The Sound of Typing: Keycap Material on Mechanical Keyboard Noise

April 29, 2024

Have you ever noticed the varying sounds produced by different keyboards while typing? The keycap material has a big say in the sound.

For example, ABS keycaps generate louder, high-pitched sounds while PBT keycaps offer more subdued, lower tones. Artisan keycaps made from wood produce a unique, warm, and natural sound. 

Clickety clack! Let's discuss how these keycaps make typing music.

How Are Keycaps Made

Keycaps, those small pieces you press to input characters on a keyboard, can be made using various materials and manufacturing processes. Let's give you an overview of how they are made.

  1. Material Selection: Keycaps can be made from a variety of materials such as ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate), POM (Polyoxymethylene), PC (Polycarbonate), or metals like aluminum. Each material has its own properties that affect the overall feel, sound, durability, and other characteristics of the keycap.
  2. Injection Molding: Injection molding is the most common manufacturing process for making keycaps. Molten material is injected into a steel or aluminum mold. After the material is allowed to cool and solidify, the keycap body is ejected off the mold. 
  3. Pad Printing or Laser Etching: Legends can then be added using pad printing or laser etching. Pad printing involves transferring ink onto the surface of the keycap using a silicone pad with an embossed negative of the legend. Laser etching uses a laser to remove material from the keycap, leaving behind the legend. 
  4. Surface Treatment: Keycaps undergo surface treatments such as polishing, or coating with a protective layer to enhance durability and aesthetics.
  5. Double-shot Molding: In this process, molding the keycap is done in two separate stages. First, the main keycap is molded using one type of plastic. Then a second type of plastic, typically a different color, is injected to fill the legend area. This creates a two-layer keycap with the legend embedded within.
  6. Quality Control: Quality control measures are implemented throughout the process to ensure the final keycaps meet specified standards for dimensions, appearance, and functionality. 

How Do Different Keycap Materials Affect Keyboard Noise Levels?

Keycap materials play a significant role in the acoustic output of your keyboard. A slight touch can either produce a hushed tone or a sharp click. Let's check out this detailed breakdown of how different keycap materials affect keyboard noise:

  1. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
    • Noise Level: ABS keycaps produce a high-pitched, "clacky" sound than keycaps made of other materials. ABS is a relatively lightweight and less dense material, resulting in more pronounced noise when the keycap hits the switch housing or keyboard plate.
    • Sound Characteristics: The sound produced by ABS keycaps is often described as sharp and resonant, with a noticeable reverberation. 
  2. PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate)
    • Noise Level: PBT keycaps generally produce a lower-pitched and quieter sound compared to ABS because PBT is denser. Thus, there is less reverberation and increased noise dampening.
    • Sound Characteristics: PBT keycaps produce a softer and more muted sound with less sharpness and resonance compared to ABS keycaps. 
  3. POM (Polyoxymethylene)
    • Noise Level: POM keycaps are relatively quiet compared to ABS and PBT. POM is a dense and resilient material, which helps absorb and dampen noise effectively.
    • Sound Characteristics: The sound of POM keycaps is soft and subdued with minimal reverberation or clackiness. 
  4. Metal (Aluminum, Brass, etc.)
    • Noise Level: Metal keycaps can produce a distinctive and loud typing sound, depending on the specific metal used and its thickness. Thicker metal keycaps tend to produce a deeper and more resonant sound while thinner ones may produce a sharper and louder sound.
    • Sound Characteristics: Metal keycaps often produce a satisfying "click" or "clack" sound that some users find appealing. However, this can be too loud for quiet environments.
  1. Polycarbonate
    • Noise Level: Polycarbonate keycaps produce a moderate level of noise. The sound can vary depending on the thickness and density of the material. Thicker polycarbonate keycaps may produce a deeper and more resonant sound compared to thinner ones.
    • Sound Characteristics: Polycarbonate keycaps produce a clear and crisp sound with less clackiness compared to ABS. 
  2. Wood
    • Noise Level: Wood keycaps produce a softer and more muted typing sound. The porous nature of wood absorbs some of the impact energy, reducing the overall noise level.
    • Sound Characteristics: The sound of wooden keycaps is often described as warm and organic with a gentle tapping noise. 
  3. Silicone/Rubber
    • Noise Level: Due to the flexible and elastic nature of the material they are made of, silicone or rubber keycaps are quiet, producing a very soft typing sound. 
    • Sound Characteristics: The sound of silicone or rubber keycaps is barely audible with a soft and cushioned feel. 
  4. Resin
    • Noise Level: Resin keycaps usually produce a moderate level of noise, depending on the specific formulation and thickness of the material. Thicker resin keycaps may produce a slightly deeper sound compared to thinner ones.
    • Sound Characteristics: The sound of resin keycaps is often clear and crisp, similar to polycarbonate. 
  5. Carbon Fiber
    • Noise Level: Carbon fiber keycaps produce a moderate to low noise level. The stiffness and density of carbon fiber help dampen sound.
    • Sound Characteristics: The sound of carbon fiber keycaps is crisp and muted with minimal reverberation. 
  6. Thermoplastic Filaments
    • Noise Level: The noise of thermoplastic filament keycaps can vary depending on the specific material and printing parameters. They tend to produce a moderate level of noise similar to injection-molded plastic keycaps.
    • Sound Characteristics: With proper printing settings, these keycaps can offer a balance between sound, durability, and customization options.

Which Keyboard Manufacturers Focus on Sound Dampening Technologies

a variety of mechanical keyboards

Several keyboard manufacturers and brands use sound-dampening technologies to address the requests of a market segment that prefers quieter typing experiences. Here are some notable ones:

  1. Cherry: Many keyboard manufacturers use Cherry switches. Cherry MX Silent switches, for example, feature integrated dampening to reduce noise during key presses.
  2. Das Keyboard: Das Keyboard manufactures mechanical keyboards with sound-dampening features such as dampened key switches and internal padding to reduce noise. Their keyboards are designed to provide a quieter typing experience while maintaining tactile feedback.
  3. Ducky: Ducky keyboards incorporate sound-absorbing materials inside the keyboard chassis and dampened key switches. They offer a range of mechanical keyboards with different switch options to suit users' preferences for noise level and typing feel.
  4. Logitech: Some Logitech mechanical keyboard models have Romer-G switches with integrated dampening to reduce noise. Additionally, some of their membrane keyboards feature low-profile keys designed for quiet typing.
  5. Matias: Matias specializes in producing mechanical keyboards with a focus on quiet operation. Their Quiet Click switches are designed to offer tactile feedback similar to traditional mechanical switches but with significantly reduced noise levels. 
  6. Corsair: Corsair offers a range of mechanical keyboards equipped with Cherry MX Silent switches or their proprietary low-noise switches. These keyboards have additional sound-dampening measures such as rubber dampeners under the keycaps and sound-absorbing materials in the keyboard chassis.
  7. Topre: Topre keyboards use electrostatic capacitive key switches for a smooth and quiet typing experience. While not strictly mechanical switches, Topre switches offer tactile feedback with minimal noise, making them a quieter alternative to traditional mechanical keyboards.
  8. Vortex: Vortex manufactures mechanical keyboards with silent switches designed to reduce noise. Their keyboards have sound-absorbing materials in the case and keycaps to dampen noise.

Modding Techniques to Alter the Sound of Your Keyboard

Keyboard manufacturers are striving to decrease the noise levels of their products. However, you can also alter your keyboard's sound through several modding techniques. Modding can be a fun and rewarding way to customize the sound of your keyboard.

  1. Switch Lubrication: Lubricating mechanical key switches reduces friction and dampens the sound of key presses. Proper lubrication can also improve the feel of the switch when a key is pressed. Always use silicone-based lubricants. 
  2. Switch Films: Switch films are thin plastic or silicone films placed between the switch housing and the top housing to reduce wobble and stabilize the switch. They help minimize vibrations with each key press.
  3. Keycap Modifications: Swapping keycaps can significantly affect the sound profile of a keyboard. Thicker keycaps made of materials like PBT or POM tend to produce a deeper and more muted sound compared to thinner keycaps. 
  4. Case Dampening: Adding sound-dampening materials such as foam or silicone pads inside the keyboard case can help absorb and reduce reverberations. Placed these materials between the PCB (printed circuit board) and the case or along the walls of the case.
  5. Silencing Clips or Rings: Silencing clips or rings can be installed on mechanical key switches to dampen the sound of the switch bottoming out. 
  6. Stabilizer Modifications: Lubricating stabilizers and adding dampening materials to stabilizer housings can reduce rattling and stabilize larger keys (e.g., spacebar, Enter key). 
  7. Plate Modifications: Altering or replacing the keyboard plate, which holds the switches in place, can affect the acoustics of the keyboard. Switches mounted on metal plates may produce a louder and more resonant sound than switches mounted on plastic plates.

Conclusion

The material that makes up your keyboard keycaps can significantly influence the sound they make when typing. Those sounds can be the sharp chirping of ABS, the muted tones of PBT, and the organic resonance of wood. Experiment with various keycaps to find the most pleasing sound when you type. After all, it's your keyboard, your sound, and your experience.

Chris Greiner, a Mechanical Keyboard specialist, boasts a solid educational background with dual bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Business Management from Lewis University. His additional certification in Mechanical Keyboard Design showcases his dedication to staying on the forefront of keyboard technology. Chris primarily writes for keyboard enthusiasts and has been featured on platforms like Jestik, solidifying his reputation as a thought leader in the mechanical keyboard community.
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