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Peter Drescher and Hiptop
Sound designer Peter Drescher emphasizes a point by triggering a custom sample on his Danger Hiptop smartphone. Photo by Linda Law. (Click to enlarge.)

[Editor's note: This is a lightly edited transcript of Peter Drescher's brilliant speech, "Sound Design for Really Small Speakers," presented at the 2004 Texas Interactive Music Conference and Barbecue. Every October since 1996, the conference, better known as Project Bar-B-Q, has assembled 50 of the top minds in computer audio to brainstorm the future of music on computers. Project Bar-B-Q is hosted by George Alistair Sanger, aka the Fat Man, a prolific video game composer who grew frustrated with the disappointing MIDI playback on computer sound cards in the '90s and decided to do something about it.]

First off, let me thank the Fat Man for inviting me here today. [TRIGGER SAMPLE: "We're not worthy; we're not worthy!"] I'm very happy to be here, and I hope what I have to say will be of interest to this very prestigious crowd.

Like games in the '80s and the Web in the '90s, the mobile audio industry is the new Wild West. And as in the old West, companies large and small are trying to stake a claim because "there's gold in them thar hills!" Of course, a lot of people got shot and killed in the old West, so my presentation today is intended, in some small way, to help those of you getting into mobile audio to survive the experience.

Second, let me tell you a little bit about myself. Basically, I'm a piano player who got lucky, because I got into the multimedia audio business after I got too old to be a road-dog blues musician. I currently hold the position of sound designer at a very cool startup in Palo Alto, California, called Danger, Inc. We produce a mobile Internet device called the Hiptop, available for purchase at a T-Mobile store near you. [T-Mobile sells it under the name Sidekick.]

This device is an excellent example of what they call convergent technologies. Basically, it's a cell phone, but it's also a web browser, an instant messenger, an email client, an SMS text messenger, an address book, a calendar, a camera, a mobile blogger, and a game platform ... and that ain't all! Of course, it also includes an online catalog of downloadable ringtones—and that's what I'd like to talk to you about today.

Hiptop, open
The Hiptop has innovative audio capabilities that some carriers disable out of fear. (Click to enlarge.)

My Ding-a-Ling

My own involvement with ringtones began about 12 years ago, when Sprint PCS hired me to program their brand-new line of cell phones with a series of time-and-frequency modulations (basically, this frequency for that long) so that the little piezo ringer, a square of plastic and ceramic the size of a thumbtack and the smallest speaker I've ever designed for, would go [TRIGGER SAMPLE: wimpy-sounding "Für Elise"].

At the time, I remember thinking very clearly, "Are ya fuckin' kidding me? What an incredibly stupid idea! Who the hell's going to want that to play every time their damn phone rings? Could you be more annoying?!"

OK, so I was wrong. This is why I like to say that I do not have my finger on the pulse of the American public. Apparently, everybody wants their phone to play a melody instead of just the standard ding-a-ling-a-ling.

OK, maybe not absolutely everybody. I know many people's phones just chirp, and a friend of mine was complaining to me just the other day that he couldn't find a ringer on his new cell phone that just sounded like a regular phone. Nevertheless, millions and millions of people, all over the planet, currently have their phones set to make a wide variety of sounds to alert them to the fact that somebody wants to talk to them. As Richard Dreyfuss says in Close Encounters of the Third Kind while sculpting a giant mound of mashed potatoes, "This means something. This is important!"

Annoying Personalities

This is a worldwide phenomenon that shows no sign of letting up any time soon. In fact, it's only going to get bigger and bigger until personalized ringtones become absolutely ubiquitous, if they aren't already.

You will hear them everywhere you go.

You will hear them all the time.

You will hear them in the streets, in restaurants, in movie theaters, at concerts, at weddings, at funerals.

You will even hear them in your own pocket.

And let's face it, folks: RINGTONES ARE REALLY ANNOYING!

And yet, the consumer has spoken: People absolutely love, love, LOVE annoying ringtones, and the annoying effect they have on everybody else around them. Otherwise, they wouldn't spend so much money on them, would they? And yet, every time I hear your cell phone ring, it annoys the living crap out of me. And I'll tell you why:

First, because you've got a phone call and I don't.

Second, because the ringtone is inevitably followed by one side of a conversation I don't want to hear.

And third, and most important, because when the phone rang, it played a really horrible rendition of Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again" that tells me things about you I really wish I didn't know.

The Danger Hiptop, closed. (Click to enlarge.)

A Familiar Ring

At the same time, ringtones can be a lot of fun—if you're the guy with the cool tone. For example, I'm at the first showing of the new Harry Potter movie, there's a big crowd, everybody's all excited and restless, and as we wait for the lights to come down and the previews to start, I pull out my trusty Hiptop and play: [TRIGGER SAMPLE: Harry Potter theme].

And ... bam! Suddenly it's a party and I'm the center of attention. Some people laughed, some people were irritated, some didn't recognize the song as the Harry Potter theme and so were wondering what the hell that annoying noise was, but everybody around me had some sort of reaction, and that was kinda fun.

And then the cute girls sitting in the row in front of us turned around, pulled out their cell phones, and started showing off their ringtones. So I played a few more of mine, and they played a few more of theirs.... By now, we're really annoying the hell out of everybody around us, because it's as if they've been forced to attend a party they weren't invited to.

But what can I say? It's a social phenomenon that ain't going away any time soon, so you'd better get used to it. And if you do any traveling outside the United States, you'll know that in Japan and Europe it's even worse. In fact, it's an epidemic. I've spent some time in Greece, where they are absolutely cell-phone crazy. You see 10-year-old kids riding down the street talking on their cell phones. Everywhere you go, you constantly hear the sound of somebody playing their ringtones for somebody else—every day, all the time. Man, it's annoying!

Pacino Was Right

So, what's the deal, really? Why are ringtones so goddamn popular? Do people really take so much pleasure from annoying the crap out of everybody around them? Are people in general really that uncaring and impolite?

No, that's not it; that's just a side effect. Ringtones are popular because they are a direct expression of that most egregious of the seven deadly sins: vanity. And as Al Pacino says in The Devil's Advocate: [TRIGGER SAMPLE: "Vanity—definitely my favorite sin!"]

People are so hungry for ringtones because they are a cheap and easy solution to a problem that they actually have. And the problem is: "How do I show off how cool I am? How do I attract attention? How do I make a statement about my individuality and my personal preferences and my taste in music and me me ME ME?" To paraphrase P. T. Barnum, "Nobody ever went broke overestimating the vanity of the American public."

Now, this is REALLY ... GOOD ... NEWS for those of us in the audio business. This is cause for rejoicing and celebration and throwing hats in the air—and I'll tell you why.

"This is REALLY GOOD NEWS for those of us in the audio business."

Think about it: Here we have an audio product that consumers are absolutely crazy about! They will shell out huge amounts of cold, hard cash to have this product installed on their phones. They will talk about ringtones for hours. They will post amazingly long and impassioned threads on Internet bulletin boards about their favorite ringtones. They will demand that more and more ringtones be made available every day. They even will get incredibly upset when they can't get the ringtone they want.

Now, when was the last time you saw someone get all pissed off about audio on a web page, or start jumping up and down about the soundtrack to some new video game?

Most important, consumers will buy ringtones in unbelievable numbers. For example, at Danger we started offering a limited number of ringtones for sale on the Hiptop about six months ago and we've already had over 1 million downloads—that's a 1 with six zeros after it. Now, we don't even have that many subscribers (yet), so multiply our experience by the number of people out there who own cell phones, and you start to get an idea of the stupid amounts of money we're talking about here.

This is a whole different ball of wax from so many "wouldn't it be cool if..." Internet audio schemes that always seemed to me to be solutions to problems that nobody had. This is more like the fashion industry, where the product is designed to make a personal statement about the owner. And in the same way that you don't want to show up at a Halloween party wearing the exact same costume as somebody else, there's nothing cooler than having a unique ringtone, a sound that nobody else has got.

Oops, I Did It Myself

Fortunately, anybody with a computer and half a brain can "roll their own" ringtone. On the Hiptop, it's way easy. Here's how you do it:

Step 1: Take any audio clip, off any CD, in any format, at any resolution, up to 17 seconds long.

Step 2: Email it to your Hiptop.

And basically, that's all there is to it. Now, at Danger, we do a number of things to make this possible and easy. Any data transmitted over the airwaves is first formatted and compressed specifically for our device by the Danger servers. That way, nicely formatted web pages and pictures get downloaded quickly and efficiently and show up on the Hiptop looking the way you want them to.

For audio, the service takes whatever type of file you throw at it and transcodes it into the preferred format for playback on our device, which is currently a 16-bit, 11kHz, IMA 4:1-compressed WAV file. Then the service attaches the transcoded file to your email and sends it on down the wire (or wireless, as the case may be).

Bing! [TRIGGER SAMPLE: "You've got mail!"] Your email appears with a file attachment. The attachment contains the name of the audio file and two buttons, one marked "play" and the other marked "install as ringtone." Now, wasn't that easy? Even cooler, I can then assign the ringtone I just made to play only when a specific person in my address book calls. That way, I can have the phone play "our song" when my girlfriend calls, or even a recording of the Fat Man saying, "Hey, it's the Fat Man," when he calls me.

The Hiptop lets you assign a unique ringtone to every person in your address book so you can tell who's calling without looking.

But more than likely, given that I'm so vain and I want to show off to all my friends just how cool I am, I'm going to forward that email to my buddy: "Hey man, check out this cool ringtone I just pulled off the new Beyoncé CD." Now, if he's got a Hiptop—badda-bing, badda-boom, no problemo—he can install the ringtone on his device and then pass it on to his friends. If he's on some other type of phone, it's not always so easy, but it can be done, using either email or MMS [Multimedia Messaging Service] or some other software. And given that the market for this kind of thing is usually technically savvy college kids, you can bet that it will be done, one way or the other.

Danger, Will Robbingsoon

OK, wait a minute; back up there a second. Did I hear that one right? A system that allows users to share audio files over a network for free?! Oh my God! It's Napster!

You can bet that the big record companies are absolutely shaking in terror at the concept of Napster for cell phones. They've been burned that way before, and they don't want to see the ringtone cash cow run out of the barnyard like it did for MP3s. And we're talking big business here: A few weeks ago, there was a very interesting statistic in an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal reporting sales of the ringtone of "In Da Club" by 50 Cent had outsold online downloads of the song. Think about that for a second. Here's a cut off a multiplatinum album making more money as a ringtone than as an iTunes selection! You can understand why the record companies don't want to let it be given away for free.

"You can bet the big record companies are shaking in terror at the concept of Napster for cell phones."

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a heck of a lot they can do about it, since this kind of functionality is already built into the system in various ways. And because the data is transferred over cell phone networks, the cell phone carriers get a piece of the action too.

Now, they've been making money on ringtones over the past few years by charging customers for the SMS text messaging and the WAP browser downloads that are used to transfer monophonic and polyphonic ringtones to phones. But beeptones and MIDI ringtones are of limited appeal and are quickly becoming extinct. The real money is in real music, meaning digital audio clips of recognizable songs. And since pay-by-the-megabyte accounting is also quickly being superseded by flat-rate all-you-can-eat data plans, the carriers are in danger of getting screwed on ringtones as well.

Putting Music on Hold

This issue has become very apparent to the major cell phone carriers in the United States. At least one Hiptop carrier's solution to the ringtone problem has been to require Danger to disable the "install ringtone from e-mail" functionality on their version of the Hiptop operating system. This means that you can only install ringtones from their built-in catalog, thereby ensuring that everybody in the food chain gets paid—the carrier, the record companies, and Danger.

We also set a copyright-protection bit, so that ringtones installed from the catalog cannot be forwarded off the device, via email or anything else. Once you download a ringtone from the catalog, that's it, end of story. It stays on your device until you delete it. Sure, you can still attach audio files to an email; you can even play them. But that's it.

Seems kinda pointless, doesn't it? And let me tell you, it's been a huge bone of contention with our users, who complain about it endlessly and bitterly; and start petitions; and write nasty, threatening letters; and jump up and down; and get all red in the face. And what really pisses them off is that most other Hiptop carriers, both here and abroad, enable the "install as ringtone" button, no problem. I have never seen so many people get so emotional about any [other] audio product I have been involved with. And they get so upset because they are being prevented from doing something they really, really want to do—express themselves using audio.

"Users get so upset because they are being prevented from expressing themselves using audio."

Carriers who disable the "install as ringtone" button are missing a very important point here, which is no matter how extensive a catalog you make available, it will not, it cannot, address this issue of individual expression. Sure, clips of the latest hip-hop tunes are great, and they sell like ice cream on a hot day, but people also want sound effects, movie quotes, recordings of their own voice, recordings of their kids' voices or their dog barking or the song they wrote themselves, or the song their girlfriend wrote, or that song they like that nobody else has ever even heard of.

No catalog can contain all things for all people, and if I've learned anything lately, it's that there are as many ideas about what makes a "good" ringtone as there are people with cell phones.

Now obviously, this is all a huge digital rights management issue that is better left to more qualified brains than mine. But the demand for ringtones is already gigantic, there's lots of money to be made, and everybody's scrambling to come up with some good answers. And you know what?

It's all bullshit! And I'll tell you why.

Ring in the Future

The current situation, with multiple proprietary ringtone formats and everybody trying to get a little piece of the action, is guaranteed to be temporary. Five years from now, the whole issue of "How do I make money selling ringtones" is going to be completely obsolete, eliminated by advances in telephone technology. All the scrambling and legal issues and technical limitations and consumer aggravation will be totally passé, unimportant, yesterday's news. And here's the reason: convergence.

"Five years from now, the whole issue of 'How do I make money selling ringtones' is going to be completely obsolete."


Convergence may be an overinflated buzzword, but it really does describe an interesting trend. For example, five years ago, putting a camera in your cell phone seemed like a silly idea, but now you can get megapixel camera phones on Amazon.com for free when you sign up for service.

And it turns out this is a very popular way to go, because again, it addresses a problem that people actually have—namely, "How do I conveniently carry a camera around with me everywhere I go and send those spur-of-the-moment snapshots to all my friends and family?"

Well, there's another device that is really popular at the moment; in fact, I'll bet many of you have one in your pocket right now—it's called an iPod. Now imagine, if you will, an iPod with a cell phone built in: a mobile Internet device with a fast connection and 40 gig of memory that lets you talk on the phone and plays all your music, all in one small, well-designed little package. It's such an obviously good idea, I'm surprised they're not on the market already, but I guarantee you, somebody out there is working on this concept right now. It's kind of a no-brainer, and given the popularity of all things convergent, I've got to figure it's only a matter of time before cell-phone-plus-iPod-plus-camera-plus-Internet devices are fairly commonplace.

As fate would have it, 3D artist Isamu Sanada posted this concept for an iPod telephone at the same time Drescher was announcing his prediction.

And when these "cellPods" become commonplace, the ringtone game is over! No more monophonic/polyphonic crap for sale at inflated prices, no more hassles over who owns what on whose phone, no more limitations on what ringtone you want to play. You'll simply assign whatever song you like from your over 600 hours of music to everybody and anybody in your address book. You'll even be able to set a marker so that it starts playing at whatever point in the song you'd like (probably at the hook). It'll be so easy and fun and convenient that everybody will want to do it, and you'll be able to have your phone play whatever music you like, whenever you like. Ahhh ... won't it be grand!

Cash and Carriers

But that's at least five years from now. In the meantime, the ringtone market is exploding because there are more and more cell phones out there every day. I like to think of cell phone carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile—and hardware manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung—as big ships moving through a sea of money, harvesting profits as they go. And like any big ship, they frequently leave total chaos in their wakes, in the form of multiple incompatible platforms, confusing file formats, and arcane legal complications.

This is natural and normal, and we've all been there before, with games and on the Web, but damn! It sure makes for a bumpy ride and makes it harder for us audio guys to turn a profit. And usually, there are no monetary resources to make our lives easier, because as we all know, sound is always considered secondary to the actual product.

[TRIGGER SAMPLE: "Errrr!"] Wrong!

This time it's different! This time it's waaay better. This time, the good ship Audio gets to ride up right alongside the battle cruiser USS Cell Phone, because we've got something they need: fuel and ammo, in the form of ringtones.

Cell phones—I'm tellin' ya, if you're an audio guy, you gotta love 'em. Here's a product where the audio is not secondary. Here's a product that doesn't work without the audio, thank you very much! Here's a product that's already in the pocket of practically every single person on the planet.

And since ringtones provide a nice constant flow of currency to the carriers, it kind of changes the way their businesspeople look at us. Now they need us; now we can make them money. And I've got to say, it's about time we interactive audio guys got a little respect around here.

So the next time you hear an annoying ringtone go off at an inappropriate time, don't get mad; get happy. [TRIGGER SAMPLE: Ka-ching!] That's the sound of money in your pocket, baby!

In Sanada's concept, the keypad detaches from the music player. Other visionaries suggest that the scroll pad be programmed to emulate a rotary dial instead.

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