How-To Geek

Ask HTG: Do You Really Have to Pay for Ringtones?

Your phone comes with a default set of ringtones which, for some folks, is good enough. If you’re looking to mix it up a little bit, however, there are plenty of people willing to take your money. Do you really need to pay to get fresh ringtones, though?

Image by mrceviz.

Dear How-To Geek,

My nephew recently got a smartphone and somehow rang up a huge bill downloading new ringtones for it. I’d like to help the kid avoid getting grounded again and show him where to get ringtones without getting fleeced. The thing is I don’t know a thing about the subject: I’ve never even tried changing the ringtone on my phone to one of the different ones, let alone downloading and installing a new one. 

So my question is two part: First, do you actually have to pay for ringtones and second, how exactly do you get them on the phone?


Tone Deaf

We certainly wish we had an uncle so willing to save us from the wrath of our parents when we were young! Let’s address the first matter (the most important and the one that led your nephew to find himself in hot water), the cost of ringtones.

Make no doubt about it, people pay for ringtones. The average cost of a ringtone is $3 and all those millions of ringtone purchases add up. The U.S. ringtone market alone is worth around $500 million a year (down from a peek of $714 million a year in 2007). The global market has an estimated worth of nearly 4 billion dollars.

It’s not the shocking size of the market, but the sharp decline in U.S. ringtone purchases after 2007 that’s most relevant to our discussion, however. It was around this time that consumers caught on to how easy it was to create your own ringtones and stopped shelling out significant money for them (it is, after all, a bit silly to pay $2-3 for a ringtone that’s a fraction of your favorite song when the entire album costs $9.99).

If millions of consumers can figure out how to get their tunes on their phones and put a 200 million dollar dent in the market, then we’re confident you can, too. Let’s take a look first at how to put ringtones on the most popular devices, iPhones and Android-based phones. Then, we’ll take a look at places where you can find or create your own ringtones.

iPhone users can create and manage ringtones in iTunes. Essentially, any AAC-encoded music file can be turned into a ringtone with a simple extension change. Import the file into iTunes if it isn’t already in the library. If it isn’t in AAC format, simply right click on it and select “Convert to AAC” to create an AAC-encoded version of it. Now all you have to do is locate the actual file via Windows Explore or OS X’s Finder and change the extension from .m4a (the extension iTunes uses for AAC-encoded audio) to .m4r (the extension it uses for ringtones. The next time you start up iTunes, it will detect that there are ringtones in your media collection and allow you to sync them to your iPhone. On the iPhone, it’s just a matter of visiting Settings -> Sounds ->Ringtones and selecting the new ringtone.

Android users have it a tad easier as they don’t have to jump through so many hoops to add ringtones to their phone. All you need to do if you want to add a ringtone to an Android phone is save the music file you want to use as a ringtone in the root-level directory /Ringtones/ on the device. You can save the ringtones on the phone itself, or you can mount the device a a removable drive on your computer to browse it that way. Android will recognize a wide variety of media formats including MP3, MIDI, AAC, 3GP, OGG, and WAV. Android will also, by default, recognize MIDI-type files with ringtone specific extensions (like .rtx, .ota, and .imy).

In order to customize your ringtone on Android just drop the files into the /Ringtones/ folder and then navigate to Settings -> Sounds -> Phone ringtone.

Now that you know where to put the files and how to actually use them on the phone, the only remaining question is where to get them. Whether you use the slightly more complicated iPhone workflow or the easier Android one, all you really need is music/audio files. If the Internet is awash with anything, it’s tunes big and small.

Since “just find some music!” might be a bit on the overwhelming side, we’re going to highlight some fun places to find free source material for your ringtones to get you started.

WolframAlpha, the massive computational search engine, has a side project known as WolframTones. There you can use mathematical algorithms to generate ringtones with some pretty neat outcomes. Whether you’re looking for a ringtone with a bass beat or brassy background tones, you can generate all sorts of really cool tones that range from atmospheric to acid jazz.

MadRingtones is a great tool for creating ringtones as it allows you to upload audio from your computer to splice and convert or audio files from URLs (so if you find a free MP3 somewhere you want to turn into a ringtone you can just slap it in). You can even use YouTube videos as source audio. The last option is by far the best option at MadRingtones, as you can find just about anything on YouTube. In the screenshot above, we used this Doctor Who sound effect clip from YouTube as the source audio for a ringtone. You can even easily share your creations with others; you can grab our Doctor Who ringtone here.

Between his own music collection, generating ringtones via the magic of WolframAlpha algorithms, and sourcing audio off YouTube, there’s no reason at all for your nephew to spend a dime (let alone $3!) on ringtones.


Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 09/12/13

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