Making the Beeper Cool Again!

Piezoelectric BuzzerMany older computers contain a small beeper on the motherboard. This beeper, also known as a PC speaker, system beeper, bleeper, squeaker can, is a small piezoelectric buzzer located on the motherboard inside many older computers. Some computers had a full-sized speaker in place of this beeper, but many newer and lower-end computers have just the beeper.

The first PC, introduced by IBM in 1981, featured a simple full-size speaker. Each PC (and PC-XT and PC-AT) featured a floppy diskette which included tutorial software on how to use the computer. Within this program was some simple programs written to utilize the speaker to play various notes in order to produce a simple, computer-synthesized song. This was prior to MIDI and MOD files for the personal computing market, and the program also allowed users to make their own music.

Later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, third-party developers wrote small programs to use the speakers and beepers for a similar purpose - to create music. YouTube user uxwbill has a video of an Epson computer, dating from the late 1980s, which is seen executing a program written by IBM to play the William Tell Overture through the beeper.

So, what was the purpose of this speaker or beeper?All computers perform a self-check before booting into an operating system. This process, known as POSTing (Power-On Self-Test) will check the internal components of the computer, and allow the operating system to take control over the computer if everything checks out and the user has not entered the BIOS.

If the POST fails, it will typically display a message on the screen and output a beep code. This beep code can be used in the event that the video output circuitry is not operating, the video card or video processor is failed, or the monitor is missing, in order to still be able to diagnose issues with the computer. Typically, most computer BIOSes have a beep code which signifies a video output fault. The user can then use the beep code to find the error and troubleshoot the fault. It is similar to the LED diagnostics on your furnace, or the OBD in your car.

However, new computers have eliminated the PC speaker or beeper entirely. Some computers, such as my T420, uses the system audio output to produce a beep in software, but is typically not used for diagnostic purposes.

The Software

Something Unreal (Robbi-985) created a program for Windows NT-based through Windows Vista-based computers which would allow you to create music via the PC speaker or piezeoelectric buzzer, similar to the programs from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I ran the software on the Windows XPavilion machine, which is equipped with a piezeoelectric buzzer. Since Robbi-985's software, called "Bleeper Music Maker", can load MIDI files in order to play the MIDI files through the buzzer, I loaded some MIDI files off a USB flash drive into the program. If you don't have any MIDI files, you can also make your own music through the on-screen keyboard, and save them as a .BMM file format for reloading.

I have actually noted that while playing music in BMM, the music starts to stutter or stop completely once the processor has another task to work on. I found it interesting. Typically it would stop while scrolling so that the processor could re-render the page, and it would stutter before stopping completely while loading a webpage. Accessing files had somewhat of an affect, but only caused it to stutter while loading the files and rendering the Explorer window.

NOTE: The software (BMM) will ONLY work on equipment running Windows 95 between Windows Vista, regardless of whether equipped with a piezoelectric buzzer or not. Equipment running Windows 95 and 98 will run BMM, but will appearantly yield strange results as the computer ignores the time and frequency aspects of the input data. (The last software update was made in 2010.)

FMOD

Another interesting feature that I found only recently in BMM is FMOD. (I only skipped over this feature as I rarely have an external audio source, such as speakers or headphones, connected to the XPavilion.) FMOD (or, from what I'm assuming is Frequency Modulation, but FMOD sounds cooler than FM) creates tones on the audio output, instead of playing it through the piezoelectric buzzer. You can choose from using a sine wave, square wave (default), triangular wave, and noise. I'm trying to find a way to write the FMOD output to a file. Though I feel that is defeating the purpose of this program, as it was written to play music through the buzzer. (Although I'm guessing FMOD would be a nice feature for the onscreen music keyboard.) Using FMOD actually results in an output that sounds like 8-bit video game music.

BMM

Above: The "home screen" of the Bleeper Music Maker.

midi blank

Above: The "MIDI" player window open, with no MIDI files loaded.

midi playing

Above: Bleeper Music Maker (BMM) playing a MIDI file.

pitch range

Above: A small song I created in BMM, where I go up the musical scale.

Audio

Here is some audio I captured using the audio recorder on my phone. I placed my phone inside of the computer case, next to the system beeper, in order to capture this audio. (You can clearly hear the CPU heatsink fan, as well as the hard drive.)

Above: An audio recording of the "circuit bent" feature in BMM.

Above: An audio recording of BMM playing the midi file "Good" through the system beeper.

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Last updated 9/30/17 ; T420 (originally created 8/4/2016)

I assume no responsibility for any errors or maliclious content on the linked software.