IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE BEEP -- simple, utilitarian and sufficient to alert a computer user that his machine had been turned on or that a floppy disk had failed. Then came the Macintosh, with its built-in sound chips and an onscreen control panel that enabled Mac enthusiasts to replace the beep with a boing, a clink-clank or a monkey's chirp. Finally, last spring Microsoft put sound- control software in the latest version of its Windows program, extending the power to customize a computer's noises to the 90 million owners of IBM PCs and compatible machines.
Suddenly, computers that had whirred quietly for years started making the strangest sounds. Some began to moo like a cow every hour on the hour. Others greeted each new program with the sound of breaking glass. Still others spent their spare moments doing celebrity impersonations: Ed McMahon belly laughing, Ronald Reagan mumbling, "Well . . .," George Bush advising that a particular keystroke "wouldn't be prudent" or Star Trek's Dr. McCoy spluttering, "Dammit, Jim!"
It's all part of the newest spin in computing: taking off-the-shelf personal computers and giving them a personal stamp. Workers tired of staring at the same old screens can now choose from a growing shelf of software that lets them customize just about any feature of their machines, from the color and texture of the screen display to the design of the windows, buttons, cursors and arrows that appear on it. The trend passed a milestone this fall when Berkeley Systems' After Dark, a screen-saver program that paints idle computer screens with swimming fish, flying toasters and other fanciful images, became the best-selling software product in the U.S.
But no corner of the customization market is booming quite like the one for booms, zooms and wisecracks. There are already more than a dozen programs offering a wide variety of sounds for Macintosh computers and Windows-equipped PCs, and more are on the way. Most follow the same basic format: they display a menu of dozens of prerecorded sounds and, next to that, a corresponding menu of "system events" the sounds can be linked to, from start-up to shutdown and everything in between.
The granddaddy of custom audio software is SoundMaster, a piece of "shareware" for the Macintosh that can be downloaded free from CompuServe and other computer networks (a $15 contribution for the programmer is encouraged). SoundMaster can instruct a computer to cough whenever the machine requests a floppy disk, burp when it ejects a disk or bark when it launches a program. Soon after it was released, a lively trade sprang up at user-group meetings for bootleg sounds tape-recorded from the TV and digitized in home computers, from Bart Simpson saying, "Thanks, man" to Porky Pig stuttering, "That's all, folks."