The Xbox Startup Sound

Xbox Pic 2.png

This episode was written & produced by Rob Sachs.

The Xbox startup sound is an audio logo that’s become synonymous with the game console. But its origins are rooted in solving a logistical problem; how to entertain gamers while they wait for their machines to finish booting up. Featuring Sound Designer and Composer Brian Schmidt and Sound Designer, Composer and Berklee Professor, Michael Sweet.


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View Transcript ▶︎

[Xbox One X Start Up]

You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I'm Dallas Taylor.

[SFX : Halo 5 Sounds on Xbox One]

Video games have been leading the charge of what’s possible when it comes to sound. Let’s just a take a second to marvel at just how gorgeous this scene from Halo 5 sounds. Even if you’re not into games, it is an industry filled with inspiring stories of overcoming incredible technical hurdles… all while pushing the boundaries of creativity.

Microsoft has been a huge part of gaming. We all know about the Xbox, but might not remember that it didn’t even exist until 2001, waaay after all of the others major players.

[SFX: Old console montage]

So, how did the Xbox gain such a strong identity so quickly. I mean, tons of consoles have come and gone. [SFX: Montage of failed console commercials] How was Microsoft able to gain so much traction so quickly? Well, they did it, in part, with its iconic startup sequence.

[SFX: Xbox One X Startup]

[music in]

That was the Xbox one X startup sound... But turning on an Xbox didn’t always sound like this. The startup sequence slowly evolved from its early days with the original Xbox, into the Xbox 360, the Xbox One and now the Xbox One X. How has the sonic landscape changed with each new generation of the console? In order to find out, lets first rewind to 2001, with the launch of the original Xbox.

[music out]

[SFX: Halo:Combat Evolved Main Menu Theme]

The original Xbox had incredible graphics and sound. Halo was an impressive demonstration of what this new console could bring to the table.

[SFX: Halo 1]

However, the Xbox was the new console on the scene and there was major competition. Microsoft needed to establish their identity from the moment the player pushed the on button.

[SFX: Xbox Original Boot Up]

That’s the sound the original Xbox made when you first powered it on. The creator of this sound is Brian Schmidt. Brian is a legendary sound designer and composer who got his start all the way back in 1987.

[music in]

Brian: I have two or three basic things that I do. I write music and I do sound design. In addition, I also am really involved in game audio education.

Brian always had two passions in his life, the first being music.

Brian: So music has always been a part of my life, growing up playing. Whether it's in a rock band or playing in baroque trio sonatas with my parents.

But during college a new interest sparked.

Brian: I went to school as a music major and while I was in school I discovered music technology which was pretty unusual back then, back in 1980 when I was at Northwestern and thought it was so cool I decided to actually get two undergraduate degrees. One in music and one in computer science

Turns out those were just the right credentials for a company that was trying to add in some high tech glitz to a relatively low tech game.

[music out]

Brian: A friend of mine that I had met through the computer music studio at NorthWestern there said, "Hey, we have a job opening at this game company. We need somebody who can write an assembly language and also write music and do sound effects for this pinball company. And I was very excited because I had spent my entire life playing pinball. My mom used to get mad at me for spending all my time playing pinball. So I was really thrilled and really excited.

[SFX: Music from Black Knight 2000]

Eventually, Brian moved on to even more challenging projects.

Brian: I did Madden [SFX] on Nintendo for a number of years and things like that and games like that are Strike and Jungle Strike for Sega Genesis [SFX], Super Nintendo, ultimately the Sony PlayStation [SFX].

Around that time Microsoft started calling me and said, "Hey, we know you have a big audio technology background. We're looking for somebody to head up our game technology division at Microsoft."

[music in]

At the time, Microsoft had developed a number of advances in gaming software which they called Direct-X. This software allowed for a more interactive gaming experience. It did things like - heighten the functionality of controllers and speakers. Now, Microsoft was looking to leverage all these new features into a new product.

Brian: Their idea was, essentially let's take these Direct X technologies that we have, put them into something that looks like game console or make it a game console and call it the Direct Xbox. That's where the Xbox comes from, was the internal code name Direct X, Xbox. And so that was really the genesis of where Microsoft soiree into the hardware business for games came from.

[music out]

The two heads at Microsoft were Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer... and they loved this idea - but they didn’t want to wait very long to see it come to market.

Brian: Literally from the day that Bill and Steve gave the green light to do the Xbox, to hitting the store shelves was only 18 months. So everything had to be done just lightening fast and really, really quickly. Decisions were fast.

The tight deadline was just one of many challenges for Brian and actually not even the most pressing.

Brian: So we really wanted this to be just like any other piece of consumer electronics equipment. You push the button and it turns on instantly. Well it turns on instantly is not really instantly. It does take some time for a hard drive to go from not moving to spinning to where you can actually read data off of them.

This is a big problem. A boot up screen gives the player feedback that the console is working properly. However, they needed the hard drive already fully spinning before they could even start the boot up sequence.

Brian: You can't access a hard drive that's not spinning at it's full speed. You literally can't read data off of it. So that means during that boot sequence the hard drive doesn't exist.

The eureka moment came when he realized he didn’t have to even bother with the hard drive at all.

Brian: So like, "Well what about some memory chips on the board itself?" And it's like, "Yes, there's a memory chip on the board." There's one memory chip which is a total of 256 kilobytes in size.

[music in]

One measly 256 kilobyte memory chip. To put this into perspective one megabyte is equal to 1000 kilobytes. There was 128 megabytes of memory in the first generation iphone. So, we’re talking tiny tiny bits of memory by today’s standard. And he didn’t even get to use all 256 kilobytes in the memory.

Brian: The operating system of the Xbox was about 150 or 160k. Well they had to add the art animations to that. After they did that, it turned out that there was about 28 kilobytes left for sound. So the entire Xbox boot sound, somehow had to be done with 28 kilobytes.

So now we’re talking about a really, really tiny amount of memory.

[music out]

Brian: So, what sounds can I make easily? And let me see how I can use those." So I'll give a great example, the very opening of that Xbox sound there's this fade in and the Xbox sound starts with a "wah!" [SFX]. What that sound is, is literally a low pitched sawtooth wave where I could programmatically start the filter cut off very, very low.

Like 20 Hertz, something like that and then over the course of about a three quarters of a second, I could open it all the way.

[SFX: Sawtooth wave sound]

Not only was the sound easy to produce - it fit perfectly into the mood he was trying to achieve.

Brian: "WAH!" [SFX]. It's literally putting more energy into the sound because as your no longer filtering off the highs, you're adding more energy. So that met the aesthetic of this breathing forth of energy from nothingness that wants to burst into your living room and the cool thing about it was that I can calculate a saw tooth wave really cheaply in code and I don't have to store a sawtooth wave. So I wrote a little bit of C code to generate a sawtooth wave [SFX]. I generated a triangle wave [SFX], I generated a big long list of random numbers that I used as white noise [SFX].

And there was juuuust enough space to put in some more organic sounds.

Brian: I have the very, very beginning about a quarter of a second or a half a second of a thunder clap. So, "Pew!" [SFX].

So now I've got my power. I've got sawtooth [SFX], I've got triangle [SFX], I've got white noise [SFX], I've got a thunder sound [SFX], I actually wrote a little bit of code to reverse it so now I have a reversed thunder sound, "Pew!"[SFX]. And I have my glockenspiel [SFX].

All that was left was to sync it with the visuals. So, Brian took out a camcorder, taped the sequence, and began taking notes.

Brian: At this many seconds in the X appears, at this many seconds the whoosh happens, at this many seconds the blob expands or whatever it was and then I wrote this sequence of notes and synthesis control parameters like filter controls that use this sawtooth [SFX] wave and explosion and so on. I wrote thunder clap [SFX] in a way that matched the visuals. So those early wob wob wob wob wob [SFX], that’s actually a triangle wave [SFX] with a fairly high frequency LFO on both pitch and volume [SFX] and that gives it this wob wob pew pew pew kind of sound [SFX].

And in the end it all just kind of worked...The original Xbox debuted on November 15th, 2001 and went on to sell more than 24 million units.

But just a few years later, advances in technology made all that work on the startup sound kind of …obsolete.

[music in]

Brian: There was actually a Titanic shift in game audio that occurred with the PlayStation two and the original Xbox and that was when games started shipping on DVDs. That was really the point where the technique of having to use little synthesizers inside the game consoles, that really went away 'cause with DVD's there was plenty of room on the disc where you could go record 90 minutes of original score with Chicago symphony...

[music out]

[SFX: Chicago Symphony]

and have 5000 lines of dialogue...

[SFX: Mass Effect 2 Dialogue]

and lots of high fidelity affects.

[SFX: Sci Fi Cinematic Charge Up]

Memory no longer became an issue.

[music in]

But there was a new problem to solve. How could Microsoft widen the appeal of the Xbox for its next console? And what did this mean for its start up sound?

We’ll find out, after the break.

[music out]


[SFX: Xbox Original Startup]

Brian Schmidt created one of the most iconic sounds in gaming. It was the start up sound for the original Xbox. But, it sounded very sci-fi and futuristic. So, when it was time to develop the next generation of the Xbox. Microsoft was ready for a new direction.

Michael: They wanted to change from a branding perspective and how they wanted to change their audience from being, say, the 14-year-old boy to more inclusive of gender, less sort of sci-fi.

That's Michael Sweet, a sound designer and composer who also teaches film scoring at Berklee in Boston. He was tasked to creating the startup sound for the Xbox 360.

[SFX: Xbox 360 Boot Up]

Microsoft had a new challenge. It was to grow the gamer base ...and they couldn't do that by only focusing on one niche demographic. They also knew that they wanted this startup sound to be used as a marketing tool.

Michael: So they wanted this detachable sound logo that they could put across all their branding. We tried to create a detachable two-second logo at the end which they could then take and move to any piece of their branding. So the end of a commercial, if they were advertising a Madden game at the very end, you'd hear a two-second logo.

[SFX: EA Sports audio logo]

Michael: And obviously Play Station was a big competitor of theirs, and Sega to some extent. Both had logos, detachable little second, two-second logos that they would play at the end of their commercials.

[SFX: Final Fantasy Playstation Logo]

[SFX: Sonic the Hedgehog Sega Logo]

Michael: Xbox really didn't have anything like that at the time. So this was going to be their sound to sort of market their products and be the defining thing that really helped brand the experience of playing on the Xbox.

Michael was told that not only did this audio logo have to be iconic, but it also had to be inclusive.

Michael: They wanted to bring in these other demographics, and make it much more open, a much more open space to play in.

[SFX: Xbox 360 Kinect Commercial]

So going sort of from dark to light was one of the things that they talked a lot about.

They also wanted to get across this idea of sort of powered by human energy, so that the box was kind of living on its own.

So what does something powered by human energy sound like? Michael and his team started experimenting.

Michael: There was a direction called symphony, The way people play together in a symphony, and strangely symphony has become part of other logos. But we didn't eventually go into the sort of symphonic direction, although you can hear some strings in the launch. Like strings tuning up. There's some brands out there that kind of use that as their logo.

[SFX: Orchestra strings tuning up]

Michael: We kind of explored a little bit in that direction and didn't think it was quite right. We explored voices. We spent a lot of time trying different logos out that used vocal elements, whether they were sung vocals or just saying "Xbox 360" in different languages, to kind of pull together different culturally regions from around the world and things like that.

We explored kind of an architecture direction and a nature direction.

For weeks they’d demo ideas to figure out what worked.

Michael: We'd move it closer to one thing or another. One thing that ended up being very important was the breath at the end.

[SFX: Xbox startup sound breath]

[music in]

Michael: And the breath signifies a couple different things. It talks about how this box is sort of powered by human energy, so when you get to the end of the logo, and on top of the sort of tonal stuff that you hear, you actually hear an inhale [SFX], right? The box itself looks like it's inhaling, right? You have this concave shape.

It was also important to create a sense of movement within the sound.

Michael: This spinning ball logo that kind of moved in 3-D toward you and moved from this place of darkness to lightness. And so we tried to start, obviously, maybe with lower pitches moving up to this sonic ending to kind of create the illusion of going from, say, dark to light.

[music out]

[SFX: Xbox startup sound]

That startup sound had a good 5 year run, however the influence of Michaels original design can still be heard in future Xbox startup sequences. There was a revision to the Xbox 360 startup in 2010 [SFX: 2010 Xbox 360 Start Up] and then the startup for the Xbox One in 2013 [SFX: Xbox One Startup].

Fast forward to November 2017 and the Xbox One X is released.

[SFX: Xbox One X Startup]

Michael: The logo's gotten way more electronic over the years. They've taken those sort of initial things, and it's become much more electronic, you know wherever a brand is at a specific moment in time is different than how it might be two years later or three years later.

[music in]

Microsoft continues to evolve the visuals and sound of their brand. Michael says the startup sounds from each new generation of XBOX are a reflection of where Microsoft is at the moment.

He says nowadays we may have even gotten to the point where the entire startup sound itself has become obsolete.

Michael: Who turns their game consoles on and off anymore? They're always on, and so you rarely hear kind of a startup sound in the way that you used to on devices.

[music out]

[music in]

Although technological advancements have created less restrictions, that’s not to say video game sound designers have it easy these days. With each new advancement in technology comes new problems...and the possibilities for both success and failure are infinite.

Brian: I just enjoy this fact that I feel like we're in film in the 20s where we just don't know what we're doing and we're making it up as we go along. Discovering things that are great and discovering things that, "Oh, man. I wish that I hadn't tried that. I'm embarrassed that game shipped."

Brian says just as games consoles evolve, so should the craft of game sound design. His dream is a future where new composers and new sound designers don’t have to start from scratch like he did.

Brian: Were tripping over the same kinds of issues. There's a lot of technology involved with games. It's much, much better now than it was back in the Xbox days but even now, there's a lot of technology that goes into making game music and lots of technical constraints that you have particularly, for example a sound designer, challenges that we don't have if we're doing traditional linear media.

[music out]

[music in]

In the end, whether it’s about solving a technical problem or creating something iconic and marketable, Brian says there’s a higher purpose to what game sound design does.

Brian: If you look at the neurophysiology of sound and the neurobiology of sound there are fewer neuro processing paths between your nerve cells in your ear and your frontal cortex than there are, for example, in the visual system. There's more processing that goes on and so music and sound, I think, have this ability to sort of tweak you emotionally in a way that visualists can't. You know they say "a pictures worth a thousand words." I would say "a sound is worth a thousand pictures." At the end of the day it's really about moving people with sound.

[music out]

[music in]


Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. Find out more at defactosound dot com.

This episode was written and produced by Rob Sachs… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.

Thanks to our guest, Brian Schmidt. Brian puts on a conference every year called Game Sound Con, which brings 350 composers, musicians, and game sound designers to LA to learn about the intersection of music and tech. Find out the details at game sound con dot com.

Thanks also to Michael Sweet. Michael teaches film scoring at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and he’s also a full time composer.

The music in this episode is from of our friends at Musicbed. ...and now you can also use their music! For the first time ever they now have membership plans. Check it out and sign up at music.20k.org.

Finally, you can engage with me and the rest of the 20 kay team through our website, facebook, twitter or by writing hi at 20 kay dot org. Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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