Natty Narwhal is the next release of Ubuntu. Now you could give it a soundtrack. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Ricardo Bernardo of, admittedly, vintage Ubuntu.

Your OS is there, in front of you, daily – some of us for many, many hours a day. it often makes sounds at you, very rarely welcome sounds. Here’s an opportunity to change that.

Computers are extraordinary creative canvases for our work, but corporate branding can’t really respect that. Because Ubuntu is a free operating system, it can provide content that is free to be reused, remixed, and re-imagined. An OS’ soundscape could be provided by a user, not just a brand, and it could in turn be changed by someone else to fit what they want. And as awareness in the Linux community grows that their software is essential to musicians and artists, not just the “average” computer user, the music and sounds that a new OS release showcases have a second role. They can be a musical soundtrack to a powerful idea: the idea that all of these lines of free code are a tool for someone to use for expression. We need to make that message get across to developers and the larger free software community.

Actually, let me put it another way: knowing the community on this site, I’m eager just to hear what musical score, or sound scheme, you’d create. The results would be free to use not only in Ubuntu but anywhere you wish. Free as in freedom, free as in the beer I’ll buy you if I see you in person and you do something great. (And, hey, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp each got to try scoring sounds for Windows, so why not you as the next OS composer?)

Possible candidates here:

  • A startup sound
  • A sound scheme (for GNOME; I’d actually have to research how that works, but it could simply be an idea)
  • A piece of music that stands on its own
  • A song
  • Ambient music to listen to while coding the Next Great Audio App.
  • Something else I haven’t thought of that’s also sound.

It’s really open to your interpretation. As readers note, many of us find the best sound scheme for an OS to be … silence. But you could share a piece of music or soundscape. If it’s culture (according to you), and it’s free, it’s game.

I’m honored to be a judge for this year’s Free Culture Showcase, now accepting works through March 1:
Free Culture Showcase [Canonical Design Blog, itself often a good read]

To submit, you can join Ubuntu’s SoundCloud group. In addition to CC-licensed music, I’m particularly interested by the sound scheme idea. OS sounds have been largely disappointing and distracting; imagine if they were actually good. Way back in 2006, CDM readers did some amazing one-second sounds to honor the “leap second,” a chronological aberration by which clocks have to be adjusted to keep years in sync with the Earth. I’d be thrilled if some of you were to submit to this, too.

Whether or not you’re an Ubuntu user, if you believe in free licenses as a tool and option for artists, if you believe in the utility of free software, I hope you’ll get involved. There are no particular rules to the tools you use to make the work, either, and I think that’s only appropriate. I’ll be curious to hear if you do use free tools or Ubuntu, though, just to know how they’re working for readers.

Let us know if you submit, especially because entries will be free for CC use (and likely worth featuring on CDM) even if they don’t make the Free Culture Showcase cut.

  • A nice generative composition humming along sinusoidally in the background as I am doing something easy on the cpu like using a word processer, but then migrate to more jarring sawtooth and squarewave sounds as I am rendering a particle system in processing with a few thousand elements. That would be nice, maybe. Maybe not actually.

    I read that Eno was nearly driven insane by trying to compose the Windows jingle back in the day. The challenge of trying to make a 3 second composition is certainly an intense one.

  • Those one second compositions sound interesting. I'd like to check them out, but the actual MP3 and OGG files are turning up "404 Not Found."

  • As a previous winner of the Free Culture Showcase (Ubuntu 9.04), I just wanted to wish everyone luck with this cool opportunity. And congrats on being selected as a judge, Peter! 

  • Can we have a spec, please? Like which sounds are required and for which actions?

  • Random Chance

    Not to be uberpicky, but operating systems do not make sounds, it's application software which lives in userland that makes noises. The operating system's various parts and ultimately drivers only mediate the playback of samples and related tasks. 

    That being said, I don't understand why desktop environment should make any sound at all. I wonder if this "fine" tradition really goes back as far as the bells in teletypes and mechanical typewriters. Isn't it time we as the users rid ourselves from the ancient curse that are audible bells in (system) software?

  • lucho

    Absolutely agree with Random Chance. First thing I do on a fresh install is disable that makes anything that makes noise without asking permission.

    I don't really understand what this competition is asking for. Is it system sounds (Eno chimes, etc) or some kind of ubuntu theme song?

  • Dioxide

    You did notice that your Narwhal has a massive cock didn't you?

  • midihendrix

    nice post, peter….this is interesting to ponder as we sink into the digital dark age….

    in the future we might be living inside OS's…. that will detect our moods, predict our actions and read our thoughts…so why not paint our own soundscapes for this?

  • Peter Kirn

    I'm sorry, this was unclear. I've clarified the post above – see if that gives you a clue.

    Here's the idea: 

    The media showcase has been a feature of Ubuntu for some time. To a great extent, it means things like the bundled wallpaper (which do look quite nice, at least)!

    But there is an effort to engage sound. The reason it sounds so unclear is because I think no one's sure exactly what form that should take. At the same time, that's somewhat interesting in itself – I'm ready for any interpretation that moves readers here. I will certainly see that you get actively promoted if you do good work.

    Yes, companies like Microsoft use sound "branding" and themes, most recently with Fripp on Vista, whose work seems to have been vastly cut down from what was done in the recording studio. These things are very often divorced from what users want, filtered through a lot of marketing notions. (See the Fripp video for some hilarious examples of that.)

    So this is an opportunity to do something different. If an OS should be silent, then making a sound scheme is obviously a bad idea, and you should simply make a music track. If you could make a sound scheme that people *didn't* want to turn off, that could be an interesting challenge, too.

    I'm very open to ideas.

  • Peter Kirn

    Oh, and I need to look at my whale pictures WAAAAAY more carefully. I thought it was, uh, like another whale or something… sheesh. I either have an innocent mind or I'm blind. Or both.

  • ehdyn

    Anyone else using NN yet? 
    I'm having mouse registration and Renoise issues atm – shit keeps cutting out intermittently

  • Sooo… does Ubuntu have a startup song/vid the first time you install it, like Mac OS X ? If not, this is a place they should challenge people to get creative, imo.

    The OS itself should be silent, or near silent. My .02.

  • I submitted the startup and shutdown sounds I'd made this summer… it would be awesome to ultimately have a repository for cc cross platform sound schemes. I'm in the group that likes UI sounds, though.

  • I think OS sounds are barking up the wrong tree entirely as they lack meaning, which is probably why many people who can find those settings turn them off.

    If we want anything in that direction I think they should be synthesised and parametrised. A error that goes "boing" is no good to me. How bad is the issue? Is hardware failure imminent? (loud sound needed) Did some minor plugin crash that already visually notified me of that on the workspace I'm on? (probably no sound needed) Is a drive running out of space and if so at what rate is the available space decreasing? Did I merely enter a illegal file-name? If all of those just go "boing" or whatever they might as well not do anything as you'll be de-sensitised to them by the time you need them.

    Same thing with other sounds like -say- chat programs. If I have a 100 or so contacts I probably don't need a sound each and every time any one of them comes online. Maybe a sound when people I contact regularly appear, maybe a different one when somebody appears where the last conversation was cut off by a network error on their side and a yet different sound when certain words (like say "love" or "shut up") are regularly used in conversations with that contact.

    The current system is worse than useless to me. Even the internal beeper does a better job at distinguishing between things like a overheated CPU or a memory error. Hence; I don't really care what sounds there currently are as I shan't be hearing them anyway and people who do likely stop noticing them.

  • Peter Kirn

    For the record, I'm in the no sound camp, too. 😉

    But that still leaves lots of potential, lots of ways to approach this. It could just be a piece of music that celebrates Ubuntu.

    I haven't tested NN yet. I should probably set up a machine for testing. Definitely YMWV on a release this early, though.

  • dyne:obolic has a great sound once you're in the Gui. it is supposed to be the sound of nirvana i think.

  • Peter; sure. But I did want to point out that with some (or a lot of) changes our perspective on OS sounds could change a lot. It was BTW not my original idea; the concept of error sonification is quite old, it just rarely happens. Oddly the one implementation that I've ever heard of this "advanced" idea is in the BIOS, by far the most primitive part of computers.

  • thanks for the clarification – looks brighter now 🙂 just thought about kind of adaptive sound scheme, that one with the evolving sounds. or a kind of a background music scheme, where all kinds of your actions produce sounds that are synched to the rhythm grid – that one would push you into the productive rhytm 🙂

  • I haven’t tested NN yet. I should probably set up a machine for testing. Definitely YMWV on a release this early, though.

  • Sasze

    If only operating systems were designed for a single purpose, such as making music, and were a fractal patterned that naturally produced a sound. 

  • Sasze

    If only operating systems were designed for a single purpose, such as making music, and were a fractal patterned that naturally produced a sound. 

  • Sasze

    If only operating systems were designed for a single purpose, such as making music, and were a fractal patterned that naturally produced a sound.