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Throwback Tech Talk: Polyphonic Ringtones

By Michael Fisher April 25, 2012, 2:24 pm

To me, the term "polyphonic ringtones" sounds a lot like it could refer to a Motown band from the 70s. Okay, maybe "Ring Tone and the Polyphonics" would work better, but you know what? It doesn't matter. Because it's not. It's not a band from the 70s. It describes a crucial step forward in mobile phone notifications.

Everyone remembers what cell phone ringers used to sound like: sharp, loud versions of old pagers' alert tones. They were extremely audible, but distinctly unpleasant. Even if you were lucky enough to own a phone that came loaded with Für Elise, the experience of hearing it one note at a time, usually at ear-splitting volume, got tired real fast.


It's creepy how many of these you'll remember.

These monophonic ringtones, imperfect though they were, kicked off a storm of frenzied tone building and buying that continues even today. Nokia, that always-referenced pioneer of early wireless technology, led the charge with a ringtone-making-and-sending technology called Harmonium in 1997. It was this advance, and similar developments which followed, that paved the way for the widespread adoption of custom ringtones and the multi-billion dollar business they spawned.

Fifteen years later, of course, the world of ringtones is entirely different. Though their importance has diminished somewhat as SMS, IM, and email overtake the voice call as the preferred means of mobile communication, the ringtones of today are more advanced than ever before. Increasingly capable speakers and software of incredible complexity (compared to 1997 standards) have resulted in real-music ringers, also known as "true tones." These are genuine audio clips, usually in .mp3, .wav, or .aac format, reproducing everything about the chosen track, vocals and all. They're essentially loud fragments of songs, or whatever else you're using as a ringtone, like the once-popular Boost Mobile "where you at?" shout.

You may not want to admit it, Americans, but you remember this. But the jump from monophonic to true tones didn't happen without an intermediary. Just as we needed resistive touchscreens to bridge the gap between dumb displays and the capacitive panels of today, ringtones needed a middle step. That step was polyphonics. Phone Scoop defines them thusly:

"Polyphonic ringtones can create multiple tones and/or notes simultaneously. This produces a more natural and realistic sound for melodies compared to very old phones that could only produce one note at a time. Unlike real-music ringers, polyphonic ringtones only simulate music using a pre-defined set of tones and instrument sounds. They cannot reproduce vocals or exact music."

That's a pretty cold description for what, in 2002, was an incredible step forward. I bought my first polyphonic-enabled phone without doing much research -it was enough for me that I liked the hardware design and blue LED backlighting- so I didn't know the feature was there until I got my first phone call. I was in a room with four friends, all of whom fell silent at the curiously soothing siren song emanating from my pocket.

So magical I almost didn't pick up. In retrospect, of course, it's a little ridiculous how impressed I was by this. I'd owned a handheld FM radio as a kid; I'd experienced far superior audio from gadgets as small as my cellphone before. This 16-chord doorbell-inspired MIDI file shouldn't have rung my bell (pardon the pun) so easily.

But compare it with the earlier-generation monophonic ringers and the difference becomes clear. Whereas before, a phone going off in a silent room was a jarring, heart-stopping blast of noise, polyphonics made playful, almost soothing tones like "Ringer 1" possible. Digging deeper into the Sanyo and Samsung selections of the day, the bells of Greensleeves rang out in festive glory. Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 had crashing, rattling cymbals and something faintly approximating horns. At the right volume level, Bizet's strings almost sounded like the real thing.

It's the novelty and the fun-factor of these approximations, these bits of music-but-not-quite-music, that so endeared them to mobile phone users of the early 2000s. Being the first to identify the music track being duplicated by someone's polyphonic MIDI ringtone became something of a sport in those days before true tones, whose recording-level quality outpaced polyphonics in cool-factor, but never in allure. Sasha Frere-Jones, in a 2005 New Yorker article on ringtones, put it perfectly: "Transitional stages of technology often have their own imperfect charms, memorable in ways that no one could have predicted. Polyphonic-ringtone nostalgia is approximately six months away."

Well, "six months" may have been a bit optimistic, but in an age where bottomless nostalgia gives us accessories like the POP Phone, retro polyphonic appreciation can't be far behind. Personally, I'm already there: I switched out an mp3 ringer on my Galaxy Nexus for "Samsung Ringer 1" weeks ago, and have been enjoying reliving the summer of 2002 every time someone calls. Of course, I'm a mobile-phone geek, and such behavior is to be expected of me. But just a couple hours ago, in the middle of writing this article, my self-proclaimed Luddite of a roommate interrupted to play the new custom ringtone she'd assigned me. When I called her to set it off, the dulcet tones of the original Star Trek theme song rang out from her iPhone 4S — not in a truetone MP3, but in full polyphonic glory.

If my tech-unsavvy roommate can still dig up polyphonic MIDIs as ringtones in 2012, it gives me hope for the future of this underappreciated medium. So … who's buying throwbackpolyphonics.com? All this nostalgia has made me punch drunk, and I'm ready to throw money at a MIDI version of the Star Wars Cantina song again.

Polyphonic Ringtones Definition Source: Phone Scoop

"Ring My Bell" Story Source: The New Yorker


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