November 07, 2003

Ringing the changes - Ringtones

It's probably the most often played piece of music in the world but few people know what it is.

The jaunty sound with its unmistakable rhythm that goes something like 'diddle-um-dum, diddle-um-dum, diddle-um dum-dum' is from a classical guitar work called Gran Vals composed by Francisco Tarrega in the 19th century.

Got it yet? If not, you will know it as the 'Nokia Tune' because it's been the standard ringtone for Nokia mobiles for the past 10 years.

Since then thousands of ringtones have been developed. Typically 20 to 30 choices are built into new phones and alternatives can be downloaded as a text message for a small fee.

Love them or loathe them, ringtones are a feature of modern life. But as simple as they may appear - the sound of breaking glass, for example - there's a lot of technology going on behind the scenes to ensure that they are useful and effective.

Fixed-line telephones, particularly those on the desk at work, have a standard ring. With the exception of the novelty market, the same goes for the home too. So why have ringtones become so important for mobiles?

Personal choice

For a start, mobile phones have become a personal accessory in much the same way as a watch or a bracelet. People want to make them their own.

Then there's the problem of identifying whether a call is for you - difficult in crowded places or if your mobile is in a handbag or a jacket hanging on the back of a chair. Today, with the right device, customers can use MP3 format to download any truetones sound they like from rock music to birdsong or from an engine revving up to a full orchestra.

But there's a lot more to a successful ringtone than that, explains Mikko Tillander, Sound Group Manager at Nokia Mobile Phones.

"The ability to download music is an important feature for the Nokia 3300 Music Phone and the N-Gage gaming device. But if you tried to use a musical extract as a ringtone the results might be terrible," he says.

Such devices tend to use full stereo output, typically through headphones. Ringtones are heard through a small loudspeaker that cannot do the same job.

And then there's the problem of what makes a good ringtone. "It's got to be audible but not annoying," says Mikko. "Sound could be followed by silence to enable a call to be taken. Above all, the sound quality should be good and this is a complex area because the composition has to be tailored to the technical specification of the device for best results." The Nokia Tune was first adapted for the simple buzzer technology used in mobile phones at that time.

Then came the use of loudspeakers that permitted a truer but still 'monophonic' sound, capable of playing only one note at a time. Monophonic ringtones are still popular today because many people like pure and simple sounds and don't want their mobile to sound like a radio.

Rich, realistic sounds

The next breakthrough was the adoption of the MIDI (Musical Instruments Digital Interface) standard which has been used since the early 80s to control synthesizers. This enabled rich and realistic polyphonic sounds (more than one note at a time) to be played.

Nokia's first 4-polyphonic phone (capable of four notes at once) was launched in 2002. In the same year a 24-polyphonic product was introduced in a larger device and the latest models feature a slightly reduced number of 16.

Mikko explains the apparent paradox in terms of the physical size of a product, its price and target group. The amount of airspace around a loudspeaker, for example, improves the sound it makes but also increases the size of the product.

At any one time, Mikko's group works on around 30 compositions and tailors them to suit the individual characteristics of up to several new models. Their sound laboratory utilizes a vast array of electronic keyboards and synthesizer equipment and is often the source of strange noises that attract the attention of colleagues - an initial market research exercise and focus group!

Their work is original to avoid copyright problems. Top of the hit parade so far are the tunes Montuno, Blue Eyes, Streetwise, Espionage and Electric Eel. The original Nokia Tune is beyond copyright issues because the composer has been dead for more than 70 years.

Some customers still like a simple ringtone and have complained that they can't get one. Says Mikko: "They are making a come-back. Personal choice can reveal something about your character that may not be appropriate in every circumstance. "I often use a standard ring myself when I'm away from my work. We try to meet the needs of all of our customers."