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Roll Your Own iPhone Ringtones…for Free

Note: The following article is an adapted and updated excerpt from the recently-published Take Control of Your iPhone, a US$15 electronic book available for download from TidBITS Publishing. The 195-page ebook helps readers understand what’s going on under the hood of the iPhone, with lots of tips for using the iPhone more effectively and an emphasis on troubleshooting assistance for solving problems related to activating, syncing, application crashes, iPhone freezes, handset security, and more.

Starting with iTunes 7.4, Apple added custom ringtone support to the iPhone. This much-desired feature allows you to create ringtones from eligible songs purchased from the iTunes Store. Take Control of Your iPhone details how this works as well as providing solutions to potential problems that may occur. However, as of now, only a subset of iTunes Store music is available for creating a custom ringtone. Even the songs that are available cost an additional 99 cents on top of whatever you paid for the song itself. That’s why many iPhone users are choosing to bypass the iTunes Store option and create their own ringtones for free. How to accomplish this feat is the focus of this article.

You have several choices for rolling your own free ringtones. Which choice is best depends upon several factors, including what version of the iPhone software you are currently using and how technically skilled you are at editing songs.

The GarageBand method

You can use GarageBand version 4.1.1 or later to create your own ringtones, with Apple’s blessings. To do so, you also need to be running iTunes 7.5 or later and iPhone software 1.1.2 or later. Here’s how it works:

  1. Open a new music project in GarageBand.

  2. Assuming you don’t want to create your own music via GarageBand’s tools, select Control > Show Media Browser. Click the Audio tab and locate the desired song from your iTunes Library.

  3. Drag the song to the GarageBand main area (that’s where it says "Drag Apple Loops here." Wait for the song to import.

  4. Enable the Cycle Region button (that’s the one with two circling arrows, seen to the right of the Fast Forward button).

  5. Drag the start and end points of the yellow region indicator (located near the top of the GarageBand window) to cover the exact portion of the song that you want as your ringtone. Just make sure that the selected region is 40 seconds or less in length.

  6. Choose Share > Send Ringtone to iTunes. The selected song region is automatically imported into iTunes and appears in the Ringtones section of your iTunes Library. From here, you can sync the ringtone with your iPhone.

Apple has stated that qualifying music is limited to "your original songs, your original audio recordings, Apple Loops and iLife jingles." However, this is more of a legal warning than an actual restriction. In my testing, for example, I found that you could easily make a ringtone from music ripped into iTunes from a CD. The only actual restriction was that you can’t create a ringtone from music downloaded from the iTunes Store. Such songs are not even included in the iTunes listing located in the Audio section of GarageBand’s Media Browser.

The "hacked" methods

All the remaining solutions involve at least a minor degree of hacking and, as such, are not officially supported by Apple. This means that their continued success is always in jeopardy; the next update to the iPhone software could prevent them from working.

That said, creating a hacked ringtone is basically a three step process: (1) convert the desired song to an accepted format, if necessary; (2) create a 40 second or less clip from the song; and (3) get the ringtone on to your iPhone. Here are the details:

  1. Prior to version 1.1.3 of the iPhone Software, ringtones could be either in MPEG (.mp3) or AAC (.m4a) format. Starting with iPhone Software 1.1.3, ringtones can only be in the AAC format.

    Avoid DRM-encrypted Protected AAC (.m4p) files. This is the format used when you purchase and download a ringtone from the iTunes Store. This is because it is difficult, if not impossible, to edit these files outside of iTunes.

    In iTunes, you can determine a song’s format by selecting the song and choosing File > Get Info (Command-I). For example, if your music file is already in the desired AAC format, the Kind field (in the Info window’s Summary pane) will read: AAC audio file (or perhaps Apple Lossless audio file). More importantly, the name of the file as listed in the Where item (near the bottom of the window) should have a .m4a extension.

    If your file isn’t already in the AAC format, you can convert it by selecting the song and choosing Advanced > Convert Selection to AAC format. You now have two copies of the file in iTunes. You can delete the non-AAC formatted copy, if desired.

    If the menu item lists a format other than AAC (such as Convert Selection to MP3 format), change this via the Advanced pane of the iTunes Preferences window. Open the pane and click the Importing button; then choose AAC Encoder from the Import Using pop-up menu.

  2. Edit the song so that you wind up with a 40-second-or-less snippet. This requites a bit of skill and some music-editing software. I am assuming you won’t be using GarageBand here (or you would be using the previous method to create the ringtone). Alternative editing software includes: Amadeus Pro ($40) and Fission ($32).

  3. The last step is to install your new snippet as a ringtone file on your iPhone. You have at least three different choices here:

    Rename the file. Although Apple may block this solution in a future update, it does work in version 1.1.2 and 1.1.3 of the iPhone Software, in conjunction with iTunes 7.5 and 7.6. All you need to do is take your saved song snippet and (via the Finder) change its filename extension from .m4a to .m4r. This doesn’t actually change the format of the file, but "fools" iTunes into thinking the file is a ringtone. Next, double-click the file to install it in iTunes. If you are successful, iTunes will automatically add it to the Ringtones playlist, where it can be synced to your iPhone without further manipulation.
    Note that, if you later want to try another solution (such as iToner), you will likely need to rename the file back to its original extension (e.g., .m4a), or the tone will not work properly on the iPhone.

    Use MakeiPhoneRingtone. A similar alternative is the freeware utility MakeiPhoneRingtone. As with the renaming solution, this software currently works with iPhone software 1.1.2 or later. MakeiPhoneRingtone requires AAC-formatted files. However, tutorials on the Rogue Amoeba site explain how to work around this restriction, if needed.

    To use MakeiPhoneRingtone, locate the music file in the Finder and drag the file’s icon to the MakeiPhoneRingtone window. The ringtone is automatically added to the iTunes Ringtones playlist. From here, you can sync it to your iPhone just as with any other ringtone.

    Use iToner. iToner ($15) takes a different approach, working completely outside of iTunes. In earlier versions of the iPhone and iTunes software, iToner had the advantage of bypassing the blockades from Apple that prevented the other hacked ringtone solutions from working. However, as Apple now appears to be tacitly allowing all hacks, this advantage is no longer critical.

    With iToner, you add and delete ringtones directly to your iPhone from the iToner application. Ringtones added via iToner do not even appear in the iTunes Ringtones playlist.

    iToner worked with both .mp3 and .m4a files. However, as stated earlier, .mp3 files are no longer supported in iPhone 1.1.3. As a result, you may find that previously installed iToner ringtones no longer work after installing the 1.1.3 upgrade. A new version of iToner is expected to provide a quick fix for this issue. In the meantime, Ambrosia has posted a work-around solution.

Solve problems with "hacked" ringtones

Although creating your own ringtones is a fairly easy and reliable "hack," there are some problems that may occur:

  • By far the biggest problem is that an iTunes or iPhone software update may break an existing hack so that ringtones, other than ones created with Apple software, no longer work. Even if the hacking method still works, an Apple update may result in hacked ringtones being deleted from your iPhone the next time you sync the phone. In this case, you should be able to fix things by re-installing the hacked ringtones, using the same procedure you used initially.

  • Similarly, if your hacked ringtones appear on your iPhone but do not play as expected when assigned to a particular user in your Contacts list, the solution is to start over and reinstall the ringtones.

  • When you sync your iPhone in iTunes, you may get a message that says song(s) were "not copied because they cannot be played on this iPhone." This typically means that you are trying to install ringtones that are in a format that is not compatible with the iPhone. The fix is once again similar: go back and make sure you followed all the installation instructions correctly -- especially making sure the file is in AAC format.

  • I had an instance where iToner continued to list ringtones as installed, even though I had deleted them. In addition, iToner would not install new ringtones. In an apparently related symptom, iTunes would claim to sync ringtones successfully, but the tones wouldn’t appear on my iPhone. I thought I’d have to restore my iPhone to fix this. However, I was able to avoid a restore by editing a .plist file on the iPhone. Doing this, however, required that I first hack the iPhone. For full details, see my blog posting. Hopefully, this is a bug that was fixed in subsequent updates to iToner.

For any other problems with ringtone hacking programs, check the vendors’ Web sites for updated software and posted fixes.

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