How many Softies does it take to make a sound?

Robert Fripp Windows Vista recording session
Windows Vista sounds recording session with Robert Fripp.

Ten Microsofties + 10 sound designers.

Today, Fast Company released an article from their February issue about how Microsoft created the new Windows Vista startup sound. Appropriately titled “twenty people, four notes“, the article explains how it took 18 months, 20 people and over 500 variations to pick just a four-note melody that will be played over and over again for years to come. Personal note: I quite like it.

The article explains, “according to studies by branding guru Martin Lindstrom and market research firm Millward Brown, sound has a 41% chance of influencing how people perceive brands.” which is all well and good considering how beaten up the Windows brand can be. But if it takes that much time and resources to create something so fundamentally simple, then how does a less-resourceful open-source development like Ubuntu deal with it?

Ubuntu logoProjects like Firefox and Ubuntu can deliver quality software for fractions of the development time, cost and resources compared with what companies like Microsoft spend. Thousands of people work on Windows, but it takes only somewhat 250 Ubuntu freelance contributors to come up with a solution I would consider as an alternative (if it is a sin in your religion to use Windows).

So I went on a hunt to find out exactly how many people work on the Ubuntu startup sound, and to my surprise, there was only one. User Pete Savage is the sole contributor and composer to the “UbuntuSounds” project which is currently deciding on the new sound scheme for the next release of Ubuntu.

Windows Vista Ultimate "no sound"So far, it took just under a month for Pete to come up with 11 different samples which other users are providing feedback on what they like and don’t like about each sample. Most of them are unique and pretty good, however a bit long for my likings.

If a team of one can compete with a team of 20, then I’m beginning to wonder if the cost of development is worth all that? I appreciate how much effort they’re putting into attention to detail, but I’m sure Oscar-winning sound designers don’t come cheap. I know I’d very much prefer a cheaper (or lesser-bugged) operating system than a startup sound even by multi-award winning composers.

I wonder how much a copy of Windows Vista would cost without sounds? Maybe it’s time for a pay-as-you-go operating system!

Update: Steve Ball, one of the people behind the sound, gives some more internal insight behind the decision process.

Update 2: Steve Ball has posted an excellent response (or email actually) to the topics I brought up on this post. Well worth reading for the inside thoughts and processes behind the new Vista sounds.

28 insightful thoughts

  1. It’s funny, because I would think a lot of people would do what I do when they first install Windows…disable the startup sound. Because honestly, it is either immediately annoying, or it gets annoying after the 10th or 20th time you hear it.

    Money well spent for all the work on sound in Vista? I’m not so sure. I think the Ubuntu solution to sound is a more balanced equation between people input and result output. Perhaps more time and money spent on eliminating bugs and adding new features to Vista would’ve been of better use!

  2. C’mon people, there is a huge difference here ; Ubuntu isn’t install on nowhere near as many machines as Vista will be.

    As stated, the Vista start-up sound will be heard by alot more people and thus requires more attention.

  3. But does it need THAT much attention? Surely if one person can do all that with Ubuntu, just a few more (and not 20) can do something good enough?

  4. are we talking logon sound or system startup sound (aka welcome screen/windows pearl sound)? ‘cos i think you can change both.

    as for the money spent on it, i guess it’s who you hire. they could have gotten bungie to do a couple schemes or they could’ve saved the money and let allchin do the default theme. same fripp process, and all you’d have to do is give jim some more options (stock that is :P).

  5. @ikyouCrow: The system startup sound (pearl) which you can’t change.

    @Rowan Lewis: Windows have thousands of beta testers too which in a way gives feedback anyway. πŸ™‚

  6. I think it is a valid point and entertaining to read. How ever even if the total cost is over 10 million dollars what does that cost in the grand scheme of Windows developement. Hardly anything. We know that Windows has millions and Millions of users that will distribute that cost.

    In fact at CES we got a quote there are 200 million gamers alone on the Windows platform. Even if you just distribute that cost to just them you are talking pennies in the grand scheme of things.

    Would you spend a few cents on a pleasant sound that will help your overall brand?

    I certainly would.

  7. @Long:
    We (the beta testers) werent able to give much feedback on the sounds, that was one of the ‘surprises’ held back for RTM.

    And I’m betting you can change it, it just requires you to modify a DLL or something which would then invoke the ‘no reverse engineering or modifying’ (or something) clause in the EULA.

  8. @Jason Cox: You’re right about beta feedback on the final startup sound. I guess that decision has both a pro and a con. Too bad πŸ™

    I’m betting you could change the sound through the DLL also.

  9. As long as Vista’s sound are way too expensive (and alike to each other), they are subtle and nice enough to appeal to majority of people. Ubuntu sounds project is amateurish, harsh and needs LOTS of cleaning, sweetening and streamlining.

  10. @clc: Apple has comparable resources to Microsoft. And the Mac startup “BONG” isn’t exactly the most pleasing alternative. πŸ˜›

  11. I laughed (unexpectedly) when I heard the Ubuntu sounds. Sounds like what it is, one amateur making dated music/ sounds in his bedroom in Cubase. Awful, awful amateur tosh. I bet he’s never released or mixed a record in his life, probably never been in a studio either. I can (almost) guarantee he didn’t use Ubuntu to record the music either.
    It may take a team of 20, but that’s a hour or two here and there not full time. (I haven’t heard the Vista sounds yet).
    I would gladly pay more for an OS if it looked and sounded perfect. (no OS meets this requirement)
    Vista without sounds? Probably save yourself 10c. πŸ™‚

  12. Did they consider the other Windows sounds? Alot of them sound like refreshed variations of the existing tones from Windows XP. You can hear them somewhere on this site.

  13. From what Steve’s told me (he’s out this week), all the sounds in Vista were re-authored, some were significantly changed, some were subtly changed.

    For example, the IE click is a subtly different click, but the windows error is a much more annoying “boing” effect (it sounds distinctly like a guitar string being plucked). Some of the sounds, I like, some I hate.

    I REALLY like the startup sound, and since I reboot my machines just about never (for example, I rebooted my laptop yesterday for the first time since the 1st week in December), it’s not a big deal.

  14. @Steve

    Personally I quite like the Ubuntu sounds, but they aren’t something that drives my selection of a desktop (or indeed server operating system). I don’t believe any OS is perfect either, but for me Ubuntu comes a lot closer than Windows (Vista, XP or any other legacy version).

    It also saddens me that you feel it appropriate to be quite so disparaging to someone (Pete) who has given up (a large amount of) his own time to make the sounds in Ubuntu, whether you like them or not. He is a hard worker when it comes to Ubuntu and doesn’t deserve that kind of flak.

  15. @Steve

    FWIW, Pete used Ubuntu to create the sounds. Pete has a degree in acoustic engineering, so has spent quite a bit of times in studios. So three of your (rather ranty) points are incorrect. You can read about the creation process on Pete’s website:

    One of the nice things about the FLOSS development process is the ability to get involved and influence the software. If you have constructive comments about the sounds, you can leave them here:

  16. First, thanks Tony and Alan for springing to my defense,

    Secondly @Steve
    I’d like to just post a summary of how the process for creating the Ubuntu sounds went. Firstly, the sounds had not changed in over a year and a half, and I decided that for fun, I’d come up with some new sounds, mainly for my own personal use.

    After posting some of these to some friends, they suggested I actually start getting some feedback on the sounds and possibly include them in the next version of Ubuntu. I created 10-11 sounds, and posted a link to them on the Ubuntu-Art mailing list.

    Mark Shuttleworth, posted this reply to the list with his comments on the samples. Now whilst I’m not saying Mark is the all authoritive voice on operating system startup sounds (sorry mark), I am saying that the sounds were created largely to satisfy his vision and the community.

    Yes, to you they sound like I made them in my bedroom, twas my study actually. But in fact I did use Open Source software for the entire process, you may like to read Just an FYI.

    There have been others who have expressed a dislike of the sounds

    I did my best, and most people I speak to like them,

    I’ll leave it there. Thanks for the comment, if I get round to doing the next sounds for feisty, I’ll be sure to try just that little bit harder.

    Pete Savage

  17. hey Long,
    first of all I am writing a short article on this subject (startup sounds/short sounds used to promote a brand)… I quoted your January blog post and was also mentioning the Fast Company article.

    It will appear tomorrow on

    One little note: I used to change the startup sound in Win95… never tried to do that on later versions so not sure you still can do it. But I remember days in which my Win95 started with a Prince drum loop I had sampled out the “Batman” soundtrack cd. πŸ˜‰

    Nicola Battista

  18. @Pete Savage: Actually it hasn’t, I can see it in my WordPress admin panel but it’s not showing up here.

    EDIT: WordPress bug.

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