• Christopher McHale

T-MOBILE RINGTONE EATS WORLD

The story of the iconic T-Mobile sonic branding






Put your brand everywhere

There’s a long stretch of tunnel, the subway picking up speed, the riders bent over their phones, some with their eyes buried in books. I see the novel IQ84 in one woman’s hand and watch her face. She’s lost in the unfolding Murakami world. I see it flicker across her face, these intersections of reality and dreams.

The subway is moving fast, peaking as fast as subways go, speeding under the steel feet of New York City.

And then I hear the tone.

Five notes.

The T-Mobile ringtone.

This is the story of its origin.

Build your network in all directions

It’s been over twenty years now. We had just opened our studios on Union Square. I remember when we were looking for space, and the agent showed us the 6th floor at 30 Irving. We wondered if anybody would come down there.

We were one of the first to get to the square. It seemed a long way from midtown. But the world was moving down to Union Square. It becomes over run soon enough.

I get a call one day from an executive at Interbrand. Interbrand is what they called a branding agency. That differed from the Madison Avenue crowd. This was not about burgers or beer or candy. This call was about something else entirely.

This time, the end of the 20th century, we were wrapping up the old world, the old ways. I don’t think we saw it then. People were showing up in my office and telling me if I didn’t build a website I’d be out of business in a couple of years.

I threw those folks out of my office. We were at the top of the game. I had a cabinet of awards. We had just built these incredible studios.

Technology never scared me. I’d spent a lot of time playing video games. I’d learned DOS. Remember? Those grey/green screens. The flash of text. The weird communities. I met weird people at night. I never got sucked into their world, but they were there. This pulse. This beginning.

I saw it coming, and I didn’t see it coming. Looking back at the end of things. Everything would change in five years. Everything. And the first moment of change came when I received the call from Interbrand.

In Germany, they were taking their telecommunications company private. I think the name of it was Deutsche Telekom. I’m not sure. I don’t feel like looking it up. This is where I will work from memory. Interbrand had an idea. They were looking for what they called a ‘corporate acoustic,’ something to power this brand into the new world, and by the new world, they meant the whole world.

I listened to the German voice on the phone. They had picked three composers globally for a competition. One was in Europe, one was in Australia and us. Were we interested?

We used to have these moments when the company got so busy I’d tell everybody we’re in a red zone, which meant no bullshit, no drama, just focus. It could be a noisy place. Actors and musicians and producers. I’m scattered on my best days, hyper and moving from one thing to another. I’d built the company to handle an avalanche of creative. I loved the pace. Not sure about everybody else.

I became a pain in the ass. Leave me alone. My partner was the same way. We were mainlining stress.

But this call from Interbrand brought me to a halt.

A corporate acoustic?

What was this idea?

I’d already formed some thinking around the concept. We produced campaigns hooked around sound. I called it a brand soundscape.

Every brand has a sound. I’d traveled around the world making speeches about it. You can unify your marketing with sound. You bind it together with music and voice. People are in the next room and your ad comes on. They’ll know it’s you. It triggers a response. Gosh, there’s been books written about it. But this was before the books.

I wasn’t German. The Germans are brilliant at concepts. Have you ever worked with Germans? Interbrand was building a massive coordinated marketing debut with sound. A corporate acoustic. I was in. Big time.

The magic is in the brief

Two days later a brief arrived about this corporate acoustic. It was pages long, explaining in depth their concept. They had it all laid out with detailed explanations of their thinking, their concepts, their vision. The color is pink. The big T. The name. T-Mobile.

The digits.

They went on about the digits. The digits were important. The big ‘T’ with digits before it or after it or wherever. The digits represented something to them. A pulse. Grey against pink. Honestly, from this day to that, I’ve never seen a more inspired brief.

The question was how to win. That’s always the question for me. I live for the competition. I eat the challenge. But this was more than that. I had been forming this idea for years, and here it was, an opportunity to build an entire world, a brand, a sound.

I sat at my desk and read the brief a dozen times, then read it a dozen more.

Process is so important to my work. I’ve always been that way. I like to take leaps, but I like to take them in an organized way. I like to break things down, take apart the ideas, look at the bits and bobs of it.

My sonic art has a holy trinity. Voice. Music. Effects.

What I was looking for was a musical idea that represented the T-Mobile digits. What I was looking for was a language, because this new company, this T-Mobile, was all about global communication. I needed a global language. And what I was looking for was a sound, to capture these ideas in a single focused sound, a logo. All that together would be a corporate acoustic.

Random research techniques lead to breakthrough ideas

On Saturday morning, I ask my daughter if she’ll come with me to the local library. Libraries are incredible research tools. It’s as true today as then, no matter how we google, and I’ll tell you why.

The search is an important part of the creative process. These days, we Google facts and get exact responses, but an exact response binds you to a set of ideas before you’re even off the starting blocks. I believe creative research must have a random element to it to produce breakthrough thinking, an unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated ideas that focuses solutions into a new and pulse-raising idea.

Wandering the stacks of library sets my mind loose in a way completely different from flash-mining google search results. Library stacks provide a maze of ideas that jump off the shelves. I bump into things in a library. My mind makes its own random connections and constructs new perspectives. Unexpected perspectives. This is what creativity is. Finding a different way of looking at things.

I say to my daughter we are looking for a word. My first question on the T-Mobile project is a single word the entire world shares that everyone understands?

I don’t know any other way to find it but to pull different language dictionaries off the shelf and look.

It doesn’t take long.

T-Mobile is about phones.

“What do you say when you answer the phone?” I ask my daughter.

“Hello,” she says.

And hello it is. Every dictionary we check has hello or a variant of hello in it.

We had our word.

Let your influences guide you

Looking at the digits in the new T-Mobile graphic, I thought about aboriginal bark paintings. I’d wandered through the outback in Australia and connected with the cave painting deep in that ancient land.

I’d brought a bark painting back and had it on my office wall. They featured dashes or dots; I think, representing songlines or energy pulses. Digits. Digital lines running across the world. Isn’t that what T-Mobile was building? Wasn’t that a close represention of their new graphics?

I was focusing now.

Digits.

Pulses.

I pulled the music of Terry Riley from my library, his incredibly hypnotic piece ‘In C.’ I put the music on my headphones and walked around the city. It’s an out-of-body experience to sink into this music while the city swirls around you. You build a shell around your brain. It separates you from the world as the insistent pulses of ‘In C’ build and fade. I was following the pulses through the city like the original people of Australia followed their songlines.

The idea of representing the T-Mobile digits with an instant and repetitive musical pulse took hold.

Connect emotion through voice

The next step was language. Needed to repent a global language. I thought of things like Esperanto, intended to be a universal second language, but I didn’t know any Esperanto and I didn’t think many people did.

There was one band I had listened to, the Scots band, The Cocteau Twins. I wanted to understand their process with language.

My research into what the Cocteau Twins were doing led me to a word I’d never heard before: glossolalia. It referred to the ability of a person to subconsciously use a non-existing language. In literature, glossolalia referred to sounds or words that have lost their meaning. Authors like Lewis Carroll and James Joyce used the general idea.

I scribbled words onto napkins, made-up words.

I wondered if we could use a made-up language to convey the emotion and global vision T-Mobile was seeking.

As I worked through my understanding of glossolalia, another idea came to me. All language shares the same vowel structure. I imagined it had to do with all humans share the same sound producing mechanisms.

A. E. I. O. U.

All languages shared an essential vowel construction. Vowels are the way humans shape the air in their mouths. Vowels were common to all of us.

Whether or not it was exactly true didn’t matter to me. It gave me a language base for our work.

I decided I could just make up a language. A universal language we’d hear on a basic emotive level. Language to communicate a feeling with verbal intent, if not verbal accuracy.

I added it up.

I had my common word, hello.

I had my musical idea, digital pulses.

I had my language, a glossolalia imagination.

Collaboration is an art

Inviting the incredibly talented vocal artist Mike Harvey into my studio, we constructed the different parts of my ideas. Mike is one of those people who intuitively gets concept. He took my ideas into the booth and built different vocal parts, explore the ideas I’d been working with.

I asked the composer, Lance Massey, to build a pulsing world music pop piece, a bed to represent the global cultures T-Mobile was building. Both Mike and Lance used pulses and contemporary harmonic structures.

Our collaboration was firing, a sign of a good idea.

What we need was the last piece of the puzzle, the glue, the punchline, the point.

Powerful results must arise from an organic process

Lance looked at the T-Mobile graphic of digits and the rising image of a ’T,’ and built a five-note mnemonic using single piano notes.

As soon as I heard it, I knew the puzzle was complete.

He had captured the digital pulses suggested by the Interbrand graphic in the simplest way.

Now we had to wrap all this into some kind of presentation to Interbrand and send it off.

Make your decision

Most commercial music producers have been involved in these hunts for a sound logo. It was a staple of the business. From Intel to Taco Bell.

When I worked as a music supervisor at DDB, I had run a couple of these competitions from the agency side of things. I always found them confusing. Music producers would send in dozens of three-second ideas. It becomes a wash after listening to enough of them. If I asked ten producers to submit, and you got thirty from each one, they swamped me in hundreds of quick combinations of sounds. It quickly becomes meaningless.

For me, it was pointless to produce sound logos without context, concept or an idea to anchor things. When we sent in the T-Mobile corporate acoustic, we sent in one idea. And that idea was the organic conclusion to the all the contextual work we’d been doing.

When we built the T-Mobile track, the cherry on the top was the five not mnemonic. But the cake? The cake was something else entirely. The powerful track became the context for our five-notes. It delivered the goods.

Finish your work

After assembling all the parts, our mixer, Tim Leitner, shut the door of his studio and built. We didn’t go about this linearly. The challenge was to take all our ideas and construct a piece of music that made sense. It was a sonic collage, and no one was better at understanding how this might work than Tim. He not only constructed a musical songline for our ideas, he created a place where all these disparate parts could work together and tell our story. He unified it all.

The word ‘hello.’

The shared global vowels

The glossolalia

The pulses.

Shears sheets of global harmony, everything from Celtic to Zulu, a global swirl.

The sound logo.

When we had this built, Mike went into the booth and added the final touch of emotion, a solo voice, a beautifully shaped melodic form, burnishing our global glossilia.

Perfection.


Here's the corporate acoustic composed for T-Mobile. You can hear all the elements we created and the sonic montage Tim mixed.


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