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The Difference a Sound Makes

The startup tone on Apple computers is a prime example of a status tone that signals a transition in a calming way—though it was not always so. The boot-up tone on early Mac desktops was very harsh. "When Apple first started up, the computer was far from perfect,” explains Jim Reeks, an Apple sound designer, in a recent podcast on sound and product design. Reeks worked at Apple Computer from 1988-1999 and hated the startup sound that early Macs made:

It crashed a lot...and every time you turned it back on, you heard that jolting sound... Your Mac just crashed. Again. You lost your work... Again. And then you boot up and you heard this horrible [startup] noise! I was thinking about a zen-like, meditating sound, similar to a gong, or a chanting ohm.*

The podcast goes on to explain that Reeks couldn't initially get permission to replace the old sound with his new one, so he snuck it into the prototype, counting on its obvious calming nature to win the rest of the team over. It has become the sound most associated with Apple—the brand's audio signifier.

* All quotes from 99 Percent Invisible, Episode 148: The Sizzle, 2015. (http://99percentinvisible. org/episode/the-sizzle).

Sometimes status tones are used to add emphasis to status lights, but in other cases they can stand on their own . Status tones often accompany visual indicators: the tone alerts the user to a status change and the status light remains on as a persistent indicator

Status tones are often an excellent way to communicate information without disrupting the user, but as with any indicator, it takes care to design them to be both effective and calm . A well-designed tone is engineered to be heard above other sounds (including those in the user’s anticipated environment), but not to be something that jars the user out of their environment . Leave that to the more urgent status shout, covered in an upcoming section

While there are no hard-and-fast rules for designing good status tones, there are general patterns, and an abundance of examples . What follows is a list of effective and calming status tones, both familiar and exploratory, along with some key considerations that went into making them right:

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