Create custom alert sounds for your Mac

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After awhile, Mac OS X’s alert sounds can be downright grating, as can many of the sounds you hear in Mail, iCal, and iChat. Happily, creating a custom alert sound and adding it to your system isn’t complicated—you just need to know what you’re doing.

Recording new sounds

Most alert sounds should be short, subtle, and easy to tolerate even if they’re repeated multiple times within a few seconds. On the other hand, you might want something energetic for important alerts.

Trim excess from your audio clip by dragging the yellow bars closer to the start and end of the waveform.

There are a few easy ways to capture new sounds. The first is to use Snow Leopard's QuickTime Player to recording new audio right at your desk. Open QuickTime Player and choose File -> New Audio Recording. On the right side of the Audio Recording Window you will see a small arrow button pointing down. Clicking this will reveal a pop-up menu that lets you choose a microphone—either the one built into your Mac (Built-in Digital Input: Digital In), or perhaps a high quality external mic like Bluemic’s Snowball (Built-in Line Input: Line In), the quality (choose Maximum), and the default save location (choose Desktop).

Click the record button (red circle), create your sound, and then click stop (black square). Now click Play to review the sound. You’ll likely notice two things: too much silence at the beginning, and the click of the mouse near the end. Thankfully, this is easy to fix. Choose Edit -> Trim and you’ll see a small waveform representing the audio. Drag the yellow bars at each end so that they encompass only the waveform of your alert sound. Click play to preview the new, shortened sound; if you’re happy with what you hear, click Trim. Now choose File -> Save As. Give the audio an appropriate name and save it to your Desktop.

Changing iTunes’ conversion method to AIFF lets you quickly convert your alerts to the right format.

Another, more portable way to capture new sounds is to use the Voice Memos app on your iPhone or iPod touch. Once you’ve captured a sound, tap the list button in the bottom right-hand side of the screen. Now choose the sound you just recorded, tap Share, and send it to yourself via email. As with sounds you record directly into your Mac, you will likely need to trim the audio clip to eliminate silence before and after the actual alert sound. Open the sound file with QuickTime Player, use the trim feature to cut it down to size, and then save the file to your Desktop.

Alternatively, you create custom alert sounds in commercial apps such as Amadeus Lite ($25 via the Mac App Store) or Apple's GarageBand '11. GarageBand is particularly fun because it allows you to create simple alerts using a few musical notes from a huge range of software instruments.

Here’s where things get a tad more complicated. Mac OS X demands that all alert sounds be AIFF (the uncompressed Audio Interchange File Format), and unfortunately, Mac OS 10.6‘s QuickTime Player cannot save audio in this format. This means you’ll need to pass your audio files through another application before they can be used by the system.

You can convert your sound files with iTunes. First, drag the clips into iTunes to add them to your Library. Now choose iTunes -> Preferences. Under General, you will see a section for “When you insert a CD.” Adjacent to it is a button called Import Settings, and clicking it allows you to change the app’s audio conversion method. Choose AIFF Encoder from the first pop-up menu, click OK, and then click OK once more to return to your library. Find the newly-added audio clips and shift-click each one to select them all. Now choose Advanced -> Create AIFF Version. The AIFF duplicates of your files will appear in seconds, and will be identifiable by their somewhat larger file size. Drag these files to the Desktop. (Once there, you’ll see that the files have an .aif extension.)

GarageBand conversion

You can also use GarageBand to convert your sound files. Open GarageBand and, if necessary, choose File -> New. Double-click Voice (under New Project), given the “song” a name, and click Create. Now simply drag your sound clip into the GarageBand workspace and make sure the colored block representing the audio is placed as far to the left as possible. (Feeling adventurous? Click the audio to select it and then apply one of the audio filters listed at the right.) Choose Share -> Export Song to Disk, uncheck the Compress option, and then click Export. Once again you’ll be asked to name and save the file, and I recommend saving it to the Desktop. The resulting file will be an AIFF.

Adding sounds to your system

Popping the new sounds into your system is easy. Go to the Finder (if you’re not already there) and choose Go -> Home. Double-click your Library folder, and once inside, find and open the folder called Sounds. Simply drag and drop the audio files into this folder; once there, they’ll be available to all applications that use alert sounds.

The one caveat with this approach is that the custom alert sounds are only available within your own user account. So, if you share your Mac with family members and want the sounds to be available within their user accounts, you’ll have to jump through a few more hoops.

The simplest way to go about this is to drag the custom sound files into the System’s Sound folder, which you can find at Macintosh HD -> System -> Library -> Sounds. You’ll be warned that "Sounds” cannot be modified; however, you can authorize the change by clicking Authenticate and entering your system password. Once you’ve added the files to the System’s Sound folder, they will be available to all applications that use alerts, across all user accounts.

Alternatively, you can simply option-drag the audio files into the shared user folder at Macintosh HD ->Users -> Shared. This will place a copy of the file in the shared folder. Your family members can then collect the custom alert sounds from this folder and drop them into their own user sounds folder at Home ->Library -> Sounds.

Assigning sounds

Selecting a custom system alert sound is straightforward. Choose System Preferences from the Apple Menu and then click Sound. Under the Sound Effects tab, you’ll see a list of alerts that should now include your new custom sounds; simply click the one you want to select it.

You can configure custom alerts for many events, such as when a buddy first pings you.
As noted earlier, custom alerts can also be used in many other apps, such as Mail, iCal, and iChat.

In Mail, choose Mail -> Preferences and, in the General section, click the “New messages sound” pop-up menu to select a new mail sound. You can also assign alert sounds to certain events via Mail's rules section.

In iCal, double-click any event and then click Edit. Assign an alarm to an event and then select an appropriate alert sound. Want to give yourself a bit more info about the event? Record a voice alert, such as “It’s Jenny’s birthday tomorrow. You promised you’d get her a marble cake from Bob’s Bakery—make sure you order it today!” (Keep in mind that custom calendar alerts are not transferred to other computers or the iPhone/iPod/iPad.)

In iChat, click any Buddy in your Buddy List and choose Buddies -> Show Info. Once the information card appears, click Alerts. You can assign a custom alert for over a dozen different events, on a buddy-by-buddy basis. Have a buddy that likes to chat bomb you (i.e., sends a burst of short messages within seconds)? Quell this blast of alerts by assigning a very short and subtle sound for Message Received. Want to know who’s pinging you when you’re not in the room? Ask your friends to record themselves saying your name, and then assign this alert sound to their Text Invitation.

Adding custom alerts allows you to personalize your system in an entirely new way, providing a much richer (and potentially more intuitive) experience with your Mac. And if you’ve created an alert sound you’re particularly proud of, be sure to share it with friends and family!

[Chris McVeigh is an author, illustrator, and toy photographer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.]

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