I’m amazed at how many of the top-rated Alexa Skills are simply different ambient sounds. It’s crazy! I see tons of Alexa Skills that only play rain sounds, storm sounds, or some other form of white noise like it. Basically any and all ambient sounds you can think of have a seperate Alexa Skill.
Here are the top four when looking at the Alexa Skill Store, sorted by highest average customer rating.
I have to go down to the second page–around spot 20–just to find an Alexa Skill that isn’t an ambient sound (it’s a skill for Bible verses if you’re wondering). And after page two, I see another two full pages of ambient sounds–from whale sounds to harp sounds.
It turns out, you can indeed find an Alexa Skill for just about any sort of noise you think is ambient. Perhaps instead of nature, you’d like to sleep to the sound of steam trains or maybe medieval sounds instead?
Alexa Skills and The Skill Store
Before getting too deep, let me backtrack and explain what an Alexa Skill is and the corresponding Alexa Skill Store.
Alexa Skills are basically Apps for Alexa. Just like how anyone can create Apps for your Smartphone, anyone can create an Alexa Skill that works with Alexa. The main benefit for Amazon is the ability to access thousands of developers and their ingenuity, as developers are freely able to add any sort of functionality to Alexa that they think is useful for users.
The Alexa Skill Store is where you can search for all the existing Alexa Skills. And just like other App Stores, you’re also able to see reviews and ratings in the skill store.
Using Alexa as a White Noise Machine
One of the things I use Alexa for in my bedroom is a glorified White Noise Sound Machine. After all, there’s no reason to have a totally separate device for creating white noise when you can just use Alexa, right? It turns out I’m not alone in thinking this. Ambient noise is by far the most popular Alexa Skill category. Some of the most popular Ambient Sound Skills even have reviews on large news sites like TechCrunch.
Here are a few of my favorite Alexa white noise sounds to try. Being from Florida, I a big fan of of rain and thunderstorms:
My Problem with Ambient Sound Alexa Skills
Recently, I forgot what phrase I used to get Alexa to start playing my favorite ambient noise skill that I use to sleep. Generally, I use the phrase, “Alexa, play rain sounds.” This command starts up this Alexa Skill, which is one of the most heavily reviewed Alexa Skills out there.
But this time I used the phrase, “Alexa, play rain noise.” instead. Wouldn’t you expect both phases to start up the same skill as they’re very similar to each other? I did! However, what I got instead is rain that sounded totally different than what I’m used to. Alexa then proceeded to tell me about this skill’s premium features and asked if I wanted to subscribe for a higher-quality ambient sound. To add insult to injury, the sound quality of this “rain noise” vs my usual “rain sounds” was much, much lower. I could barely hear it.
As you can imagine, this phrase mixup was really annoying to experience late at night before going to bed. But it got me thinking, why do these similar phrases with a one word difference go to totally different Alexa Skills?
And what’s more, now that I know that having one word difference in the phrase gives me the wrong ambient sound, I’m starting to second guess myself. I can’t seem to remember which magical phrase gives me the right soundtrack. This experience ultimately leads me to one of the biggest mistakes Voice Assistants can make.
Voice Assistants shouldn’t have magical phrases.
By a magical phrase, I mean any verbatim phrase that you have to memorize in order to get exactly what you want. If you only change a word or two in your command, you shouldn’t get an entirely different result. When you do, it feels like the Voice Assistant doesn’t actually understand the words themselves.
Magical phrases with Voice Assistants lead to alienating and confusing users who are trying to use the system. Voice Assistants need to understand natural language–which can have slight word variants–and still get the right meaning that a user is intending. They should not map verbatim phrases to actions.
Why Does Alexa Work This Way?
As it turns out, Amazon allows Alexa Skill developers to tag very specific keywords in an utterance. Once these keywords are detected by Alexa, the skill that registered for it holds monopoly over the request. The big keyword that all skills must identify is called the invocation name. In my example above, rain sounds and rain noise are both separate invocation names that skills have adopted. So it’s true in that Alexa doesn’t really understand what the key phrase actually means, but instead maps your verbatim request to a specific skill and relies on that skill to interpret your meaning.
At least now with this information we’re getting closer to understanding what’s going on in my rain example. It seems what I have is two different Alexa Skills enabled: one for rain “sounds,” and one for rain “noise.”
Multiple Alexa Skill Options for Rain Sounds
Figuring out what Alexa Skill answers to a particular command is pretty tough to find. I wasn’t able to discover a good way to figure this out by using the Alexa App for the Amazon website.
I did find one interesting thing in my Alexa Skills tab in the Alexa App, though. First I looked to see what Alexa Skills I have enabled by:
- Open Alexa App
- Tap Options (top left)
- Tap Skills & Games
- Tap Your Skills
From there, I noticed I actually have two Alexa Skills that look almost identical in title, but have slightly different descriptions.
This was a bit odd to me, so I gave it a closer look. It turns out, both Alexa Skills have the same invocation keyword “rain sounds,” however both are developed by two different companies:
Now things are starting to make sense. Both Alexa Skills are fighting for the same invocation keywords. In this case, Alexa should ask me which skill I want to use, but strangely it does not. I suspect this is a bug with Alexa itself. And this instance brought up a few more questions:
1. Which Alexa Skill has the higher sound quality?
Finding the skill with the higher-quality sound isn’t too hard. I first disabled one of the Alexa Skills and then tried the command again. For my example, I disabled the Alexa Skill that was created by Voice Apps and tried the command, “play rain sounds”. I then got the soundtrack that I wanted all along. This fix does lead me to one final question that I’m having trouble answering:
2. How did both Alexa Skills get enabled in the first place?
I don’t recall manually enabling another Alexa Skill for rain sounds, so perhaps Alexa enabled it for me?
I remember a few years back, Amazon experimented with allowing Alexa Skills to auto-enable, so maybe this was the root cause? I’m not sure if there’s a way to confirm this theory or dig deeper. If you have any ideas, please let me know in the comments below. But the good news is by turning off the extra skill, my problem is solved! Now when I say either “rain sound” or “rain noise,” I get the desired Alexa Skill to activate.
A Word of Caution for Premium Ambient Sounds
I did notice one more thing while looking at all of these ambient sound Alexa Skills that is concerning. Many of these skills have a premium version, including both of the skills I had somehow enabled.
These premium versions promise higher sound quality and less looping, which is great. But usually the cost is really steep–sometimes costing $5 per month. That’s a pretty steep cost for just one ambient sound skill. At most, I’d expect to pay a one-time fee of a few dollars. A recurring fee is mind blowing.
My advice? Don’t pay a monthly fee for ambient noise Alexa Skills. If you’re really looking for something more than the free options out there, try hooking up Spotify or Amazon Music to Alexa and make your own white noise playlist instead. By doing this, it’ll save you a monthly bill and give you more freedom to choose your own white noise sounds.
How to Change the Default Service
To link Spotify to your Alexa, follow these steps in the Alexa App:
- Open Settings
- Tap on Music & Podcasts
- Tap on Link New Service
4. Tap on the service you want to link
After you have something linked like Spotify, make sure you change the “Default Services” option to the Music Service you want to use as well. That ensures Alexa will use your new service for any Music requests unless you specify otherwise. Now you can create a new playlist in Spotify and use that as a Ambient Noise instead.