Apple’s iconic ‘Tri-tone’ alert sound that plays when you receive a text message on the iPhone was born back in 1999, nearly a decade before the company shook up the phone industry when it released its first iPhone. That’s according to a blog post from its creator, Apple software designer Kelly Jacklin, which was spotted by TUAW.
Jacklin retells the story of the sound’s creation in some detail, noting that it began as a favor for his friend Jeff Robbin who, alongside partner Bill Kincaid, created SoundJam, a music player for the Mac which later became iTunes when Apple bought the company.
Jacklin says he was “looking for something simple that would grab the user’s attention:”
I was really into the sound of marimbas and kalimbas at the time, so I thought I’d try both of those. I also went through bank (after bank) of sounds built into the SW1000XG, auditioning instrument sounds, and found three other instrument sounds that I liked: a harp, a koto (Japanese zither), and a pizzicato string sound (that’s the sound a violinist makes when plucking the string, rather than bowing it).
He says he developed the sound by first setting up a program that ran various combinations of notes that he selected. After fixing the timing and format, he whittled the sounds down to a final shortlist of 28 and chose ’158-marimba.aiff’ as his favorite.
Interestingly, Jacklin sent all 28 samples to Robbin, who agreed with his pick.
As he describes in this excerpt below, the rest is history.
SoundJam MP was released, sold reasonably well, but not anything spectacular. Some months later, and I hear from Jeff saying that Apple bought it (to later become iTunes), and Jeff, Bill and Dave Heller (also working on it) were hired along with it. Good for him! When Apple finally released it (in 2001), it still had the disc burning sound, which, again, I thought was pretty cool!
A couple years later, the installer team decided that they would use this same “completion” sound in the installer, for the sound that happens when an install completes.
Fast forward quite a few years, and the iPhone comes out. I was not involved in development of the iPhone, nor iOS, although I was unsuccessfully courted by the iPod software guy (Tony Fadell) right when I was considering the move to work on audio software (I went to the Pro Apps group at Apple instead). So imagine my surprise when the iPhone ships, and the default text message tone is… “158-marimba”, now going by the clever (and not actually accurate, from a music theory perspective) name “Tri-Tone”. Time goes by, and this sound becomes iconic, showing up in TV shows and movies, and becoming international short-hand for “you have a text message”…