s not an air conditioner, but a sound conditioner.”
Suzuki realized that there are all sorts of solutions to generate ambient sound today, ranging from white noise machines to Spotify playlists full of babbling brooks. But in his mind’s eye, he imagined something more like a piece of furniture that offered the option to make ambient sound a tactile experience.
In the past, Suzuki has developed instruments of his own—most famously, his Ototo lets you connect wires to bananas, pots, and other everyday objects to play them. (It’s been added to the permanent collection at MoMA.) What he appreciates most about instrument design is that it’s “primitive,” he says. Instrument interfaces aren’t explained with the overbearing tool tips of modern apps, and he wanted his machine to work the same way.
“I was very interested in manipulation without instruction,” he says. “Music is not really logical. It’s . . . for feeling it.”
What he created in response, alongside E&Y, was this 32-piece grid of unlabeled switches that draws you in to play. In reality, there’s a simple logic that you can master almost instantly. The top row features eight switches that have a mix of natural and electronic sounds, ranging from calming sine waves to the ocean shore. The second row controls the volume of its respective column. The third row adds a delayed reverb style effect. And the fourth row slows playback to half speed.
“We sort of designed it so people can randomly [create] soundscapes that sound quite nice,” says Suzuki. “It’s something playable, but it always has a nice outcome. We tried avoiding any distortion or aggressive sound.”
You might wonder, if every option sounds relatively pleasing, why didn’t Suzuki just score his own specific tracks in the first place? Why allow control and customization at all?
That choice came down to his own experience working professionally in sound. Suzuki has found that people are quite particular about the sounds they can tolerate. And he points out that when next-door neighbors get into fights with each other, it’s often over uninvited sounds bleeding through the walls. And at Pentagram, in his client work, he finds that getting clients on board with a sound is harder than visual graphics. If 30% of people agree on a sound, that’s generally considered a success.
“I have a meeting with five stakeholders, and everyone has different preferences. That’s always happening with sound design,” says Suzuki with a laugh. “And that’s a great thing, how conscious people are about sound! But at the same time, my life is more difficult because people have strong preferences.”
The Ambient Machine was originally released in Japan as a limited run of 20 units, priced around $850. After selling out in the first day, E&Y has opted to produce more in the near future, and you can place an order for one now.