At the beginning of 2006, we learned that legendary guitarist Robert Fripp would create a musical theme for Windows Vista, following in the footsteps of the likes of Brian Eno. Well, after a brief joke that circulated about what the sound set would sound like, here’s the real sound theme, at least as far as critical Windows sounds:

Windows Vista system sounds [istartedsomething, via the awesome downloadsquad]

The sounds for Windows Vista may be the most important sound design gig on the face of the planet, because, thanks to the fact that most of the planet runs Windows and doesn’t know how to turn the theme off, you’ll be hearing these sounds repeatedly in offices and Starbucks locations for the next ten years. And, I’m surprised to say, I like the results! Fripp and the Vista audio team clearly erred on the side of subtlety, and given the fact that a lot of us jump every time we hear that piano theme that plays as someone starts up and shuts down, that’s a truly great thing.

But, wait — still not convinced this is the most important sound design on Earth?

The Sounds of Vista, in which Microsoft’s Larry Osterman reports that TV and radio crews jumped on the story hours after the announcement

Microsoft Vista chief Jim Allchin explains the new sounds

NPR jumps into the story and talks to Steve Ball

I expect you’ll get more Fripp when Vista ships — after all that time in the studio, surely they’ll have a little Vista theme that plays when you install, right? And, of course, shortly after that you’ll get someone’s Battlestar Galactica sound theme.

What I really want to talk about, though, is not a few sound effects in Vista — I want to hear more about the actual sound engine underneath the new OS. You know, the part of the operating system Windows audio and music users will depend on daily for their careers, their love, their creative output. More on that soon.

In the meantime, let’s relive the hilarious exchange between Fripp and marketing in trying to capture Vista as a soundscape:

â€Å“Why don’t you build up a 5 to 7 minute loop â€â€? you find the theme, the texture, the context that goes back to . . . the idea that Vista embodies the Aero principles. It’s clear, confident, and connected.â€Â?

[Fripp interrupts] â€Å“And there’s plenty of green and blue.â€Â?


There’s round criticism of these sounds, because there’s not much Fripp in them, even after all the hype over the original recording session (thanks, Matrix!) :

Not Frippertronics, on Alec Saunders .LOG:

The new sounds, while very nice, are not Frippertronics. Their pedigree is simply not evident. Unbelievably, Microsoft has taken a very cool indie composer, and made his artistry into pablum.

Another committee takes the “soul” out of Robert Fripp on Scobleizer:

By trying to make it please everyone they miss exactly what the user generated world is all about. Piss me off, Microsoft, please! Get rid of your committees. Show some SOUL.

That’s fair, and I’ll agree, it’s disappointing, but I want to know why everyone is so keen to have the default Windows sound theme be a musical composition in the first place. If anything, that theme should be unobtrusive. If I want to listen to music, I want to actually put in an album, not be bombarded by eight sound cues over and over again each day.

In fact, I notice that most of the coverage of Vista has been focused on these kinds of issues: will it be exciting? Will it enhance the experience? A lot of that is coming from Microsoft. But to me, and to many entry-level consumers and pros alike, an operating system isn’t supposed to be exciting. (Hell, most of the time they are exciting — and that’s the problem. How many heart-stopping moments have you had with your OS?) I hope that Vista, and upcoming operating systems on other platforms, succeeds in being transparent, in getting out of our way and letting us do the things we really care about, none of which include “using an operating system.”

That said, these posts underly the bottom line: what people want is choice. Fortunately, Vista, like XP, supports themes. Now it’s just a matter of releasing some of the sounds that hit the cutting-room — erm, committee — floor. That, I’ll admit, is a very good idea.

[tags]marketing, Microsoft, music, oddities, operating systems, Vista, sound-design, composing[/tags]

  • I'm surprised you like the results, too. Where significant differences existed, I found that the XP sounds trounced the new ones in terms of distinction. The Vista sounds were almost uniformly generic and bland.

    Too bad, I had high hopes for these, being a lover of small musical forms and commercial sound design.

  • inasilentway

    I agree. The Vista sounds are limp compared to the definitely distinguished sounds of XP, particularly the startup and shutdown sounds. In the Music Thing story about the Apple startup sound, the creator describes it as a palate cleanser; I've always thought of the XP startup sound as a good example of such but this new sound is weak and barely tells you that your computer has turned on.

  • Check out this article on the Vista startup sound on Robert Scoble's blog. It's a good critique about how the sould got sucked out of it.

  • Well, except an operating system theme is SUPPOSED to be unobtrusive, right?

    I expect I'll be shutting these off once I install Vista anyway. 😉

  • Oh, of course, I'm surprised anyone can stand having event sounds at all on their computers.

    But, in terms of face value design, I just don't think these are up to snuff. Which is surprising, since the Windows sounds (especially the start up/shut down) have always been impressive.

  • Gilbert Bernstein

    It's nice that they took the edges off of a lot of the sounds and moved to more organic sounds. One of the best things about having fast powerful computers now is the option to not be "digital" and "electronic." (aesthetically, not technically speaking) However, it seems like a bad idea to subdue all of the warning sounds too. If there's going to be any utility in playing a sound to let me know that my battery's going dead, I better hear it even if I'm listening to music or doing other things.

  • void

    Can't beleive anyone actually gives a damn. It's a bloody OS. Sheesh.

  • bye

    Spelling: "every time we here that piano theme" and congrats on having the slowest loading web site on all the interwebs.

  • Hi, Bye.

    See, I get so disturbed even thinking of the Windows XP shutdown sound cue, I start making typos.

    Oh, and as for load time, we do what we can, so sorry; think of us like Heinz ketchup. The load time is because we're so thick and rich.

  • i didn't expect much of an opinion, but i think i like the new sounds. (more so, i like the comparison video. kinda handy.) i was keeping in my that these are sounds that i'd be hearing on computers that i'm *not* using.

    but regardless, i think they're preferable. sure, i want to be warned when something happens, but i don't want be blown out of my seat for forgetting to turn down the volume after listening to music (or watch a video, or any of the other multimedia activities that have increased in popularity over the past 5 years). maybe it's a problem that it's so reasonable to disable a windows feature.

    anyway, i think the vista sounds sound nice. 🙂

  • Hmmm I like the subtlety in the new one but prefers the XP sounds still (maybe I had gotten use to it)… I was actually expecting really radical differences that will make me go "wooo interesting"… but it didn't do the trick for me. But I can't get over the fact that a team(?) of people does this? Or is it just Robert Fripp? As a sound designer myself it awes me to know that people get paid tonnes of dough for doing something like this… 😀 Still the new Vista sounds will grow on us once it's up! Cheers

  • I visited the Windows audio team this summer and was impressed by how much thought they'd put into the Vista sounds. Group Program Manager Steve Ball showed me a nifty presentation he'd delivered to upper management to show them the value of sonic branding. It was a significant campaign.

    On the bulletin board outside his office was a list of questions he asked the team to ponder as it developed sounds. The competing directives (memorable yet not irritating, etc.) were almost like a koan. I've been meaning to write up what I saw and heard on that visit….

  • For what it's worth, I actually like these new sounds. They're subtle and charming.

    The XP 'ding' and 'chords' sounds are particularly horrible. So the new Vista sounds are sweeter.

    They won't blow you off your seat when something happens, which I don't like, even in OSX. In XP I have system sounds off. In OSX I keep a few like mail sent and trash.

    Clever of Microsoft to engage Fripp. Like most people, these sounds are not what I was expecting. For anyone that hasn't tried, designing UI sounds is difficult. I think these will work well and respect to Micrsoft for acknowledging it as an important part of the UI.

    Hell, if this was my sound set going to billions of people's computers I'd be wrapped.

  • JG

    Huh. I don't get it.

    I mean, the new sound set is quite good, and far less grating than what ships with XP. But why hire Fripp to do something like this? My guess is he made 10 times what the programming-monkeys at Microsoft made to actually incorporate these sounds into Vista. And all to make something that, frankly, sounds like it was made by a bunch of programming monkeys in cubicles.

    Is Bill Gates simply trying to gain some currency with computer geeks who may happen to also be prog-rock geeks? (Of which I am the latter, of course.) Or is Bill maybe just a King Crimson freak?

  • Microsoft has a long history of recruiting major artists to work on Windows. Brian Eno worked on previous sounds, iconfactory (the famous Mac icon hosue) did icons for XP, Susan Kare worked on icons for Windows 95 (the designer of the original icons and other designs for the Mac, including the weird cloverleaf command icon), and famed animators like Bill Plympton and Joan Gratz were asked to interpret Windows 95.

    Of course, this comes back to my original point, which is that what a lot of artists want is for the OS to be boring, and then exciting stuff comes out of the actual work they do. But I give Microsoft some credit for being an occasional arts patron.

  • richardl

    I like 'em better than the old sounds.

  • kokorozashi

    This furor about Fripp being oppressed is silly. People assume that because Microsoft hired him that they ought to have ended up with some jumpy octaved guitar madness. Maybe they just respected him as a music pro who could think beyond his own market positioning. Do people get bent out of shape when Mothersbaugh turns in a TV theme that doesn't sound like Devo? Of course not.

    As for whether the sounds are any good, I think the jury is still well and truly out. One cannot judge such things on a moment's hearing. Live with them for a while, then bitch if you must, but base it on experience.

  • One cannot judge such things on a moment’s hearing.

    Amen, Kokorozashi. And great to see this dialog going on here. I love this site, BTW.

    I'd love to hear feedback from this audience after you've actually experienced these sounds in the product.

    Listening and judging them out of context is a waste of time and energy as they are not designed to be heard or used as standalone sounds separately from the experiences they were designed to complement.


    * * *

  • PS –

    "That said, these posts underly the bottom line: what people want is choice. Fortunately, Vista, like XP, supports themes. Now it’s just a matter of releasing some of the sounds that hit the cutting-room � erm, committee � floor. That, I’ll admit, is a very good idea."

    How can we not be thinking and planning this given the hours of excellent material we have in the can?

    All of this speculation and fuss is about the default sound scheme (and Startup sound), which were intentionally designed to be subtle.

    For the record, there were no 'committee decisions' that led to the default sound scheme or Startup sound design — we did not vote on these choices. There were intelligently applied priorities and well-defined UX design principles that led to the selection of the default sound designs.

    And, of course, also by definition, not everyone will like the defaults. Is this a surprise for anyone here? But I believe we can objectively say that we delivered on our goals.

    The default set is what it is because this is a general purpose OS that will be used in millions and millions of different environments.

    IMHO, Windows Vista represents the beginning of the next WAVE in OS evolution where thousands of minor, almost undetectable imnprovements (like this one), when taken together, will enhance the quality of our day to day work and play.

    But I don't believe it is that useful to debate the theory behind any of this without actually experiencing these sounds in context — it will be easy to 'test' all of this yourself very soon by actually using the product.

    And coming back to the quote at the beginning of this comment, stay tuned for some surprises that will take us above and beyond the defaults.

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  • Jacob Gorny

    I have to agree with Steve on this topic – having had Vista installed on a work machine, I found that the sounds are altogether remarkably courteous. For example, the clicks replaced by lower timbre 'tings' – the USB engage and disengage sounds are low and subtle. Completed downloads and other operations are no longer accented with a thump. This was something that XP had too much of – they reminded me of the Mac Classics – anytime you did something you got an astonishing audio reward. Whereas with Vista, everything is designed to be heard by the user, and not by the entire office.

    I do agree somewhat on the battery warnings and alerts, however even these are louder and stand out from the rest. The dynamics of the sounds also work much better for computers and laptops with smaller speakers…

    Playing around with the longhorn set of sounds, my speakers on my monitor would physically vibrate regardless of volume. I also was not a huge fan of the female vocal spurts – so it is nice to see that is gone.

    That being said, I have actually exported the longhorn sounds for use on my cell phone for incoming text messages and there the timbre works wonderfully. I don't think I could do that with the proper Vista set.