Why software makes noise and how it’s made

The wife of the photographer works in home office during the coronavirus pandemic on March 01, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. German authorities have confirmed the country has entered a third wave of the pandemic due to the spread of the B117 variant of the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile the pace of vaccinations has begun accelerating and some lockdown measures have been cautiously eased.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Connor Moore couldn’t take any more noise from his computer.

He uses Slack’s team communication software at his music-production company CMoore Sound in San Francisco, and the sound of notifications from the app kept interrupting his meetings. Sometimes the sound suddenly played when another user sent a message, and sometimes he heard it in the background while talking with people on Zoom video calls.

“It’s really intense,” said Moore, who has created sounds for products at Amazon, Google and Uber. He turned off the notification sound. And then he reached out to Slack. He wants to help the world sound better, he said, and he recognized an opportunity.

That’s probably a good idea, because Slack’s scratch-pop-pop-pop sound is one of the noises that people have been hearing a lot more lately.

In recent years, companies have been investing in sound to make their software and stand out. Combine that trend with increased computer usage during the pandemic, and suddenly a lot of us are noticing the sounds we used to ignore.

It’s not just Slack, which saw a wave of new users last year as the coronavirus hit U.S. shores and offices closed, causing companies to lean on virtual ways for workers to stay in touch. Microsoft’s Teams chat app chirps to notify users of new messages, while its Outlook client rings out about new emails and upcoming calendar events — and the number of meetings and emails has climbed during the pandemic, according to a study Microsoft conducted. The average Teams user is sending 45% more chat messages per week compared with the pre-Covid age.

Apple and Google’s calendar apps make sounds about events happening imminently. Apple, Discord, Facebook and Microsoft’s LinkedIn all signal the arrival of instant messages with their own custom sounds. Websites are generating their own sounds in some cases, too.

All of the noise can get to be a bit much.

“I do think the general public doesn’t have knowledge of how unhealthy constant notifications are,” said Dallas Taylor, host of Twenty Thousand Hertz, a podcast that tells the stories of distinctive sounds. “Our technology should work for us and not make us feel like we’re slaves to technology.”

Your phone doesn’t need to go off every time you get an email from a home-goods retailer that you never signed up to receive in the first place, Taylor said. Only one app on his phone is allowed to send notifications and make sounds, and that’s Slack.

The smartphone drove a sound revolution

Sound design is the process of recording or synthesizing audio to fit the needs of a moment in a creative work, such as a commercial, movie or video game. It dates at least back to the 1970s, when film editor Walter Murch was credited as a sound designer for his contributions to “Apocalypse Now.”

In the 1990s, sounds came to Microsoft Windows and the Apple Macintosh operating systems on personal computers. AOL’s Instant Messenger program made noise whenever users received new messages and friends came online.

More sounds came in the 2000s when Apple’s iPhone arrived. The smartphone emitted a sound every time a user unlocked the screen or took a photo.

That’s when the world’s largest tech companies began hiring sound designers.

Microsoft hired its first in-house sound designers, Conor O’Sullivan and Matthew Bennett, in 2009. Before that, the company had leaned on people who split sound design with other duties, such as Steve Ball, a principal program manager lead who worked on other operating system components, and product designer Benjamin Bethurum, who developed sounds such as ringtones for Windows Mobile phones and other products.

Facebook’s Will Littlejohn in his home studio.

Facebook

Amazon’s sound-design efforts ramped up with the 2014 launch of the Alexa assistant and Echo smart speaker according to Chris Seifert, principal user experience sound designer at the company.

In 2015 O’Sullivan left Microsoft and joined Google to be its head of sound design. Google has “a handful” of sound designers today, he said.

Smaller companies’ websites have also started making sounds. Companies such as Drift and Intercom provide a means to add a chat window to the bottom of a web page where visitors can get answers to any questions they have. A widget like this will set off a chime to capture attention.

How the sounds are created

In 2014, Facebook hired Will Littlejohn, who had worked on sounds for Jawbone’s Jambox speakers and music in the Guitar Hero games, to be its sound design lead. Before that, Facebook had one sound, said Littlejohn. He and others at a firm he had co-founded came up with a series of sounds for the Messenger app, and Facebook asked if he would be willing to build the discipline of sound design at the company. Now there are more than 10 people on his team.

The team created different sounds for incoming messages on Messenger based on the device the recipient was using. Historically phones have had a limited frequency range than more powerful PCs. That’s why Facebook’s Messenger app makes a high-pitched “pop-ding” sound for an incoming message on a smartphone and a lower-pitched “pop-om” sound on a PC.

The sounds have a job to do — convey that a new Facebook message has arrived — but they’re more than just alerts. Facebook also wants them to build an association in people’s brains. If you like using Messenger and you repeatedly hear its audible elements, “you’ll carry that with you in your life as a positive part of your experience,” said Littlejohn.

Sound designers come up with their beeps and bloops using musical instruments, synthesizers, software or even with the human voice. Google and Microsoft have silent anechoic chambers on their corporate campuses that sound designers can use.

Some also record audio out in the real world.

“Almost every sound designer I know carries some type of miniature recorder no bigger than a phone, what are called field recorders,” Littlejohn said. “We record source all the time. These become things that we then can manifest in our products.”

Facebook’s Will Littlejohn gathering sound

Facebook

At Google, building a prototype for a sound can take as little as two days, but conceiving of a sound that will reach billions of people might take months, O’Sullivan said. A sound designer might go through 100 cycles of listening to a sound in progress and making changes to it, including at different times of the day. If a sound is meant to break through the noise in a loud environment, then that’s part of the testing, too.

If Facebook is building a sound for smartphones, then sound designers will play back the sound on phones, rather than through comfortable headphones or powerful speakers, or even the tinny speakers on their laptops.

“I won’t be listening to it specifically on speakers because that’s not the medium through which it will be experienced,” said Littlejohn.

When Bennett was at Microsoft, he rejected 800 to 1,000 candidates before shipping a sound in a product such as Windows 10. “I’m sure I listened to every shipping sound at least a couple thousand times before it was officially released,” he wrote in an email. “If I could still love it after all that, I knew it would probably age well in the real world.”

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Once a sound has been released, Microsoft seeks out customer feedback, which can lead to changes, said Colin Day, a principal creative director at the company. Some people said they didn’t know they had received new direct messages in Teams, so in March 2020 the company updated that sound to make it more noticeable — but soon users said the sound was cutting through too much, Day said.

The pandemic effect

The coronavirus pandemic brought new attention to the sound of software.

During the online meetings we’ve been holding and the television interviews we’ve been watching, sounds from other people are spilling over into our ears. Sometimes, that’s by design.

Imagine that a start-up is trying to sell its software to a bank. People from both sides on a briefing call will hear the start-up CEO’s phone playing a melody every few minutes to signify that an email has come in. To the start-up’s salesperson on the call alongside the CEO, the sounds are nothing unusual. But the chief information officer from the bank might perceive that the start-up CEO has considerable inbound communication, and that could assure the person that the start-up’s wares are in demand.

“It makes audible your network,” said Meredith Ward, director of film and media studies at Johns Hopkins University.

For Ward, reminders of events starting soon have become more important than ever. No longer is she seeing visual cues of what to do next because she’s no longer visiting different places on campus. Everything happens in front of a screen now, and sounds are the symbols of transition.

A Microsoft Surface Laptop computer sits in a soundproof anechoic chamber, used for development of the device’s speakers, at the hardware lab of the Microsoft Corp. main campus in Redmond, Washington, on April 20, 2017.

Mike Kane | Bloomberg | Getty Images

But the sounds can also blend together and become confusing. That can even apply to a single app, such as the communication app Discord. Users can participate in text and voice chats in a variety of groups, known as servers, and the “boop-beep” sound of a new message doesn’t tell them if it’s coming from a relative on one private server or a stranger in a server where thousands gather to discuss a game.

Sounds can also distract people, even for just a few seconds. As the pandemic continues, Day at Microsoft said he’s been thinking about the role that sound plays during meetings. “I want to be a really good active listener, and I want other people to practice that as well,” he said.

“This happens to me personally quite a bit, where I’ll hear a sound and go, ‘What was that sound? I don’t even recognize that sound,'” said Greg Gordon, CEO of the San Francisco music-production institute Pyramind. “I have 20 to 30 tabs on my browser open, and I’m flipping between tabs. I know one of them gave me a notification, and I don’t remember which of them it was.”

Sounds that once seemed tolerable have become, for certain people, irritating.

To Bennett — Microsoft’s chief sound designer until earlier this year, when he struck out on his own — the sound that goes off when he received a text message on his iPhone began to grate on his ear, with what he said is a sharp attack and a long decay. He turned off the sound last year.

“We’re probably hearing our messaging sounds, our IM sounds, a lot more,” he said. “I know there are days I’ve heard them all day long. You want to turn them off but if you step away, you’re missing something.”

Many product sounds now seem to go on too long for Bennett’s taste. A sound that plays for two and a half seconds, for example, might have worked well before the pandemic, when there were so many other sounds in the background. Now he wonders if it’s really necessary to hear the whole thing in order to grasp what it’s designed to convey.

Google has asked users about sounds and learned that some who kept their phones on silent when they worked at offices now have their sound on, so they don’t miss food deliveries or important messages from colleagues, O’Sullivan said. Some still prefer to keep audio notifications off, though. Jonathan Sterne, a professor of art history and communications studies at McGill University, said he likes listening to music while writing or grading and doesn’t want any other sounds coming out of his devices.

But sometimes the devices overrule his wishes. Earlier this year, he said, while teaching a class on Zoom, his Mac updated and its settings changed. The computer started making a sound with each text message that arrived. The sounds were loud, and he couldn’t immediately figure out how to disable them. “That was incredibly annoying,” he said.

Expressing the brand

Sound designers don’t want their work to be annoying. They need to make sure their sounds don’t reflect poorly on their employers.

“There’s an aspect of sound design that is expressing the brand,” Google’s O’Sullivan said. People remember sounds and associate them with products.

Slack’s trademark sound is so distinctive, it’s become like a second logo. It was the work of Daniel Simmons, a Canadian musician who had previously played with Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. Simmons made the music and sounds for Glitch, a video game that led to the creation of Slack, which launched in 2014.

Simmons described the origin of the sound, known as Knock Brush, in an email:

Stewart described that subtle sound that your tongue makes when you separate it from the roof of your mouth, and we had planned on using that for an incoming message. I put them together in a knocking pattern. I’m pretty sure I made it as a candidate to signify that a new chat window had opened (new conversation). One of the sounds I had made in my first batch of random SFX was the sound of pulling my thumb through a toothbrush and it was Stewart that suggested we put the two sounds together, and that became the “new chat window” sound. When Stewart and the other founders introduced the communication system that was built for the Glitch team to the rest of the world, they grabbed a few SFX that had been made for the game, and the rest is history. 

That sound became more common after the pandemic hit the U.S. and millions more people simultaneously connected to Slack, as Butterfield described in a series of tweets.

At the same time, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other collaboration products were confronted with millions of new users. These people have only been exposed to the products during the pandemic, and that might leave a negative impression — which could be alleviated with new sounds.

“Maybe after we get back, Zoom may want to do a rebranding on kind of their image entirely, because they were the company that was kind of at the epicenter of this entire movement,” said Taylor, the podcast host. (Zoom didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

“I think they should consider, ‘How do we rebrand to where this company isn’t associated with the pandemic forever?’ It might be interesting if maybe Slack did something similarly — they have a pretty iconic notification sound now.”

Moore said he did reach out to Slack and got the sense that the company was receptive but wasn’t ready for an overhaul. The company confirmed that’s right, at least for now.

“We’re not planning to change the default notification sound in Slack — the knock brush is a unique and iconic part of our brand,” said Ethan Eismann, Slack’s vice president of product design, in a statement provided by a spokesperson.

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