So uhm, yeah, I got an iPhone after years of using Android. But I’m not going to nerd about iPhone’s awesomeness nor complain about its lack of flexibility (maybe a little bit?). I want to talk about the most basic personalization feature that makes any new phone feel like it’s my phone: setting custom audio files as tones for calls and text messages.
Surprisingly even to myself, I sometimes use the ‘Phone’ function in my smartphones. I often have sounds enabled. I set up custom sounds for calls and texts on every single phone of mine since forever and I often run the same set of sounds across numerous generations of phones. That way I don’t have a reflexive response whenever I hear other people’s phones ringing. Not to mention I find default ringtones boring and soulless.
On Android, installing and setting up a custom ringtone is as straightforward as putting a MP3 file on the device (downloading it from the internet, receiving via Bluetooth, copying it via USB cable or putting it on a memory card). It may feel barebones, but no specific software is needed and the whole process, including basic audio editing, can be done 100% on the device.
What about iOS? Well…
That Apple had to make this process annoyingly weird is one thing. Another one is that it hasn’t changed much since the era of iPods and iTunes, which I find particularly puzzling. I literally followed the same sequence of steps on my old iPhone 3GS back in 2010s.
We won’t be discussing buying music in the iTunes Store or third-party apps like Zedge - of course, these are legitimate ways of achieving the same thing. But I often use music that isn’t available anywhere else, such as no-copyright tracks from YouTube or royalty-free music from sites like Jamendo. And in these cases we have to go full manual.
That being said, here the most condensed manual on how to set up your own ringtone on iPhone. Because others I found were lacking or straight-up wrong.
- A computer. Here we use a Mac with MacOS Sonoma but the same steps can be done with older MacOS versions as well as Windows.
- Audio processing software that allows for cutting audio files and saving them in AAC format. I use Audacity, which is free, cross-platform and open source.
- Music management software by Apple. Latest versions of MacOS come prepackaged with an app uninspiringly and confusingly called ‘Music’. For Windows and older versions of MacOS, we need iTunes.
- A cable to plug the iPhone to our computer. If you use iPhone 15 or newer, make sure your USB-C cable supports data transfer.
- Uhm… an iPhone.
Step 1: prepare the AAC audio file
To be correctly recognized by iOS as a ringtone, your audio file has to meet two requirements:
- it’s saved in AAC format with
m4rextension. So the file should be named
my_fancy_ringtone.m4ror something along the lines.
- it’s shorter than 30 seconds.
That’s it. That’s the article. But it’s strange to end it so abruptly, so let’s keep going.
If you have an audio file (MP3 or any other audio format), open it in Audacity and cut out all unnecessary parts of your audio so that your ringtone doesn’t exceed 30 seconds. Make sure you have Selection Tool enabled (press F1 to activate it). Hold left mouse button, drag over the parts you to delete, then right-click and select Cut.
Once you’re done, select File -> Export Audio. Choose the format M4A (AAC). Important: change the file extension from m4a to m4r.
Click Export. Close Audacity.
Step 2: plug your iPhone and start software
Using a USB / Lightning cable, connect your iPhone to the PC. Unlock your phone. If it asks whether it should trust this computer, select Trust.
Start the Music app. On Windows or older versions of MacOS, launch iTunes.
Step 3: upload the m4r file to your phone
Your iPhone should be visible in the sidebar on the left. Click it.
Click Sync settings. Enable Manually manage music, movies and TV shows and click Apply. Once done, you will see a button labelled Manage storage in top right corner.
Click Manage storage. In the window that opens, from the sidebar, select Tones.
Now, in a separate window, open the location where you saved your ringtone. Drag and drop it into the Tones folder on your phone.
The ringtone should be visible in the window. If you can see it, success! You can unplug your phone and close the app.
If that didn’t happen, make sure your audio file meets the requirements from the previous step (especially the track length and file extension).
Step 4: Set your audio file as a ringtone
On your iPhone, open Settings and select Sound & Haptics.
Your audio file should be visible and ready to use for any type of alert, such as Ringtone or Text Tone. You can also use it as an alarm sound.
Phew. That’s it! Go grab a snack or something. You just worked around a deliberate user-hostile design decision serving the business model of iTunes Store.
Notes for systems other than MacOS
For Windows and older versions of MacOS, numerous similar tutorials exist. This how-to article by HowToGeek should work.
Unfortunately I have no idea if there’s any reliable iTunes replacement for Linux.
At least I’m glad I don’t have to write another article on how to change a wallpaper on iOS.