OMT in San Francisco #3: ‘Let it beep’ from One More Thing on Vimeo.

The legend of the early sounds of the Mac remains, apparently, an alluring one. Here, Jim Reekes talks to a Dutch documentary crew (though in English) about his thought process in designing sounds for the Mac, including the famous Mac startup sound.

If you haven’t heard the story, it’s a great tale. But there’s more to why Jim Reekes matters. For one, his insight into how sound design impacts the way people feel about a product is telling. Years later, following an onslaught of still more microcontroller-packed gear and hideous cellphone ringtones, that lesson seems ignored by designers. I know countless phone users who find the traditional phone ring sound. They do so not out of habit (like those people I know who are too young to even remember pre-digital phones), but because it’s the least offensive choice. With all of the growth in sound, you might imagine we’d be finding smart, new interactions, not struggling to cover the basics.

No surprise, then, that Keith Lang at UI&us, a blog centered on user experience, picks this up – it’s as interesting a question of design as it is Mac nostalgia. (I agree with the commenter there – tritone? The original sound doesn’t sound like a tritone to me.)

More importantly, though, Jim Reekes is worth revisiting because of the amount he contributed to sound on the Mac platform. That should be a reminder of how important it is to value the contributions of people who build intelligent sound into platforms, especially at a time when new platforms (iPhone, Android, Chrome) are emerging. Jim is credited (by his site and Wikipedia) for key engineering in QuickTime, he single-handedly created the Mac’s original Sound Manager, build early standalone radio appliances, helped support software on which the Mac multimedia revolution relied (from SoundEdit to Vision to HyperCard to Final Cut to Myst), and even built a jog wheel and hierarchical menu before the iPod.

I like to believe that forward progress is still possible in computing and sound, not only in sexy apps and hardware, but in the decidedly un-sexy plumbing that lies inside our computing platforms. It often comes down to individual men and women who make it happen. And lest you think challenges are insurmountable or the process is glamorous and magical, here’s a good quote from Jim:

The people on the outside think that, you know, it’s like this wonderful world of Oz or Disney going on and all of us are just all these brilliant amazing happy people and like ‘it’s not’ it’s like a sausage factory, I mean, you really don’t want to know how this stuff happens. A lot of it is just bad arguments and politics and working around the rules and, and and not doing the right thing and apologizing for it later and getting fired a few times, I mean, that’s how things got done. It’s definitely like “Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain.” Jim Reekes.

Source: ProfCast blog (ProfCast, incidentally, a great little tool for making enhanced podcasts and lectures on Mac and Windows)

And that’s to say nothing of the days during which Apple Corps was going after Apple Computer for making products that could make music. (Jim to Boing Boing: “I was getting really tired of this whole thing when the laywers told me I had to change an API from the “noteCmd” to “frequencyCmd.” Good thing they didn’t make 440Hz off-limits.) Now, all that is history, and The Beatles are in a video game.

With that in mind, here’s more on the creation of Mac sound – and its signature sounds.

TINY MUSIC MAKERS: Pt 4: The Mac Startup Sound [Music thing – we miss you, you great blog – 2005]

Jim Reekes at Wikipedia (a degree in composition and theory? What use could that ever possibl— oh.)

Early Apple sound designer Jim Reekes corrects Sosumi myth [Boing Boing, 2005]

Jim Reekes homepage

  • rhowaldt


    [..] ..they do so not out of habit (like those people I know who are two young to even remember pre-digital phones), but… [..]

    too young! not two young!

    that's it.

    oh, nice article btw.

  • Maybe it was a Freudian slip. I only actually know two people. 😉 Serves me right for writing after midnight…


  • Feral Hotdog

    The interval contained in the sound at 2:34 is a perfect 5th.

    His explanation of the tritone is a bit weird. The devil-tone thing is taken out of context a bit. Not that it matters. 🙂 But for the record.

  • I'm wondering if what he actually meant – if the reason it sounds dissonant to him – is that it's not in fact a tritone (i.e., diminished fifth), but a fifth with some sort of unusual tuning, which could sound harsh. Meantone fifth? I dunno. It wasn't his sound.

    It is an odd sound, the particular startup sound to which he refers. If you listen to this compilation, in fact, you'll generally hear some odd things:

    It sounds like there were actual some sample rate mistakes that caused different Macs to play back the same wavetable out of tune.

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  • Sax Mozée

    I believe he was referring to the alert beep produced by the Xylo option. It was the default "oops" tone I heard quite often back in the day.

  • flip

    @Feral: The three notes at @2:34 are C3, F3, C4. So you have an octave, a 4th and a 5th. I'd call it a chord rather than an interval. I am with you about the tritone talk…I didn't hear a tritone at all…although there was some pitch warble of sorts.

  • flip

    @Sax Mozée: "Sosumi" alert chord has a tritone in it.

  • Max Flotation

    regarding the tritone.. he does mention that the fellow who came up with the tritone sound was a mathematician. I once took a physics of sound class back in university and we discussed the difference between the physics/mathematics of pitches vs. those that are actually pleasing to the ear, and that those pleasing to the ear are not the same as the mathematically correct frequencies. This may explain the discrpancy.. although, this course was a long time ago..

  • flip

    @Max Flotation: A tritone is still a huge way off from a 4th or 5th. He was referring to a tritone is western music terminology, even validating this with religious folklore.

    @Everyone: I have a very simple theory…whomever edited the sound design for this video inserted the wrong sound. They could have put any random Apple alert sound in there or simply mixed it up by mistake. The notes I heard were extremely clear, unmistakeable, and at concert pitch. In my opinion, it's pretty clear that there's no tricky math involved with the chord @2:34.

  • Korhan

    I got my first Mac in June 2008. It took me only a few weeks to look for ways to turn off the sound. I haven't heard the sound ever since. I think making a computer play a sound when it starts and not enabling the user to turn it off must be one of the most stupid design decisions ever.

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  • @flip:
    I think that really is the sound. The sound played at 2:34 is the Mac startup sound prior to his contribution IS what you're hearing – and it IS pretty disturbing.

    I think what it is is a mathematically-perfect (i.e., not 12TET) set of perfect intervals; P4 – P5.

  • flip

    @Peter: I never had a Mac with that startup sound at 2:34. When did Macs start using the current startup chord? I also wonder when/if they will change it. I met the guy who composed the Intel mnemonic a few years back. Supposedly, it's the most played/heard mnemonic ever. I've done a few over the years and it's daunting when you have 2.5-5 seconds and only a few notes to work with. That, and pages of art direction conveying all that you're supposed to invoke within such a short amount of time.

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  • @flip: I forget which model is which, but I've heard that older sound, as well as the simple beep that was heard on the original Mac.

    The Intel thing is a stroke of genius. It is really challenging to compose within those restrictions.

  • Great article! Thanks.
    Watching the first clip reminded me of this clip from the IT Crowd <a title="IT Crowd: Moss Reboots (SLYT)" href="; rel="nofollow">

  • Eek, where did the link go?
    IT Crowd: Moss Reboots (SLYT)

  • luca

    am i going crazy or is the chord an F major and not a C major?

  • flip

    @Luca: Which chord? There were a few…

  • TJ

    If you listen to this video, it sounds like they played back the startup sample at a faster rate for the Power Mac models with higher numbers.

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  • I have a problem with the overall premise of your article but I still think its really informative. I really like your other posts. Keep up the great work. If you can add more video and pictures can be much better. Because they help much clear understanding. 🙂 thanks Pietsch.

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