Tech Lolz: Why Do Modems Make Those Annoying Noises?

In my childhood, there was this noise that would usually mean fun time: tiktiktiktiktiktikghtiiiughhhhutiiiiiitiiiiiiitiiiiiiitiiiiiiichraaauachraaaaua…. If you have recognized the sound, then you are old. If not, either you are too young, either my description of the sound is terribly wrong. I would go for the second option though. It's the sound of the Internet, it's the sound of freedom, it's the sound of war! It's the sound of the MODEM device connecting you to the Internet. Want to find out what it meant and where it came from? Read today's Tech Lolz episode.

One excruciating sound after the other

There's no mystery that the sound that modems made when connecting to the Internet is among the most excruciating things you can hear in this life. It's right at the top of my list, fighting for first place with Justin Bieber. It's a tight one. :) And for this reason, it's the best alarm ringtone that I could possibly ask for. Ask my boss if you do not believe me. I have never been late since I started using this sound as my alarm.

Still can't remember the sound I am talking about? Oh, fine, here it is:

It comes unsaid that there are hits out there made of this sound: drum'n'bass, remixes and what not. And it has also been the most popular sound of the 90s commercials.

I, for one, think of it as the most defining sound of my childhood. I remember buying our first computer in '94 and, back then, the Borland Pascal programming language was the most fun I could have on it.

You might ask yourself: Why am I talking about modem sounds and Borland Pascal? Well I found the following discussion online: Why did DialUp Modems Make Noise?

Fair enough. The user Celeritas is entitled to have his/her own curiosities. Especially if they are truly intriguing.

Have you ever asked yourself this question, in those moments right before you fall asleep, when your mind wanders aimlessly through the information that you store in your brain? Let's see what Celeritas's mind was thinking about:

"I know that the signal was just tone pulses but why was it when (back in the 90s) when you first connected to the Internet you heard a bunch of funny noises. After that if you were to use the Internet, it still was using the telephone line, why no funny noises then?"

This question started a "going down memory lane" kind of story for a lot of people. Let's see a few examples:

Paul Cager shares a bit about his intense relationship with technology back in the day:

"I miss the days when mainframes used to make a noise. A healthy ICL 2900 mainframe would chirrup like a bird. If you got a couple of seconds silence followed by a sort of whirring sound you knew the system had crashed and was dumping its memory to disk. The next sound would be the bang-bang-bang of the line printer printing out the core dump. Happy days!"

Karan also remembers fondly of those times:

"I wonder how many kids nowadays have even heard that sound? FWIW, I miss that sound a lot (modems/routers nowadays just seem 'soulless' in comparison), although one thing I certainly don't miss is desperately trying to muffle the darn speaker with a pillow when connecting at night[...] Ah, fun times:)"

It seems that people are fond of this sound. They have took it as one of their own. If you ask people to associate an emotion with this, my guess is that "annoyance" is possibly one of the answers but "fond memories" might just trump it.

Unkwntech also shares a bit of knowledge with us:

"With experience, you can fairly accurately tell from the noises whether the connection will succeed... Somehow this experience has never and will never make it on to my resume but man, some days I miss it. ;)"

I remember that part!!! I really do remember knowing when the connection would fail. God, I feel a bit old…

Sexy Modem

It's just information guys...

So… Why was the modem such a pain-in-the-a** at that time? Why would it make those awful noises? tyrerl lends us a hand:

"The whistles and chirps and buzzes that you hear when a modem is going through its initial handshake process is a test of the telephone line quality. A modem sends precisely specified sounds and the other listens see what it actually hears on the other end. This way the modems know how clear the line is between them and what sort of frequencies they can use to communicate with each other. The more frequencies they can use and the lower the noise, the higher the speed they'll be able to communicate at.
If a connection ever failed due to connection quality, it would generally fail during this initial handshake process. And if you were listening, you could usually tell why (e.g. you got an answering machine on the other end instead of a modem).
As such, modems were usually configured to play this handshake sequence out loud. This was configured by sending AT M1 to the modem during setup. Alternately, AT M2 means to leave the speaker on all the time, while AT M0 means don't turn the speaker on at all. See the AT command set for more information.
The actual transmission noise that you would hear if you picked up the phone during an active session (as opposed to during this handshake procedure) just sounds like static."

So, what you need to take from this is that modems did that sound in order to communicate: from the modem in your house to the modem of the Internet Service Provider (ISP).

I don't understand either why they used the term "hand-shake". Handshakes do not make the song of animals mating in the wild. In my opinion, it should have been called a mating ritual, where the Female Modem would send her voice out in the wild, letting Male Modems around know that she's ready for the Internet. Just thought it would be a better description. Plus, I am an Animal Planet fan so... there.


I know that the majority of you reading this article have dealt with a modem in their lives. Therefore don't hesitate to share with us the feelings that have come in your head when hearing this high-pitched, mating sound. Use the comments form below and let's be nostalgic about the good old days.