Ringtones for iPhone – The Cheap (Free) Way

I recently became a sad git and purchased an Apple iPhone.  Apart from the not-so-great battery life, it`s a really nice device!  However, having previously owned an iPod, I was a bit miffed to see that Apple is taking every opportunity possible to squeeze more money out of customers and making it more difficult to just chuck stuff onto the device.

In the UK it`s (at the time of writing) 79p to purchase a song, and the same for a non-free ringtone.  I`m not a fan of buying downloads, mainly because the quality can be utterly shit, and although DRM is decreasing, I just can`t be bothered.  I buy CDs, rip them, and listen to them.  Easy, plus you get a nice little booklet.  Anyway, I thought It`d scoot around the net and find a quick, free way of putting my Mike Oldfield collection onto the phone as annoying ringtones.  So here`s a quick and dirty method to convert your lovely MP3s into ringtones, alarm tones, blah blah blah.  It`s not so quick, however, but it is a free method.


  • Application capable of converting mp3 (or other file you wish to use) into Apple`s m4a format
  • A little knowledge of “fiddling” with Windows Explorer

The two things we need to do are 1) convert our file into Apple m4a format, and 2) rename the file

First up, we`ll prepare Windows Explorer
Launch Windows Explorer, and go to Tools -> Folder Options

  • In the View tab, scroll down the list and make sure “Hide extensions for known file types” is disabled.  We want to see the extensions.  If you`re not too techie, the “extension” is the (usually) 3 letter bit stuck onto the end of a filename.  For example photo.jpg, drawing.gif, etc.

The application I`ll be using is Audacity, a freebie available for Linux and Windows.  For speed, I`ll use the Windows version – I haven`t tried running iTunes on Linux yet.

The Windows version of Audacity also requires the FFmpeg input/output libraries so Audacity knows how to do the file conversion to Apple format.  This is probably the trickiest bit of the tutorial – for non-techies, Audacity needs a little something extra to do the job.

Install FFmpeg Library, Convert the File
Within Audacity, pop over to the Import / Export menu

Edit -> Preferences -> Import / Export

On the top right, you`ll see the FFmpeg area; Audacity will tell you it`s not installed – because it isn`t.

Click the Download button.  You`ll then be taken to the web page for downloading the library.  When the library has been downloaded, run the ffmpeg<version-number>.exe file (you`ll probably need to do this as Administrator in Vista – god Windows is a pain in the arse), and use Browse to find your Audacity installation (likely to be something like C:Program FilesAudacity <version-number>) and Extract.  This will pop the library files into Audacity`s installation, making FFmpeg functionality available.

Now for the fun part.  Fire up Audacity – if you haven`t used it before, open your spangly music file, go straight to

File -> Export

Press OK – we`re not worried about tags at this point.  Ensure the “Save as type” drop down has been set to M4A (AAC) Files (FFmpeg) and hit Save.  Your machine will whir and spin for a few seconds as the file is written to disk.

If you`re familiar with Audacity, you can clip the sound file to specific parts you`re interested in, add special effects, etc. before saving.  Be careful not to overwrite your original file, and keep your file to 40 seconds or less – any more and you`ll never hear it as your caller will likely be off to voicemail land!

Rename The File
Using Windows Explorer, find your new file (you`ve probably done the lazy thing and plonked it on your desktop – naughty).  As we configured Windows Explorer to show file extensions earlier on, your file should be listed as <filename>.m4a – unfortunately iTunes will not let you use this as a ringtone.  Right click on the file, and choose Rename.  Now change the extension to .m4r, so if your file was banana.m4a it should now be called banana.m4r – hit return to accept your changes – it will then complain that the file may become unusable.  Less usable than Windows…  This is OK.

Import to iTunes
In Windows, the icon for the file should change after renaming the file.  Double click the file and it will be squirted straight into iTunes, ready for your phone; just sync it up.


Updated: after trying a few tracks and successfully transferring them to the iPhone, it seems that a 30-35 second limit applies to the ringtone, otherwise the file will transfer but not show in the options.  That`s useful..  If anyone is bored enough to work out a true figure, be my guest, but 30-35 seconds maximum it seems.  Maybe that`s the 8th thing I don`t like.. it`s nice to lie in bed with the alarm playing something reasonably pleasant instead of “Duck” noises.

One Response to Ringtones for iPhone – The Cheap (Free) Way

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