What Are RealTones and Ringtone Formats?

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In the area of digital media, a ringtone is a digital audio file that's specifically used for cellphones, smartphones, etc. Just like a bell on a traditional landline telephone, mobile devices can be configured to playback digital ringtones in order to alert the user when there's an incoming call. On the modern cellphone, ringtones can be particularly useful when you assign certain music samples or sounds for individual people—you can instantly identify who's calling just by listening!

Ringtones were originally built into the very first cellphones to enable the user to personalize the sound that their phone made with an incoming call. However, these factory preset sounds were limited in number and there were no alternative sounds commercially available at the time that users could buy. The first time ringtone files were available for people to import into their phones began in 1998 when Vesa-Matti "Vesku" Paananen had the vision to set up a ringtone business; users could now access many more alternative sounds to replace the factory preset ones on their phone.

Different Types of Ringtones

Over the years the complexity of ringtones has evolved from simple sequences of notes to actual audio recordings. Currently, there are three types of ringtone forms available, which are:

  • Monophonic — This is the first type of ringtone that came into existence. As the name suggests, only one tone (or note) can be played at any one time. A monophonic ringtone is, therefore, the simplest type available and is the most compatible form.
  • Polyphonic — Polyphonic is the second type of ringtone developed. It has the ability to play several notes and different instruments at the same time. This type of ringtone was originally based on MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)—a communications protocol for computers and electronic musical instruments that help them communicate with each other. The technology behind polyphonic ringtones eventually improved even further to allow soundbanks (or SoundFonts) to be used—this effectively enhances the sounds by using synthesized data that tries to emulate a real instrument.
  • Realtones — Sometimes referred to as music ringtones or Superphonics, this type is an actual audio recording. It's typically stored in a popular digital audio format such as MP3 or AAC. This makes it easy for anyone with a digital music library to make their own custom-made ringtones.

Common Audio Formats for Realtones

The audio formats that are commonly used for Realtones include:

  • MP3 — The most popular format supported by mobile devices. Files in this format have the .MP3 file extension.
  • AAC — This is a lossy audio format that's typically used by the iPhone (and a few non-Apple phones). Realtones in this format can be identified by a .M4a or .M4r file extension.
  • OGG Vorbis — Often the preferred format for smartphones using the Android operating system. The file extension .OGG is used for this container format.

Sources of Realtones

Many people choose to create their own ringtones these days rather than use online ringtone sites that often charge a fee per download. There are several ways you can source free ringtones (or even create your own) without having to spend any money. Some of the ways you can achieve this are:

  • Free and Legal Ringtone Websites — There are literally thousands of ringtone sites on the internet that offer free cellphone content such as videos, games, software, etc. However, many of these often provide illegal downloads. For websites that offer legal cellphone ringtones, be sure to read our article about the ​top free ringtone sites for more information.
  • Software Media Players — Some software media players can create ringtones directly from your music library. iTunes, for example, can be used to do this using a simple hack. For more information on how this works, read our guide on making free ringtones for your iPhone.
  • Audio Editors — Using a free audio editing program you can save a short loop from a full-length song that's ideal for a ringtone. Software applications of this type are usually capable of saving in various audio formats suitable for most cellphones. To find out how to do this, read our tutorial on using Audacity to create ringtones.
  • Audio File Splitters — For something a little easier to use, an audio file splitter can be a better choice if you don't want to use a full-blown audio editor. Sometimes called MP3 file splitters, this type of software can be used to quickly create ringtones from your existing music library.
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