The real reason that familiar Apple Mac chime is off key
Excerpted FromWhat the Ear Hears (and doesn’t): Inside an Extraordinary Everyday World of FrequencyRichard Mainwaring. Richard Mainwaring. Sourcebooks, Inc. has granted permission for this use. All rights are reserved.
We have made the vast majority other frequencies in Western music musically inexplicable by using a standardised allocation of named pitches for set frequencies. This in mind, I have a theory that a global tech giant has used our incomprehension of long-forgotten frequencies to create an instantly recognizable logo for its brand. Would you not dye your T-shirts in shades between the set colors if the world had standardized fabric colors? This would give your brand unique recognition.
Apple is the company, and the genius aural logo represents the start-up chime from an Apple Mac computer. It has a distinctive sound that almost everyone recognizes, but few can explain why. It is just one synthesizer chord. It’s out-of-tune, which is one clue to its singularity. It is not a C chord or A chord. It is not an F major chord (F4 at 349.2Hz) or an F# major chord (369.2Hz); the F of an Apple chime is somewhere between the two. If music is bound by a set frequency range, then surely it is possible to make an aural impression by placing one’s sounds beyond these frequencies? Apple’s start up chimes are extremely successful in expressing the company’s core identity in one musical chord.
Jim Reekes, the composer of the chimes was my interview subject. Reekes is a fascinating character and composer, sound designer and software engineer, as well as a photographer and polterzeitgeist. Reekes explained to me that he had a need to calm down after his Mac crashed. Apple had previously installed a series of annoying and cheap beeps to increase his irritation when his computer restarted after crashing. These annoying beeps were due to the limitations of computers’ bit rates and the poor quality of their speakers. Reekes, an Apple employee, saw an opportunity to create a chime that used the full frequency range of the larger speakers. Reekes wanted the sound to be soothing and Zen-like. He chose a simple chord in C major, which he played on his Korg Wavestation synthesizer. The chime sounded far more complicated than it was. It was composed of notes that were arranged (“voiced”, is the musical term) in the exact same order as the harmonic series and ended with an E at its top.
“I added a third at top and it just rung nicely together with all the other partials. It gave it a bright tone. Psychologically, it sounds like we are hearing that. It felt like you were lifting me up, which was what I was trying to do.” Reekes spent a lot of time playing with the sound of the chord and adding various effects such as chorus (making it richer and “fatterer”) and reverb (placing it in an ambient “space” as if in a room).
The question that would prove my theory about Apple’s genius was the one I asked: “What is the original idea of placing the start up chime between established musical frequencies?” This gave it singularity in an otherwise noisy aural ident market.
“So how did the whole chord get tuned by a quarter tone to make the chime distinctive?” I asked. “Did Apple tell me, “It’s great marketing; we’re going to stick it in cracks of the keyboard where nobody else occupies this frequency space?”
Reekes shook his heads and smiled.
He replied, “You’re overthinking the matter.” “It’s a f***up as far as I can piece it together. They probably got confused because I wasn’t there. They are like, “Hey, that sounds good enough to us.”
Could it have been a design error on Apple’s part? Is it possible that a company that is so meticulous could have created a unique sound accidentally? Reekes had a variety of opinions about the pitch change, but Apple’s deliberate act to create a unique musical signature was not among them.
It was time to put on my frequency sleuthing hat. Sometimes, when I load clients’ audio into my computer, I find that their stems play out of tune (and a bit faster). This is a problem I have encountered in my studio work. This is due to a sample rate discrepancy. Imagine a film with 24 frames per second running through editing software that plays at 25 frames per second. The computer would need to stretch the film file, spacing the frames slightly so they fit. This is what I encounter when clients send me stems at 44.1 kHz. When they are played on my machine (defaulting to 48 kHz), they sound slightly lower and play fractionally slower. The solution is to convert clients’ stems to the exact same sample rate as the software.
Macintosh released Centris in February 1993 with its distinctive G major sound (which corresponds roughly to the standard G of 195.9Hz). This start-up was recorded into my software at 48 kHz. I changed the project to 44.1kHz. The chime then sounded lower. Amazingly, the pitch of the chime dropped to the same frequencies as the most current chime (which was introduced in 1995 on the Power Mac 9500). Reekes may have been right about something. The random detuned chord that is found on all modern Macs can simply be achieved by changing the sample rate. Is this deliberate or accidental?
We continued to exchange notes about our lives as composers. I commented on some generic, but banal music I wrote for a TV documentary.
Reekes stated, “Hey, at the very least you got paid!”
I replied, “Barely,”
Reekes said, “More than me did.” “Wanna hear a grown man cry?”
He never received any money for his start-up chime.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.