Change 10.5 iCal's default alarm sound

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A nice new feature in OS X 10.5’s iCal is the ability to create events that have an alarm attached by default—previously, you had to manually do this for every event you added to your calendar. (10.4 readers, there’s some info in this hint for you as well, if you’re interested in adding alert sounds—for iCal or general use—to your system.) Now all you need to do is open iCal’s Preferences, check the box for Add a Default Alarm to All New Events and Invitations, and set the time-before period to whatever you like. From now on, every event you create will have a default alarm that appears at the time you specified.

The only problem with this setup is that Apple neglected to include the ability to set the alert sound for those default alarms! So every event you create will get the oh-so-thrilling Basso alert sound—which, honestly, I usually can’t hear over iTunes. Thankfully, Apple actually did include the ability to set the default alert sound, but for whatever reason, they didn’t hook it into the user interface.

  • Some alert sounds, assuming you don’t want to use another system-provided sound.
  • This hint requires editing a preferences file. For that, you’ve got three choices: install Xcode, which requires a free developer account and is quite a large download and install; purchase PListEdit Pro, a shareware property list editor; or use a pure text editor and a couple Terminal commands. I’ll cover using all three solutions in this hint.

About alert sounds

Before I get into the specifics of the iCal modification, I thought it’d be useful to talk about OS X alert sounds in general first. (If you’d rather not read about alert sounds, feel free to skip to the hint itself.) OS X ships with 14 alert sounds… and for the most part, I find them nearly useless. There are two reasons for this. First, the sounds have been around forever, so my ear is used to hearing them from many apps, and often I just tune them out. Second, many of the sounds aren’t really all that useful as alert sounds—because they can’t be heard over any sort of background noise. Try it yourself—open the Sound System Preferences panel, and try each sound on the Sound Effects Tab. Of the 14 sounds, I find about half that are audible over iTunes or the noise of a busy office environment.

Thankfully, OS X makes it really easy to add alert sounds—for use in iCal or any other program that uses the system alerts. In your user’s Library folder, create a new folder named Sounds. Now just place AIFF files (not MP3, AAC, etc.) in this folder, and they should show up in any program that uses the system alert sounds—iCal, Mail, or the Sounds System Preferences panel, for example.

Great, so you can use your own sounds… but where do you find sounds to use? Alert sounds should be short, but bold and distinctive enough to stand out from the background music and office noise around your machine. Thankfully, there are a few sites that distribute public domain (or Creative Commons licensed) sounds for you to use as alerts.

Probably the largest of the free sound sites is The Freesound Project. Registration is required but free, and once you login, you’ll have access to thousands of sound snippets. The best way to find alert sounds, I’ve found, is to browse the Tags page and then pick a tag that looks as though it might contain alert sounds—I’ve had good luck with the Bell, Digital, Electronic, and Short tag groups, but there are good sounds to be found throughout the site.

Other sites with smaller collections of sounds include Partners in Rhyme’s collection of Public Domain Beeps and Clicks, Soundrangers’ offering of professionally-created free sound effects—I personally like ‘bell 17’ from that site—and Pick a site you like, demo some sounds, and download those you like.

Once you have them downloaded, you need them in AIFF format. You can convert them using iTunes via its Convert Selection To menu (after you’ve set AIFF as the import method in iTunes’ Preferences), or using QuickTime Pro’s Export function (choose Sound to AIFF as the export format). Alternatively, you can use a free tool such as Audacity to convert your sounds—just open the MP3, select File -> Export, name the new file, make sure the Format box is set to WAV, AIFF, and Other Uncompressed Types (click the Options box if it’s not), then click Save. This is probably the simplest method, and there are other free apps that can do the same thing.

Once you have the files in AIFF format, just drop them in that new Sounds folder you created earlier, and they’re ready to use. (For ease of use in the hint itself, I recommend keeping the sound names short, and leave out any spaces—it just makes them easier to type.)

If you’re using 10.4, your hint ends here—the rest of this is for users running iCal in 10.5.

Change iCal’s default alert sound

Before we start, note that this hint will not help you change the default alarm you see when you add an alarm to an event; it only changes the sound that gets attached to default alarms. So make sure you’ve enabled default alarms in iCal’s preferences, or else you won’t see the effect of this hint. With that caveat in place, here’s what you need to do, using either Terminal, Property List Editor (included with Xcode), or PListEdit Pro.

Regardless of which method you’re using, start by quitting iCal if it’s running. Next, just in case you do something terribly wrong, navigate to your user’s Library -> Preferences folder, and copy to a safe location. This is your backup in case the next steps go horribly wrong.

Property List Editor and PListEdit Pro

If you’re using either of these tools, just double-click the file in the Finder, and it should open up in the editor. Click once on Root (the first entry in the window), and then on the triangle beside it to expand the entries in the Root section. In the toolbar, click the New Child button. A new entry will appear in the list, with the name set to New Item. Double-click this name and replace it with Default alarm sound. Leave the Class set to String, and then double-click in the Value column. This is where you enter the name of your alert sound. Enter the name of the file as seen in the Finder, but leave off the extension. You also don’t need to include a path to the file, as iCal will automatically look in your user’s Sounds folder. Here’s what the completed entry looks like in PListEdit Pro:


Select File -> Save, and you’re done—relaunch iCal, create a new event, edit it by pressing Command-E, and you should see that the default alarm is using your specified sound file.

Terminal and a text editor

If you don’t have either of the above programs, there’s one extra step involved, because OS X stores its preference files in binary format. To edit these files, they must be switched to text format. Open Terminal, in /Applications/Utilities, and type this command:

plutil -convert xml1 ~/Library/Preferences/

That command converts iCal’s preferences file to plain text. Back in the Finder, launch TextEdit (or your favorite pure text editor). Open your user’s Library Preferences folder, and drag and drop onto TextEdit’s dock icon. Very close to the top (the fourth line), you’ll see a <dict> tag. Immediately below that, add these two lines:

  <key>Default alarm sound</key>

Just to be blatantly obvious, you should replace name_of_sound_file with the actual name of the sound file you’d like to use. Do not include the extension, nor the path to the file—it must be in your user’s Library -> Sounds folder for this to work.

Save the file, and you’re done—launch iCal, create a new event, and you’ll see it’s got your default sound assigned to its alarm. (OS X 10.5 automatically converts the preferences file back to binary when it runs.)

Undoing this hint

Regardless of which method you used to implement this hint, the easiest way to undo it is the same—quit iCal, and drag its preferences file to the trash. If you’d rather keep your preferences, but lose the default alarm sound, just edit the file as you did before, but delete the entry you added. If you’re using a text editor, you’ll have to use Terminal again to convert the file to text first. (And when you edit the file in your text editor, the lines you added won’t be right at the top; iCal will have re-sorted the file, so look for them a bit further down.)

Although I used a lot of words to explain this hint, it’s really pretty simple to do, and I love having control over the default iCal alarm sound—almost as much as I love having alert sounds beyond the stock ones provided by Apple.

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