MMW-10 -- What Makes a Good Ringtone?

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J@pan Inc Magazine Presents:
M U S I C M E D I A W A T C H
Commentary on the week's music technology news
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Issue No. 10
Tuesday, March 19, 2002
Tokyo

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CONTENTS

++ FEATURE: What Makes a Good Ringtone?

++ NOTEWORTHY NEWS:
- Morpheus Owners Announces Plan for Restricting MP3 Use
- Blubster Review
- Music Technology Report from Musikmesse
- SonicBlue Releases Stereo
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++ FEATURE: What Makes a Good Ringtone?

A few weeks ago, I attended a highly informative three-day course on
ringtone creation techniques for 16-voice polyphonic phones. Ringtone
creation is currently an important source of work for many Japanese
musicians, and this trend is expected to carry over into Europe and the
US. Among the topics covered in the seminar were: converting MIDI files
into the various Japanese ringtone formats; editing the FM voice data for
the song; adjusting volume levels; and using ADPCM data in a ringtone.
While extremely educational, these sessions were at the same time a bit
humbling, and I came away from each one with a whole new appreciation for
the artistry that goes into making these half-minute song clips.

Take, for example, our first topic of study: the process of converting a
MIDI file to a ringtone file. Should be just a simple matter of selecting
a file and pressing a button, right? And it is -- provided that your MIDI
file happens to be one of the select few that meets all of the
"pre-conditions for conversion" set forth in the "Standards for
Composition of Ringing-Tone Pieces" manual. As it turns out, there are a
lot of restrictions -- tempo, pitch range, file size, to name just a few
-- all of which must be properly set before the file will convert. And
then the real work begins.

Having finally managed to convert a MIDI file myself, I played back my
newly created ringtone file, using an emulator box (to imitate the sound
generation chip of the target phone) and headphones. On first listen, it
sounded surprisingly close to the original MIDI, and I even wondered for a
moment what else there was to do. Upon closer inspection, however (and a
hint from the guy sitting next to me), I discovered that the volume mix of
the ringtone file sounded significantly different from that of the
original MIDI. In fact, the volume levels had changed so much that the
melody of the song had become "buried" in the mix and no longer stood out
as it should.

In trying to fix this volume problem, I was introduced to the intricacies
of FM voice editing. For each instrument used in a song, the conversion
tool allows you to adjust various parameters, including level, attack
rate, decay rate, waveform operation and feedback. By experimenting with
these parameters, you can radically alter the sound of each individual
voice. In addition to solving the volume balance problem, we learned in
the seminar how to play with the FM settings to remove distortion, hum and
other unwanted noise. We also learned how to produce "singing" melody
voices, "fat" bass sounds, and "thick" strings (or at least we learned
that it is possible to do such things).

Once I had gone through every instrument used in the file and spent quite
a bit of time fiddling with the various sliders and controls for FM voice
editing, I reached a point where I was satisfied with the song and called
the instructor over for approval. Instead of listening to my creation
through the headphones, though, she smiled mischievously and plugged a
phone speaker into my emulator box. Playing my piece at top volume for all
in the room to hear, she made her not-so-subtle point: Always test your
song on the actual phone, because it does not even remotely resemble the
song you hear with headphones. Volume levels had changed again, distortion
and noise had crept in, and the instrument sounds were nothing like the
ones I had heard through the headphones.

So, the first lesson I took away from the seminar is that it takes an
awful lot of work to make a ringtone that sounds good. And what exactly is
good? Obviously this varies somewhat according to taste, but the general
guidelines from this particular seminar could be summarized as follows:

1. Use clean voices for the melody, with plenty of echo where appropriate.
2. Avoid blaring and abrasive sounds.
3. Reduce noise and distortion.
4. Arrange so that the overall sound is clear, and each voice can be
easily discerned.
5. Use simple arrangements that focus on one or two "hooks."

There were several others, but just trying to abide by the five guidelines
given above is enough to scare off many would-be ringtone creators. Most
of the work lies in the FM voice-editing process, which is largely
trial-and-error, and requires a fair amount of time and patience on the
part of the creator. One of the biggest problems with ringtone creation
today is that while there are plenty of people who can create MIDI files
that meet the above guidelines, turning the MIDI into a ringtone file of
acceptable quality requires special tools and expertise that are currently
hard to come by.

So that's a partial answer to the question "What Makes a Good Ringtone?"
You may well be wondering now (especially if you live outside of Japan)
why on earth anyone in their right mind would want to do such a thing.
After all, we're talking about ringtones here -- it's not exactly high
art. Why not just drop all these pretensions about "sound quality" and
instead pump out a huge number of recognizable but average-sounding songs?
The quick answer is "Money!" But for a slightly more detailed analysis,
please check out next week's newsletter feature, "Why Make a Good
Ringtone?"

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++NOTEWORTHY NEWS
Morpheus Owners Announce Plan for Restricting MP3 Use

Nashville-based StreamCast Networks, the firm behind Morpheus, announced
last week that it will introduce new technology for restricting the use
and distribution of MP3 files. The new technology, called "CintoA," will
allow providers to program restrictions into MP3 files, such as the number
of times a file can be played or saved. Although StreamCast is hoping to
appease the entertainment industry, representatives from the RIAA and MPAA
are skeptical. The move comes fast on the heels of Morpheus' split with
former ally Kazaa (see MMW #8 and #9), and its shift from Kazaa's
FastTrack network to the open-source Gnutella protocol.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/03/14/BU235474.DTL

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Blubster Review

MP3 Newswire has released a review of the Spanish P2P program Blubster. Be
advised that the review seems quite biased in favor of Blubster and is a
bit hard to follow in spots. There is even a section on the network
architecture that includes this quote from the programmer: "Blubster
redraws the supernode concept by changing it from a digital to an analog
switch... Blubster nodes are all supernodes, but only 'as supernodes as
they can.'" Got it?

http://www.mp3newswire.net/stories/2002/blubster.html

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Music Technology Report from Musikmesse

Reporting from Musikmesse (the world's largest music instruments show,
held last week in Frankfurt), Adam Tanner speaks with several different
representatives from the industry about the increasing role of technology
(especially software) in music.

http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=569&u=/nm/20020315/tc_nm...

SonicBlue Releases Stereo

While all of the major electronic manufacturers are busy making MP3
players, here's a digital music manufacturer going the other way.
SonicBlue announced the release last week of the Rio EX1000, a 120W stereo
system that plays MP3s, CDs and cassettes. The system will retail for
US$299.

http://www.mp3newswire.net/stories/2002/riostereo.html

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SUBSCRIBERS: 502 as of March 19, 2002

STAFF

Written by Steve Myers (steve.myers@l8tech.com)
Steve Myers heads the Theta Group at Layer-8 Technologies, which
specializes in the development of music-related software
applications.
Edited by J@pan Inc editors (editors@japaninc.com)

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