Annoying Sounds, Part Two: Computers

Bleep bloop bleep. Bleep bloop bleep. Bleep bleep. Blaaaap.

Recognize those sounds? (Hint: you may have first heard them in 1972. Give up yet?)

Things have changed since the days of Pong1. Computers now have sound cards that can accurately reproduce voices and music, and their noises aren't as simplistic as they were in the 70's when we were mesmerized by two moveable lines and a dot. Moreover, most decent programs these days let you turn the sounds off.

When I install a video game, the first thing I do is turn off the music. The tune may be well crafted and maybe I'd like to settle back with my headphones and listen to it some day, but when I'm trying to shoot down the alien MegaCruiser I don't want to be followed into battle by an orchestra. To be fair, I should point out that some people have different attitudes and like to wrestle with the enemy while their surround-sound system assaults their eardrums with a bass-boosted remix of "Born to be Wild".

Nonetheless, I can't imagine that everybody is happy with every blip, bloop and whoop their computer makes. So I think software designers could use a course in – what can I call it? – sound styling.

Take, for example, Yahoo Messenger. When a friend arrives, there's a "knocking on the door" sound. This makes sense, I guess, but it's such a rude rapping. It gives me the impression of a neighbour at the door with a complaint about what your dog left in their front yard.

When a friend leaves you in Yahoo Messenger, there's a "door closing" sound that gets me thinking about where I left my spray can of WD-40 lubricant. I suppose you've guessed by now that I've turned all these helpful sounds off.

My complaint, here, is that sounds that occur many times in the course of normal operation need to be toned down a bit. Made a bit more pleasant. Even if they aren't adorable, or evocative of the design paradigm.

When I designed my Pyroto Mountain system back in the 80's, I spent up to an hour designing each sound it made. That was quite a challenge since most computers back then had only the pathetic little speaker inside the PC's case. That speaker was tiny, and the sounds it could make were never better than tinny. But I believed then (as I do now) that creating the right sounds can make a big difference.

Pyroto Mountain (which was a kind of bulletin board system) had a "key-click" option so that the system operator could hear users "typing". I know of a chat system that offers the same feature, but the typing sound appears to emanate from an unholy mating of an old manual typewriter and a machine gun. Worse yet, every key stroke sounds the same. Pyroto Mountain varied the sound of each key-click slightly. As a result, if you were watching TV and somebody was typing away, it was a pleasant reminder that there was a human at the other end of the modem, not a woodpecker.

Hundreds of people ran Pyroto Mountain BBS's, and based on my quality-control inquiries it appears that most of them left the key-click on. For this reason I also included the key-click option in my Free Speech BBS software. A really good key-click sound gave one the impression that there was a guest in the house. When I finally shut down my last BBS, I greatly missed hearing the enthusiastic keystrokes of my visitors.

The sound of people logging into the system was much more difficult to design, especially since the technology back then didn't let me do anything like whispering, "Hi, there!" The sound I concocted was, admittedly, pretty much a bleep, but it was a bleep that tried. It's hard to convey what I mean using mere words, but let's just say it struggled to achieve bleep-hood. It also raised in pitch slightly, as you would if you said "helLO!", and this somehow conveyed the impression that the computer was glad to earn its keep.

Computers are in everything, these days. Most people, if asked to estimate how many microprocessors share their abode would probably guess about a third of the actual number. Alas, many computerized devices haven't progressed much beyond the Pong style of noise-making. It's a bleeping shame!

Some of the worst offenders have to be the people who make cell phones. Those things have processors with gobs of megahertz – I know this because I once wrote the software for a cell phone – yet every time one of them plays the William Tell Overture, I think that the lamest MIDI tune I've ever heard on a Web site sounds like the Philharmonic by comparison.

If I could make pleasant sounds with a 1980's type 4.77 MHz processor and a speaker the size of a quarter, surely other developers can do at least as well with the hardware they have these days. To those designers who can't make that effort, I think I've got the right sound for them: a razzberry. Thhhpppptt!


1 For you purists who are incensed that I started off by talking about Pong instead of
Computer Space – introduced in 1971 – I don't recall it having any sound. If I'm wrong, please let me know. [ Return from footnote ]

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