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November 18, 2014

Creating local sounds for Lumia

Travelling the world to uncover a wealth of new musical talent, Microsoft’s Principal Sound Designer speaks to Lumia Conversations about collaboration, thumb pianos and how Hollywood should be designing ringtones.

The Sounds of the World project was conceived almost a year to the day. In the twelve months that have followed, Henry Daw and his team have visited four continents, met more than 150 music students and shortlisted 20 ringtones; some of which would ultimately find their way onto the Lumia 535, the first Microsoft-branded Lumia, which features all new global ringtones and regional sets.

The regional ringtone offering includes ringtones that have been created specifically for certain regions, including China, India, and Southern Africa.

“It took a lot of preparation before we could even start”, said Henry from his music studio in the UK, “we planned with four music schools in London, Cape Town, Shanghai and Chennai with the aim of producing localised musical snapshots that would form our regional ringtone offering”



Where it all began


Inspiration for the global project started in the School of Oriental and African Studies’ (SOAS) unique music department in London.


“Ethnomusicology is their main thread and, because of this, the instruments they have are quite incredible. For example, there’s a whole room dedicated to Gamelan (Indonesian percussion). We thought that, if we want to produce localised ringtones for Lumia, then why not take the project global and get truly authentic music for our devices?”



So, during 2014, Henry set up workshops and seminars with music schools in three more countries; The South African College of Music, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the KM Music Conservatory in India.


“Localisation is a key thing for our team and Lumia devices. We’ll continue to support local music cultures within our global tone list, but also react to trends and user preferences outside of Europe and the west.


“We’re acutely aware of being respectful. As a Westerner, what sounds good to me might not sound good in other parts of the world. This is where working with the local students really helped us.”




Creating different ringtones from the four corners of the Earth, and learning about music cultures and music education was an eye-opening experience for Henry.



“Some of the instruments we saw were amazing”, he said, “In Cape Town the African percussion department introduced to us some drums I’d never even heard of. On one of the days, a guy came into the studio with an amazing thumb piano from Mozambique that sounded just beautiful. I instantly knew it would translate perfectly into a ringtone. Thankfully it got selected.

 Ringtone created by Frank Panaou and Rashid Adams (South African College of Music, Cape Town)


“From China we had some really nice local flavours, too. I remember one ringtone that used a traditional Chinese trumpet called a Suona. The student started her ringtone with some tweeting birds, which then fused into the trumpet that was mimicking the birdsong. I loved the idea of the natural blending into the modern. I ended up buying one of these trumpets!.”

Ringtone created by ZHOU Dong (Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Shanghai)




“In India we had some great-sounding ringtones, many of which were using the santoor, which translates really well into a ringtone. India is such an amazing hotpot of music styles, which is ingrained into everybody there. It’s unrivalled in terms of music culture.”

Ringtone created by Lijo K.J. (KM Music Conservatory, Chennai)




Sound design


However, one of the key challenges the students faced was creating a piece of music for smartphone speakers. That’s where Henry’s expertise came in. Rather than simply taking a piece of music and sticking it in the device, he helped them craft their ringtone.



“We heard lots of great ideas”, he said, “but, when played through a small speaker, they appreciated how it wouldn’t work – in terms of distortion or being too ‘busy’. Through our feedback sessions, we introduced the idea of stripping back and refining their work”



“Typically the ringtones we have are around 20-30 seconds in length, which was another challenge for the students; they weren’t used to writing such short pieces of music with an intro, mid-section and ending”


“There’s a lot of thought that goes into all of our ringtones. Whatever we do, each needs to sound real and authentic – whether that’s an orchestral piece or a dubstep track.”



“It’s about finding a balance between something that sounds pleasant, without the potential to annoy”, said Henry, “whatever we create, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be at the quality level of a recorded piece of music.”




“Even if they didn’t get their ringtone selected, all the students found it a great and educational experience”



Joining forces


One of the most satisfying ideas Henry and his team had was making the project highly collaborative. In Cape Town, the African music department had to link up with the music technology department to assist the students with their ideas.



Henry told us: “One student didn’t even realize that there was a recording studio in the school, so being able to bring people together to ultimately create a single piece of work was a good feeling.”

For each selected ringtone, the team behind it were paid €1000, reinforcing Henry’s view of collaboration:


“For each ringtone, there would typically be a performer or a few instrumentalists, somebody who would produce it and somebody who would record or mix it”, he said. “We wanted to emphasise the different roles within the production of music and how it really does pay off to collaborate with fellow students with specialist subject knowledge”


“It’s something I think that can be pushed a lot more within music schools in general. This project really highlighted the value of music technology and how, by collaborating, great things can come of it.



Cinema call


Henry also has his ringtone sights set on greatness from other industries, including Hollywood.


“I’d love to work with some well-known sound designers from the movie industry. The sound design from the film Gravity is pretty amazing, so challenging somebody working in this medium to produce a ringtone for our devices would be really interesting”


So do we. Glenn Freemantle, are you listening?