Custom ring tones for the iPhone

Aug 26, 2009 • alan


I spent five years working for Ericsson, devoting all of my professional energy towards making cellular phones better. I developed device drivers, application software, “middleware”, protocol stacks, and device prototypes. Not a day went by where I did not think about cellular phones in some way. It was not just a job, but a total gadget lifestyle.

Even in areas where I was not actively assigned to work, I still found ways to influence our products. Two particular examples come to mind.

In mid-2000, I was invited by our vice president (one of the two top managers in our NC office) to attend an all-day brainstorming session to discuss phones for kids and pre-teens: what it would mean for the kids, for the phone companies, for the parents, and for the content providers. I was a bit shocked when I entered the room — the attendee list was much smaller than I had expected, and I turned out to be the only software developer there. But the session went well, and I shared my (year 2000-era) thoughts on how Ericsson could never write even a small fraction of the applications that our customers would want, and so we would need to include some sort of API or virtual machine. At the time, Java looked promising. Fast forward to today, and see the success of Apple’s app store.

The second story, if you’ll indulge me (it is my blog, after all), is when I made friends with the King of Rings in Sweden. He was responsible for all ring tones that we delivered world-wide. I knew that he was also a Palm PDA user, so I showed him a Palm app that contained some really cool alert tones, and we discussed what made them really good alarm sounds: they did not blend in as background noise, they did not sound like voices or singing, they contained some pure tones of different pitches which would cut through the noise of everyday life. In short, they were alerts, not just sounds. That guy was very cool, and he had a very fun job.

It should be no surprise after hearing my Palm stories, that today I carry an iPhone. It’s everything the Palm aspired to be ten years ago, and a lot more than the Palm never imagined. It should also not be a surprise that I would find it important to install some good non-music ring tones for my iPhone. I was pleased to find that it is pretty easy to put custom ring tones on this device without writing a check to Apple or to AT&T. I dig free, and I really dig open.

On iTunes (we’ll forget about open for a second), I subscribed to a podcast that publishes ring tones. The one that I picked was the MacMost iPhone Ring Tones podcast. Every so often, it dumps a pile of ring tones (m4r files) onto your iPhone.

Some of them were cool, some were trash, and others needed a little bit of work. For example, one of them was a woman’s voice that said “ring ring, ring ring, your iPhone is ringing”. I liked the first half, but I thought the last part was tacky. So I decided to edit that one.

On my Linux machine, I downloaded “X Convert File Audio” (xcfa) and “audacity“. I copied the ring tone from iTunes to my desktop. I changed the file extension from “m4r” to “m4a”, since they really are the same thing, but Apple uses the “r” to distinguish ring tones from regular music files. Then I ran xcfa to convert the file to a common “wav” format. The GUI is a little crude (and some of the text is in French), but it works well enough for a quick conversion. Audacity understands wav files, and so I was able to edit the “your iPhone is ringing” out of my sample, and I cut and pasted until I had a 30-second clip (which worked better than a shorter clip for some reason). Audacity has all of the features you’d want, so you could add echo or reverb or whatever you like. I saved my sound as a wav file, using a new name (and also filling in that new name in the “properties” dialog box that popped up). Then I ran xcfa again to convert the file back to “m4a” format, and renamed it back to “m4r”. Finally, I imported the file back into iTunes.

So that was pretty simple: (1) export from iTunes (2) m4r to m4a (3) m4a to wav (4) edit (5) wav to m4a (6) m4a to m4r (7) import into iTunes.

If you wanted to start with a sound or a song instead of an existing ring tone, you would simply convert it to “wav” format and then continue at step (4).

If you’ll excuse me, my iPhone just farted.