The de-evolution of phone rings
Or when is an emblematic signifier no longer emblematic?
Back in the 1990s, when a radio script would call for a telephone ring, we’d generally put in a 1980s-era bell telephone ring, because it was still a sound most everyone associated with a home telephone. Office phones and cellular phones could have an electronic beep, but even though more and more home phones were electronic we still hung on to the Ma Bell sound, because it was the simplest and quickest way to communicate “telephone” to a mass audience.
But that was the ‘90s. It’s a whole ‘nother world – not only have I only seen one or two old bell-type phones in use in recent years, but a phone ring…isn’t a phone ring anymore. Barring exceptional circumstances, you really can’t use the Ma Bell ring in a contemporary setting.
Before we go any farther, I want to point out that I’m not some old fuddy-duddy wanting things to go back to the way they used to was. I like being able to customize my phone ring. I like that I can have certain rings for certain callers. It’s all cool. This is more about the challenge in sound design: what sound do phones in commercials and plays and movies make now? In an office setting, you can still do an electronic chirp, though one of my co-workers has his phone set to repeatedly ask “are you there? Are you there?” when he has an incoming call. In a home setting, I have yet to see anyone using custom ringtones…though I imagine by this time next year anyone who still has a land-line will have a phone capable of playing Lady Gaga when the telemarteters call to interrupt dinner. But a character in a contemporary play/film/spot who’s using a celphone? Here we have a challenge.
With that challenge we also have an opportunity. The simplest thing to do is use our 1990s logic, and hold ourselves back in time a little. Just use a standard electronic chirp, one of the preset rings on a phone that are generally too dull for anyone to actually use. But the opportunity we have is that we can use a ringtone to make a statement about the character. What kind of ringtone would this person put on his/her phone? Perhaps s/he is in fact straightlaced enough that one of the flat factory ringtones is just fine, but on the other hand, maybe not. In a production of Cupid & Psyche that had an extensive Radiohead soundtrack, we used a version of “Creep” for Apollo’s ringtone. This functioned on two levels: Apollo is the villain of the piece, and in that regard he is, in fact, a bit of a creep. But beyond just the title, because the song is about self-loathing and insecurity, the ringtone made a comment about Apollo’s character in the show as well.
However, there’s a further issue in that most pop-song ringtones these days are mp3 snippets of the actual recording. This is a dicey thing when you’re dealing with diegetic sounds and scoring, because if the audience hears a short piece of music in a play or film, they’re not going to automatically think “telephone.” They might first think “radio” or “soundtrack.” You could make sure the song is filtered and sounds like a low-quality mp3 through a tiny speaker, but it still may not communicate “telephone” as quickly and directly as the electronic chirps. For Cupid & Psyche we addressed this by arranging the “Creep” ringtone using celphone chirps.
Perhaps I’m holding back too much. Maybe audiences are already cuturally conditioned to the point where an mp3 ringtone in a sound design will work fine. And I’m certainly fine with the old Ma Bell sound being a “period piece” sound effect. Let me know what you think.