Nokia ringtones that made history

Based on materials The verge

One of the Internet's most famous ringtone archivists has barely been born,

when the object of his passion began to go goldcentury. For the 20-year-old Scottish musician who prefers to be called Fusoxid, it all started with an Alcatel flip phone he had as a child. “I love the sound of old ringtones, partly because of the nostalgia and partly because there are truly unappreciated gems among them,” he says. Today, Fusoxid runs the popular @ringtonebangers Twitter account. Together with others like @OldPhonePreserv, he helps maintain the André Luis Phone Sounds Catalog, a repository of software for phones, sounds, ringtones and audio ephemera from a bygone era.

The memory of the innovation that once characterized Nokia inapproach to ringtones, is largely supported by enthusiasts who extract ringtones from old firmware. "Sometimes the firmware is encrypted, so it's almost impossible to get the files," Fusoxid explains. “Then in most cases more experienced people work with them.” @ringtonebangers has become much more than just an archive thanks to his ongoing efforts to collect files and interview composers.

Probably the culture of ringtones appeared in the middle90s with Nokia Tune, which is borrowed from the Gran Vals song by classical guitarist Francisco Tarrega. Wherever you went at that time, it was impossible to find a place where the most famous brainchild of Tarrega would not sound. Timo Anttila, one of Nokia's first staff composers, bought his first phone, the Nokia 2110, in 1996. “Suddenly everyone had their own phone and everyone wanted their own ringtones and wallpapers,” he says. “The first calls were…really annoying, but they were iconic and changed the soundscape quite a bit.” When Nokia introduced the world's first polyphonic ringtone in 2002, high-pitched ringtones became an integral part of everyday life and took on a new meaning as a form of personal expression.

In addition to Anttil, Nokia's sound team consisted offrom young composers such as Hannu af Ursin and Henry Dow, as well as Alexi Eben and Marcus Castren, as well as partners in the person of Jan Livingston and Noah Nakai. Castrén and Iben were involved in a demoscene where experimental programmers and artists were pushing the boundaries of computer art and music. Af Ursin was an underground DJ who co-hosted a club night called Miau! in Tampere, Finland. “We made quite a few tracks and some of them ended up in great places like the Global Underground label,” he says.

In 2000, Livingston posted in the magazinejob posting under the name of MTS Media Themes and Sound Design. When Jarkko Julikoski, then Head of Audio at Nokia, answered the ad, he was forced to reveal that MTS Media Themes and Sound Design was just himself, working in his bedroom. Livingston, who went on to compose music for Forza Horizon 5 and several Total War games among other things, didn't even have a mobile phone when he signed with Nokia. “I spent several years programming karaoke backing tracks via MIDI files for Roland—basically transcribing famous pop songs and playing [them] with a very small General MIDI sound set,” he says. “So I had a few tricks up my sleeve with my ability to make the most of limited sonic resources.” A year later, he released the first polyphonic version of the Nokia Tune, which initially appeared as a Nokia exclusive for South Korea and then worldwide.


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Nokia sought to overcome the limitations of smallphone speakers and convey the sound atmosphere of the early 2000s - this is the heyday of club culture, trance and house. During his first week on the job, Dow was shown into a room and asked to create ringtones using a small keyboard and a PC running Cubase, an audio program he didn't know well. “It was a bit difficult at first, but I soon got hooked and enjoyed the challenge,” he says. The team studied competitors' phones from time to time. According to af Ursin, their biggest fear was that users would pick up a new phone and not find anything that matched their tastes. The goal was to have "something for everyone" preinstalled in the phones. After all, Nokia worked with Beatnik, the pioneering audio technology company founded by 1980s MTV darling Thomas Dolby, which Livingston recalls as "a huge step forward" in MIDI quality.

Around 2005, Anttila realized that whereverhe did not go, he heard ringtones that he composed himself or in collaboration. “By that time, everyone in public places had their phones turned on. There were ringtones everywhere and most Finns had Nokias. It was really weird,” he says. “No one [knew] who did it, and the number of plays of these tracks around the world every day ... if you count the number of phones, this would make [Nokia composers] one of the most recorded artists in history.” However, not everyone appreciated the pleasant tones of Nokia's innovative ringtone. While working on various versions of the Nokia Tune, Livingston, who ended up setting up a recording studio in his basement, recalls a hole in the soundproofing that led to the kitchen. “My wife was driven crazy by having to listen to the Nokia ringtone over and over again for hours and days on end,” he says.

Superstars such asBrian Eno (who wrote the famous sound for Windows 95), Austrian DJs Krüder and Dorfmeister and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Artists Alison Craighead and John Thomson developed the first silent ringtone in their experimental store. A booming industry has sprung up around custom ringtones, especially pop hits and rap ringtones. Ringtones have become an important part of the hip-hop style. By 2007, Nokia's global market share was 50.9%, and everyone had their own terminal for playing ringtones. But it is the pioneering work of such "invisible" composers as Castrén, af Ursin, Anttila, Dou and their colleagues that has shaped our psychological relationship with today's popular tunes.

Art critic Gita Dayal, whospecializes in electronic music and technology, accurately defines the main place of ringtones in modern music technology. “For me, TikTok is like new ringtones,” she says of how users listen to sound bites on the app. – These songs on TikTok become memes very quickly and little bits and pieces of these songs… some old song that people forgot about suddenly becomes super popular again because of TikTok… in a way it’s like new sound signatures and the hype that used to be around ringtones. Ringtones, once an open expression of personal expression (and for some, a way of demonstrating taste or cultural capital), have been reborn as internal memes that exist on a small number of social networks.

Ringtone archiving is done by young people,like Fusoxid (“The ringtone community…is basically just a subset of the old phone community, which is filled with a lot of immature kids,” he laments), and there are some interesting little nuances in how different generations perceive the connection between video game music and ringtones. When asked what he thinks about the relationship between chiptune music (eight-bit video game music) and ringtones, Fusoxid says that they are basically different worlds. “Most chiptunes are inspired by game sound technologies,” he says. – There are a few people doing things in the style of old ringtones, but unfortunately not as many as I would like. I think the problem is either tools that are not easy to use (like Yamaha's SMAF tools) or not well known (like the Beatnik Editor)."

Possibly a real experience of "ringtone mania" afterbehind iconic video game music, he gave the older generation a different perspective on the connection between video games - especially Nintendo games - and the advent of ringtones. “Now we can think of 8-bit chiptune music as fun retro stuff,” Dayal says. "You go back to Metroid or Marble Madness or Zelda and still remember those really thrifty, short bits of [electronic] music that had a huge impact."

Dayal adds that before the early games andearly ringtones had similar challenges. “They were able to create music with a very limited set of instruments that were so emotionally powerful, so spontaneous and so direct that, with all the limitations, really interesting electronic works could come out,” she says. “Ringtones are, in some ways, the most representative manifestation of this kind of economy… you have so little time to reach the goal that it is the most refined quintessence of ideas that have come out of video game music to create maximum impact with a very limited set of tools.”

Today we hardly think about ringtones - ourphones are most often in silent mode. "I've noticed that people with iPhones tend to use one of Apple's default ringtones," Dayal notes. “It makes less sense that you can express your individuality with a ringtone.” I wonder how in 20+ years they will look at the current culture of mobile sound. And how few sounds worthy of being preserved for future generations come to mind. Maybe we really are doomed to live in a soundless soundscape where everything bows in nostalgic impulse at the memory of polyphonic chaos.

At the moment, the old Nokia team is mainlyis surprised that there is still interest in their work, and some - Anttila, for example - expresses regret that they did not save the old files then. Livingston, however, says that he has managed to save about 90 percent of his work and plans to organize it and create an archive for the community. However, the work they did at Nokia remains a perpetually neglected piece of electronic music history. “I remember how great it was to work with them,” he says. “It felt like we were making history together.”