What makes a ringtone audible in an urban environment?
September 30, 2013 6:25 AM   Subscribe

Even with the ringer set on maximum volume, I tend not to hear my phone ringing when I'm out walking on a busy London street. I'd like a ringtone that will be audible over traffic noise, but not be earsplitting or annoying when I'm indoors. Are there any acoustic properties (other than sheer loudness) that I should look for in a ringtone to help it stand out against a background of car engines and other street noise?
posted by yankeefog to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I honestly keep my phone in my pocket and have it vibrate as well as ring. It's the only thing that I've found works with varied background noise.
posted by lydhre at 6:39 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A high pitch will carry farther than a low one, in my experience.
posted by coppermoss at 6:49 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding the high pitch. I use what is essentially a flute solo for mine and it's very easy to hear, even rooms away or with ambient noise. Very audible through regular human speech.
posted by bonehead at 7:10 AM on September 30, 2013

Best answer: It basically needs to have sound frequencies that won't be absorbed by your pocket/purse/jacket and aren't present at any appreciable volume in the london street. I agree that those are mainly higher-pitch noises; you'll probably want something with some regular variation or a tune so your brain will train itself to recognize it specifically. And you'll get some false positives as those same frequencies cross your eyes-- when I'm downtown, I sometimes hear what sounds like my alarm clock. Keep it to some pure tones-- you'll lose any musical quality to any complex multilayered music anyway, so don't stake your hopes on music ringtones. (That said, I've heard some electric guitar music in a ringtone slice through a lot of background noise.)

The pocket absorption test you can try at home with the ringer at low volume. The low-frequency-environment test you can check when you're around any machine room, laundry room/laundromat (stand near the dryers drying) or, of course, in a live environment. But a true test will add in the unexpected aspect of the ringtone.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:29 AM on September 30, 2013

Set it to a proper telephone ring. Like the way that phones used to sound like when it was just your phone plugged into a wall. That noise cuts through everything, and as a bonus: you'll be able to easily distinguish yours from everyone else's because yours won't be playing that stupid Robin Thicke song.
posted by phunniemee at 7:48 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

What about having the phone vibrate as well as ring? The bonus is you don't have to have a super annoying ringtone.
posted by barnone at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2013

The Twilight Zone theme works well because it contrasts with normal city sounds.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:08 AM on September 30, 2013

My phone is a shrieky bird call and tends to scare the heck out of me (I do not get very many phone calls) and does not really sound like other ambient sounds. I think the combination of the pitch and the fact that it's an irregular sound help it stand out so i can hear it. It is, however, sort of annoying so maybe not the right answer for you.
posted by jessamyn at 8:34 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

My husband is a sound engineer and uses a pleasant bird chirp/birdsong ringtone*, and never misses calls running all about and around super-noisy downtown Athens (on the streets, not just in enclosed spaces). I tried to find the exact one and it's impossible, but you might try experimenting with that.

* (of course in our quiet neighborhood that actually has birds, I've mistaken the actual birds for the phone on one or two occasions.)
posted by taz at 8:48 AM on September 30, 2013

If you have iOS, the one called "digital" carries pretty well. I also found one online called "Japanese Bell". I can't find it again now, but I found it searching for "easy to hear ringtone" or some such. Also, if you jailbreak, the Star Wars sound pack is nice.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:18 AM on September 30, 2013

I'm hearing impaired and the only ringtone I don't miss completely when out and about in noisy environs is a bagpipe rendition of Scotland the Brave. I believe I downloaded it from Audiko. HTH!
posted by pink candy floss at 11:14 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not that this helps, but I've wished for years that there was some kind of bluetooth device that you could adhere to your skin to give a buzz or tingle when your phone was ringing. Nokia apparently patented vibrating tattoos, but I don't think they're on the market.
posted by Ickster at 11:28 AM on September 30, 2013

A Bluetooth earpiece is the simplest solution here, in my opinion.
posted by kindall at 1:12 PM on September 30, 2013

I always have my phone on vibrate, even when the ringer is on, but I find that I only consistently hear the really annoying, high-pitched ringtones. I second that iphone "digital" ringtone is easy to hear (and super annoying, but what can you do?)
posted by ablazingsaddle at 1:47 PM on September 30, 2013

Best answer: As others have mentioned, you'll probably want a higher pitch tone which will not be as affected by the frequency masking of the traffic noise. This is the principle which says that if you have two tones that are similar in frequency, the louder tone will mask out the less loud tone. Noise (which may cover several frequency bands) will also mask out tones (and vice versa, but to a lesser extent). This is the principle behind MP3s and other perceptual codecs. According to this paper, most of the power of the traffic noise is at about 100Hz with a pretty steady rolloff as you increase in frequency. This intuitively makes sense as you hear low frequency rumbles from passing cars and trucks.

So to design a ringtone that cuts through traffic noise you'll want something that won't be as likely to get masked out by concentrating the power in a single tone, preferably with a lot of power in the frequency bands where humans are most sensitive (about 1kHz to 3kHz). You'll also want something with sustained tones rather than transients as our perception of loudness increases with duration. Another thing that affects our perception of loudness is the envelope of the sound. A rising envelope is perceived as coming closer and will consequently sound louder than the opposite.

So with these principles, the flute makes for a pretty good candidate for a ringtone. But I would guess that a recognizable birdsong may actually be better because it probably has a lot of the characteristics of the flute (relatively pure but not absolutely tones concentrated at higher frequencies), mixed with more noisy tones which can help us with localization - ie realizing that the sound is coming from your pocket and not the street.
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:48 PM on September 30, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! That's extremely helpful. I will experiment with flute, birdsong, and other high-pitched ringtones.

(I do have my phone on vibrate, by the way, but for some reason never feel it when I'm out walking around.)
posted by yankeefog at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2013

Response by poster: Update: I have been using the flute Badinerie from Bach's Orchestral Suite BWV1067 and I've definitely been able to hear it better than my previous ringtone when I'm outside. Thanks again!
posted by yankeefog at 6:23 AM on November 6, 2013

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