Sunday, September 03, 2006

Birth of a startup chime

In a past life (about five to ten years ago) I did some work in the field of computer user interfaces: designing application skins, studying the work of user interface guru Donald Norman, getting into heated personal arguments with the creator of the Mac OS Platinum appearance, that sort of thing. Prior to that, however, in another past life I worked as guitar tech/drum wrangler/road manager for a touring rock group. Whenever I change careers, it's like Doctor Who undergoing regeneration: never any logical progression or incremental change, just radical shifts -- but I digress. The point is, there aren't many occasions when the interests of these two past lives overlap. Yesterday, I came across one...

I'm a Mac partisan in a big way...but lately I have to admit that Windows has a number of interface advantages over the current Mac operating system. There are things I would never have noticed if I hadn't been spending a lot of time lately helping new switchers make the transition from Windows systems to their first Macs. It's heartbreaking for a Mac partisan to hear a former Windows user complain "But I used to be able to do this on my old computer" and have to admit that no, there isn't any easy way to do this on a Mac. And one of the areas in which Windows has been kicking Macintosh ass is the use of sound in the user interface. Microsoft sound feedback has been a lot more immersive and aesthetically pleasing (though somewhat antiseptic) than the piddling few system beeps and alerts of Mac OS X.

The startup chime for Windows 95 was composed (or designed, if you will) by no less than Brian Eno, one of the greatest visionaries in music and one of my musical idols. Knowing that he worked for the enemy sears, I tell you. (A further essay on Eno's work for Microsoft can be found here.)

MS is still pushing back the release date of Windows Vista -- Apple's Leopard is still on schedule, thank you very much -- but there's been some spurious controversy in the techie world about the company's plan for its startup chime. Oh yes, in the user interface scene, we obsess over these details. And following that ongoing discussion led me to discover this video of Robert Fripp doing a recording session for the Vista startup chime last November.

Fripp has been a frequent collaborator of Eno as well as the leading light behind the prog rock outfit King Crimson. If you've never heard anything else of his work, you know the distinctive guitar lead of the Bowie song "Heroes" and you'd recognize the Peter Gabriel track "Solsbury Hill" from, like, a hundred movie trailers. He's also the founder of a unique school of guitar teaching called Guitar Craft. I've seen him perform live many times and have met him personally once. He eschews any kind of theatrical showmanship, and I was actually a bit scared of him because he presents an almost Vulcan exterior. (Surely I couldn't actually speak to him! He'd sneer at my sloppy thinking and illogical words!) But in private, he comes across as surprisingly relaxed and even cheerful.

Fripp writes about the circumstances behind working for Microsoft here:

Steve Ball of MS approached me several months ago to produce a series of exploratory splashes that might be used as part of the new MS Vista OS, currently under development. David & I recorded several at DGM & sent them off to Steve for listening. As is well known, the other half of Fripp & Eno produced the opening splash for Windows 95. There is, therefore, a logic in approaching the Venal One, quite apart from the personal connection. And, in business, personal connections are not everything; just, nearly everything.

The personal connection: Steve Ball is a good friend of mine, a Crafty from the early period of Guitar Craft, a resident at the Red Lion House, and a guitarist with whom I have shared many stages, modest accomodations & van drives with The League of Crafty Guitarists.

Steve left MS in 1999 to be a part of the BootlegTV project which raised $4 million in venture capital, spent it, and closed the doors when IT went into downturn during 2001. Should anyone have reservations regarding players in the music industry, please know that venture capitalists provide an entirely new dimension in liberal education.

Last November I was visiting Seattle with Slow Music. Steve, knowing this, suggested that I extend my stay by two days & visit Redmond; work in the MS studio with him; and look at developing several splashes as discussion-documents for Vista. The fee, for one day of my time in a city I was visiting, was less than that for Eno’s for Windows 95 splash; and represented more net worth for this working player than the previous two weeks of Soundscaping on the road...

A basic principle of my professional life is this: work with people, not companies. So, in Redmond I was working primarily with my pal Steve, who works for MS, and who was the producer on the job.

Vista is a great leap forward for 89% of computer users. I found the Vista team motivated, committed, positive, friendly & supportive. And if working with a motivated, committed, positive, friendly & supportive team held a governing imperative for much of my professional life, then most of the early years of KC would never have happened.

Okay, that last bit smarts -- my Mac partisanship has taken a further kick in the balls -- but the MS team still strikes me as soulless and antiseptic. Nonetheless, it's fascinating (to me, anyway) watching some of the process behind creating a sound that many millions of users will hear many thousands of times a year. For those who find it equally interesting, here's the video of Robert Fripp sitting on a very squeaky chair while playing guitar and manipulating a formidable array of electronic gadgets.


  1. RAB --
    that eno and now fripp (the popularizers which is to say bastardizers of minimalist music, thank you very much, which actually goes well with MS, the bastardizer of the apple GUI) have done startup chimes for windows does not constitute something you can *do* with your pc that you cannot *do* with your mac, that is unless the thing you are doing is soaking in cool music cred. and they say that the mac is a toy comared to the wintel box ...

    there is a glut of sound cues for OSX, so many i need to turn them off.

    i'm interested to know, per the start of your post, what you can actually **do** with a wintel box that you can't **do** with a mac ... currently what i can do with my mac is not be plagued with viruses and spyware and popups, and also use FCP, and also have a GUI that is not ugly ...

  2. Ahhh... I love OS wars. I love the fact that *other people* can't talk about an OS without someone else trying to start an OS war witht them.

    Now if only I had an orbital lazer for those who want to start OS wars with me.

  3. GORdon and I can hardly be having an OS war when we're on the same side!

    Anyway, the shortcomings I see in the OS X interface wouldn't stand up to brief summary, and probably require a post of their own -- or it might make more sense simply to refer people to John Siracusa's writing on this topic. But the heart of the matter is that it pains me to see any way in which the Mac is less than perfect.

    And yes, that includes Apple losing some "cool music cred" by letting Microsoft be the ones to recruit Eno and Fripp. That's just so wrong. (Though please note that in the diary entry I linked to, Fripp mentions spending his fee for the Vista session on a new iPod.)

  4. Better late than never...

    but Eno used a mac in the making of the windows start up chime. That holds more cred than the sound itself.


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