Peter Drescher and Hiptop
Sound designer Peter Drescher emphasizes a point by triggering a custom sample on his Danger Hiptop smartphone. Photo by Linda Law. (Click to enlarge.)

[Editor's note: This is a lightly edited transcript of Peter Drescher's brilliant speech, "Sound Design for Really Small Speakers," presented at the 2004 Texas Interactive Music Conference and Barbecue. Every October since 1996, the conference, better known as Project Bar-B-Q, has assembled 50 of the top minds in computer audio to brainstorm the future of music on computers. Project Bar-B-Q is hosted by George Alistair Sanger, aka the Fat Man, a prolific video game composer who grew frustrated with the disappointing MIDI playback on computer sound cards in the '90s and decided to do something about it.]

First off, let me thank the Fat Man for inviting me here today. [TRIGGER SAMPLE: "We're not worthy; we're not worthy!"] I'm very happy to be here, and I hope what I have to say will be of interest to this very prestigious crowd.

Like games in the '80s and the Web in the '90s, the mobile audio industry is the new Wild West. And as in the old West, companies large and small are trying to stake a claim because "there's gold in them thar hills!" Of course, a lot of people got shot and killed in the old West, so my presentation today is intended, in some small way, to help those of you getting into mobile audio to survive the experience.

Second, let me tell you a little bit about myself. Basically, I'm a piano player who got lucky, because I got into the multimedia audio business after I got too old to be a road-dog blues musician. I currently hold the position of sound designer at a very cool startup in Palo Alto, California, called Danger, Inc. We produce a mobile Internet device called the Hiptop, available for purchase at a T-Mobile store near you. [T-Mobile sells it under the name Sidekick.]

This device is an excellent example of what they call convergent technologies. Basically, it's a cell phone, but it's also a web browser, an instant messenger, an email client, an SMS text messenger, an address book, a calendar, a camera, a mobile blogger, and a game platform ... and that ain't all! Of course, it also includes an online catalog of downloadable ringtones—and that's what I'd like to talk to you about today.

Hiptop, open
The Hiptop has innovative audio capabilities that some carriers disable out of fear. (Click to enlarge.)

My Ding-a-Ling

My own involvement with ringtones began about 12 years ago, when Sprint PCS hired me to program their brand-new line of cell phones with a series of time-and-frequency modulations (basically, this frequency for that long) so that the little piezo ringer, a square of plastic and ceramic the size of a thumbtack and the smallest speaker I've ever designed for, would go [TRIGGER SAMPLE: wimpy-sounding "Für Elise"].

At the time, I remember thinking very clearly, "Are ya fuckin' kidding me? What an incredibly stupid idea! Who the hell's going to want that to play every time their damn phone rings? Could you be more annoying?!"

OK, so I was wrong. This is why I like to say that I do not have my finger on the pulse of the American public. Apparently, everybody wants their phone to play a melody instead of just the standard ding-a-ling-a-ling.

OK, maybe not absolutely everybody. I know many people's phones just chirp, and a friend of mine was complaining to me just the other day that he couldn't find a ringer on his new cell phone that just sounded like a regular phone. Nevertheless, millions and millions of people, all over the planet, currently have their phones set to make a wide variety of sounds to alert them to the fact that somebody wants to talk to them. As Richard Dreyfuss says in Close Encounters of the Third Kind while sculpting a giant mound of mashed potatoes, "This means something. This is important!"

Annoying Personalities

This is a worldwide phenomenon that shows no sign of letting up any time soon. In fact, it's only going to get bigger and bigger until personalized ringtones become absolutely ubiquitous, if they aren't already.

You will hear them everywhere you go.

You will hear them all the time.

You will hear them in the streets, in restaurants, in movie theaters, at concerts, at weddings, at funerals.

You will even hear them in your own pocket.

And let's face it, folks: RINGTONES ARE REALLY ANNOYING!

And yet, the consumer has spoken: People absolutely love, love, LOVE annoying ringtones, and the annoying effect they have on everybody else around them. Otherwise, they wouldn't spend so much money on them, would they? And yet, every time I hear your cell phone ring, it annoys the living crap out of me. And I'll tell you why:

First, because you've got a phone call and I don't.

Second, because the ringtone is inevitably followed by one side of a conversation I don't want to hear.

And third, and most important, because when the phone rang, it played a really horrible rendition of Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again" that tells me things about you I really wish I didn't know.

The Danger Hiptop, closed. (Click to enlarge.)

A Familiar Ring

At the same time, ringtones can be a lot of fun—if you're the guy with the cool tone. For example, I'm at the first showing of the new Harry Potter movie, there's a big crowd, everybody's all excited and restless, and as we wait for the lights to come down and the previews to start, I pull out my trusty Hiptop and play: [TRIGGER SAMPLE: Harry Potter theme].

And ... bam! Suddenly it's a party and I'm the center of attention. Some people laughed, some people were irritated, some didn't recognize the song as the Harry Potter theme and so were wondering what the hell that annoying noise was, but everybody around me had some sort of reaction, and that was kinda fun.

And then the cute girls sitting in the row in front of us turned around, pulled out their cell phones, and started showing off their ringtones. So I played a few more of mine, and they played a few more of theirs.... By now, we're really annoying the hell out of everybody around us, because it's as if they've been forced to attend a party they weren't invited to.

But what can I say? It's a social phenomenon that ain't going away any time soon, so you'd better get used to it. And if you do any traveling outside the United States, you'll know that in Japan and Europe it's even worse. In fact, it's an epidemic. I've spent some time in Greece, where they are absolutely cell-phone crazy. You see 10-year-old kids riding down the street talking on their cell phones. Everywhere you go, you constantly hear the sound of somebody playing their ringtones for somebody else—every day, all the time. Man, it's annoying!

Pacino Was Right

So, what's the deal, really? Why are ringtones so goddamn popular? Do people really take so much pleasure from annoying the crap out of everybody around them? Are people in general really that uncaring and impolite?

No, that's not it; that's just a side effect. Ringtones are popular because they are a direct expression of that most egregious of the seven deadly sins: vanity. And as Al Pacino says in The Devil's Advocate: [TRIGGER SAMPLE: "Vanity—definitely my favorite sin!"]

People are so hungry for ringtones because they are a cheap and easy solution to a problem that they actually have. And the problem is: "How do I show off how cool I am? How do I attract attention? How do I make a statement about my individuality and my personal preferences and my taste in music and me me ME ME?" To paraphrase P. T. Barnum, "Nobody ever went broke overestimating the vanity of the American public."

Now, this is REALLY ... GOOD ... NEWS for those of us in the audio business. This is cause for rejoicing and celebration and throwing hats in the air—and I'll tell you why.

Think about it: Here we have an audio product that consumers are absolutely crazy about! They will shell out huge amounts of cold, hard cash to have this product installed on their phones. They will talk about ringtones for hours. They will post amazingly long and impassioned threads on Internet bulletin boards about their favorite ringtones. They will demand that more and more ringtones be made available every day. They even will get incredibly upset when they can't get the ringtone they want.

Now, when was the last time you saw someone get all pissed off about audio on a web page, or start jumping up and down about the soundtrack to some new video game?

Most important, consumers will buy ringtones in unbelievable numbers. For example, at Danger we started offering a limited number of ringtones for sale on the Hiptop about six months ago and we've already had over 1 million downloads—that's a 1 with six zeros after it. Now, we don't even have that many subscribers (yet), so multiply our experience by the number of people out there who own cell phones, and you start to get an idea of the stupid amounts of money we're talking about here.

This is a whole different ball of wax from so many "wouldn't it be cool if..." Internet audio schemes that always seemed to me to be solutions to problems that nobody had. This is more like the fashion industry, where the product is designed to make a personal statement about the owner. And in the same way that you don't want to show up at a Halloween party wearing the exact same costume as somebody else, there's nothing cooler than having a unique ringtone, a sound that nobody else has got.

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