The Mystery of the Mac Start Up Chime.

I first that to say this has been the most interesting part of this project.

My initial thoughts and inspiration for this project was to use the OS X Start Up Chime as a sampled instrument for the bass line. This idea came from an old article Tim Whitwell posted on his informative, no longer updated blog Music Thing. The article mentions a few tidbits on the iconic sound [which I will cover more below]. However, it was the article mentioning the Berlin music group Tranformer di Roboter’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Stranger in Moscow” which was the inspiration to use the Start Up Chime as a bass line.

Jim Reekes created the iconic Start Up Chime. Jim was the developer who was a driving force behind a lot of the early Apple Sound Manager systems. One More Thing has a great interview with him. In doing research, you can find that Jim created the sound on a Korg Wavestation and [according to Wikipedia], the sound Jim used was a slightly modified version of the preset ‘Sandman’ patch.

At first I did want to do the exact same thing that Transformer di Roboter did. Grab sample of the Start Up Chime, map it to a sample instrument and call it a day. However, since the origins of that sound are actually quite well documented I thought I could do one better. From what I knew and learned about the making the Mac Start Up Chime I wondered if I could make a sound-a-like of the sound instead of using a straight sample. So I got to thinking. Since I personally own a Wavestation [the software version] that seemed feasible. This itself, leads to an interesting question involving sound-alikes. Yet, in trying to make the sound-a-like is where I think I made the most interesting discoveries regarding this project.

Before I go on, I need to direct your attention to a couple links. First, there is this YouTube video that has all the Apple Start Up Chimes from inception until 2012. Second, 99% Invisible recently did a great episode on sound trademarks, where they talk about the Start Up Chime. The biggest take away from the 99% Invisible episode is that sound trademarks are very hard to get.

Now, if you listened to the YouTube video from above of all the Mac Start Up Chime you will notice the tuning has dropped over the years. Jim Reekes, in the interviews states the original was a two handed C-chord [with a third on the top]. According to the Apple Start Up Chime Tradmark, the current chord is a G-Flat with Concert A tuned to 432.4.

So my initial plan was to:

Load up my Wavestation software synthesized

Tune the synth’s master tuning to 432.4

Input the correct MIDI notes for the G-Flat chord on a track

Hit Play

I would then have my own non-sampled sound-alike of the Start Up Chime.

However, the reality is much more complicated.

The first thing I encountered was when I played my WaveStation version of the patch is the current start up Chime is missing the distinctive ‘chiff’ attack of the Sandman Patch. If you watch the history of the start up Chime video above, you will notice the ‘chiff’ is present in the Quadra era, but disappears afterward. My guess is that Apple decided to remove the first half-second of the sound to save space in the boot memory. That solved one mystery. However, even though the texture was closer, it still seemed very thin and more importantly it was very out of tune with the information I had and pitch of the chord.

The voicing I played for the chord from the trademark never seemed to match the current Start Up Chime sound. After getting frustrated I decided to load the sound into Sonic Visualizer and see if there was something in the chord I was not hearing. The answer, yes there is something missing, or at least in the wrong order.

The picture above is melodic spectrogram of the Mac Start Up Chime. In layman’s terms, colored lines correspond to the strongest frequencies being sounded in a sound. In this case, they correspond to the sound being played. If you look at the voicing of just the first 4 notes [starting bottom-up], the most prominent notes are the root, a octave above the root, then then a fifth, then another forth or fifth [1, 8, 13, 17/18]. Strangely, it does not match the chord voicing listed on the Apple Trademark of the Start Up Chime. The trademark lists the chord as the root, a fifth above, a forth [giving the first octave above the root], and then the third [1, 5, 8, 11]. In fact in the spectrogram, it shows a clear absence of any note a fifth above the root [keys 68].

So at this point, I was a bit frustrated and baffled. After getting dinner with a friend, he suggested maybe I could write Jim Reekes and see if I could get any insight. I thought this was a goofy idea at first, but when I discovered he had a website, I decided to try anyway. To my pleasant surprise he responded a couple days later and verified pretty much everything I had come to suspect about the sound.

Probably, one of the most important pieces is that the Wavestation was only a part of the Start Up Chime. He mentioned it was actually a stack of several synths and patches. Although he did not remember the exact details, along with the Wavestation he remembered using an Oberhiem Matrix 6 analog brass patch to get a lot of the fatness in the sound. He also used various stereo effects, such as panning and phasing effects, as well as selecting notes and tuning the filters to enhance the sound along the overtone series, with the third at the top of the chord he played. So now had a better idea about the correct voicing of the chord.

He also stated the reason why the current chord is pitched lower then the original C-chord sound, is actually due to a bug by the engineers. Digital audio is supposed to be played back at a sample rate of 44,100 kHz. However, for various reasons the actually playback of the current tone is 44000 kHz, thus dropping the base pitch about a tri-tone to the current G-Flat.

Armed with all that knowledge I had enough information to generate a pretty fair sound-a-like. I ended up with was the following:

[OK, On second thought, that graphic is not nearly as impressive as I thought when I took the screen shot.]

The sound-a-like patch is composed of a Wavestation playing a modified Sandman patch that removes the initial ‘chiff’ element. A layer of Logic’s ES2 – playing a slightly modified Brass path, then two instances of Logic’s Retro Synth playing a modified version of the ‘Cheerful Melody’ path, and ‘Slow Swell Brass’. I then added an assortment of delays, other effects, and a Chord Trigger so that every time a note played, the correct voicing would play back.

In the end, I think I got something that is functionally pretty close to the original synth tone. I am sure if I have more time, I could get the tuning dead on, but with finals fast approaching one can only do so much.


Big Thanks to Jim Reekes for helping out too.


Edit:  I have added a couple of snippets.  One using the original Mac Chime sound…

and one using my recreation…


About ForeverTangent
Was a Masters of Computer Science Student at the University of Kentucky. Previous Masters of Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon. Before that Graduated from Berklee College of Music. I have worked for Public Radio and the Video Games industry. Most of my interests now are UI and Accessibility Issues for Technology.

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