October 7, 2022

One of the internet’s more famous ringtone archivist was barely alive to experience the golden age of his greatest hobby. The 20-year-old Scottish musician, who prefers to be known by his online handle Fusoxide, became addicted to an Alcatel flip phone he had as a child. “I like the sound of old ringtones, partly out of nostalgia and partly because I think there are real hidden gems out there,” he says. Today, Fusoxide is behind the popular @ringtonebangers Twitter account. With others like @OldPhonePreservhe helps Andre Louis’ phone tones directory – a repository of phone software, sound banks, ring tones, and audio ephemera from a bygone era.

Contacting Fusoxide about a defining part of my lived childhood – the ’90s was a very special but awkward childhood childhood for cell phones – feels like a weird dream where time is of no use. It sends me down a YouTube rabbit hole of old Nokia ringtones until I realize my cat hates them and isn’t afraid to tell me. As he cries in confusion at the shrill beeps, I realize that if you jerked me back to 2002 after years of quiet, discreet phone etiquette, I’d probably feel the same way. And yet my curiosity remains. With younger people interested in ringtones, how have perceptions changed about their origins, and how have ringtones lived on in modern soundscapes?

The pioneering ringtone work at Nokia is largely kept alive by hobbyists who extract ringtones from old firmware. “Sometimes the firmware is encrypted so it’s almost impossible to get the files,” explains Fusoxide. “Often these packages are handled by more experienced people.” His love for the cultural aspects of the medium has made @ringtonebangers more than just an archive thanks to his ongoing efforts to help composers to Interviews; some of his famous followers include music critic Anthony Fantano and Rebecca Blackwhose new music proves that decades after their peak, ringtones still have a palpable echo in pop production.

The ringtone culture probably started in the mid 90’s with the Nokia Tune, which is taken from the song “Gran Vals” by classical guitarist Francisco Tárrega. Wherever you went then, it was impossible to escape the sound of Tárrega’s greatest legacy. Timo Anttila, one of Nokia’s first in-house composers, bought his first phone, a Nokia 2110, in 1996. “Suddenly everyone got their own phone and everyone wanted personalized ringtones and background images,” he says. “The first buzzer tunes were… really annoying, but they were iconic and changed the sonic environment quite dramatically.” When Nokia unveiled the world’s first polyphonic ringtone in 2002, piercing melodies became an ubiquitous part of everyday life and took on new meaning as a form of personal expression.

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The pioneering ringtone work at Nokia is largely kept alive by hobbyists

In addition to Anttila, the Nokia sound team consisted of young composers such as Hannu af Ursin and Henry Daw like Aleksi EebenMarkus Castrén and contractors such as Ian Livingstone and Noa Nakaic. Castrén and Eeben were involved in the demo scene where experimental programmers and artists pushed the boundaries of computer-generated art and music. Af Ursin was an underground DJ who co-led a club night called Miau! in Tampere, Finland. “We made quite a few songs and some of them ended up in great places like Worldwide underground,” he says.

In 2000, Livingstone placed an advertisement in a job search magazine under the company name “MTS Media Themes and Sound Design”. When Nokia’s head of audio at the time, Jarkko Ylikoski, responded, he had to reveal that MTS was just working from a bedroom itself. Livingstone, who has since scored Forza Horizon 5 and several Total War games (among others), didn’t even have a mobile when he started working at Nokia. “I had spent a few years programming karaoke backing tracks via MIDI files for Roland – basically transcribe and reproduce famous pop songs [them] through a tiny General MIDI soundset,” he says. “So I had quite a few tricks up my sleeve to get the most out of limited sound sources.” A year later, he produced the first polyphonic version of the Nokia Tune, which was initially released as a Nokia exclusive in South Korea before launching worldwide.

Nokia was ready to overcome the limitations of the phones’ tiny speakers and capture the sonic zeitgeist of the early 2000s – the heyday of kids club, trance and house music. In his first week on the job, Daw was taken to a room and asked to make ringtones using a small keyboard and a PC running Cubase audio software, which he didn’t know well. “It was a little daunting at first, but I soon got going and enjoyed the challenge,” he says. The team occasionally examined competitor phones for research. According to af Ursin, their biggest fear was that customers would install a new phone and find nothing that suited their taste; the goal was for phones to be full of ‘something for everyone’. Finally, Nokia teamed up with Beatnik, a pioneering audio technology company founded by MTV darling from the 1980s Thomas Dolbywhich Livingstone remembers as a “huge step forward” for MIDI quality.

Around 2005, Anttila realized that wherever he went, he could hear a ringtone he had composed or contributed to. “By this time, everyone had their phone sound on in public. Ringtones were everywhere and most Finns had Nokias. That was really weird,” he says. “Nobody [knew] who did this and the number of times those songs were played [had] worldwide every day…if you calculate the number of phones that would make [the Nokia composers] one of the most recorded artists ever.” However, not everyone appreciated the soft tones of Nokia’s pioneering ringtone work. While working on several versions of the Nokia Tune, Livingstone, who eventually set up a recording studio in his basement, recalls a weak spot in the soundproofing leading into the kitchen. “My wife was going crazy listening to the Nokia ringtone for hours and days at a time!” he says.

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Superstar musicians love Brian Eno (who famously wrote the Windows 95 sound), Kruder & Dorfmeisterand Ryuichi Sakamoto became involved. Artists Alison Craighead and Jon Thomson invented the first silent ringtone on their experimental shop. A thriving sub-industry developed around custom ringtones, especially when it came to pop songs and ringtone rap. In high school I paid $1 versions of “Sandstorm” and every Alice Deejay song on my Nokia. Ringtones became a defining part of hip hop production styles. In 2007 Nokia had a worldwide market share of 50.9 percent, and everyone had a terminal ringing brain. But it was the pioneering work of unseen composers like Castrén, af Ursin, Anttila, Daw and their colleagues that shaped our psychological relationship with the modern earwig today.

cultural critic Geeta Dayal, which specializes in electronic music and technology, is uniquely equipped to pinpoint the underlying presence of the ringtone in today’s music technology. “To me, TikTok is like the new ringtones,” she says of the way users browse the app’s sound clips. “These songs on TikTok very quickly become these memes, and little bits of these songs… an old song that people have forgotten suddenly gets super hot again, because of TikTok… in a way it’s like the new sonic signatures, and the excitement that used to be around ringtones.Ringtones, once an overt external outpouring of personal expression (and for some a way to show taste or cultural capital), have been reborn as internal, shared memes that exist on a few social media platforms .

Since ring archiving is done by younger folks like Fusoxide (“the ring community… is usually just a subset of the old phone community, which is filled with lots of immature kids,” he laments), there are small, fascinating nuances in the way different generations see the relationship between video game music and ringtones. When I ask Fusoxide for his opinion on the relationship between chiptune music (eight-bit video game music) and ringtones, he tells me that the scenes are usually separated. “Most chiptune is inspired by game sound technology,” he says. “There are a few people who do things in the style of old ringtones, but unfortunately not as much as I would like. I think the problem is that the tools are inconvenient to use (like Yamaha’s SMAF tools) or their unfamiliarity (like Beatnik Editor).”

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“To me, TikTok is like the new ringtones.”

Perhaps having a lived-in experience of “ringtone mania” on the heels of formative video game music has given my generation a different perspective on the relationship between video games — especially Nintendo games — and the rise of ringtones. “Now we could think of 8-bit chiptune music as a fun retro scene,” Dayal says. “You go back to” metro or Marble Madnessor Zeldaand you remember those really frugal, short bits [electronic] music that had a huge impact.”

Dayal adds that early games and early ringtones grew out of similar challenges. “They were able to make music with this very limited set of tools that had such an emotional impact, and so direct and so direct, that with all the limitations they were able to create really interesting pieces of electronic music,” she says. “Ringtones are, in a sense, a distillation of that kind of economy… you have so little time to get to the point where it’s the most exquisite distillation of the ideas that came out of video game music, of creating the maximum amount of impact with a very limited toolbox.”

These days I don’t think much about ringtones – my phone is on silent or, if I’m expecting an important call, on an innocent jingle. “I do notice that people with iPhones tend to use one of Apple’s default ringtones,” Dayal notes. “You feel less like you have to express your individuality with your ringtone.” I wonder how the twenty-somethings of the future will look back on preserving today’s mobile sound culture, but few sounds come to mind worthy of this posterity. Perhaps we are really cursed to live in a haunted soundscape where everything leans towards nostalgia towards polyphonic chaos.

For now, the old Nokia crew is mostly surprised that there is still interest in their work, and a few – Anttila, for example – regret not sticking to old files back then. However, Livingstone says he saved about 90 percent of the work he did and plans to stage it to create an archive for the community. However, the work they accomplished at Nokia remains a consistently neglected part of electronic music history. “I remember just having a constant high for them back then,” he says. “It felt like we were making history together.”