How to make a new system sound for your Mac

How to make a new system sound for your Mac
Mac Tip #515, 07 December 2011

Bored with the half dozen sounds you can choose for when your Mac ‘beeps’ at you? You can add new sounds if you like, and it’s quite easy to do. This Tip explains how to make and install a new ‘beep’ for your Mac.

I’m using Lion, but I’ve used similar techniques in the past. This Tip probably works with almost any version of Mac OS X.

Quick Start

  1. Save very brief music files in .aiff format.
  2. Add the .aiff files to the ~/Library/Sounds directory.
  3. Optional: instead or in addition add the .aiff files to the /System/Library/Sounds directory. You will need to authenticate with an Admin user password to add files to that directory.

Want more detail? Read the full Tip below.


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Choose an alert sound

Sometimes your Mac beeps to show it needs your attention — perhaps an email has arrived, or there’s a problem that needs you to take an action.

My new sound for alerts.

My new sound for alerts: myAlert.

You can choose from half a dozen sounds that are built-in to your Mac, but quite honestly, I find none of the choices to be really what I want, so I made my own. The screenshot shows some of the built-in sounds, but also my new Custom alert called myAlert, which I’ve selected.

To choose an alert sound:

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Click on the Sound item. The Sound panel opens up.
  3. Click on the Sound Effects tab. The list of alert sounds is displayed.
  4. Make sure your speakers are on and the volume is turned up, then click on any item in the list of alerts. That alert sound is played. Note: some alerts, such as Bottle and Morse are very brief and very quiet.
  5. After choosing an alert sound simply leave it selected and your computer will use it next time it needs to ‘beep’.

Note: some apps let you choose alert sounds separately for specific actions.

Keep sounds short

The built-in alert sound I checked was only 0.19 of a second long. Longer alert sounds become very tedious very quickly and may also slow down your work if you have to wait for them to finish before you can continue.

Find or create a sound you like

You may already have a sound you want to use as the basis for your new alert. I browsed around Garageband (it comes free with most or all new Macs) and found a loop I liked. I opted for the Stinger named Pulsing Logo Accent 01. Another one that appealed was Soft Pulsing Accent.

Drag the loop you choose into the main Garageband editing window.

The Garageband loops are actually stored in folders inside the /Library/Audio/Apple Loops/Apple directory. If you have a suitable sound editor you could open them directly from there.

Edit the sound

Use Garageband (or any other music editor) to trim the sound to a suitable length.

Unfortunately, how to use Garageband is beyond the scope of this Tip. I haven’t read any of the Take Control of Garageband ebooks (there are books for several recent versions of the app), but the Take Control series is superb and I’d expect any of the books in the series to be stunningly useful. If you buy through the link here I earn an affiliate fee which helps support this website. Buy Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand ’11.

You may have another sound editor and could use that to trim and export a longer sound. I favour Fission myself.

Export the sound in .aiff format

In Garageband 09 (the version I have) choose Export Song to Disk… from the Share menu. A dialog box appears.

Export song to disk.

Export song to disk.

If the Compress checkbox is checked then uncheck it. The dialog box should now read Export your song to disk in CD quality.

Click the Export button. Garageband should now save the file in .aiff format to the directory you choose on the computer.

Garageband may export the file with a .aif extension (only one f, not two). This doesn’t seem to make a difference. If you find a sound doesn’t ‘work’ though, try ensuring it has the .aiff extension.

Move the sound

To use the sound move it to the ~/Library/Sounds directory.

If you’re using Lion you may have trouble finding the ~/Library directory because it’s hidden. In that case:

  1. In the Finder hold down the Option (⌥) key.
  2. Click on the Go Menubar item.
  3. Choose Library from the list of places to Go to.
  4. Scroll down until you see the Sounds directory, and double click the folder to open it.

For more help with this step see How to read and write a filepath.

Test the sound

Go to the System PreferencesSoundSound Effects tab and look for your new sound in the list.

If you still have the System PreferencesSoundSound Effects tab open you may need to Quit System Preferences and open it up again.

Use an alert in other apps

I use the very excellent Mailplane for my various Gmail accounts. It lets you set a custom alert sound to notify you when mail arrives. I found though that it couldn’t see my new custom alerts, even after restarting the Mac.

Mailplane alert sounds for an account.

Mailplane alert sounds for an account.

To fix this problem I found I had to add my custom alerts to the main System folder, rather than just the User folder mentioned in the main body of this Tip above.

If you have a similar problem try copying the .aiff files to the /System/Library/Sounds directory. You will need to authenticate with an Admin user password to add files to that directory.

Remember to back up your custom sounds

If you’ve gone to the time and trouble of creating custom alerts it would be a shame to lose them, perhaps with a software update. Make sure to keep copies in a safe place.

My chatty Mac

I love having a noisy, chatty Mac that tells me when things happen, that ‘beeps’ when it needs my attention. But the built-in sounds aren’t enough for me. Being able to make my own custom alerts is fun.

What do you think? Did you try this Tip out?

Tell us in the comments how this Tip helped you.

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  1. Chris Skinner said:

    I have Lost My Sound Alerts Please Help How Do I Get Them Back Thanks

  2. LYNNE KERSH said:

    Since moving to Lion I’ve lost my i-Cal alert which is use for “urgent – get up and do it!” alerts.
    Ive been trying to find the Sounds folder, though i don’t think id have known what to do with it when i found it) and your tip has given me that info and so much more. Im very very pleased to have found your Tip and thank you so much!

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