From the Mac Startup Tone to the Skype Ring, Sound Designers Discuss the Legacy of Their Creations

What does a camera sound like? It sounds like a shutter opening and closing. To be specific, it sounds like the shutter of a 1970s Canon AE-1 owned by one particular ex-Apple designer.

When Jim Reekes used a recording of his old camera as the sound effect for a screenshot being taken on a Macintosh, he didn’t know that he was creating a signifier for generations to come. The same sound effect is used today by the iPhone, and what started as a simple way to imitate an analog object in the 20th century has taken on a life of its own in the 21st. The mechanical shutters may be long gone, but their sound lingers on — digitally.

There are still times when the noise of the mechanical breaks into our digital life: the invasive growl of a laptop cooling fan, say, or the wheeze of a printer spitting out paper. Mostly, though, whatever goes on inside the computers on our desks and in our pockets happens inaudibly. There is no sound of cogs turning, no staccato crunches of a floppy disk being read, no camera shutters opening and closing. The sound of process, of something being done, is all artifice; electronic chirrups, beeps, and hums that have been carefully designed to give an impression of activity.

Illustrations by Sally Thurer

These sounds have an enormous influence on how we think about the machines we use. Whether it’s the derivative design — known as skeuomorphism — of virtual shutters, or paper being rustled out of digital trash cans, or the abstract clucks, beeps, and hums of message notifications, these sounds turn inert screens into interfaces that thrum with life. But, as the concept of a computer has evolved from a single box in a single room to an ever-present, ever-connected network of devices, so too has the way we think about the sounds they make.

I hunted down a handful of developers and musicians, including Reekes, to find out how the sounds of our machines came into being, and how the associations of user interfaces (UIs) are shifting. I spoke to these people over the phone, via email, and in one case snuck into a King Crimson press conference to ask a question about Windows Vista. Below are their responses to the same set of questions, stitched together.

Interviewees:

  • Jim Reekes: Responsible for some of Apple’s most iconic audio effects, including the “osumi” alert, the camera sound, and the Mac startup tone.
  • Ken Kato: Composer of the Windows 98 theme, sound designer for Halo 4 with 343 Industries, and current audio director for the VR studio Drifter Entertainment.
  • Robert Fripp: Guitarist for King Crimson and composer of the Windows Vista theme.
  • Steve Milton: Co-founder of Listen, a “sensory experience” company responsible for the sound design of Skype and Tinder, amongst other apps.
  • Becoming Real: London-based electronic musician.
  • Lindsay Corstorphine: Music facilitator and band member of Sauna Youth.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneZero: How do you feel about the computer sounds you designed?

Jim Reekes: Everyone knows the sounds of a mechanical SLR camera, even the young generation that only uses digital cameras. Maybe that’s due to me! When I added the camera sound, digital was just starting to roll out. By attaching my old sound, it bridged this transition so even people that might not know what the sound actually is still associate it with a camera.

Ken Kato: I was visiting my cousin in Japan. When she started up the computer, my Windows 98 startup sound played. I’d been working in Microsoft and hearing it in my little world, but it was then that I realized it was actually being played all over the world.

When I made it, Microsoft started out with about 20 sound designers, and there was a little contest, like a league competition. We went up against each other making sounds, and then a committee would choose which sound they liked. Somehow I made it to the final.

The Windows 95 sound was created by Brian Eno and that was made up of a series of fourth intervals. So that gave a Star Trek-vibe to the note progression. I wanted to round that out. Instead of using fourth intervals, I used a bunch of third intervals. From that initial chord, it modulates up a fifth. That was my way of presenting the idea of progress. It also pans from left to right to give a sense of things moving along. I made hundreds of similar startup sounds; editing and reiterating that particular style.

I guess I’m biased, but I think it’s aged well, compared to some other sounds that Windows made. When I listen to it, I still hear it very fondly.

Robert Fripp: It failed. Everything about the Windows Vista launch failed. So I’ve got to say the music must have been a part of that too. But did I enjoy the process of it? Yes, I did, actually.

It was a very high-level professional challenge for me, which was a primary interest for engaging with it. One of the prime techniques of any discipline is to engage with a challenge. And that challenge means, essentially, engaging with what we don’t know. When we know what we’re doing, [and when] we really don’t know what we’re doing. Because if we know what we’re doing, the outcome cannot be creative.

Jim Reekes: I happened to have a long conversation with Brian Eno before he did his startup sound [for Windows 95]. We were talking about my startup sound for the Macintosh. He was really interested, and we talked about two-three second compositions. He built his on fourth intervals, which is something from the Impressionist period. It lacks a clear tonal center. Mine was built on the harmonic series, which is very solid.

I also added a high third in the chord to add a bit of brightness to it, creating a slightly unresolved sound. It’s a solid beginning. It’s also a bit of an homage to the final chord in The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” It’s another subtle hint to the Beatles, as a response to the Apple v Apple lawsuit along with my “Sosumi” beep [a pun on “so sue me”].

Steve Milton: For all of our work, we always begin by identifying the sonic DNA. In other words, we answer the question: What is the brand identity, and how does that translate to sound? From there we can create a world of sound. This is very similar to film scoring in many ways. John Williams gave all of the Star Wars characters their own theme but the overall aesthetic of the music is what holds them all together. When we create a suite of sounds for a product we approach it in the same way.

There are certain things that people understand. There is a kind of semiotics of sound, so when creating an “on” and “off” sound, people will expect it to go up for “on” and down for “off.” When we go against the grain, people notice — perhaps subconsciously, but they notice.

What sound effect is so lodged in your memory that it instantly conjures a time and place?

Becoming Real: For me, a digital sound effect is almost like a smell. It contains lots of different things that apparate a multi-dimensional space in my memory, like little dreams.

Back when I was a kid the internet dial-up tone really took me into the wires. I would always imagine energy flying down cables under the ground, through the Earth to some mega computer in Tokyo or something, like real ’90s hacker imagery. I would click on the internet and feel like I was a step away from infiltrating the FBI’s online database, and I think this sound always signaled in my mind that something very futuristic and unimaginable was happening.

Ken Kato: I really like the early ’80s sci-fi UI sounds. That’s always been a place of inspiration for me. In particular, I really love the sounds for The Mother [computer] from Alien. It has this really stylized, really mechanical quality. The words aren’t being entered by a modern keyboard; it’s more like a fancy sci-fi typewriter.

Lindsay Corstorphine: I remember the sound of the data being loaded on my Commodore 64 from cassette tapes. I had never heard anything like it; a completely alien sound. It makes me think of hours spent in my childhood bedroom poring over the manual learning BASIC, getting error messages constantly. Once I successfully managed to program the computer to emit the sound of a crying baby, although in hindsight it sounded more like mournful, ruminant bleating.

Jim Reekes: The sound of the Apple II floppy drives, the Twiggy drives on the [Apple] Lisa, and then the original Mac 128k drives. All of those stick in my mind, probably because when you heard that you could do nothing but wait. The only thing you had in your attention was the sound of those drives while you’re just sitting there on pause. That’s probably a big reason I started thinking about adding sound effects, to fill in those pauses.

Why do you think certain sound effects, such as a camera shutter sound, have lingered even though the original technology they stem from is outdated?

Jim Reekes: It’s an ear-conic sound. It’s a sound that’s well understood by our culture. You know the sound of a cuckoo clock, or the “ahooga” horn, and those are over 100 years old.

Ken Kato: Visually, when there’s a save button on an interface it’s normally an icon of a floppy disk. A phone camera shutter sound will be something like that, where people may not know what it is, but they associate that sound with the act of taking pictures. Also, by forcing the phone to play the shutter sound, it makes it obvious that someone is taking a picture of something. It makes sense for privacy reasons.

Steve Milton: Today, most people around the world can recognize what the sound of a camera shutter means. Such specific sounds have a universal association that transcend languages and cultures, creating a global language of their own.

How would you say the general approach to interface sound design has changed over the past couple of decades?

Jim Reekes: Audio is still ignored for the most part. Part of the problem is how good design is invisible.

Take the classic Looney Tunes cartoons. Everyone knows the characters and stories. They probably know who did the voice of nearly all the characters — Mel Blanc. They may know the main director — Chuck Jones. But ask them who did the soundtracks and sound effects? Who was the man that did every Looney Tunes cartoon? Probably over 1,000 cartoons and clips to his name, all of which you have heard, think of fondly, and still make you smile when you hear them? Carl Stalling. That guy was a genius, and nobody seems to know who he is. That’s telling. That’s how much we don’t give credit to great sounds. Actually, I want to have Carl Stalling sound effects in everyday life. They make me laugh and make everything fun.

The advent of the electric car is a great opportunity to create sound effects. I want a silent electric car with the sounds from the Star Trek: The Next Generation library. People should be able to buy themes for their silent cars. I could imagine the Flintstone sounds, the one you heard as the cartoon accelerate the vehicle by running their feet under the floorboard.

Steve Milton: Aesthetically, there has been quite a shift. And for the better. The biggest and most obvious is the shift away from skeuomorphic sound. Early sounds would attempt to mimic or sample the real world — quacks, pianos, trash, etc. But as the visual design moved away from skeuomorphism, we also start to hear more abstract expressions, sonically.

Becoming Real: Machines have become quieter, smaller, less noticeable, as the importance isn’t so much what the technology looks like — it’s how it can perform for us. People having their phones on silent does change our relationship to them, as these items don’t really ever turn off. Communication and interaction never stop and I think people have just got used to being fully and constantly connected to everyone.

Lindsay Corstorphine: Sound was originally important because, whereas previously computers had been mechanical — whirring and clanking — digital interfaces were pretty much silent. Sound effects let you know something’s happening in there. Recently, I’d say sound design has become less ostentatious and more functional, but with a hint of sentimentality for a mechanical past.

Freelance writer | @BBCNews @guardian @frieze_magazine @SightSoundmag @wiredUK @TheTLS others | Also @GardensBritish | Rep’d by @harriet__moore | Novel coming

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