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March 3, 2011

Uilleann pipes, fiddles, whistles, and more – in a new Celtic sound scheme

On a rainy Saturday in January, the unmistakable sound of Irish pipes came skirling out of one of the recording booths at Microsoft Studios. We were there on a mission to create a Windows 7 sound-scheme based on traditional Celtic music, to go with a new Windows 7 theme I was working on to release in time for St. Patrick’s Day, celebrating the beauty of Ireland.


Tom Creegan has been playing the uilleann pipes for more than 30 years, and is widely recognized as one of the foremost Irish pipers in North America. Although he’s lived in the Seattle area for a long time, you can still hear Dublin in his voice. He’s a member of the Irish trio Crumac, which you can hear play around the Pacific Northwest, when you are lucky. Jan Strolle, a fiddler, has been playing the instrument for about 20 years, and has been a member of several Seattle-area Celtic bands including Keltoi, Western Shore, and a Celtic-rock outfit called Barking Monkey.

Dave Gross, the producer, sat at the keyboard and played the notes used in various Windows system sounds, while engineer Mike Allen ran the ProTools system.


This is the Windows logoff sound,” Dave said. “Here’s the progression–“ and he played it on the keyboard. “But what we want you to do is just improvise based on this; you don’t have to follow it exactly. We just need something with the same spirit… it’s descending, it’s saying goodbye.” Tom played a series of riffs on the pipes, with and without drone – and each one sounded perfect. I knew the hardest part of this project would be my job, choosing which of dozens of excellent clips to use for each Windows event.

For every significant Windows event, Dave played the notes, explained the meaning each mini-melody needed to convey, and then let the musicians improvise and elaborate, finding their own way to evoke the same meaning while also expressing the essence of their instrument and musical style. 

While we were listening to Tom play, Jan told me “This is really a privilege, to get to hear him. He’s truly a master piper. You know, the uilleann pipes are very hard to learn – in fact they say it takes 21 years to become a master. For seven years you’re a beginner; for seven years you’re learning, and then it takes another seven years to perfect your art. My friends who play the pipes say ‘It’s not an instrument, it’s a lifestyle.’”

Later I asked Tom about this, and he laughed. “That’s the traditional yarn,” he agreed. “I’m working on my second 21 years. Actually nowadays they say it takes 21 years just to earn the money to buy a set of uilleann pipes!”


While I was talking to Tom, Jan was in the recording booth, tuning her fiddle. As she turned a tuning peg and drew the bow slowly over the strings, a wonderfully discordant sound emerged from the speakers. “Oh, that’s a perfect error message sound!” I exclaimed delightedly. After we’d captured many clips of Jan’s fiddling, she brought out a gorgeous antique red button accordion. Dave joked that the accordion – a much maligned instrument – would be perfect for “negative” sounds like alerts and warnings, but its timbre was actually sweet and harmonious.  You can hear it in the Device Connect and Device Disconnect sounds in the new Celtic sound-scheme.


What’s a good place in the Seattle area to go to hear pipers, fiddlers, and bodhran players? “The best session around is at Paddy Coyne’s, on Sunday nights” said Jan. “You know why you get started playing Celtic music, don’t you? It’s because you can get free Guinness in the pubs,” she laughed.

I have to admit it sounds perfect to me – a pint of Guinness and the stirring sounds of a music that has the sometimes-heartbreaking, sometimes-joyful power to make you want to either dance or weep. There’s certainly no substitute for hearing live music (or for visiting Ireland in the flesh), but with our new Ireland theme and its custom sound-scheme, a touch of Celtic spirit is as close as your Windows 7 PC.