Ring it up

Think paying $.99 to download a song is a rip-off? Yeah, right. That one-cent-under-a-buck is a damned bargain compared to cell phone ringtones. For the $3 these things run you, you don’t even get the full song. Granted, after hearing it hundreds of times a week you may be glad that you own only a portion of it, but portion or not, after those hundreds of hearings you’ll be sick of it and ready to purchase a new one.

But you don’t want to plaster any old ringtone on your phone. That ringtone tells the world a lot about you—your musical tastes, your style, your sense of humor. Picking a perfect snippet of music to make your statement isn’t easy. After all, when your phone rings in a movie theatre, why have people think you’re annoying and lame because your phone plays the two-note chorus of “Do Somethin’?”

Before you ring up that next purchase, consider making your own ringtone. If you’ve got a phone that uses MP3s as ringtones, you can craft your own sounds with your existing digital music library. And if your phone plays back only MIDI files, you’re not out in the cold. The Web abounds with free MIDI files and they’re not difficult to trim down and move to your phone.

If you plan to use MP3 files, you’ll require some software utilities: an audio editor like Audacity and an MP3 encoder such as the one built into iTunes. For MIDI, you can use Apple’s QuickTime Player Pro to slim down the MIDI files you’ve found on the Web.

And, of course, you’ll also need a way to get the file to your phone, such as a Bluetooth wireless connection or a USB cable.

MP3 for Thee

If your phone supports playing MP3 files, you may find the perfect ringtone in your computer’s iTunes library.

When considering the tune to use, think about your favorite musical moments—the wah-wah of Hendrix’s guitar at the beginning of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” or a Dr. Dre beat, for instance. Instrumental pieces tend to work best because of the lo-fidelity of cell phone speakers, but you could get away with a signature vocal, too.

Focus your pick on a 20-second burst of sound. After that, most cell phones go to voice mail, so you’ll never hear the rest anyway. Test your phone’s time from first ring to voicemail to get the timing right.

Pick something that’s loud enough to hear, too. Yo-Yo Ma may sound hauntingly beautiful, but you’re unlikely to hear it when you’re on the subway. Subtlety is lost in crowds.

Cut It Up

Once you’ve found your signature sound, make sure it’s in a format compatible with your sound editor. Audacity, for example, can edit AIFF, WAV, Ogg Vorbis, and MP3 files, but isn’t compatible with wma and AAC files (this includes files you’ve purchased from the iTunes Music Store). If the song you want is in an incompatible format, you’ll need to convert it to a compatible format in iTunes (to an MP3 file, for example). Note that you can’t convert songs you’ve purchased from the iTunes Music Store.

Now launch Audacity, select Open from the File menu, and navigate to the song you want to play on your phone. Your song will open in an editing window. Locate the section of the song you want to use as your ring tone. Magnify the waveform with the Magnifying Glass tool until the rulers show at least five-second intervals so you can more easily zero in on the right length.

If you’re using the beginning of a song, select and delete any dead air before the sound begins. There’s no use losing valuable ring time to play back silence.

Click and drag to select the section you want. You can audition your sound by pressing the Space Bar to begin playback to be sure that you’ve selected just the portion you want. When you’ve perfected that selection, choose Trim from the Edit menu. Everything but the selected material will disappear.

From the File menu choose Export selection as WAV and, in the resulting Save dialog box, name the file. Now open iTunes, which you’ll use to convert the file to MP3.

Convert It

Choose Preferences from iTunes’ iTunes menu, click the Importing tab, and choose MP3 Encoder from the Import Using pop-up menu. Then select Custom from the Setting pop-up menu. In the MP3 Encoder window that appears, choose 96 kbps from the Stereo Bit Rate pop-up menu and Mono from the Channels pop-up menu. Higher bit-rates are wasted on a low-fi phone and your phone won’t play back in stereo so why waste two channels of audio on it? Click OK on the MP3 Encoder window to close it and also close iTunes’ Preferences window.

Drag the WAV file you created into iTunes’ library. Once the file has imported, select it in iTunes and choose Convert Selection to MP3 from the Advanced menu. A new MP3 file will be created that’s built around the settings you just designated. Drag this MP3 file to the desktop so you can easily find it.

If you’re finished converting ringtones, switch iTunes’ preferences back to their previous import settings so your next CD rip isn’t a low-quality, single channel disaster.

Making it With MIDI

There are loads of MIDI files on the Web, but finding them requires that you know this secret: Don’t Google “Free MIDI Ringtones.” If you do you’ll find yourself wading through page after page of ringtones that are anything but free. Many of these sites are just a come-on for the pay-for variety. Instead, try Googling something like “Rock MIDI files.” Doing so will lead to sites that offer hundreds of free MIDI files (some of which may not be licensed by the copyright holder).

Generally, when you click on one of these files it will begin playing in your browser. Just Control-click (Mac) or Right-click (Windows) on it and select the Save as Source option from the contextual menu that appears. Save the MIDI file to a location where you can easily find it.

Next, fire up a media player that can play and edit MIDI files—Apple’s $29 QuickTime Player Pro, for example. Open the MIDI file you just saved, select the portion of the file you’d like to use as your ring tone, and delete the rest of the file. In QuickTime Player Pro you do this by placing the start and end selection markers at the appropriate places and choosing Trim to Selection from the Edit menu. Finally, save the file (be sure it has a .mid extension).

Beam It Up

Now you have to get the ringtone onto your phone. Depending on your phone, you could use a USB cable or post it to the Web and download it via your phone’s browser. Your phone’s manual will explain the best way to move files to your phone by these methods.

We’ll explain how to do it by Bluetooth, which requires no additional software—both Mac OS X and Windows XP include utilities for transferring files by this wireless method. Of course both your phone and computer must have Bluetooth hardware in order for this to work. If your phone doesn’t have Bluetooth, you’ll have to use the cable or Web method we mentioned earlier. If your computer doesn’t have Bluetooth, you can add a Bluetooth USB adapter to it such as D-Link’s $45 DBT-120 Wireless USB Bluetooth Adapter.

Regardless of which computer platform you use, begin by switching on Bluetooth on your phone. By default Bluetooth is switched off, as leaving it on drains your phone’s battery.

Bluetooth Transfer: The Mac Way

If you’re using Mac OS X, launch the Bluetooth system preference, click the Settings tab, and make sure that Bluetooth is turned on. Then click the Devices tab and click the Set Up New Device button. This launches the Bluetooth Setup Assistant. Walk through the assistant to pair your phone with your Mac.

Now launch Bluetooth File Exchange (found at Applications > Utilities > Bluetooth File Exchange). In the Select File to Send dialog box that appears, navigate to the MP3 file you dragged to the desktop and click the Send button. In the resulting Send File window choose your phone from the Device list and click the Send button.

The ringtone will transfer to your phone, where you should be able to select it via the phone’s sound settings.

Bluetooth Transfer: The Windows Way

With Windows XP, you’ll want to install the driver for your Bluetooth adapter and restart the machine. After it reboots, make sure the adapter is plugged in if it’s an external unit. The “Initial Bluetooth Configuration Wizard” should launch and walk you through set up.

Now open the Bluetooth File Transfer Wizard (found in Applications > Accessories > Communications). Make sure Send a File is selected and click Next. Choose your phone as the device to send to. On the next screen, browse for your ringtone file and send it by clicking Next.

In both processes, you may need to accept the incoming file on your phone before the transfer happens.

Now You’ve Got Style

Once you’ve got the file on your phone, use your phone’s tools to assign it as your ringtone. Depending on your phone you may be able to assign different ringtones to different address book entries. You know you’re dying to play “The Emperor’s Theme” from Star Wars next time your mother calls to check up on you.

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