Ringtones for Mobile Phones: MIDI is your best friend

For the indie musician, the ability to create his own ringtones is a “new” and challenging opportunity. Plus, the teens (around 15), especially the girls it seems , are very eager to have new tones (especially when their friends don’t have it), and not only coming from the top 40, I tested that with my nieces.

If this article is titled "MIDI is your best friend", that's because the best tool for creating ringtones is using a plain old (or new) MIDI sequencer, for at least 90% of the market.

Two cases are involved:


Monophonic ringtones

They represent currently around 80% of the market. This number is based on real life observation (which can be subjective), but also derived from researches on the Internet.

If you browse the following report: http://www.cellular-news.com/story/9663.shtml, you will see that Nokia has 50% of the European market, and that modern phones (what they call "converged devices") represent "more than 5%" of sales. Which means, if you read it the other way, that traditional phones still represent 90 to 95% of their sales.

In China (the exploding market for mobile phones), "old" GSM networks still represent 80% of the market, according to the following survey: http://www.telecom.globalsources.com/MAGAZINE/TS/0301/GSM.HTM


Different formats

Monophonic ringtones formats were never really normalised, and numerous formats still coexist. To name a few:

- RTTTL (RingTone Text Transfer Language) is a simple text format describing the ringtone.

- RTX is an extension to RTTL, allowing to "loop" the ringtones.

- "Nokia Keypress", or "Nokia composer" is used when you want (or have) to enter directly the ringtone into the phone.

- Nokia Binary, also known as SCKL, because all the messages begin by //SCKL. This format allows to send (by SMS) ringtones to some Nokia phones and other brands. (All the Nokia specifications, including "Smart Messaging", and which model supports which feature, are available at Forum Nokia, usually in PDF format. Some documents can be accessed freely, for some other documents you have to register, which is a simple - and free - process).

In short, to create monophonic ringtones (e.g., in the original RTTTL format developed for Nokia), you are supposed to type endless sequences of text commands, and sometimes rather cryptic ones.

Now, since we're musicians, I suppose that most of us (if not all) have access to a MIDI sequencer, or at least something able to create MIDI files.

You then work in the comfort of your usual environment, with tools built for musicians, rather than phone geeks.

The "only" difficulty (even in the MIDI environment) is the basic limitations of "old" mobile phones:

No note lower than A4 (which I guess would display as A3 in most sequencers. In Logic, it appears either as A3 or A2 depending on the options).

No ringtone longer than 20 seconds. Why 20? Because most operators (your mileage may vary) will switch the caller to your voice mail after 21 seconds, which means the one receiving the call will never hear the end of your beautiful creation.

Plus a lot of phones cannot handle more than 20, 50, 70, etc. notes. If you want your ringtone to "loop" (i.e., repeat), it should be between 10 to 15 seconds (I personally refuse to use my creativity for 5 seconds only).


The art of conversion

Once your MIDI file is completed, you only have to use various tools found on the Internet (some of them are free), to create the various formats according to the target phones.

I will mention two of these tools:

Ringtone Converter, even the free trial version, is very good at handling MIDI to RTTTL conversion, even if the original MIDI file contains several tracks. The full version knows most of the current formats.

Ring Tone Tools is a great program, basically able to convert to and from all the popular (and even not so popular, such as kws - Kyocera's ringer format) formats. In addition, Ring Tone Tools is freeware, if you do not intend to use it for commercial purposes (and even then, only a donation of 30$ or more is required). It is command line driven, which can be challenging for some, but there?s a good reason for this: Since this program is available for nearly every platform (and sources are available!), it can be installed on a server, and provide "on the fly" conversion, in the format requested by the user of your Web site. Command line driven means also you can automate your conversions, by creating simple "batch" scripts.


What next?

After you have created your ringtones, in the zillion existing formats, you have (or your fans) to transfer them to your (or others) phone.

Again, there are several solutions to this, one of the most elegant being the "Smart Messaging" from Nokia, based on standard SMSs (Short Messages) which works on most "mid-generation" phones. It is based on the "Nokia binary" format described above, and uses from 1 to 3 messages to send the ringtone.

The messages are sent using classic tools to send an SMS: your phone (not for the faint hearted!), or specific software (e.g., PC Suite from Nokia, Phoneman for Psion and PalmOS, etc.).

Another solution is to use LogoManager. Even the trial version is able to send a ringtone directly from a RTTTL ringtone, through a phone connected to the PC. It will use SMSs, too, but this will be transparent.


Polyphonic ringtones

I have so far only investigated recent Nokia phones. The very interesting approach from Nokia is that they use straight MIDI files, with a few bytes added at the beginning, which anybody with a Sysex editor should be able to add easily.

If they use MIDI files as the primary format, it's because they have embedded a MIDI GM module in their phones.

The "great" limitation (in some of these phones, such as the popular 3510i) is that the polyphony is 4 notes only. One is easy (usually the voice or something), 16 is "normal", but 4 is a real challenge.

Now, for more advanced phones, the polyphony goes from 16 to 70 notes, which should be sufficient for everyone's creativity.

Of course, in a not so far future, they will use Wav, MP3s, or whatever to allow (what Nokia calls) "natural sounds".

But, in the mean time, you - at least me - have to deal with the phones Joe and Joette Public have available, which means using MIDI. A rough estimation would be 80 percent of "old" monophonic phones, 20% of polyphonic phones, from which at least 10% should be MIDI based Nokia's.


An example in real life

If you're curious to see how an indie musician can create (and distribute) his own ringtones, and to see what some of the different formats look like, feel free to browse the ringtones page on my web site: Didier et les Ombres ringtones.

I started this because I was tired of hearing "Nokia tune" everywhere, and to see endless pop-ups offering the same top 40 ringtones on the Internet. And it's a great feeling, when you call a friend or a fan, to know he will hear your song.

All the files on my site are based on the tools and techniques described in this article.

The way the things are going, the ringtones market could quickly become more important than the music industry, and there's no reason the indies should be left behind.

Discuss this article in our Music Forum.


About Didier Briel

Didier is a singer / songwriter based in France.

Didier currently records and performs with his band, Didier et les Ombres. Guitarist, pianist, singer, bass player, writer and composer, Didier is the do-it-all of les Ombres, and its visible part.

Didier Briel Home Page

Music is everybody's possession. It's only publishers who think that people own it.”
John Lennon