“ Literally from the day that Bill and Steve gave the green light to do the Xbox, to hitting the store shelves was only 18 months. So everything had to be done just lightening fast and really, really quickly. Decisions were fast.”
– Sound designer and composer Brian Schmidt speaking to Twenty Thousand Hertz about the audio design behind the original Xbox startup sound.
A lot of detail goes into goes into designing an audio signature even if its a few seconds long, and in an interview with Twenty Thousand Hertz, sound designer and composer Brian Schmidt goes over the audio design challenges behind the original Xbox startup sound.
Microsoft launched the original Xbox back in 2001, and while that may seem like a long time ago, it’s important to note that this was a new console thrust into a scene already full of competition.
It was important for the Xbox to gain traction and cement its place in the console market. Thus came its iconic startup sequence.
Schmidt was given a tight deadline, but that wasn’t the most pressing issue at hand. “So we really wanted this to be just like any other piece of consumer electronics equipment,” he explains.
“You push the button and it turns on instantly. ‘Well it turns on instantly’ is not really instantly. It does take some time for a hard drive to go from not moving to spinning to where you can actually read data off of them.”
The hard drive needed to already be spinning fully before the start up sequence could even boot up, but the eureka moment came when Schmidt realized he didn’t need to bother with the hard drive at all. The solution? Memory chips on the board itself.
However that presented a new challenge: There was only one memory chip, and it could only hold 256 kilobytes of data. With everything else that had to be loaded onto the operating system, that only left 28 kilobytes left for sound.
Schmidt had to consider his options. “What sounds can I make easily? I’ll give a great example, the very opening of that Xbox sound there’s this fade in and the Xbox sound starts with a ‘wah!’. What that sound is, is literally a low pitched sawtooth wave where I could programmatically start the filter cut off very, very low.”
“Like 20 Hertz, something like that and then over the course of about a three quarters of a second, I could open it all the way.” It was an easy sound to produce and fit the tone Schmidt was looking for.
“It’s literally putting more energy into the sound because as you’re no longer filtering off the highs, you’re adding more energy,” he says.
“So that met the aesthetic of this breathing forth of energy from nothingness that wants to burst into your living room and the cool thing about it was that I can calculate a saw tooth wave really cheaply in code and I don’t have to store a sawtooth wave.”
“So I wrote a little bit of C code to generate a sawtooth wave. I generated a triangle wave, I generated a big long list of random numbers that I used as white noise.”
In the end it all worked, with the original Xbox launching on November 15 2001. However, advances in technology made all of the hard work Schmidt did on the startup sound sort of obsolete.
So what was the solution for Microsoft’s follow up console, the Xbox 360? You’ll have to listen to the entire interview over at Twenty Thousand Hertz to find out.