This is how your iPhone’s default text message sound was made

Such a familiar sound these days.
Such a familiar sound these days.
Image: Lucas Jackson
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It started, as so many things do, with SoundJam.

In 1998, a trio of developers released the Mac-friendly MP3 player—the WinAmp-style software that would evolve into iTunes. And iTunes led to the iPhone, which led to the text message-on-the-iPhone, which led to the iPhone’s text message alert—the sound that is the default alert built into every iPhone that’s been manufactured. The sound that I, and maybe you, and millions of people around the world, rely on to know when we’ve been communicated with—the sound that is the aural entryway to friends and families and flirtations. Kelly Jacklin, an audio/visual producer, was the original architect of that sound. Apple’s ubiquitous Tri-Tone noise, Jacklin explains—like so many aspects of early computing—came from the educated whims of educated geeks.

In mid-1999, SoundJam’s co-developer, Jeff Robbin, approached Jacklin to get his friend’s help for a particular aspect of SoundJam. The software let users burn CDs into digital files; Robbin was looking for an alert that would let the user know when the burning had been completed — a “you’ve got mail” for the sound-copying crowd. And he was hoping his friend could help him out. As Jacklin recalls: “Since I’m a hobbyist musician, and had a recording setup, I told him I’d tinker around and see if I could some up with something.”

To do that tinkering, Jacklin used a Mac PowerPC tower with MIDI—MIDI that was, in turn, outfitted with Yamaha XG extensions. Jacklin also used, he notes, “this wacky freeware sequencer app called MIDIGraphy.” From there, he proceeded to geek out. Jacklin decided, for simplicity’s sake, on a three-note (and maybe a four-note) sequence for the alert. “I was looking,” he recalls, “for something ‘simple’ that would grab the user’s attention. I thought a simple sequence of notes, played with a clean-sounding instrument, would cut through the clutter of noise in a home or office.” (Adding to the decision for simplicity was the fact that Jacklin “didn’t have much time to devote to being creative, so no fancy timing here, just sequenced notes.”)

From there, it became a question of which notes would be sequenced—and which instrument(s) would play them. “I was really into the sound of marimbas and kalimbas at the time, so I thought I’d try both of those,” Jacklin recalls. He considered other instruments, too, though, taking advantage of his Yamaha PCI card to experiment with other sounds. That yielded Jacklin three more sound-making contenders: the harp, the koto (a Japanese zither), and the pizzicato (the noise a violin makes when its string is plucked rather than bowed).

So Jacklin had his digital orchestra. He then had to figure out which three-toned melody it would play. Rather than just fiddling around on a (musical) keyboard—Jacklin is “decidedly not a keyboardist,” he says—the sound designer “decided to write a program to generate the various permutations of the notes.”

He wanted “a happy feel,” so Jacklin focused on notes from the major scale. After eliminating the koto, he ended up with a computer-generated series of sounds that reflected a range of instruments and note combinations. He saved them, manually, as AIFF files. There were 29 in all—with the numbers Jacklin used to name the files representing the combinations of major notes on the octave scale. You can listen to them here. And here they are as Jacklin’s original list:


After playing the sounds for himself, Jacklin decided that the best of the lot—the simplest, the cleanest, the least annoying—was 158-marimba. A sound that Jacklin describes as “boo-dah-ling,” but which, I’d argue, is notable in that it so stubbornly defies description. It is the porn of audio alerts. Jacklin then sent the marimba-y sound file to Robbins. All in all, he remembers, “I probably spent a couple hours on it, time I was more than happy to give to a friend who was developing a music app.”

And the rest is computer history. Robbins and his team integrated 158-marimba into SoundJam as the app’s disc-burn completion alert. Apple bought SoundJam; when the company released iTunes in 2001, it preserved the sound as its own completion alert. A few years later, the Apple installer team appropriated 158-marimba as Apple’s general “installation complete” alert across its different apps. And when the first iPhone was released in mid-2007… the mini-computer included the sound, renamed as “Tri-Tone,” as its default text-message alert. So did the second generation of the iPhone. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth. And, who knows, maybe the sixth. Boo-dah-ling.

Or, as Jacklin sums it up: “Wow! Who’d have thought?”

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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