Creator of iconic Tri-tone details how the now familiar Apple sound came to be

Creator of Tri-tone details how the familiar sound came to be

Whether you first heard it after converting music in iTunes, or receiving a message on an iPhone, ff you've ever wondered where the famous Apple Tri-tone sound came from, you now have your answer. Created by Kelly Jacklin, the sound was originally intended for the program that eventually became SoundJam MP, which then became iTunes after it was acquired by Apple. Tri-tone was created as a sound to let users know that the program was finished burning a disc. The goal was to create a sound that was both simple and distinctive, according to Jacklin:

I was looking 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. So I had two tasks: pick an instrument, and pick a sequence of notes. Simple, right? Yeah, says you; everyone's an armchair musician...

Tri-tone remained with the program after it purchased by Apple and turned into iTunes. Eventually, it became the sound played by the installer on OS X after an installation had been completed. But most people know it today as the default text message tone that ships with the iPhone.

It's an interesting bit of history for something that's become, for many, a small but important part of day-to-day life. In addition to text messages, Tri-tone is used by several apps, like the official Twitter app, for instance, to alert people to new messages and information. The original post is a fascinating, in-depth look at the creation of Tri-tone, including the music theory and some of the programming behind the sound, and I highly encourage you to take a look. Then come back and tell me - what do you think of Tri-tone?

Source: Kelly Jacklin

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Joseph Keller

News Writer for Mobile Nations. Fascinated by the ways that technology connects us.

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Creator of iconic Tri-tone details how the now familiar Apple sound came to be


Tr-tone can stay but I need to be able to change it. A room full of iPhones and one tri-tone goes off, everyone grabs their iPhone thinking it's theirs because you can't fully customize system sounds.

You can customise your sounds.., hence why I have U2's The Fly pumping out my iPhone whenever someone calls :) There is a whole section in the iTunes Store dedicated to message tones, and it doesn't take a genius to turn any old music file int the correct format. iOS even let's you make your own vibration patterns... Not sure any other OS let's you do that!

I actually found that really interesting, since I remember sitting at my G3 iMac in 2001 and hearing that sound.

I'd also like to know where the default ringtone 'Marimba' came from?

This might help:

The Apple Marimba And GarageBand
In late 2005 Apple released the GarageBand Jam Pack 4: Symphony Orchestra Instruments [8]. This was an amazing collection of Software instruments and Orchestra loops. The sound quality and utility of this enhancement was outstanding. In the very long list of Software instruments is the high quality Orchestra Marimba. This GarageBand / Logic Pro Software instrument, marimba, is nearly identical to what has become the famous iPhone marimba ringtone. So much so, that there are versions that were faithfully reproduced in GarageBand where one could not distinguish a difference with the correct filters and effects. Thus I and a number of people, some inside of Apple, have concluded that Dr. Lengeling [see source for more info on Lengeling--Massie] may have directly or indirectly created the marimba iPhone ringtone on a Mac using GarageBand / Logic Pro. However this is not apparently officially discussed or otherwise revealed.

From Apple's GarageBand Jam Pack 4.

The Marimba As An iPhone Default Ringtone

The marimba contains all of the factors that can create a distinctive and useful ringtone. And as mentioned, it is not too far from the original Bell Ringer conceptually and it indirectly supported the decades of Human Factors research from Bell Labs. It is rich in tonality and contains a number of harmonic and inharmonic overtones. The sound is unique enough that the human brain could easily detect the sound even when layer in a crowded soundscape. It is annoying perhaps to us today as the original bell telephone ringers were to our grandparents. But in the end, that's the point, not to so much annoy but to remove your attention and focus to the alert.

To Steve the marimba ringtone alluded to cultural sophistication and echoed Steve's eclectic style. It also disarmingly showcased the iPhone's surprisingly loud and rather high fidelity sound and speaker system. It was Steve's default ringtone for quite awhile, apparently even in the pre announcement phase, although most of the time Steve preferred the vibrate only mode. It is clear that up to the actual release of the first iPhone there was much internal debate about the default ringtone, however all insights seem to suggest this was Steve's final call to pick the 18 note marimba ringtone.

Early iPhone Ringtone Envy And Early Adopter Tax

During the first year, the iPhone marimba and perhaps a close second, the ringtone "strum" (strum also has similar Human Factors as marimba) was a "badge of honor" much like the white headphone earbuds were to the iPod. It allowed the early adopters to broadcast our rather large early adopter "tax" in a very noticeable way. Thus the high quality and unique ringtones combined with a limited selection made the marimba ringtone well known. Even though today there are a multitude of options, a vast majority of iPhone users default to marimba and strum. Although in some circles these default ringtones cast a squinty eye of judgement. In the early years "business" users especially wanted a respectable Blackberry-like ringtone.

The marimba ringtone, love it or hate it can not easily be removed, as the audio file is not located in the /Library/Ringtones folder, it is located inside of found at /System/Library/CoreServices/ So at least for most of us, the marimba ringtone will be a part of the iPhone for a while.