Fripp, Eno and the Microsoft Sound

I don’t know whether to be delighted or depressed, but it seems many of my musical heroes are now writing music for computers. And it’s emerging as something of an art form in itself.

Robert Fripp, for example, is doing the music for the Windows Vista startup sound, as part of an 18 month project, according to this AP piece, to create good sounds for the software:

Fripp, best known for his work with the ’70s rock band King Crimson, recorded hours of his signature layered, guitar-driven sound for the project, under the close direction of Ball and others at Microsoft. Then, it was Ball’s job to sort through those hours of live recordings to suss out just the right few seconds.

You can hear the start-up clip there, and I have to confess it sounds lame. Perhaps it’s not the finished product but it doesn’t sound like Fripp. Scoble seems to agree, saying the final product is a version with very little of Fripp in there :

I was there while he was recording this, and I TOTALLY agree. You should have heard the raw sounds while they were being recorded. He did THOUSANDS of iterations.

In fact the sounds Fripp makes in that video are a piece in themselves.

The challenge they set for themselves is a tough one. Jim Allchin at the Windows Vista Blog says the startup sound

  • is made of dual ascending ‘glassy’ melodies played on top of a gentle fading Fripp ‘AERO’ Soundscape
  • has two parallel melodies played in an intentional “Win-dows Vis-ta” rhythm
  • consists of 4 chords, one for each color in the Windows flag
  • is ~4 seconds long, end-to-end
  • is a collaboration between contributors Robert Fripp (primary melody + Soundscape), Tucker Martine (rhythm) and Steve Ball (harmony and final orchestration)

Indeed, it was Brian Eno, another hero of mine, who recorded the music for Windows 95. If you’ve forgotten what it sounds like, it’s here, and now I realise why I love it. Eno found himself enjoying the limitations set for him and it triggered a creative spurt. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Brian Eno from The SF Chronicle explaining how he came about to compose the music:

Q: How did you come to compose “The Microsoft Sound”?

A: 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.”

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.

According to the Music thing blog, Eno was paid $35,000 for the sound. What I’ve not been able to find out is who did the music for Windows 98, Windows Me and Windows XP. One rumor in the comments to the Music thing blog posting is that

The story I was given by an Microsoftie was that Eno set up the contract to be paid royalties for playing it, meaning that Microsoft’s attempts to use the sound for branding purposes in a commercial would mean royalty checks sent to Eno for each person that heard the sound (not merely hearing as the machine booted up). Way more expensive than the initial $35,000 payment.

Next time around for Win98, Microsoft farmed out the splash sound to an internal sound production crew. 🙂

I’ve no idea whether that’s true. I’ll try to find out. Of course, it’s not just system sounds that big musical names are getting involved with. Ryuichi Sakamoto, another god, has been recording ringtones for Nokia’s high end 8800. You can hear some of the sounds here. And Sakamoto’s most recent collaborator, Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai), has offered up some ringtones of his own, which you can download as a ZIP file (go to the music page.)

I think that’s a cooler idea. How about David Sylvian, Bill Nelson, Thom Brennan and Tim Story put together their own collections of sounds for Windows, Macs and cellphones? I’d buy ’em.

12. November 2006 by jeremy
Categories: Innovation, Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fripp, Eno and the Microsoft Sound