Ringtones and gramophones

The recording below is a lo-fi demonstration record. It's the precise opposite of those hi-fi demo records electronics stores have to showcase their best audio equipment.

Sonni - Goodbye

I just bought a new cell phone, and this was the song that came bundled with it. Listening to it on a hi-fi or even out of my decent computer speakers it sounds ridiculous - overcompressed, with extremely loud, featureless, thundering bass and non-overlapping mid-range sample bursts. But out of the mobile phone's tiny mono speaker it strangely works. The bass is reduced to normal level. The lack of polyphony makes it sound clear and uncluttered. And the vocals are in the only range that the phone can handle with any fidelity. On the phone it sounds like, well, a normal R&B record. Which of course is the point.

I realise I'm way behind in this game, but this is the first mobile I've owned which has the ability to use MP3s as ringtones. So I've been testing out a few tunes to hear which type of music sounds best, and the results are (unsurprisingly) stuff that's rather ringtoney, all uncluttered, detail-defficient mid-range and no dynamics. There's plenty of music that you feel is probably inspired by cell phone ringtones in the first place that works really well. This is so clearly an alarm clock signal, for instance:

Benga - 26 Basslines

But there's a lot of music too that, like Sonni's track, is just fairly unsophisticated music that just happens to work well with the primitive speaker output. For instance, there's this tecnobrega track (from a huge brega/melody torrent) which is quite boring on my computer but really came to life on the cell phone:

Banda Np7 - Super Pop

Mid-range and tweeter synth sweeps, clarity over definition, the usual stuff. What's perhaps more interesting is how well a lot of older music works. Berry Gordy, at Motown, famously had all their singles played on a crap transistor radio before they were released, to make sure they worked under normal conditions, and indeed Motown tracks work fine as a ringtone.

But even more so the tracks of a yet more primitive recording era. Before decent-quality recording became widely available in the fifties a lot of the released material is precisely what works on the telephone: tracks with a constant volume level, no really deep bass, and not dependent on clarity for their impact. Which means a lot of, say, early 50s R&B can work perfectly fine as a ringtone!

The Dominoes - Sixty Minute Man

What I settled on eventually though was ska, in the form of this instrumental classic:

Don Drummond - Man in the Street

It actually has a line that obviously doesn't work, namely the bass riff in the intro, but then it's near-perfectly adapted to the task at hand. Maybe ringtones could push a primitive-recording revival, a hand reaching out from the cell phone to the ancient gramophone...


Anonymous said...

The cell phone as a loudspeaker is interesting because even though it sounds so shit, people use it because it's the only practical way of playing music to others outside your home (can't remember the last time I saw someone carrying around a boombox).

Old feature:

Personally I just switched to some quiet piano tune by Philip Glass. Sounds awful from the phone, but at least it doesn't scare me when it comes on.

Birdseed said...

Yup, I've heard a lot of cellphone-as-boombox around town, usually stuff spectacularly unsuitable for the fidelity. (For some reason, every Swedish suburban kid is crazy about Kardinal Ofishall.)

Maybe they should launch a cell phone whose selling point is that it actually has a decent built-in speaker?

Anonymous said...

The boom-phone? If they make it small enough, not more than 200 grams or so, I'd get it.

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