Sound Design In Software (The Windows Song, and Why The OSX Song Sucks)

Written on October 9, 2008 – 6:20 pm | by Dan

Remember when the video of an instrumental came out featuring only Windows sounds? It was a video of a scrolling tracker, each lane dedicated to a Windows timbre.

Here it is in case you missed it:

I remember thinking “Hey, where’s the Mac one? Mac users are so much more creative than Windows users - they have Garageband right out of the box. Surely there’s something out there like this for OSX.”

Shortly after that - this came out.

I don’t think you need me to tell you that the Windows version is better, hands down.

But why? Apart from the plain skill differences between someone using a tracker and somebody copying and pasting AIFF files into Garageband, I think there are 2 reasons that echo the ease of OSX’s usability.

There Aren’t Many OSX notification sounds to choose from

Mac OSX doesn’t make a sound when the operating system starts. Macs do, however, chime when turned on. But when Macs are turned off - nothing. The only thing you’ll hear is your hard drive spin down.

Compare that to how often a sound occurs while using Windows. Here are some examples:

  • Startup
  • Shut down
  • Critical Stops
  • Low battery
  • Minimize (if you want)
  • Notification (pops, etc)
  • New mail

For just that selection from Windows, Mac OSX users have 2.

OSX sounds have no tonality

Play through the OSX sounds in the sound prefpane. Can you detect a pitch on any of them? Maybe 3 - Basso, Funk and Ping.

I think this was a conscious decision made by the Mac OS team - the pitch of the notification sounds clash with any audio being played and could confuse users. How to fix that problem? Simple - pops and tinks.

Here’s another example of smart sound design in software: iChat. Go through iChat’s sounds and compare them with AOL’s instant messenger client. iChat has sounds like wooshes and more pops. AOL IM - Loud doors opening and closing, bell cues (plus a different one if you receive your first IM)…

One of the first things I do after installing (or reinstalling) Adium? Make sure I’m using the iChat sounds.

I don’t mean to discount the amount of talent that goes into making music out of Windows sounds, but things would probably be a lot worse for Mac users if OSX had a large palette of timbres to choose from.

And the fact this never really gets talked about means that the sound designers did their jobs just right.


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