smartfilming

Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#29 Favorite field recorder apps on Android — 27. July 2020

#29 Favorite field recorder apps on Android

After starting to write a blog post about multi-track audio editing apps on Android, I figured it might be useful to do one on field recorder apps first as a precursor so to speak. I chose to use the term “field recorder” as opposed to “audio recorder” since there’s a whole bunch of multi-track audio editing apps that also record audio. And while I’m mostly concerned with mobile videography on this blog, I think it can’t hurt to take a look at audio for once, particularly since field recorder apps can also be used as independent audio recorders with a lavalier mic in a video production environment. I’ll have a look at six different apps of which each single one includes something interesting/useful. It will depend on your use case and personal taste which one qualifies as the best for you. Do note that most Android phones actually come with a native audio recording / voice memo app, some of which are quite good, but for the purpose of this article I will look at 3rd party apps only that are available for (almost) all Android devices. Well, with one exception…

RecForge II (Pro)

UI of “RecForge II” while recording.

One of the first more advanced 3rd party audio recording apps I stumbled upon after getting a smartphone was RecForge (Pro). The UI was visually pleasant (somewhat futuristic) but not the most intuitive, I found navigating around slightly confusing in the beginning. Its successor RecForge II (Pro) got a new look which is less fancy, more focused, but the developer failed to iron out some of the UX issues I had with the app. Two examples: When you press the “Record” button on the main screen, the app takes you to an all-new recording screen with lots of different buttons, timeline, big waveforms and is already recording. I think it would be less confusing if the same button that started the recording remained present and pushing it again would stop the recording. Well, as a matter of fact I just found out that you can change this in the settings but then you don’t get any kind of waveform or audio level meter which is always good to have. When you stop the recording, you need to push a button that looks like an “eject” symbol to get back to the main screen which I consider a bit odd. That being said, RecForge II might have the most complete feature set of all the recording apps listed here. It records in a wide variety of formats including wav, mp3, m4a etc., has options for sample rates and bit rate, basic clip editing (missing a fade tool though!), live audio monitoring, gain control (positive and negative) and live audio level meters (to check/adjust before recording, preview mode needs to be activated in the settings), support for external mics, mic source selection, scheduled recordings, homescreen widgets, a conversion tool and much more. The free version gives you unlimited wav recording but automatically pauses every three minutes when recording in any other format (like mp3). Pro version without limitations and ads is 3.89€.

Easy Voice Recorder (Pro)

One of the many useful homescreen widgets of “Easy Voice Recorder”.

EVR is far and away the best audio recording app on Android when it comes to homescreen widgets, it has a whole variety of them, some minimal, some more elaborate. Just in case you don’t know: Widgets are a special feature of Android (iOS is currently playing catch-up) that lets you add certain app functionality directly to your home screen without having to open the app first. So for instance you can add a button that starts a recording directly to the homescreen. EVR is also the only audio recorder among my list that has a WearOS companion app which means you can launch and control a recording from a smartwatch. It has a range of useful features and options but it’s also missing some more advanced stuff: There’s currently no way to check audio levels or control gain before starting a recording and it’s also lacking the ability to do live monitoring via headphones. I have reached out to the developers and they acknowledged my request, saying that they will look into it but that significant changes to the app’s core would have to be made to provide this. If you like EVR but miss these features I strongly encourage you to contact the devs and make your voice heard! EVR lets you record in wav, m4a and 3gp formats in the free version, plus mp3 and aac in the paid upgrade. The paid upgrade also has more useful goodies in the form of a basic editing tool for trimming/cropping, the option to convert to other formats and automatic upload to the cloud. The paid pro version is 3.99€.

Voice Record Pro

“Voice Record Pro” lets you create an mp4 video file from your audio-only recording. You can add a photo and some text.

This one’s a favorite of many on iOS and I’m glad that the developer decided to bring the app to Android as well. That being said, after launching it in 2018 and providing a few initial bug fixes, the developer hasn’t delivered a single update (be it bug fixes, let alone a feature drop) in over two years. It works reasonably well on most devices but certain (device-specific) glitches have not been addressed with the developer not being available for any kind of communication (I have tried on multiple occasions to no avail). It also lacks the transcription feature and the ability to adjust input gain of the iOS version if that’s important to you. VRP is unique among the apps mentioned here in that it allows you to create an mp4 video from a recorded audio file by adding an image and text to it. Useful for a quick share/teaser on social media platforms. The app has a great set of options for adjusting the quality of the recording, supports external mics and lets you check the input levels before and during a recording – no live monitoring via headphones though. A basic editing tool for trimming/cropping is included. VRP is free with ads. According to the GooglePlay store information, there’s supposed to be an in-app purchase but I have honestly not been able to locate it. I would be happy to pay a few bucks for this app and get rid of the ads but apparently it doesn’t seem possible (do let me know if you have found the IAP!). It’s a potentially great app but I wish the developer would make an effort to keep the Android version up to date.

ShurePlus Motiv

It’s super-easy to quickly apply a fade in/out with the handles in “ShurePlus Motiv”.

I have to admit this one has possibly become my personal favorite for its clean and focused design/functionality, great basic editing tools and solid feature set, notwithstanding its integration with a range of Shure microphones (naturally, this means that it supports external mics and not only Shure mics if you’re worried about that). It’s also completely free without any ads or feature cut backs. Something I absolutely love about the app is the way you can easily apply fades at the beginning and end of a clip, just drag the handles, you can even mirror the fades automatically! The app records in wav format with the option to convert to aac afterwards. You can adjust positive gain before/during a recording, reducing the input level is only possible if you are using some kind of external interface however. The biggest shortcoming at the moment is the lack of an option for live audio monitoring via headphones (which is available in the iOS version of the app). I have been in touch with Shure and they are looking into it. It would also be nice to have one or two homescreen widgets for people who often use it and want to launch a recording as fast as possible, but that’s a minor complaint. All in all, this is a beautiful and excellent audio recording app from a renowned microphone manufacturer – do check it out!

Field Recorder

“Field Recorder” lets you flip the UI so you can point the main internal mic of a phone (usually located at the bottom) towards a subject and still see the controls the right way.

If you are used to dedicated portable field recorders, you might find Field Recorder’s UI and functionality particularly appealing since it sort of mimics the appearance of such devices. Others however could be a bit intimidated by the somewhat busy upper half of the UI and the load of options in the settings menu. One very cool thing about FR is that it lets you rotate the UI which in the case of reverse portrait mode helps if you are using the (main) internal mic of the phone (instead of an external mic) which will usually be located at the bottom of the phone. If you are interviewing someone pointing this part towards the subject, the UI would be topsy-turvy for yourself unless you are able to rotate the UI independently from the device’s orientation. FR has you covered here. The app has an extensive range of options to customize the interface/recording process, includes live audio monitoring via headphones, supports the use of external mics and features an optional limiter. It’s missing the ability to edit/trim a recording though. FR records uncompressed wav files with the option to convert to mp3 after installing another app (‘Media Converter’) from the PlayStore to handle the conversion. There’s a homescreen widget but it’s a bit complicated to use. Field Recorder costs 4.99€, there’s no free version but I’d say it’s most definitely worth the price if you like its UI and feature set.

Google Recorder

“Google Recorder” automatically transcribes your recordings.

This one is probably the odd ball among the pack with very little to no control/settings options – but sporting a killer feature that by itself will let many folks crave it badly: It can auto-transcribe any recording offline (only English so far!) and search text within a recording completely for free! When sharing you have the option to only share the audio, only the text as a text file or both. You also have the ability to directly upload recordings to the cloud (GoogleDrive). Recordings are saved in m4a format with a sample rate of 32 kHz and a bitrate of 48Kbit/s. There’s currently no option for higher sample or bitrates or other recording formats like wav. But depending on what you are doing, this might not be a problem. There’s one relatively big catch to this: So far, it’s officially only available for Google’s Pixel devices (excluding the very first Pixel phone apparently). You can however sideload it (meaning installing it outside of the Google PlayStore via an apk file) to many other Android devices, XDA Developers has a great article on how to do that and which devices are currently supported. I sideloaded it to my LG V30 and it works really well. Note: You will need to allow app installs from external sources though first in the settings of your phone (it’s disabled by default for security reasons). Will it be officially available for non-Google Android devices in the future? There are arguments for both sides: Technically it shouldn’t be a problem since Google’s Live Transcribe app which basically taps into the same core functionality of transcribing audio is already available for many Android devices. Google might however want to keep this a special feature on Pixel devices, an incentive to pick a Pixel over other Android phones. We’ll see how that plays out over the next months. Some things Google Recorder is missing: While there’s a live waveform when recording (which is good), you don’t get an audio level meter, gain control, homescreen widgets or the ability to edit/trim a recording. As all the other apps listed here, it generally supports the use of external mics. 

So which one is the best field recorder app for Android? Well, as indicated in the introduction to this article, there’s no clear answer. There are many very good ones and which one specifically suits you best will depend on your use case, what features you absolutely need and which features you can live without, if you love a complex interface with loads of options or like to keep it simple. The good thing is: With the exception of Field Recorder (which doesn’t have a free version) and Google Recorder (which has only limited availability) you will be able to test most of the apps for free to decide which one’s your top pick. And also remember: These are just a couple of candidates that I happen to like, there are many many more in the Google PlayStore and it’s entirely possible that there’s a great one I haven’t discovered yet. If you have a favorite one not listed here, do let me know in the comments or on Twitter @smartfilming. And stay tuned for an upcoming article about multi-track audio editing apps for Android. Last thing: If you like this blog, consider signing up for my Telegram newsletter via t.me/smartfilming to get notified about new posts.

Download RecForge II Lite / RecForge II Pro on Google Play
Download Easy Voice Recorder / Easy Voice Recorder Pro on Google Play
Download Voice Record Pro on Google Play
Download ShurePlus Motiv on Google Play
Download Field Recorder on Google Play
Download Google Recorder on Google Play

#28 Android 11 might be the most important update for mobile videography since Android 5 — 20. July 2020

#28 Android 11 might be the most important update for mobile videography since Android 5

One of the things more tech-savvy smartphone users often criticize about Google’s mobile operating system Android is the fact that new versions of the OS only roll out relatively slowly and to a somewhat limited number of (recent) devices, particularly when compared to new versions of Apple’s iOS for iPhones. There has been some progress (the current version Android 10 managed the fastest and widest roll-out of any Android version so far), but it’s still a long way to getting anywhere close to the swift and wide-spread roll-out of new iOS versions. 

While in general I would definitely prefer to have faster and more wide-reaching availability of new Android versions, I also think that the topic is often way too dramatized, particularly since Google separated regular security patches from the OS version with Android 8 Oreo in 2017. If we look at this particularly from a smartphone videography perspective, there have been hardly any major feature updates to the Android system over the last years that would make having “the latest and greatest” an absolute must. In my opinion, the last crucial milestone was Android 5 Lollipop back in 2014 when Google added the ability for screen recording via third party apps and – most importantly – introduced the Camera2 API which gave developers access to more advanced camera controls like shutter speed and ISO. The following versions surely continued to further polish a now pretty mature mobile operating system and occasionally included generally useful new tweaks and features for the common user but nothing really groundbreaking in terms of mobile videography. The upcoming Android 11 (scheduled for late summer / early fall 2020) could actually be a new milestone however. After checking out the official Android 11 developer information site from Google and various articles (many by the excellent XDA Developers news outlet!) plus getting a (used) Pixel 3 to hop on the beta version of Android 11 myself, I have found a bunch of quite interesting things, some will be immediately accessible in Android 11, others will offer new possibilities for app developers to dig into.

Native Screen Recording

As mentioned before, Android 5 had already introduced the general ability for screen recording back in 2014 but only for 3rd party apps, not as a native OS functionality. While some Android phone makers actually added native screen recording to their phones it wasn’t available right out of the box for most devices. It did finally pop up as a system immanent feature in the beta version for Android 10 but was unfortunately dropped for the final release. Now it’s back on the Android 11 beta and I’m pretty sure it will make it to the finish line this time around! You can simply access this feature via the quick settings when pulling down the notification shade from the top. It’s not there by default but you can easily add it to the quick settings by tapping on the pen icon in the bottom left corner of the notification shade and then dragging the screen record tile to the quick settings. On my Pixel 3, the resolution of the recorded video is 2160×1080 or 1080×2160 depending on the orientation with a somewhat curious frame rate hovering around 40 to 45 fps.

Capturing System Audio

Directly related to the native screen recording is the ability to capture system/internal audio from the device. It’s something that Google wouldn’t allow up until now so all the screen recording apps that came out in the wake of Android 5 were only able to capture sound through the phone’s mic / an external mic or no sound at all, not the ‘clean’ audio of an incoming call or a video that you are playing back. When you launch the native screen recorder on Android 11, it asks you to pick between three options in terms of audio capture: “Microphone”, “Device audio” or “Device audio and microphone”. Why is this important? If you want to record a (video) call for instance, you should now be able to capture both ends directly into a mix or just get your interviewee’s audio without having your own side mixed in. The pop-up when launching the screen recorder also gives you the option to show touches while capturing which is great if you are doing a tutorial on how to use an app as viewers can see what buttons you touch during the process.

Airplane Mode doesn’t turn off Bluetooth

When recording video on a smartphone it’s generally a good thing to turn on Airplane Mode to prevent any kind of interference with your recording. Sure, most of the time you might get away with not paying attention to this… until an important shot gets ruined by an incoming call etc. So far, going into Airplane Mode killed Bluetooth (it’s possible to manually turn it on again) which probably isn’t that big of a deal for shooting video – yet. Most external Bluetooth mics are still lacking in terms of more professional audio quality but this might change soon and it’s already a viable option to use Bluetooth headphones for audio monitoring. It’s a welcome tweak then that when having a Bluetooth device paired to the phone, going into Airplane Mode won’t turn off Bluetooth automatically.

Automatically block notifications when using the camera

Filmic Pro actually already has an option to block notifications while using the app in its settings but Google apparently introduced a new API that will allow developers of camera apps to automatically block disruptive notifications and sounds when people are using the app. The next step could be a feature that would allow the user to automatically activate the airplane mode when launching a camera app.

Support for concurrent use of more than one camera

This one could be a biggie! Here’s a quote from Google’s official Android 11 “Features and API Overview” knowledge base: “Support for concurrent use of more than one camera. Android 11 adds APIs to query support for using more than one camera at a time, including both a front-facing and rear-facing camera.” To me, this very much sounds like the groundwork for giving camera apps the power to capture content from multiple cameras simultaneously. This is not completely new on Android phones. Various phone makers including the likes of Samsung, HTC, LG and Nokia have featured camera modes on some of their devices that let you capture a video with both the front and the rear camera at the same time, creating a split-screen video in the process. I actually wrote a whole article about it and its particular usefulness for covering live events with some sort of presenter. Whether people didn’t like the feature or didn’t even know it existed in the first place will probably remain in the dark (I assume it was the latter) but the fact remains that this very intriguing feature never grew any kind of significant popularity or wide-spread availability. The universal rise of multi-camera arrays on smartphones in the last years however really does call for a revival of this feature! Pretty much every phone nowadays has two or even more rear cameras and one could indeed think of quite a few use cases where a combination of rear and front cameras or both rear cameras (regular and wide-angle/tele) recording simultaneously might come in handy. Apple introduced a dedicated API with iOS 13 just last year and 3rd party developers jumped at the opportunity with Filmic Inc.’s CTO Christopher Cohen even being invited on stage at the Apple Event to show off “DoubleTake”. Unlike with the dual camera feature on certain Android devices before, you can also record the video streams into separate files instead of having a pre-mixed split-screen. It’s easy to see that this resource-intensive functionality would most likely only be available on powerful Android devices in the beginning (it even seems to be relatively fragmented on iOS at this time) but I really hope I’m not misinterpreting this info and some camera app developer can make it happen soon!  

Control external devices

I’m not sure how much can actually come out of this but a new feature called “Quick Access Device Controls” specifically includes “cameras” in its explanatory text: “The Quick Access Device Controls feature, available starting in Android 11, allows the user to quickly view and control external devices such as lights, thermostats and cameras from the Android power menu”. From this, one might deduct that by “cameras” they probably refer to surveillance cameras (or some other internet-connected IoT smart device) but I suppose this could potentially be utilized for controlling other external devices in a media production environment as well so I’ll keep an eye on it and maybe a clever developer finds an ingenious application for this.

Removal of 4GB file size limit

Up until now, Android was only able to write maximum files sizes of around 4GB, a left-over from the very early days that remained unaddressed for too long. As a matter of fact, certain phone makers (Sony for instance) found a way to disable the file size limit in their version of the OS but it remained present on many devices. While this limitation was of little relevance to many (including certain mobile videographers!), it was a major nuisance for others (including me) who wanted to record longer interviews, workshops, events etc. Some camera apps would seemingly record continuously while splitting clips in the background when reaching the file size limit, some would automatically restart the recording, others just stop, forcing a manual restart by the user. With UHD/4K video slowly creeping into the mainstream, this matter got even more pressing in the last years and it’s really about time Android rids itself of this anachronistic relic. Well, it looks like this time is now!

Share Nearby / Nearby Sharing

The last feature I want to mention isn’t actually exclusive to the upcoming new Android version but I still decided to include it here. AirDrop has been a really useful feature on iOS for some time, it allows you to wirelessly transfer (big) files between iOS, iPadOS and MacOS devices without an internet connection. While Google launched its quite useful “Files” app some time ago which lets you among other things quickly send (big) files between Android devices without an active internet connection by using an ad-hoc wifi network and the WiFi direct protocol, it’s still a separate app and not baked into the OS itself. It also doesn’t span the bridge to the desktop if you want to send one or more video files from your phone to your computer for editing. A new feature called “Share Nearby” or “Nearby Sharing” which will be integrated into Android’s share sheet apparently aims to provide Android users with an AirDrop-like experience. And while I first thought that it will not reach beyond the Android OS, thereby seriously curtailing its usefulness, there is some information indicating it could actually link to desktop computers via the Google Chrome browser which would be really awesome! Share Nearby is supposed to roll out in August for all Android devices running Android 6 Marshmallow or newer.

As you can see, this time around there’s actually quite a list of (potentially) useful new features debuting with the new version of Android so it’s fair to say I’m really excited about the launch! What do you think? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. Also, feel free to sign up for my Telegram newsletter t.me/smartfilming to get notified about new blog posts.