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How to Make Ringtones from Music Tracks for Free

Wired News, Mar 22, 2006

Stop Paying for Ringtones

It's no secret that cell phones can now alert you to incoming calls with a musical ring tone. I applaud this development: Songs sound better than beeps, and they're personal.

There is a catch, however. Buying ring tones can be expensive. Online stores typically charge more to send a song snippet to your cell phone than they do to download a whole song to your PC. Ringtone sellers tend to tout compatibility they can't back up. Even if they sell you one that works on your phone and deliver it to you successfully, you'll still have to pony up more cash every time you want to switch your ringone. And if you buy a new phone, you may not be able to use the ringtones you've purchased and loaded onto your old one.

Record labels love it when fans buy a ringtone of a song they already own -- the industry claims $4 billion in ringtone sales to date. But in fairness, you shouldn't have to pay separately just to hear your CD tracks or legally acquired MP3s as ringones.

In most cases, you don't have to. Putting a snippet of a CD track or MP3 file on your phone is actually very straightforward -- not to mention free, if you already own the song. Following is a step-by-step guide.

What You Need

  • Cell phone with MP3 ring-tone support
  • CD or MP3 of the song
  • Any method of transferring the ringone from computer to phone (USB, Bluetooth, e-mail, instant message, etc.)
  • Audio-editing software that allows export to MP3. If you don't already have this, Audacity is a good open-source program you can download for free, and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. You'll also need the LAME library for Windows, Mac or Linux. (LAME is a free downloadable MP3 codec that enables Audacity to encode to MP3.)
  • About 20 minutes


If you're creating your ringtone from a CD, rip the song you want as a WAV (Windows) or an AIFF file (Mac). Using iTunes, specify this type of ripping in File/Preferences/Advanced/Importing. It's a good idea to specify a new ripping location, too, so the ripped song doesn't end up lost in the rest of your collection. In iTunes, set the "rip to" folder in File/Preferences/Advanced/General.

If you're creating your ringtone from an MP3, just copy that MP3 into a new folder so that your ringtone editing won't affect the version of the song in your digital music collection.

Once you have the song as a digital music file (whether WAV, AIFF or MP3), run your audio-editing software. I highly recommend Audacity for this task. It's free, it's open-source, it runs on all major platforms, it rocks. If you don't plan to use it, skip the rest of this tutorial and consult your software documentation.

Audacity converts -- Read on!

Before Audacity can export audio to the MP3 format your cell phone wants in a ringtone, you'll need to download the LAME library. LAME is open-source MP3 audio-compression software that rates among the best anywhere for recording fidelity. It also claims a legal exemption from MP3 patent royalties, meaning it's free, for now at least. Find the link for your operating system listed above on this page, and download LAME to a new folder on your computer (it will need to stay there for Audacity to access it for MP3 encoding).

Run Audacity, go to the Audacity/Preferences menu, and click the Find Library button near the bottom of the screen. Navigate to the LAME Library on your hard drive, and select it. I recommend setting your bit rate to 128 Kbps. You can choose a lower bit rate to save space on your phone, but you'll get lower-quality sound.

In Audacity's File menu, select Open and find the song you ripped for your ringtone.

You'll see your song laid out from left to right. Click the cursor around until you find the section you want for your ringtone. You're looking for a phrase of 10 to 15 seconds or so. Take a few passes at highlighting your future ringtone. Press the space bar to preview the selections. When you find the right one, you can export it as is -- or you can personalize the ringtone with audio effects.

Audacity comes with several effects; to try them out, leave the ring tone selected in the Audacity window, and then select anything in the Effect menu.

I recommend trying the Echo and Phaser. Each has various settings to tweak. Adding these effects is a matter of taste, but I figure it adds a bit of spice to the ringtone and makes it more of an individual statement.

Creating a derivative work of a copyright song is technically illegal. I'm no lawyer, and this does not constitute legal advice, but I am fairly certain that one could successfully defend these highly unlikely charges on the grounds that creating -- and not distributing -- a ringtone from a legally purchased song is covered by the affirmative defense of fair use.

After you're happy with whatever effects you've decided to use (the Edit/Undo function often comes in handy here), leave the ringtone selected in Audacity and choose File/Export Selection as MP3.

Transfer the Ringtone to Your Phone

It's time to transfer the MP3 ringtone onto your phone. The easiest way to do this is with Bluetooth, assuming you have already paired your computer and cell phone. If your phone came with a USB connection, use that; otherwise, try e-mailing or texting it as an attachment.

Put the ringtone file into the Audio folder if your phone has one, and then select the new ringtone in your Tools or Options menu.

Mobilook Note – See a list of ringtone providers on our Personalize Your Cell Phone page.

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