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Many films and television shows from the 80s and 90s (for example, Blade Runner, the BBC television adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, etc.) that depict computers use a distinctive type of sound effect when a computer is shown printing out text letter-by-letter or incrementally performing some other process, like zooming in on a wireframe rendering of a 3D model (always a popular choice). Of course, computers in real life very rarely makes noises while printing text (and are even less likely to print text letter-by-letter), but it's an entertaining sound effect.

Here are some (not-so-great) examples from a sound library. Here's another example from The Hunt for Red October (obtained from this thread):

This type of sound effect seems to be essentially just a rapid sequence of beeps of various pitches. However, simply stringing together lots of sawtooth beeps in the 150-400 Hz range does not produce a particularly engaging result.

What might the high-level procedure be for producing this sort of "computer readout" sound? Any suggestions or comments are appreciated.

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Each individual grain in that loop is a complex piece with varying pitch through its course, repeated fast, but with space between each grain. There are numerous ways to do this, but myself I often use first and foremost my Commodore 64, and make good use of the "revolving waveform"-function it's so well known for, in combination with quick and heavy pitch-modulation, and sometimes one of my Palm Pilots. Then I record the entire session on the PC in full resolution, which as the soundchip for the Commodore 8 bit-line was analogue and had a wicked range, means fully 192 KHz 24 bits, and choose grains from there.

I also use a synthesizer called Evolution EVS-1, but it's a little trickier to get to obey, and far from as intuitive, additive as it is. Which reminds me - additive based synths in general, be it FM or real additive synthesis alike, are often very nice for blips and stuff in general, though they can be tricky to learn how to operate.

  • Could you elaborate on what the C64's revolving waveform function does? I googled it but none of the results appeared relevant. Is a revolving waveform just one in which the pitch varies continuously? – Reign of Error Sep 12 '14 at 18:59
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    Of course! The oscillator of the C=64 is a little special not only in that it is mainly analogue, but it also doesn't have to stick with the same waveform throughout a sound, but can actually revolve through several different in sequence, giving a very weird though recognizable and awesome characteristic. I'm not really sure if it could be controlled in which order the waveforms would be in the sequence, my own 64 is now completely rebuilt into a synth and the system is a little hard to program, but SEUCK is a good point to start, even on emulators. – Christian van Caine Sep 17 '14 at 22:10
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This tool gave me good results for this kind of computer sounds and is fun to experiment: http://soundmorph.com/?page=soundpacks&spack=ga

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