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Pocket Composers

Creating some of the most iconic smartphone sounds requires more care than you think.


Microsoft head of sound design Tapio Hakanen

Courtesy of Tapio Hakanen

Your mobile phone broadcasts a medley of sounds. It rings, it buzzes and it beeps to signal incoming calls, text messages and app alerts.

As the more than 100 mobile apps dedicated to customizing and downloading ringtones indicate, how a handset sounds is still important to users. But the complex labor that goes into making default tones often goes unnoticed.

Crafted by expert ears, these sounds need to cut through the noise that clutter everyday life, be pleasing enough to be heard regularly and feel unique -- whether they play for 20 seconds or just two.

Apple: The text tone heard 'round the world

From the fast-paced Marimba ringtone to its whooshing text sound effects, it's easy to identify the Apple iPhone by just a few choice soundbites.

But the origins of one of its most recognizable sounds, the ascending Tri-Tone alert, reaches back nine years before the iPhone's 2007 debut. At that time, Jeff Robbin, now Apple's vice president of consumer applications, needed a tone for his nascent MP3-playing software SoundJam MP to alert a user when a disc finished burning.

Robbin turned to his friend Kelly Jacklin, founder of Jacklin Studios and current software architect for video applications at Apple, for help. Perceiving it as a fun exercise, Jacklin casually agreed to do the favor.

What could've been: Three other Jacklin tones

"It was for my buddy," says Jacklin. "I didn't think this product was going to head anywhere, so let's have some fun with this."

Instead of tinkering with instruments all day, Jacklin programmed his computer to spit out permutations of three- and four-note melodies played on percussion and string instruments like the marimba, kalimba, harp and koto.

"I had a wide palette to play with," he says. "But I wanted notes that were clean and simple and quick."

After narrowing down the generated tunes to 28 that he liked, he settled on one called "158-marimba" (not to be confused with the aforementioned iPhone ringtone, Marimba).

Jacklin emailed the sound file over to Robbin, who accepted it and replied with a quick thank you.

Sidebar: Favorite sounds in tech

"I think he gave me a free copy of SoundJam when it shipped," Jacklin says, chuckling. "The only reason why I burned a disc was to hear that sound."

Jacklin would later hear his tune again in 2001 when Apple acquired SoundJam to create iTunes. Then it became the alert when a person finished installing any application on a Mac, before landing on the iPhone as the ubiquitous text alert.

Whenever he hears the tone sound near him, especially on TV or in a movie, Jacklin says it's an odd feeling. He's cautious not to self-aggrandize, but admits to feeling proud. "That's a piece of history," he says. "It's wild to think how far that sound has come."

AT&T: A sound approach

In 2009, AT&T, the country's second-largest wireless carrier, was in the midst of launching its new "Rethink Possible" image campaign. Understanding that audio and sound needed to play a big part of it, Esther Lee, AT&T's then-senior vice president of brand marketing, tasked Joel Beckerman, founder and lead composer of production studio Man Made Music, and his team to write a long-form instrumental that would serve as the company's theme.

After Beckerman's first song was swiftly rejected because it sounded "too happy," he opted for a more human and approachable style with a ragtag selection of instruments.

"We rented an imperfect half broken piano, a glockenspiel that saw better days, and a keyboard that was used on the road for 30 or 40 years," Beckerman says.

AT&T's audio anthem

After 18 months total, they landed on a final 2-minute "sonic anthem" in the fall of 2011. According to Gregg Heard, vice president of AT&T's Brand Identity and Design, the company used the anthem for radio spots, TV ads and corporate events. It then teased out a shorter "sonic logo" recording to serve as the startup tone for nearly all AT&T handsets.

The ditty consists of four main notes: D-D-E-B, with the first D an octave lower than the second. AT&T's longer "Firefly" ringtone builds on that motif even more, to include the sound of a finger snap, followed by the notes A and B.

AT&T's audio logo

Aside from the iPhone, the Firefly ringtone is included in every AT&T handset. Ultimately, the goal of AT&T's audio branding, like any other marketing campaign, is to evoke positive feelings with consumers, whether it's with a Pavlovian four-note ditty or a 2-minute long anthem.

"The notes can't do it by itself," says Beckerman. But"when I hear the notes with some really great experience I have, I'm going to associate an emotional trigger."

Nokia: King of nostalgia

Perhaps no sound is more tied to the early years of cell phone technology than the iconic Nokia ringtone.

The company sampled its 13-note melody set in the waltzy ¾ time from the early 20th century composition, Grande Valse, written by Spanish guitarist Francisco Tárrega. It originally used it for a TV commercial in 1992 to reflect a breezy, sentimental mood for its Nokia 1011 handset.

Two years after the ad ran, Nokia wanted to equip its handsets with monophonic songs (tunes that played one note at a time) as ringtones. These first tones were mainly pop songs, and when they were demoed during an internal marketing meeting, the company's legal team immediately disapproved.

"The lawyer guys were like, 'No way, you can't ship a pop song in a phone'," says Thomas Dolby, a professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins University who developed another version of the signature waltz for Nokia years later. "So then the marketing guys asked, 'What if it's written by a dead guy?'"

Nokia revisited Tárrega's riff and, happy to escape paying royalty fees, shipped out its 2110 handset with the Grande Valse ringtone. After it acquired Dolby's synthesizing audio technology, which enabled handsets to play songs that had several notes playing simultaneously (polyphonic tones), Nokia released a richer version of the tone in 2002 on the 3510.

Though the song has gone through many variations in the past few years, its original melody endures as an audio emblem for Nokia.

The Nokia tune (mono- and polyphonic)

"With many people, it was part of their teenage years or their twenties," says Tapio Hakanen, who joined Nokia in2008 and is currently Microsoft's head of sound design after the company acquired Nokia in 2014.

"It was part of the zeitgeist of the '90s and early 2000s," he says. "There's a lot of love for it."

From simple chirps, to polyphonic tunes, to today's customizable sound recordings, alert tones and ringtones will continue to change and evolve as audio technology improves. But technology also tends to move faster than our own sentiments, and the day will soon approach when we regard the ever-present Tri-Tone from Apple with the same nostalgia we hold for Nokia's wistful waltz.

This story appears in the winter 2015 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.