Nokia knows you know its iconic ringtone by heart. Team Nokia also knows, courtesy of a global study, that one of the most commonly preferred ringtone styles is classical. When it came to create 25 new tones for its new phones, rather than fashion more Bach-biting works on a synth in a lab, the mobile giant opted to bring in the professionals—a 55-piece symphony orchestra.
"We think that the sound of an orchestra is timeless," says Tapio Hakanen, Nokia’s head of sound and visual content. "It’s equally relevant three years from now or five years from now—it’s been relevant for hundreds of years, so that doesn’t change."
Hakanen has spent two decades as an electronic music DJ, with a similarly long career in sound design. He’s been at Nokia five years; roughly a year ago he and his team decided to enact the long-discussed "stringtone" plan. "You can get pretty close with the best software, instruments, and samplers and so forth, but we really wanted to go with the real thing," Hakanen tells Co.Create. "We thought that’s the way, at our level, it should be done."
It’s the largest undertaking of this scale and style Hakanen is aware of, and deciding to do it was the easy part. Then came composing the ringtones and ensuring they fit the devices they’ll debut with (Nokia’s Lumia 920 and the Lumia 820).
"We want the whole look and feel to be a good match. With the sounds that are in there and especially these ringtones, we tried to leverage the perceived quality of the device," Hakanen says. "I think when you actually hear them from the device and you look at the overall design aesthetics of the device, it’s a pretty good match. At least in my opinion, it does take the device to a new level."
Hakanen and his team wrote 25 original pieces, or "miniatures" (preview them here) and took them to the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, an institution that’s recorded themes for films and video games, including The Sims 2 and the newly released Assassin’s Creed 3.
"The structure of a good ringtone, there is something that is rooted in how a telephone rings. Brrrrr, silence. Brrrrr, silence," Hakanen says, mimicking an antique wall-mounted telephone. "And if you listen to these compositions, many of them actually reflect that functional nature, at the same time the sound and feel of it is the timeless sound of a symphony orchestra."
But in a climate where even our grandparents are trending toward rejecting calls and immediately texting replies, is the ringtone something that has to battle for significance? "We look at the whole sound experience of a device, where it is a combination of ringtones and notification sounds, other user interface sounds," Hakanen says. "When you look at one detail, it might look like a detail, but it adds something to the whole feeling of the device. And then even with the details, you can do everything really well or not so well. The camera sound, for example: It is a sound played and heard millions and millions of times every day, so you really need to get it right."
How about user customizability—does the growing desire and ability to deeply personalize everything threaten the future of factory-packaged sounds? "Certainly not. I think we just aim for happy users, happy people. It’s obvious some people do want to put their own favorite track or their own recording as a ringtone, that’s perfectly fine," Hakanen says. "Then again, some people want to find something delightful and nice out of the box, and some people don’t bother changing anything and just go with the default. People are different and we acknowledge and appreciate that."
Hakanen believes even the choosiest users are among those flipping through preloaded ringtones the moment they receive their new device. "It does hold some value in being, if not the first user experience, one of the first things you do with it," he says.
Hakanen is unsure what his team’s next project will be, but he guesses it’ll involve another bar-raising.