The Ghost in the Ice Cream Machine

The Ghost in the Ice Cream Machine

I thought that I hated Mister Softee.

Not what his trucks sell, to be clear. While soft serve might not meet the strictest definition of “ice cream,” I respect the frozen treat as a separate, undeniably delicious beast. (Swirl cone with chocolate sprinkles, please.) No, what drives me to madness about Mister Softee is the goddamn song.

Da dadadda dadadda dun da dun da dun da dun da daa daaaaaaa — Fuck! Off!

The Mister Softee jingle — which blares out of every ice cream truck every hour of every day for the entirety of summer in New York — gets under my skin in a way very few things can. My vexation began with one particular truck that parked outside the house where my band practiced during college, leaving its sound system on the entire time. Today, Mister Softee is still at it, performing the exact same bit outside my apartment window.

Like any repetitive noise, an ice cream truck jingle should, in time, fade into the background, no longer consciously registering as anything other than white noise, like insects at night or cars over a highway. But these twinkling, saccharine songs are not continuous melodies. There are pauses. There are gaps between each loop. And this accursed starting and stopping makes them impossible to tune out.

Did you know it has words? “Jingle and Chimes,” the Mister Softee song, has lyrics. “My milkshakes and my sundaes and my cones are such a treat,” he states, “listen for my store on wheels ding-a-ling down the street.” Horrid. Thankfully, none of the trucks I’ve encountered play the version with words. (This is me practicing gratitude.)

Still, I wondered why things have to be this way — a way which many people might think is fine or even good, but which objectively could use improvement. After all, wasn’t there a big and partially successful push to ban these infernal songs during the Bloomberg years? (Not that handling ice cream is necessarily Mike’s forte.) It turns out New York City’s ice cream trucks can now be fined up to $US1,000 ($1,387) if they’re playing the song while not in motion, but this seems to be a rarely imposed penalty.

My suggestion that these childish songs be replaced with vendors merely yelling “ice cream!” like an army of confectionery newspaper boys was rebuffed by my coworkers. These uncaring “colleagues” claimed that’s precisely what happens in other countries, going so far as to provide video of one such tamale vendor in Mexico City. The suggestion being that hearing “get your tamales” on a loop is equally or even more annoying. (It isn’t.)

Is the gap between melody loops designed specifically to make these things impossible to ignore? Is being a nuisance a feature instead of a bug?

What pushed me from merely wondering to actively seeking answers was the discovery of a new and somehow even worse jingle played in my girlfriend’s neighbourhood in Queens. The tune has the same stultifying 1900s march music quality as the other song (and sure enough, “Jingle and Chimes” is based on “The Whistler and His Dog,” written by the late Sousa Band soloist Arthur Pryor) but each fresh loop begins with a woman’s voice asking, impatiently, “Helloooo?”

The strange voice is so memorable that searching for “hello ice cream song” nets millions more results than the jingle’s actual name, “Picnic.” That’s the song title that was used on the data sheet for the HT3894 melody chip. The HT3894, as I’m sure you’ll recall, was the chip used in the Omni music box — a piece of equipment made by Nichols Electronics, “the leading manufacturer of electronic music boxes for ice cream trucks in the United States.”

Soon, however, my search for (a) why, despite the technological capacity to do so, these songs don’t play continuously and (b) the identity of the lady that continues to needlessly greet sweet-toothed New Yorkers hit a dead end. So I reached out for help from my sworn enemy: Mister Softee himself. Or more specifically, Jim Conway, the company’s current vice president and son of one of its founders.

“Prior to going digital the music box used a spindle and tines similar to a child’s wind up music box. Those boxes were also made by Nichols,” Conway wrote. “Periodically the spindles would break and there would be missing notes. In comparison they were terrible. The pause in the loop came about with the advent of the new box.” Of course, Mister Softee has its own jingle, so the “hello” woman’s identity was a bit outside the scope of Conway’s expertise. But still, he offered a valuable clue: the pauses were included on purpose.

Just when my more conspiratorial feelings were beginning to take root, I got a reply from the president of Nichols Electronics, Mark W. Nichols. “We programmed a short pause in the repeat to simulate the very short blank area on the spiked cylinder of the music works,” he explained. “However, we also intentionally provided a user adjustable delay control so the driver could introduce a delay of up to around 10 seconds before the song repeats. Some municipalities around the country wanted that feature so there could be a short break between song repeats as needed.”

(I timed it, for what it’s worth. Out in the field, “Jingle and Chimes” lasts a little over 28 seconds, punctuated with an approximately 14-second pause.)

Mystery — if not the underlying problem — solved: The pause apparently replicates the analogue technology that digital music boxes replaced and the longer pauses were at the behest of local governments rather than ice cream truck owners.

As for the enigmatic woman of “Picnic” fame? I tried reaching out to Holtek, the original maker of the HT3894 melody chip, as well as combing through Taiwan’s patent database to see if the original inventor might have been listed, all to no avail. “Holtek has been out of the music chip business for a long time, I think for over 20 years. There was an anticipated need for music chips about 25 years ago that never really materialised,” Nichols told me. “Even as early as 2001 we tried to get more chips, and Holtek responded that they no longer made that line of chips and had nothing equivalent.”

Holtek was bought by United Microelectronics Corp. sometime in the late ‘90s, according to professors Alan and Josephone Smart in their book Petty Capitalists and Globalization. So I tried UMC too. “UMC acquired the Holtek fab[rication] in the late 90’s but the IC [integrated circuit] design portion became a stand alone company not associated with UMC,” spokesperson Richard Yu wrote. “I found the tune on YouTube too and it is quite catchy… I like the ‘Hello’ part too.”

After stumbling on a recording of the song by the group Harebare, Yu suspected that “Picnic” may have been some sort of Japanese folk tune. He was right, in a way. Further research showed that “Picnic” was originally published by Japanese pianist Eiichi Hagiwara in the mid-20th century as a “translation” of a British folk song, but is now widely believed to be an interpretation of the American tune “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” Indeed, Nichols, who spoke about the song with the Washington Post in 2011, admitted that the only bit of “Picnic” that sounded familiar to him was a passage seemingly lifted from “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain.”

Nichols told the newspaper that the “hello” version was supposed to be a sample — a sort of demo track to show off the chip’s capabilities — that ended up in the Omni anyway. This demo song hypothesis is supported by an archived datasheet for the HT3894. The document provides a standard item list of songs and sound effects on the A and B variants of the chip: “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain” is key 9 in the third bank of the HT3894B, while on the HT3894A, bank 0, key 1 is “Picnic” and bank 3, key 13 simply says “hello.”

Fascinating as it was to learn this humble chip could store over 4,000 notes per composition at a 6kHZ sampling rate, the datasheet did nothing to identify the speaker of the “hello” voice sample or explain why it was included on a melody chip for ice cream music trucks.

“Holtek has changed so much over the past 20 years that it seems unlikely that there’s anyone around with knowledge of their discontinued line,” Nichols wrote. Yu helpfully noted that, “One of our senior staff did mention that the team to look for is Product Design or IC Design, and that the chip in question was likely designed in 1989-1990.” The whole thing started to feel like that old Harlan Ellison story about a woman whose spirit is trapped in laugh track. That the “hello” comes across as an impatient demand for attention only adds to the sense that something supernatural is at play. For the better part of 30 years, we’ve been hearing this otherworldly voice, but have we been listening?

So here’s the part where I ask you, the person reading this, if you have the answer I’m looking for. Did you work for Holtek back in the day? This journey hasn’t cured me of my irrational hatred for ice cream jingles, so much as replaced it with a new obsession. Someone out there must know the truth.

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