• 02.01.07

Twenty People, Four Notes

How Microsoft created the sound of Vista.

Twenty People, Four Notes

When Windows Vista, Microsoft’s newest operating system, launches on January 30, it will be to the sound of a four-second riff–a tiny musical signature likely to be heard, over the product’s lifespan, more than the ubiquitous “Happy Birthday.” In 2007 alone, the ditty will start the day for 200 million PC users.


Those are pretty high stakes for a few notes. So how to come up with the right sound? “I knew from day one that it would be a tricky process,” says project maestro Steve Ball, group program manager for Vista. In the end, it took 18 months–and a team of 20 composers, sound designers, engineers, and developers.

Ball began by asking 10 artists, designers, and musicians–among them Kid Crimson’s Robert Fripp, drummer Pat Mastelotto, composer Tucker Martine, and Oscar-winning sound designer Randy Thom–to come up with three to six sounds that were uplifting and unique, energizing and authentic. They submitted 500 entries, some orchestrally ornate, others weird and sound effect-y.

The key insight that helped the team focus came when Martine, listening to one riff, mimicked it, clap-clap, clap-clap. It was a rhythmic breakthrough, echoing the message, “Win-dows, Vis-ta.” They determined that a peaceful theme was what the hypercaffeinated, overstimulated PC users of the world needed now. “It needed to be a soft light from the corner, rather than a spotlight,” Ball says.

After focus-group testing in Los Angeles, the team picked three finalists. Jim Allchin, copresident of the Windows Group, made the final call: a Tucker Martine rhythm, with dual glassy, ascending melodies in four chords (echoing the four colors of the Windows Vista “window”) atop a short, harpy Robert Fripp soundscape, with orchestration by Ball.

That wasn’t so hard.

Correction: This article should have identified Robert Fripp’s band as King Crimson.


Data Dump

According to studies by branding guru Martin Lindstrom and market research firm Millward Brown, sound has a 41% chance of influencing how people perceive brands.


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.