How to Install and Manage Ringtones in iOS 7

I happen to love all kinds of audible computer feedback. Coming from an IT background and dealing with all kinds of chatty electronic gear, I’m used to – no, I thrive on – being constantly alerted by beeps, buzzes, bings, blips, alert tones and warning klaxons. Although it often sounds like a gathering of R2 units, all of the various sounds actually mean something very specific to me. They inform, they are calls-to-action, sometimes they are reassuring, other times they bring on dread and anxiety. I’m nuts for this stuff!

I have my Macs, iPad, iPhone, and even my cameras, kitchen appliances, and cars announce various conditions and events. And then, there are the vibration patterns, voice alerts, flashing lights, and alerts by colors. Somebody, please help me!

For now, let’s concentrate on managing Alert Tones and Ringtones on our iOS devices. In this article, I use the word “tones” to mean any customizable sound that resides in your device and used to notify you of what I call a “System Event.” This does not include audible alerts generated by apps themselves… that’s a whole other world of aural goodness.

Examples of system events include incoming phone calls, text messages, and email. You can assign separate tones for any of these. Additionally, you can knock yourself out assigning distinctive tones for new voicemails, calendar and reminder alerts, Facebook posts, tweeting, sending email, and making an AirDrop. Finally, you can assign tones to the stock Clock app’s alarm clock and countdown timer.

Of course, there a number of you who prefer your devices to remain mum. For you party-poopers, you’ll be happy to know that all of these iOS notifications can be disabled and/or have customizable vibrations assigned to them.

But really, what fun is that? What is really fun, is checking out all the cool tones that can be assigned to any of the aforementioned system events. You can even create your own tones in GarageBand or other software.

xOur iOS devices come preconfigured with various system events set to produce specific tones. These can all be changed anytime by choosing from many of the included sounds – some delightful, others not so much.

Major iOS upgrades often add a number of new tones. In fact, my inventory of tones reveals that in the wake of the recent iOS 7 update, I have over ninety stock Alert Tones and Ringtones. This is Tone Heaven! Hey, I’ve got nothing better to do than to play with and configure tones on my iPhone and iPad.

Sheet Music showing how the iPhone Marimba Ringtone is played

Marimba geeks: your favorite iPhone Ringtone is still available

For you retro fans, despair not as your treasured Marimba has not been tossed into the bit bucket. It and all its other aging siblings are located in the “Classic” section for each of the two tone categories.

OK, let’s get serious and take a look at how all this works…

Tones originate from .m4r sound files that reside on your device. Traditionally, tones were, and still can be, managed, stored, and synchronized via iTunes on Mac or Windows. Additional tones can be purchased either directly from the iTunes Music Store or from third-party vendors – my favorite being Cleartones. You can also create your own tones from scratch using an application such as GarageBand, or converting other types of sound files, including music clips. However, tone creation is beyond the scope of this article.

One important fact to note is that any third-party or created tone present on your iOS device will be included in your periodic iCloud backup. (You do have iCloud backup enabled, right? See my article here on TMO, “How to Manage Your iOS Device Backups” for detailed information.)

You might be wondering what the difference is between an Alert Tone and a Ringtone. The only real difference is the duration of the sound – a single, short sound is usually appropriate for an Alert Tone – for example, a short two-note sound to indicate an incoming message. For incoming voice call Ringtones, longer sounds of up to thirty seconds are generally used. After this period of time, the call is transferred to voicemail.

Remember that even though there are two categories of tones, you are free to assign either Alert Tones or Ringtones interchangeably to every kind of system event.

The iOS Sounds Settings panel

The iOS Sounds Settings panel is where you go to customize your system event tones.

Assigning Tones to System Events

Assigning tones is a simple matter of going to Settings > Sounds. Towards the bottom of the Sounds panel, you will see the complete list of System Events that tones can be assigned to. For each event listed, you see the event name on the left and the name of the tone on the right. You can assign different tones for all system events.

Two iPhone Sounds Settings Panels listing available tones.

There are many tones to choose from, including the classic ones from yesteryear.

To assign the legacy tones, look for “Classic” at the bottom of the list of available tones. Tap it to see the full list of oldies-but-goodies. You are also given the option of having the events make no sound by selecting None. The one exception is for incoming voice calls. For these, you suppress the sound via the Ring/Silent switch on the side. Alternatively, as explained below, you can assign a “silent” ringtone to Contacts.

Assigning Tones to Your Contacts

A really handy feature that I particularly appreciate is the ability to not only assign photos, but also tones and vibration patterns to incoming phone calls and text messages.

The Edit page for a particular record in the Contacts app.

Within the Contacts app you can edit individual contact records and assign specific Ringtones and Text Tones.

This is done via the Contacts app. For each contact record, you can make changes and additions by tapping the Edit button at the top of the record. Scroll down until you see the section for assigning tones. You are shown the familiar lists of installed Ringtones and Alert Tones to choose from. Tap on any of the tones from either category to assign it to your contact. That’s all there is to it, and you can change this anytime.

By the way, in the next section I talk about how to purchase and install new third-party tones. You can purchase “silent” Ringtones and assign them to contacts that bother you with lots of calls and messages. You can also create one contact entry for the sole purpose of assigning all unwanted calls to. You can give a clever name to this special contact entry, like “Don’t answer” or “Jackass of the Day.” Whatever. Then simply assign a silent ringtone to that contact.

In a related matter, with the introduction of iOS 7, we now have the ability to block unwanted callers. However, this feature may be difficult to locate. You can’t get to it from within the Contacts app. You have to be in the Phone app, then tap on the Contacts button on the bottom toolbar, look up your Contact there, then scroll to the bottom of the record and tap on Block This Caller. You can also do this by tapping on Favorites or Recents, then tap the ‘i’ (info) button. You can also block callers in Settings > Phone > Blocked. You will not receive voice calls, FaceTime calls, or text messages from blocked callers. You can unblock your blocked callers anytime.

Installing New Tones

Purchasing and Installing Tones Independently of iTunes – When viewing the list of tones for any system event while in Settings, tap on the Store button on the status bar at the top of the screen. This transfers you to the iTunes Store app and into the Ringtones department of the store. Actually, you can access the Store’s ringtone selections anytime you go to the iTunes Store – whether it be on your iOS device or on your computer. You can purchase Ringtones directly from your device and have them downloaded and installed, or from your computer then sync the tones to your device.

A pair of iPhone screens that show access to the ringtones department in the  iTunes Store.

Once inside the iTunes Store, you can browse, search, purchase and download ringtones of all kinds

As I write this article, Halloween is just around the corner. What a fantastic opportunity to annoy everyone around me by configuring my iPhone so that an incoming call will play the main theme from the classic 1978 horror movie, Halloween.

The iPhone’s iTunes Store panel after the purchase of a ringtone.

When ready to install, you are given a choice as to the disposition of the ringtone.

This is so easy to do. After purchasing the ringtone, and during the download and installation process, I am given the choice of installing it as a default ringtone sound or assign it to a contact.

Purchasing, Installing and Syncing Tones via iTunes on Your Computer – Once paired with iTunes on a Mac or Windows PC, you can manage a collection of Ringtones as you would any other media you own – music, movies, TV shows, etc.

With iTunes open, you can either wirelessly, or via the USB sync cable, manually transfer tones in and out via the data synchronization function.

A detail from the iTunes app on a Mac or Windows PC.

With my iPhone selected in iTunes on the Mac, going to the Tones section allows me to manage all the ringtones on my device.

First, select your device in the Devices section on the left-hand column in iTunes. Next, in the iTunes main window, click on the Tones tab at the top.

Finally, just as with other iTunes media, you can choose to keep all your third-party tones synchronized with your device, or pick-and-choose which ones you want to have residing on your device.

You can purchase tones from the iTunes Store on your computer. These will be added to your Tones Library in your main iTunes Library. As with your Music Library, you can select your Tones Library in iTunes and review, organize and playback your tones. If you purchased tones directly from your iOS device, during the next sync process with iTunes on your computer, you can have your purchase synced from your device for safekeeping. For this to work, you must have Sync Tones enabled on the Tones page for your device.

Finally, from iTunes on your computer, you can review which third-party tones are actually installed on your iOS device.

A detail from the iTunes app on a Mac or Windows PC.

In iTunes, by clicking on an iOS device, you can review all content that is currently installed.

Select your device in the iTunes Devices section in the left-hand column, and twirl it open by clicking on the little disclosure triangle just to the left of your device’s name. Then, select Tones to get your listing. This technique is for reference only, but useful nonetheless.

In conclusion, having the ability to receive scrupulously customized audible alerts when certain events occur on our iOS devices – well… you gotta love it. I know I certainly do. Some other people – not so much.