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Engineering Facebook's Audio for Familiarity and Nostalgia

By Wesley Fenlon

A former Facebook employee reveals the surprising amount of thought that went into a simple ringing sound.

In late May, someone posed an interesting, though odd, question about Facebook: "How much research has gone into developing the Facebook ping sound?" That ping, which the Quora questioner complimented, sounds off when you receive a video call on Facebook. Then something weirder happened: a former Facebook designer responded that a lot of work had gone into that ping, and he laid out exactly how they'd created it.

The Atlantic picked up the story, and Wired got in touch with the designer, Everett Katigbak, to find out more. He talked about designing the ping as the basis for Facebook's future audio identity; other sounds would take a cue from the incoming video call ping to establish a consistent sound for the brand.

Photo credit: Flickr user stevendepolo via Creative Commons.

Wired writes "He wanted Facebook's audio identity to be pleasant, inviting and familiar." And the breakthrough moment that led to the ping came, oddly enough, from the pronunciation of Facebook. "“I thought there was something interesting to the two syllables and the intonation happened when people would say it,” Katigbak told Wired. When he showed his collaborator, an audio engineer named Jim McKee, a hand-drawn sketch of an audio wave with F-A-C-E-B-O-O-K written out below it, they had a revelation.

FACE coincidentally spelled out an F Major 7 chord (composed of the notes F, A, C, and E).

In his Quora response, Katigbak added more detail on why this chord worked so well:

"The Fmaj7 is a jazz chord. It's less formal, improvisational, and has a positive feel to it. It contains a few interesting intervals within the chord that have certain connotations, and these form the modules for other notifications.

"The intervals are: 2 major thirds, F-A, and C-E. The major third trill is what is used on old school telephones. There were several iterations on this, but the first instance where the chord was used, was as the video calling inbound ringtone. It is the base arpeggio in two pulses: F-A-C-E, F-A-C-E. We went with the two pulses because this resembles a majority of international ring variations.

"It also contains a minor 3rd interval, A-C. Descending, this interval is the same used in the common doorbell (ding-dong), which conceptually reminded me of when a friend would show up at your house. It is also the quintessential "DIINNNNEERRR" or "LAASSSIIIEEE" call out, which again, is a very nostalgic pattern."

And with that nostalgic pattern, they'd figured out the basis for the rest of Facebook's sounds. And kept a familiar ringing sound around for a new era of communication, which is pretty neat.