You can hear it in your head, can’t you? A subconscious sonata reminding you of the realms traversed in your childhood. From Ape Escape to X-COM, when you booted up your PlayStation you were always aware of the much-loved constant that defined your beloved hobby.
The PSX startup sound is immediate in tone, delivering you through the pearly off-gray gates to Sony’s legendary library of classics. But what is it about this short WAV that grants us such joy? Why are startup sounds so synchronous with our collective experience, and in 2017, where on earth have they gone?
I think of it like a page-file written in my brain on Christmas morning 1995. I often forget about the halcyon days I spent cooing over the memorable Steamboat Willie level in Mickey’s Wild Adventure, or the timeless tones of Crash Bandicoot: Warped. A short trip to YouTube will supply me with the instant gratification I need, but lead me to another realization; I’m not the only one.
A simple video of this 23 second sound netted over a million views, with an excellent like to- dislike ratio and the comments flush with commentary on the best games of the era.
The nostalgia is not trapped in an anecdotal YouTube vacuum either. You can track the digital trail of this phenomenon all the way to the peak of pop culture. It’s clear that it’s still seminal in the growth of gamer-songwriters like Frank Ocean, who used the PSX startup sound to open his critical triumph Channel Orange.
A low-fi tribute to the gorgeous Sony synths, “Start” welcomes you to an hour of quality music much like the console did for games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid.
Even the Based God himself couldn’t resist. Lil B sandwiches the startup sound in between a raucous trap beat and his jovial lyrics on “Landlord,” a highlight from his 2013 100-song behemoth 05 Fuck Em. Though chopped up and pushed to its limits, the sound is still prevalent and enticing, complementing Lil B’s hyphy flow.
To dive into the very nature of these startup sounds, I sought help from some of the most prevalent musicians mixing videogames into their artistry.
“PSX’s startup jingle seems more akin to starting up a PC, maybe more tailored to the diverse array of tone that PSX’s catalog boasted,” says Max Coburn.
A unique electronic artist, Coburn is ingrained within the videogame music scene and responsible for tracks such as “Battle! Fighting Type Expert,” a song composed purely of sound fonts from Pokémon Black 2, Pokémon White 2, and “Bishonen Line,” which taps Kenta Nagata’s Character Select and Finish Line sound effects from Mario Kart 64.
Why do these sounds work? What is it about them that taps such visceral nostalgia?
“The most effective startup jingles are shorter and more succinct,” says Coburn. “The original Gameboy’s two-note fanfare stayed in use for over ten years, followed by Gameboy Advance’s major seventh flourish and eventually boiling down to the basic and clean sounding DS jingle.
“There’s nothing intricately remarkable about any of these sounds from a design perspective. They don’t do anything weird or truly idiosyncratic, they’re super-efficient, super recognizable and waste no time”
Jordan Oloman is a freelance journalist and history & archaeology graduate from Newcastle, UK. He is the editor in chief of gaming website @Quillstreak. A connoisseur of adventure games and intriguing tunes, you can keep up with his tweeting @JordanOloman.