Silent running: Computer sounds are so '90s

'Do not disturb' mode isn't for you, it's for the rest of us

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Hold down the Shift key as you drag the vertical divider horizontally, and you find that you can adjust the column width in your table without changing the…


"Sorry! Carry on."

OK… er, try this: select a row and hover your mouse cursor over it. See how the cursor changes? Now if you drag it up or down, the row will…


"Never mind, it's just my Mum calling about her cable TV installation. No worries! Pray continue."

Hmm. Well, as you can see, by dragging the row up or…

"Hi Mum! Look, could I call you back? I'm in the middle of a training course. A training course. TRAINING COURSE. Yes, that's right. No, you're not interrupting anything. See you later. Chips would be great, yes. Bye. Mwah."

[…several seconds of silence…]


Do you think you could you silence your phone until the break? You'll think I'm a terrible nag but it's disrupting your learning, and possibly that of your colleagues.

"Oh! Of course! I'm so sorry, I'll do it right away. Sorry everyone!"

No worries, and thank you. So, as I was saying, select a row and…


…then take your mouse cable and wrap it tightly around his…


…and thrust the smartphone sharply up the delegate's…



It's only as five other trainees pull me away from my frenzied attack that I note how unusual it is to hear a ringtone at work these days.

Sure, I muse, as I am dragged away by security, other people's raucous ringtones foul the air continuously and relentlessly while you're travelling but you're no longer subjected to them in a professional environment any more.

And later, while shivering overnight in my police holding cell, I begin to wonder when it was that people began switching to vibrate-only.

Children come hither and let me recount tales of days gone by – the early noughties, to be precise – when ringtones were not just a feature of mobile phones but were the focus of a highly profitable international business. Otherwise sane people would repeatedly spend small amounts of money on a regular basis to install six bars of a boy band chorus one week, Crazy Frog the next, and obtain literally seconds of entertainment from a recording of an actor screaming the world "Message!" every time an SMS came in.

For the individual, a personalised ringtone was an expression, albeit a weedy one, of humanity within the digital world, long before you could achieve this by joining social media to send death threats to people you don't know.

The big problem with personalised ringtones is, of course, that nobody likes your music.

I was reminded of this at a recent wedding reception to which I'd been invited, during which the live band competently performed one terrible oldie after another. All of the songs were older than the happy couple and most of their guests, which is surprising since each song had been specifically requested in advance by exactly these same people.

These were the kind of weak chart-toppers that I'd hear played to death on radio or at a crap teen disco back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Why were they playing them now to a modern, smarter, more aware audience? Perhaps the idea is that enough time has passed since those dark days – remember, these pop hits were so shite that they provoked punk rock into existence – for the songs to become ironic, which makes it OK or even postmodern to start performing them again.

Anyway, the oldies band never got around to performing my request of "Lithium". Or perhaps at that moment in the set list, in a fit of live pique, they spontaneously changed their minds and performed "Territorial Pissings" instead.

Electronic dance music is perfect for ringtones. It is also very simple to create.

For example, I see that some Russian humorists have come up with their own version of "Gangnam Style" with the equally annoying but infuriatingly compelling "Skibidi". This is ringtone fodder if ever I heard it.

Youtube Video

Back in 1990, French standup comedian Lagaf – a kind of cross between Harry Hill and Bill Murray – would perform a routine in his live act demonstrating how easy it was to churn out a Top 50 chart hit. He's switch on a drum machine, trigger a sequencer and rap mindless lyrics such as "The washbasin is beautiful!" and "The bidet is ugly!" Then, he'd perform a "remix" that was actually identical but switched the lyrics around a bit.

Lagaf was persuaded to record this satirical sketch and issue it as a single. Sure enough, it reached No.1 in the charts and remained in the Top 10 for another 18 weeks. Not everyone who bought it, or indeed danced to it in night clubs, realised it was a piss-take.

Before the advent of ringtones, humans would huddle in their caves for safety as the mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers roamed outside, and amuse themselves instead by unnecessarily triggering event sounds in their personal computer operating systems.

For a short period, those at the Apple Macintosh end of the cave would act all superior to those with IBM-compatible PCs, simply because the former would start up with the sound of a guitar strum rather than an ugly beep. Armed with a copy of ResEdit, some of us would hijack the entire rack of event sounds with digital soundbites of Arnie in The Terminator and enliven shutdown at the end of the day with the chorus from The Shamen's "Move Any Mountain".

Windows 3.1 shifted the balance of boasting rights to the other end of the cave with a whole variety of clicks, pops and farts. To my mind, however, Microsoft hit a high point for event audio with Windows 95. Subsequent releases of Windows have never reached such glorious levels of gratuitous audio; indeed, the startup and shutdown sounds these days are little more than clicks or bips.

The full drama of Brian Eno's Windows 95 startup sound is best appreciated when you hear it slowed down by 4,000 per cent. Light a joss stick, lie back on a giant beanbag – that'll be fun in the office – and spend four minutes with me in ambient heaven…

Workplaces are quieter now. No longer do you suffer the scream of dot matrix printers or tweedling of fax modems, let alone digital squeaks. I miss these sounds a little, possibly because they seemed, I dunno, organic.

If you too hark back to the bad old days of Tippex-smeared fax machines, you might enjoy Japanese composer Yoko Kanno's 90-second piece for string quartet that interprets the sounds of a fax modem negotiating a connection.

I suppose the current fad for open-plan offices and increasing affordability of quality personal audio headgear have rendered the need for elaborate event sounds surplus to requirement. The same goes for the ringtone: everyone at every office I work in has his or her smartphone set to vibrate only. If they didn't, the cacophony would be unbearable.

This shouldn't matter working from home but let it be known that the shared Dabbs office is a silent zone. Admittedly I only got around to switching my phones to vibrate after watching Mr Robot and noticing that Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky" does not blare from Elliot's pocket every time he gets a call. Silent mode is therefore cool.

Our tablets and computers are silenced too. These are to be listened to only using headphones – which we don't use much either except for YouTube. As for the other blips and bops and bings, I no longer have time for such nonsense. Nor have you, I imagine.

Let it all shut up.

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs (@alidabbs) is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He has considered producing a podcast of these columns but then nobody would be able to listen as they have the sound turned off. In fact, that could be the best way to listen to a DabbsCast.

Keep Reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021