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Geek to Live: Make a ringtone from any MP3
By Gina Trapani


Everyone in your office jump when you hear that tired old Nokia ringtone? Most modern cell phones support custom ringtones that can  alert you when it's your phone that's got an incoming call.
Google up "ringtones" and you'll get tons of sites that will charge you a few bucks per tone. Pshaw! With some free software and a few minutes, you can make as many custom ringtones as your heart desires out of any MP3 in your music collection without paying a dime. Here's how.

What you'll need

In order for your MP3 ringtone to work, you'll need:

  • A cell phone that plays MP3's and supports custom tones (most modern phones do these days)
  • A way to transfer the file to your phone (using a cord, Bluetooth or an email to your phone)
  • Free sound-editing software, Audacity

Edit your MP3

You could simply transfer the entire MP3 to your phone, set it as your ringtone and be done with it. But most full-length songs are several minutes, and your phone only rings for about 20 seconds, which will mean a lot of wasted memory space for no good reason. Plus, you may want ONLY the Sweet Child o' Mine guitar solo halfway into the song to play as your tone, not the first twenty seconds of the track.
Here's where Audacity comes in. Using the free, open source, cross-platform sound editor, we'll trim your MP3 down to the exact 20 seconds you want and add any effects as well.

  • Download Audacity, install and fire it up.
  • Audacity can't edit MP3's out of the box, it needs what's called the LAME compression library first. Download the lame_enc.dll file here and put it somewhere permanent on your hard drive.
  • From Audacity's Edit menu, choose Preferences. On the File Formats tab, under "MP3 Export Setup," hit the Find Library button and browse to the dll you just downloaded, as shown (click to enlarge.)

  • Now the fun begins. Make a copy of your MP3 file and stow it in a temp folder somewhere other than where your music player will find it. Drag and drop it onto Audacity to open it. Using the Zoom and play buttons, find the 20 seconds of your song you want to be your ringtone. (It helps to zoom in so the time appears in 5 second increments.) Use the select tool to highlight the 20 second ring, and from the Edit menu, choose "Trim." Now you've got your ringtone. Click to enlarge the screenshot.

  • If you're feeling bold and creative, browse around Audacity's editing tools, especially the Effect menu. I like to add a "Fade In" effect to the first 7 seconds of my tone so that it doesn't blast full-volume right away, if I'm in a quieter place and I've forgotten to silence the ringer.
  • When you're done editing, from the File menu, choose "Export as MP3." Save it as, say, ringtone.mp3.
  • Now, transfer the tone to your phone, either by corded or Bluetooth connection to your computer, or by emailing it to your phone's address.

  • Once the file is on your phone, set it as your custom ringtone. How to do this will depend on your phone model; on Nokia phones running Symbian you can do it in the Profiles area. On my Sprint LG, it's in the Settings area, under Sounds, Ringers.

Choose your tone wisely

It's totally up to you what song to use as your ringtone. However, do imagine yourself in different life scenarios and what it will be like when your phone starts randomly playing White and Nerdy. Sure, the Halo theme probably seems like a great ringtone today, but when you're standing on line at the bank next week, will you cringe when it goes off? The answer to this question is a personal one, but it must be asked.
Personally I like songs and sounds that already sound a bit ringtone-y. In the examples above I used the first 20 seconds of the Postal Services' Such Great Heights. My new text message notification is the Jetson's doorbell. (Go ahead, make fun of me.) You can also use Audacity to record ANY sounds from your computer, so you could, in theory, record snippets of audio from, say, YouTube videos.
For folks who don't want to mess with Audacity, the Mobile17 web service can take any MP3, trim it, and email it or offer it for download directly from their site. Mobile17 used to cost a few clams per custom ringtone, but now it's free (not including data transfer costs.)

Gina Trapani is a freelance web programmer and technology writer based in San Diego, California. Relocated from Brooklyn, New York, Gina is the founding editor of, a weblog on software and personal productivity and the author of Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day (Wiley, December 2006).

A Sun-certified Java programmer, Gina builds Firefox extensions and web sites. Her writing has appeared in Popular Science, Wired, Women's Health and Macworld magazines. The Wall Street Journal Online recently profiled her and her work has also been mentioned in Time Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times, Wired and PC Magazine

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