Did you know: the story behind the original iPhone marimba ringtone, and the science of ringtones


There are some ringtones that you just cannot ignore: Nokia’s iconic ringtone is probably as popular as it gets, but the iPhone’s original Marimba tone, as well as the classic ’old phone’ ringer are also easy to recognize. The topic of ringtones is hardly very interesting right now - after all, it’s fairly easy to select your favorite song as a ringtone on your iPhone or Android device, and a lot of people simply prefer to have their phone gently vibrate rather than ring. But did you know that back in the day when the first telephones were made, meticulous research in the way we, humans, perceive sound, showed what the ideal ringtone should sound like. Interestingly, this story is also connected to the way the iconic original iPhone ringtone came into existence.

Let us first clarify that originally the goal of a ringtone was to attract the attention easily, distract you from what you are doing and make you pick up the phone. To achieve this goal, researchers at Bell Laboratories conducted studies that showed that a ringtone should be very clear and distinct in the central audio range for human hearing. That range is from around 2 KHz to 4 KHz, with dynamics from quietest to loudest of around 96 dB. The study that found this was carried out on 300 subjects in Crystal Lake, Illinois, back in 1956 (but the human hearing has not evolved much since then). It turns out, this is the exact range where most language sounds are in, and where human hearing has developed best.

Another interesting factor that surfaced was that the timbre should pulse from quietest to loudest within 3 to 5 seconds. And sure enough, listen to the original ringtone on a classic Bell telephone and you’d hear how it pulsates.

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However, did you know that similar principles laid in the foundation of the iPhone marimba tone? Steve Jobs allegedly did not like the widespread Nokia ringtone and wanted an excellent selection of tones for the iPhone. He had to choose, though - waste time to negotiate a deal with record labels just for that ideal ringtone, or release the iPhone on time with different tones. Jobs picked the second route, of course, and that’s how the original 25-tone selection of ringtones came to be.

The person who helped make those 25 original ringtones (including the marimba one below), was Dr. Gerhard Lengeling, an audio expert that has been key to the high-quality audio software released by Apple throughout the years. He was the person credited to record the high-quality orchestra instruments in Apple’s GarageBand software, including the Orchestra Marimba. Interestingly, you can basically recreate the marimba ringtone to nearly perfect equality with Apple’s software.

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So why did the marimba, a ringtone that evoked envious eyes towards the first iPhone owners around 2007-2008, become the default tone? It actually covers all the requirements from the original Bell Labs research, and it was clearly different than all else on the market.

Nowadays, it’s already replaced by different tones, but you can still get it when you go into Settings -> Sound on your iPhone, and skip to the ‘Original’ ringtone category. It’s also getting awesome remixes, like the one right below.

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source: Forbes

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