The Forgotten Retro Sounds of the Early Windows Era
On August 24, Windows 95 celebrated its 20th anniversary. Can you believe that? As one of the most influential operating systems of all time, it’s amazing to think that it’s been two decades since its debut. Look how far we’ve come!
It’s always fun to walk down memory lane and see the history of Windows , starting with Windows 3.1 and ending with the novel wonder of Windows 10 . A lot has changed, including the evolution of the Start Menu , but few things have changed as much as the sound effects.
To celebrate this anniversary, we thought it would be amusing and sentimental to revisit the progression of sound throughout the different versions starting with Windows 95. Ready for a dose of nostalgia? Grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and relax.
The Sounds of Windows Past
Let’s begin with this beautiful six-second clip that will surely get you reminiscing about good ole times:
One interesting bit of trivia is that there’s actually a good deal of history behind this exact sound clip.
Do you know Brian Eno? He’s an acclaimed musician who is considered by many as one of the main pioneers behind the ambient music genre. In preparation for Windows 95’s big release, Microsoft commissioned Eno to compose some audio for the system.
One of the many clips he created ended up being the one above, which would eventually be known as “The Microsoft Sound”.
For those of you who are creative, here’s a little bit of insight regarding what Eno had to work with:
The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3.25 seconds long.”
What’s amazing is that he nailed it. Sure, it’s a tad bit over the 3.25-second criterion, but Eno proves that creativity tends to flourish under pressure . The result is simple, short, iconic, emotional, and one of the most memorable sound effects in all of modern history.
And here’s the funniest bit [Broken URL Removed]:
“I wrote it on a Mac,” he replied, quickly. “I’ve never used a PC in my life; I don’t like them.” Quite the revelation for a noise that’s ingrained in the minds of any 90s PC user.
Now let’s jump back to Windows 3.1, which is essentially the “first version of Windows” in terms of what most people know about Microsoft. This startup sound, while still iconic in its own way, lacks much of the soul behind the Windows 95 sound.
It’s certainly more primitive. It sounds like a sound effect that comes from an era when people were still discovering how to make quality digital sounds.
But to me, the most intriguing thing is that future startup sounds also pale in comparison to Windows 95. Consider this one from the successor version:
In some ways it’s more airy, more ethereal, even more triumphant and glorious — but still lacks personality. Some might even call it generic, which it is. One could imagine it being used in conjunction with pretty much any other brand without issue.
And then there’s Windows ME, widely considered to be one of Microsoft’s biggest operating system mistakes of all time. Yes, even worse than Vista! (But we’ll get to that later.)
What was wrong with Windows ME? It crashed. A lot. It also had a lot of problems with software and hardware compatibility. Disgruntled customers — myself included — often referred to it as Windows “Mistake Edition”, and I still stand by that today.
That being said, I kind of liked the startup sound for Windows ME, but it was the next version of the operating system that delivered a worthy contender to the Windows 95 sound:
Windows XP held the title for “World’s Most Popular Operating System” for quite a long time, from its birth in 2001 all the way to its death in 2014 .
Considering how long it reigned, it’d probably be safe to say that the Windows XP sound is now more recognizable than the Windows 95 sound. Would that be a good barometer to use when judging Windows XP as Microsoft’s most successful operating system ever?
Unfortunately, with Vista, we move back to “airy” and “ethereal” with a complete lack of charisma:
Not only was Vista the second worst misstep taken by Microsoft — almost neck-and-neck with Windows ME — but the startup sound is boring and lifeless. Put all of it together and you get a depressing experience that offers no redeeming qualities.
But according to Steve Ball, who led the Windows Sound Team for Vista, there were some good intentions behind the Vista startup sound design:
“The XP sounds were designed to complement the ‘photo-realistic’ Bliss desktop. The Windows XP sounds can also be rather percussive and jarring in the context of day to day PC use, so it was an explicit goal to re-orchestrate the default Windows Vista sounds to complement the softer, cleaner theme and user interface elements in Windows Vista.”
Ball explained that Microsoft had aimed to give the impression that the sounds of the Glass Scheme were made with glass instruments. In this context, users should notice a correlation between the glassy sounds and the transparent effects of the user interface.
In that context, the Vista startup sound has some merit. The idea behind it was fine, but the overall execution of the unified interface fell short, which is a shame.
Windows 7 upturned that sinking ship, resulting in an operating system that ended up being a fan favorite of many. It’s too bad that it didn’t come with an updated startup sound to call its own.
Windows 8 came without a startup sound change as well, and it appears that Windows 10 doesn’t have a startup sound at all. Have we reached the end of the startup sound legacy in Windows? We hope not!
The Complete Windows Collection
Let’s wrap up with a complete collection of startup and shutdown sounds from Windows 1.0 to Windows 8.1:
Windows Sound Remixes
And one last thing: some creative people on the Internet have taken these iconic sounds and combined them into musical remixes. They’re awesome. Check them out!
Want Some More Nostalgia?
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Windows 95, satisfy your nostalgic longings with these interesting bugs in Windows 98 , these famous programs that no longer exist , and these historic programs that we still use today .
Was that not enough? Here are several more nostalgic sounds to revisit, including the dreadful buzzing of a dialup modem:
Which version of Windows has your favorite startup sound? Which one do you like the least? Tell us in the comments below!