Ten years ago, Microsoft spent $300m launching Windows 95 (just under $3 per copy sold). A tiny slice of that money went to Brian Eno, who recorded the startup sound on a handful of ageing synths in his studio.
>>There are various different versions of 'The Microsoft Sound'. I'm pretty sure that this is the one (it sounds Eno-ish with delayed pianos). Please tell me if I'm wrong.
>> Brian Eno is proper arty. He once urinated in Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain'.
>> Brian Eno has produced six U2 albums, which have sold 70 million copies worldwide. Windows 95 sold 110 million copies in just two years.
>> Brian told XFM that he was paid $35,000 for the sound.
>> In 2001, MS-hater post-rock band Trans Am released Let's Take The Fresh Step Together [iTunes Link], which is the Microsoft Sound timestretched to 51 seconds.
>> Brian loves Yamaha FM synths. In 1995 he was using: Three DX7s, one TG77 and a Prophet VS, according to this Future Music interview.
>> The told the whole Windows 95 story in this 1996 interview with Joel Selvin: "The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I'd been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, 'Here's a specific problem -- solve it.'
>>"The thing from the agency said, 'We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,' this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said 'and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.'[He doesn't say how he persuaded them to eventually use a piece six seconds long]
>>"I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It's like making a tiny little jewel.
>>"In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time."
NEXT UP: 20,000 lines of code, a banjo and the THX Sound
PREVIOUSLY: Yodelling, the KLF and Intel
Lord David Dundas isn't on this list because his 'Dum dee da da' jingle for the British TV network Channel 4 was particularly clever. He's here because - unlike anyone else on this list - he kept hold of the copyright and got very, very rich from those four notes. (Apologies in advance if you never watched TV in Britain in the late '80s or early '90s. This won't mean much to you…)
>> You can see Channel 4's four-note jingle (and the original 'flying blocks' logo) here. (Pause a moment to get over that wave of weird nostalgia…) Every time that sequence was played, David Dundas was paid £3.50. Every week, for ten years, Dundas received a cheque for £1,000 from Channel Four.
>> Lord Dundas' parents, the third Marquess and Marchioness of Zetland, had wanted David to become an MP. Instead, he started writing ad jingles. In 1976 he turned a jingle for Brutus Jeans into a hit record 'Jeans On' which was number one across Europe.
>> The four notes were snipped out of a much longer composition called Fourscore, which was the first piece of music played on the channel at it's launch in 1982.
>> In the late '90s, Dundas invested in GW Pharmaceuticals, a company which won a license to grow cannabis in Britain, producing 15 tonnes a year for medical research. His 40,000 shares went up 500% when the company floated.
>> Eventually, sometime around 1994, Channel 4 got fed up of paying every time they played their logo, and quietly commissioned a new piece of music. They kept the flying blocks for another 3-4 years.
>> Lord Dundas went on to compose the 'Wash and Go' jingle. His current activities are unknown.
TINY MUSIC MAKERS: GO BACK TO THE START
Austrian KLF fan Walter Werzowa had never heard of Intel when they asked him to compose a 3 second jingle for them. Last year alone, they spent $350m promoting the sound he created in his home studio by paying PC companies to use it in their ads. It's played once every five minutes somewhere around the world.
>>Walter has a mysterious and wonderful past. In the late 1980s, he and a friend came up with an idea for an ABBA-vs-yodelling novelty record called "Bring Me Edelweiss". Then they read the KLF's 'The Manual: How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way' [full text here]. They followed the instructions in the book, and sold 2 million copies across Europe. That's how he had enough money to live in LA.
>>Walter's friend Kyle Cooper was commissioned to create an ad for Intel and asked Walter to provide some music. In less than three seconds, they wanted "tones that evoked innovation, trouble-shooting skills and the inside of a computer, while also sounding corporate and inviting".
>>He sat in his home studio for a weekend, getting more and more frustrated: "Everything just felt stupid, chopped off and strange," he says.
>>The breakthrough came when he stared at the words 'Intel Inside' and started to sing them. He used 4ths and 5ths, because they're the most common intervals worldwide. It took ten days to record.
>>Walter is a big synth collector (he says he hasn't got 'all of them'). For the Intel sound he used 40+ layers, including a DX7, Oberheim OBX, Prophet VS, Emulator IIIx, Roland S760 and his beloved Jupiter 8, which was the first synth he ever bought.
>>He used lots of marimba and xylophone sounds because they 'sound corporate'
>>He was paid a set fee ("not that much") for the Intel work, but it opened a lot of doors. Now Walter's company Musikvergnuegen (German for 'Love of Music') employs 11 people.
>>Walter has just finished a sound for Samsung that will be used on all their advertising worldwide. He says that listening to tiny bits of music over and over and over is an acceptable occupational hazard.
>>More on Walter in this interview from Mix Magazine.
NEXT UP: WINDOWS 95 AND BRIAN ENO
"I like to say that the THX sound is the most widely-recognized piece of computer-generated music in the world," says Andy Moorer. "This may or may not be true, but it sounds cool!"
>> You can hear the sound here. It's called 'Deep Note'.
>> It was made by Dr James 'Andy' Moorer in 1982, who has had a very cool career: Four patents, one Oscar. In the '60s he was working in Artificial Intelligence at Stanford. In the '70s he was at IRCAM in Paris, working on speech synthesis and ballet. In the '80s he worked at the LucasFilm DroidWorks, before joining Steve Jobs at NeXT. Today, he consults, repairs old tube radios and plays banjo.
>> At one point, the THX sound was being played 4,000 times a day at cinemas around the world (that's once every 20 seconds).
>> The Simpsons got permission for this [mpg movie] parody. Dr Dre was less lucky. He asked permission to sample 'Deep Note' but was turned down. He used it anyway, to open '2001', and LucasFilm sued.
>> Stanford student Jesse Fox tried to recreate 'Deep Note' for a course. His version sounds like a nasty accident in an organ factory. Details here.
>> There are various theories on the web about how the THX sound was created - some people say it was a Yamaha CS-80, others that it was a Synclavier.
I emailed Andy Moorer to ask how it was really made. The short answer was "On a big-ass mainframe computer at LucasFilm". But I thought I should give you the long answer here in full, just because it feels like Andy's writing his own history for the first time...
>> "I've never written the THX story down (nobody ever asked). So, here's the whole story:
>> "I was working in what was then called the "Lucasfilm Computer Division" that existed from roughly 1980 to 1987 or so. It spawned several companies, including Pixar and Sonic Solutions. I was head of the audio group. In about 1982, we built a large-scale audio processor. This was in the days before DSP chips, so it was quite a massive thing. We called it the ASP (Audio Signal Processor).
>> "At the same time Tom Holman was also working at Lucasfilm. He had developed what is now called the THX sound system. It was to premiere with Lucasfilm's "Return of the Jedi." They were making a logo to go before the film. I was asked by the producer of the logo piece to do the sound. He said he wanted "something that comes out of nowhere and gets really, really big!" I allowed as to how I figured I could do something like that.
>> "I set up some synthesis programs for the ASP that made it behave like a huge digital music synthesizer. I used the waveform from a digitized cello tone as the basis waveform for the oscillators. I recall that it had 12 harmonics. I could get about 30 oscillators running in real-time on the device. Then I wrote the "score" for the piece.
>> "The score consists of a C program of about 20,000 lines of code. The output of this program is not the sound itself, but is the sequence of parameters that drives the oscillators on the ASP. That 20,000 lines of code produce about 250,000 lines of statements of the form "set frequency of oscillator X to Y Hertz".
>> "The oscillators were not simple - they had 1-pole smoothers on both amplitude and frequency. At the beginning, they form a cluster from 200 to 400 Hz. I randomly assigned and poked the frequencies so they drifted up and down in that range. At a certain time (where the producer assured me that the THX logo would start to come into view), I jammed the frequencies of the final chord into the smoothers and set the smoothing time for the time that I was told it would take for the logo to completely materialize on the screen. At the time the logo was supposed to be in full view, I set the smoothing times down to very low values so the frequencies would converge to the frequencies of the big chord (which had been typed in by hand - based on a 150-Hz root), but not converge so precisely that I would lose all the beats between oscillators. All followed by the fade-out. It took about 4 days to program and debug the thing. The sound was produced entirely in real-time on the ASP.
>> "When we went to sync up the sound with the video (which I hadn't seen yet), we discovered that the timings were all different. I readjusted the times, generated a new score, and in ten minutes, we had the sound synced up with the video perfectly.
>> There are many, many random numbers involved in the score for the piece. Every time I ran the C-program, it produced a new "performance" of the piece. The one we chose had that conspicuous descending tone that everybody liked. It just happened to end up real loud in that version.
>> "Some months after the piece was released (along with "Return of the Jedi") they lost the original recording. I recreated the piece for them, but they kept complaining that it didn't sound the same. Since my random-number generators were keyed on the time and date, I couldn't reproduce the score of the performance that they liked. I finally found the original version and everybody was happy.
>> "If you get permission from THX, I can supply you with the written "score" for the piece (in music notation - this was used to get the copyright) or even the original C program that produced the parameter lists. I can't supply you with a program that makes the sound itself.
>> "The ASP was decommissioned in 1986 and later sold for scrap."
>> Thanks, Andy. You are truly a Music Thing Hero.
NEXT UP: Apple, Korg and the fattest bassline ever
PREVIOUSLY: Windows 95 and Brian Eno
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the office and my friend Conor's Mac restarted. When I heard the startup sound, I suddenly wondered who'd recorded it, how they made the sound, and whether they got a royalty cheque every time a Mac crashed*. And what about those other tiny, instantly recognisable sounds, like the Intel chimes, or that cool THX noise? Since then, I've been forced to abandon my usual journalistic technique (type product name into Google, present results as my own), and actually make phone calls, read newspaper archives and… conduct interviews with real people. I hope you enjoy the results.
*Answers: A guy called Jim, on a Korg Wavestation, no.
FIRST UP: YODELLING, THE KLF AND INTEL
FHM UK have
outrageously stolen done a nice write up of the Tiny Music Makers series about Intel, THX etc (p154, 9/05 editon). It's strange to see words like "Prophet VS", "Oberheim OBX" and "Korg Wavestation" alongside "Bobbi-Sue and Fallon in the tub". Now you can say you really are buying it for the articles.
The Mac startup sound wasn't a $$$ marketing exercise. It was a hack that was quietly dropped into the machine by an engineer with a home studio…
>> This [mp3] famous Mac startup sound (still installed in every new Mac) was recorded Jim Reekes, and first used on the Quadra 700, which launched in 1991 costing $7,000.
>> Jim's most famous pop-culture moment was the scene in Jurassic Park where the park's computers are all rebooted with his sound. But it's most awesome musical use is as the bassline in Transformer di Roboter's ace cover of 'Stranger in Moscow' - here [mp3]
>> Jim 'came out' about creating various Mac sounds (most famously Sosumi) to Boing Boing last month. But he's never before revealed how he actually made them:
>> "The startup sound was done in my home studio on a Korg Wavestation. It's a C Major chord, played with both hands stretched out as wide as possible (with 3rd at the top, if I recall). This just sounded right to me. I wanted something really fat, heavy bass, high notes, and a sharp attack. The chiffy sound was from pan pipes and something like a stick hit (I'm testing my memory here). I wanted lots of evolving timbres, stereo phasing, and reverb for further richness."
>>"Mac people are very familiar with the sound, after restarting their machines too often. In fact, that was one of the issues I was conscious of when designing the sound. Turning the Mac on is one thing, but being forced to reboot from a crash is a totally different experience. I wanted to avoid a sound that would be associated with the crash. I wanted it to sound more like a "palette cleanser".
>>"After I changed the startup sound (which required much persuasion and working around the system) the ROM engineers continued changing it with each new machine. Some of them were weak, such as the Stanley Jordon guitar strum used on the first PowerMacs. I objected to it, because that sound had no "power". The engineer wasn't a recording engineer, and not familiar enough with audio. The sound was hallow and without depth. When Steve Jobs returned in 1997, I heard he wanted only one sound for all Macs. He wanted the "good one" which was the one I created. At least that's how I heard the story, and I was still working there at the time."
>> If you're concerned that you don't know enough about vintage Mac Startup sounds, I can recommend Mactracker, which runs on Mac or PC. Don't show it to your girlfriend.
NEXT UP: The Lord who earned £1000 a week from four notes
PREVIOUSLY: The THX Sound