Let It Beep

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This episode was produced by Mark Bramhill for the podcast Welcome to Macintosh.

For over two decades, every time you turned on a Mac, you were greeted by a familiar sound. It’s appeared as a punchline in The Simpsons, in movies like WALL•E. It’s a sound some of us tried to hide from our parents as we turned on the computer in the middle of the night. It’s a sound that’s transcended technology; the sound that makes a Mac feel like a Mac. But no longer; the iconic Mac startup chime is going away.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[Mac SFX montage]

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, the stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I’m Dallas Taylor. This is the story of a rogue sound designer at Apple who created three of the most iconic sounds in computer history.

For those of us who use and love Macs — and I’ll pause here to say that I am one of those people — it’s about the little things: the sound it makes when it turns on[start up SFX], the way the keyboard clicks[keyboard sfx], the sound of taking a screenshot[screen shot sfx], or the satisfying magnetic snap[Macbook closing sfx]when you close a MacBook.

These sounds are engineered and designed with purpose...and that’s why I love them. However, as clean and friendly as they sound, there’s a darker backstory. One that takes us through legal hurdles and an impressive level of passive aggressiveness.

Mark Bramhill, host of the incredible podcast Welcome to Macintosh, tells us the story behind three of Apple's most famous sounds, and the sound designer who snuck them into existence.

The devices we use everyday make all kinds of sounds. You may not think about them much...maybe you’ve never even thought about them at all. But we have deep ingrained associations with each of them. They tell us something is wrong...

[alter beep SFX]

Or give us good news...

[finished chime SFX]

Or fill us with anxiety…

[new email SFX]

These sounds are so recognizable, widely known on a scale usually reserved for pop music. But these sounds, the sound we associate as being a part of our technology, they were designed by people. And unlike with a pop song, we almost never know who those people are.

Today, I want to change that. To pull back the curtain on the creator of some of the most iconic sounds in our digital landscape.

Jim: My name is Jim Reekes. I decided to study music and then realized I needed to make money and taught myself software engineering and that eventually led to getting hired by Apple in 1988.

And, at Apple, Jim applied his musical abilities to help shape the sonic character of the Mac, and give it the personality we know today.

I want to start with a story that tell you a lot about Jim. A story about a sound he made early on during his time at Apple. And it begins with a court case. The case of Apple vs Apple.

Jim: Apple Inc vs Apple Corps, the record label set up by The Beatles.

See, back when Apple computer was founded and went public, they has to make a deal with The Beatles’ record label, Apple Corps, saying that they wouldn’t do anything with music. Doing so might confuse consumers, which would violate their trademaker. But back in the late 80’s Apple added MIDI support to the Apple II, MIDI being what allow you to plug your computer into a musical keyboard and use it as an instrument, and Apple Corps saw this as a step too far.

Jim: And then at the point I had become responsible for the sound manager on the Mac, so I became the target for the horse haired barristers suing on behalf of The Beatles because, apparently The Beatles needed more money.

And these big wig-barring barristers wanted there to be nothing musical about the Mac. They even went so far as to check language used in the code...things that no end user would ever see.

Jim: It was called the note command and they said that was too musical so I had to rename it from note to Freq Command. And that cause everybody that was ever using the sound manager’s code to break. So yeah, that was like one example of just really mundane trivial little things. And I just got so fed up with it, it was so annoying. So I kept thinking about how I could just mess with them.

So Apple’s lawyers were extra careful with any names that consumers would see. Like the names of sounds, all the swooshes, and bleeps and bloops. Including one alert beep in particular, called “chimes”. [sosumi SFX]

Jim: This bleep sound, was something that sounded “too musical”. So, I had to rename that. And I just got so fed up with it, it was so annoying. So, that's why I kept thinkng about how I could just mess with them.

And so Jim found himself at Apple late at night, talking over this problem with friends.

Jim: I thought I could rename it to “Let it Beep”.

Let It Beep...after that classic Beatles song, Let It Be.

Jim: It would be impossible to get that one through, but I just thought that would be the best.

Jim’s friends tell him, no, no way you can use this! That’s insane!

Jim: And I said “Yeah, so what? So sue me.” And as soon as I said that I realized no wait that’s the perfect name...I just need to spell it funny.

So sue me. Except, spelled S-O-S-U-M-I, as though it were a Japanese word. In fact, when they submitted the name they said the word litterslly meant “nothing musical” in Japanese. Which, of course, it doesn’t.

Jim: And the lawyers approved it.

And to this day, on a Mac you can choose the alert tone “Sosumi”. [sosumi SFX]

A giant screw you to all the lawyers.

Jim: No that’s literally what it was. For me it was just me being ornery and getting back at them for all this mundane nonsensical bullshit.

I just have to say...I love this about Jim. His rascally hijinks, thumbing his nose at power. Battling bureaucracy with these little subversive acts. But, while Jim is often rather curmudgeonly and cynical, he also truly wanted to improve our sonic landscape.

Jim takes his vigilante sound-designing even further as he attempts to eradicate one of the most annoying sounds in Macintosh history [sfx] Stick around.

We’ve been hearing about Jim Reekes, the sound designer at Apple who took matters into his own hands and created some of the most recognizably Mac sounds we have today. Here’s Mark again...

Now, you might have noticed that Jim Reekes is a man with strong opinions. When he comes across something he doesn’t like, say, lawyers, he does something about it. And, though it’s hard to find something Jim has more distaste for than lawyers, this sound is one of them: [tri-tone SFX]

The startup chime of the Mac II.

Jim: That startup sound which was intentionally the hardest thing they could have made.

Every time you turned on a Mac, you were greeted with the tri-tone. [tri-tone SFX]

Jim: It was just horrible, I could not stand it.

Not only was this sound incredible harsh and grating, but it played when you were already in a bad mood. I mean, picture this:

Jim: You’re going to mostly be hearing the sound because you were doing some work on your computer that just crashed and you’ve lost all your work. And so you were already annoyed at that moment.

And back then, your Mac was probably crashing all the time. So you’d hear this again… [tri-tone SFX]

And again… [tri-tone SFX]

And again… [tri-tone SFX]

Why, why do you think they went with that?

Jim: They thought it was clever.

And you’re not in agreement with that.

Jim: It sounded horrible. There’s nothing clever about sounding horrible.

Nobody told Jim to change this. In fact, nobody even approved the project. Jim took it on in secret, like a God-given mission to fix this travesty of a sound.

Jim: And so I thought what sound could I use to unannoy you. So that’s kind of where the Zen calming gong like thing came up, to sort of freshen the palate.

Then he had to decide: What would the notes be?

Jim: Couldn’t be minor because that’s so sad so it has to be major. But that’s a little too contrived too little too trite. So I started thinking a little bit more about it and I played an overtone series.

An overtone series: The basis of all western music. The most “right” sounding thing possible. And so, after weeks of thinking about it, Jim sits down at his Mac, and records. [newer Mac start up SFX]

Jim told me he drew inspiration from a numbers of course... some classical, some more popular music. But he also confirmed that there was a very specific reference in there…

Jim: The Beatles believe it or not at the end of the song a day in a life. There’s a big cacophony of the orchestra [Day in a Life clip] at the end of that song.

And then this big chord that just hangs out on a tape loop. It just kind of goes for a while at the end.

Now that Jim had the sound, he had to get it onto new Macs.

Jim: I had to basically not ask for permission, but ask for forgiveness. So, I put in another ROM and we put it in really late when no one was really paying attention except for my buddies.

So the sound sneaks out into the world and, within Apple, the response was mixed.

Jim: Some people flipped out. Somehow they got really attached to the horrible sound and were objecting that I was ruining it by getting rid of the horrible sound.

But, before long, people came around and the sound became beloved.

It’s appeared as a punchline in The Simpsons, in movies like WALL-E. It’s a sound some of us tried to hide from our parents as we turned on the computer in the middle of the night. It’s a sound that’s transcended technology; the sound that makes a Mac feel like a Mac. The sound is so iconic, in fact, that it has one of the very few audio trademarks, along with fewer than two hundred others like, the MGM Lion and the NBC Chimes. Kind of ironic turn, for lawyer-hating Reekes.

But, while it’s become iconic, people don’t know about Jim. He hears the sound all the time, in offices or coffee shops. And the people using their Macs? They have no ideas they’re in the presence of the artist.

Jim: Sometimes I want to run up to them and say “Hey, I made that”. And most of them just think I’m an idiot. Sometimes they’re like yeah, whatever. And then sometimes they’re like well my God that’s totally amazing.

But, no longer. Last October, Apple introduced a new model of Macbook Pro, and as reviewers got their hands of it, they realized that the startup chime was gone. Now, Macs boot in silence.

Jim: Yeah, what’s the metaphor, it’s definitely the end of an era. The closing of a chapter. It’s losing a friend. It’s moving out of the house that you grew up in. Yeah, it’s just the end of something. So it definitely makes me sad. It’s just no longer the Mac.

Recently, I got one of these new Macbook Pros, and each time I turn it on, I find myself taken aback by the startup chime's absence. Every time you used to turn on a Mac, this device of the future, it would greet you with a reminder of its past. But now? It’s like that history no longer matters. And that makes me really sad.

But, there is one more thing. One other sound Jim made that’s still with us. A sound that isn’t as iconic as the startup chime, or as subversive as the “Sosumi” beep. Bit it’s a sound that’s far more ubiquitous. A sound that many of us invoke daily, or even multiple times a day. A sound we might associate with special occasions or some of the most memorable moments of our lives. [camera sound]

Jim: The camera sound. So originally it was on the Mac as a screen capture sound. Then when the iPhone came out and the iPad. So they moved that camera around over there. So you don’t really hear my startup sound in the wild all that much but you hear my camera all the time.

This sound we hear everything? It’s Jim’s camera.

So this is the sound? [camera SFX]

Jim: Yep, that’s my Canon AE1. That camera stuck with me for decades. And I used it to learn photography. So yeah, it became a very familiar sound to me and then it just felt like an obvious thing to put it on the Mac at the time.

This ubiquitous “digital: sound is a recording of a film camera from the 90's. But, even this sound was meticulously designed by Jim. He messed with microphone placement and the camera’s shutter speed , adjusting everything until it sounded just right.

[Let It Beep music in]

Today, photography is a big part of Jim’s life. It’s taken over music and sound become his passion. So it’s kind of fitting that the sound of his camera would gain this second life.

Does it bring you back at all when you hear people taking those photos?

Jim: I hear that sound and...there is almost an instinctual reaction sometimes that I turn to see who took my camera.

Jim’s startup chime is gone. It won’t disappear overnight, but in the coming years, you’ll hear it less and less and less. But it’s nice to know that, as we all snap photos, whether they’re of sunsets or well-plated brunches, a family member pretending to hold up the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids, or a child gleefully devouring chocolate cake, one of Jim’s sounds lives on.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at defacto sound dot com.

This episode was produced by Mark Bramhill for his podcast, Welcome to Macintosh, which is an incredible show about Apple and the community around it. To hear more fascinating stories, visit Macintosh.FM or find the show, “Welcome to Macintosh,” wherever you get your podcasts.

The music scoring in this episode is by The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and Mark Bramhill. This episode was edited by Rob McGinley Myers, Lacy Johnson, and Tish Stringer. Special thanks to John Lagomarsino(lego-mar-see-no).

You can find Twenty Thousand Hertz at 20k.org. There, you can send us show suggestions, feedback, or reach out about advertising on the show. You can find us on Facebook or Twitter at the handle 20korg or by searching Twenty Thousand Hertz all spelled out. Finally, I need your help on one tiny thing… and that’s to tell at least one person you know directly to subscribe to the show. This show is for everyone, young people, adults, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, so if there’s someone you’d love to introduce to podcasting, borrow their phone and show them how to subscribe to Twenty Thousand Hertz. For everyone who already knows how to podcast, just make sure they tick the subscribe button.

Thanks again for listening.

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