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Exploring the possibilities of video production with smartphones

#35 Using external microphones with iPhones when shooting video — 1. December 2020

#35 Using external microphones with iPhones when shooting video

I usually don’t follow the stats for my blog but when I recently did check on what articles have been the most popular so far, I noticed that a particular one stuck out by a large margin and that was the one on using external microphones with Android devices. So I thought if people seem to be interested in that, why not make an equivalent for iOS, that is for iPhones? So let’s jump right into it.

First things first: The Basics

A couple of basic things first: Every iPhone has a built-in microphone for recording video that, depending on the use case, might already be good enough if you can position the phone close to your talent/interviewee. Having your mic close to the sound source is key in every situation to get good audio! As a matter of fact, the iPhone has multiple internal mics and uses different ones for recording video (next to the lens/lenses) and pure audio (bottom part). When doing audio-only for radio etc., it’s relatively easy to get close to your subject and get good results. It’s not the best way when recording video though if you don’t want to shove your phone into someone’s face. In this case you can and should significantly improve the audio quality of your video by using an external mic connected to your iPhone – never forget that audio is very important! While the number of Android phone makers that support the use of external mics within their native camera app is slowly growing, there are still many (most?) Android devices out there that don’t support this for the camera app that comes with the phone (it’s possible with basically every Android device if you use 3rd party camera apps though!). You don’t have to worry about this when shooting with the native camera app of an iPhone. The native camera app will recognize a connected external mic automatically and use it as the audio input when recording video. When it comes to 3rd party video recording apps, many of them like Filmic Pro, MoviePro or Mavis support the use of external mics as well but with some of them you have to choose the audio input in the settings so definitely do some testing before using it the first time on a critical job. Although I’m looking at this from a videographer’s angle, most of what I am about to elaborate on also applies to recording with audio recording apps. And in the same way, when I say “iPhone”, I could just as well say “iPad” or “iPod Touch”. So there are basically three different ways of connecting an external mic to your iPhone: via the 3.5mm headphone jack, via the Lightning port and via Bluetooth (wireless).

3.5mm headphone jack & adapter

Left: iPhone SE 2020 with Lightning port only, Right: iPhone 6 with Lightning port and 3.5mm headphone jack.

With all the differences between Android and iOS both in terms of hardware and software, the 3.5mm headphone jack was, for a while, a somewhat unifying factor – that was until Apple decided to drop the headphone jack for the iPhone 7 in 2016. This move became a wildly debated topic, surely among the – let’s be honest – comparatively small community of mobile videographers and audio producers relying on connecting external mics to their phones but also among more casual users because they couldn’t just plug in their (often very expensive) headphones to their iPhone anymore. While the first group is definitely more relevant for readers of this blog, the second was undoubtedly responsible for putting the issue on the public debate map. Despite the considerable outcry, Apple never looked back. They did offer a Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter – but sold it separately. I’m sure they have been making a fortune since, don’t ask how many people had to buy it more than once because they lost, displaced or broke the first one. A whole bunch of Android phone makers obviously thought Apple’s idea was a progressive step forward and started ditching the headphone jack as well, equipping their phones only with a USB-C port. Unlike with Apple however, the consumer still had the choice to choose a new phone that had a headphone jack and in a rather surprising turn of events, some companies like Huawei and Google actually backtracked and re-introduced the headphone jack, at least for certain models. Anyway, if you happen to have an older iPhone (6s and earlier) you can still use the wide variety of external microphones that can be connected via the 3.5mm headphone jack without worrying much about adapters and dongles.

Left: 3.5mm connector with 2 rings / 3 conductors (TRS) / Right: 3.5mm connector with 3 rings / 4 conductors (TRRS – smartphone compatible)

Be aware of the fact though that 3.5mm connectors on microphones/audio interfaces come in two varieties (TRS and TRRS) of which only one (TRRS) works directly with smartphones. They basically look the same upon first glance but the TRRS pin has three small black rings whereas a TRS pin (which is made for ‘regular’ cameras) only has two. You can however use TRS mics on smartphones with a TRS-to-TRRS adapter like the SC4 from Rode. A very popular mic solution in this regard is Rode’s Wireless Go ultra-compact wireless system. The cable that is included to connect the receiver to a device has a TRS connector for use with DSLRs/DSLMs. It won’t work out of the box with your iPhone despite the fact that it fits perfectly into the phone’s headphone jack (or the Lightning-to-3.5 adapter). You will need the aforementioned SC4 adapter or buy a dedicated TRS-to-TRRS cable like Rode’s SC7. The same goes for another Rode bestseller, the VideoMicro shotgun mic. Other companies like Saramonic (Blink 500 Pro wireless system) and Sennheiser (MKE 200, shotgun mic) were mindful enough to include both a TRS and TRRS cable so it’s easy to use with both DSLRs/DSLMs and mobile devices. There are also many mobile-focused mics that come exclusively with a TRRS connector: Rode’s popular smartLav+ lavalier mic, IK Multimedia’s classic iRig Mic and the company’s groundbreaking audio interface iRigPre which lets you use any XLR mic with your phone, just like Saramonic’s SmartRig II – both interfaces also have 3.5mm headphone jacks that allow for audio monitoring. The Saramonic SmartRig+ even lets you connect two XLR mics and adjust their input gain separately. Rode on the other hand has an adapter (SC6) that lets you connect two smartLavs (or other TRRS mics) to your mobile device and even monitor the audio via a third 3.5mm port. Unlike with Saramonic’s SmartRig interfaces though, you can’t control the input gain, neither for the audio input in general nor separately for each of the two connected mics. The signal also isn’t split into different channels so you can’t adjust the levels independently in post. It still can come in handy for interview situations where you have to interviewees or just one but also want the audio from the interviewer.

Lightning port

Lightning connector and Lightning port.

While most Android users probably still have fairly fresh memories of a different charging port standard (microUSB) from the one that is common now (USB-C), only seasoned iPhone aficionados will remember the days of the 30-pin connector that lasted until the iPhone 5 introduced the Lightning port as a new standard in 2012. And while microUSB mic solutions for Android could be counted on one hand and USB-C offerings took forever to become a reality, there were dedicated Lightning mics even before Apple decided to kill the headphone jack. The most prominent one and a veritable trailblazer was probably IK Multimedia’s iRig Mic HD and its successor, the iRig Mic HD 2. IK Multimedia’s successor to the iRigPre, the iRigPre HD comes with a Lightning cable as well. But you can also find options from other well-known companies like Zoom (iQ6, iQ7), Shure (MV88/MV88+), Sennheiser (HandMic Digital, MKE 2 Digital), Rode (Video Mic Me-L), Samson (Go Mic Mobile) or Saramonic (Blink 500). The Saramonic Blink 500 comes in multiple variations, two of them specifically targeted at iOS users: the Blink 500 B3 with one transmitter and the B4 with two transmitters. The small receiver plugs right into the Lightning port and is therefore an intriguingly compact solution, particularly when using it with a gimbal. Saramonic also has the SmartRig Di and SmartRig+ Di audio interfaces that let you connect one or two XLR mics to your device. IK Multimedia offers two similar products with the iRig Pro and the iRig Pro Duo. Rode recently released the USB-C-to-Lightning patch cable SC15 which lets you use their Video Mic NTG (which comes with TRS/TRRS cables) with an iPhone. There’s also a Lightning connector version of the SC6 breakout box, the SC6-L which lets you connect two smartLavs or TRRS mics to your phone. I have dropped lots of product names here so far but you know what? Even if you don’t own any of them, you most likely already have an external mic at hand: Of course I’m talking about the headset that comes included with the iPhone! It can’t match the audio quality of other dedicated external mics but it’s quite solid and can come in handy when you have nothing else available. One thing you should keep in mind when using any kind of microphone connected via the iPhone’s Lightning port: unless you are using a special adapter with an additional charge-through port, you will not be able to charge your device at the same time like you can/could with older iOS devices that had a headphone jack.

Wireless/Bluetooth

Using the Instamic as a wireless Bluetooth mic with Filmic Pro.

I have mentioned quite a few wireless systems before (Rode Wireless Go, Saramonic Blink 500/Blink 500 Pro, Samson Go Mic Mobile) that I won’t list here (again) for one reason: While the TX/RX system of something like the Rode Wireless Go streams audio wirelessly between its units, the receiver unit (RX) needs to be connected to the iPhone via a cable or (in the case of the Blink 500) at least a connector. So strictly speaking it’s not really wireless when it comes to how the audio signal gets into the phone. Now, are there any ‘real’ wireless solutions out there? Yes, but the technology hasn’t evolved to a standard that can match wired or semi-wired solutions in terms of both quality and reliability. While there could be two ways of wireless audio into a phone (wifi and Bluetooth), only one (Bluetooth) is currently in use for external microphones. This is unfortunate because the Bluetooth protocol that is used for sending audio back from an external accessory to the phone (the so-called Hands Free Profile, HFP) is limited to a sample rate of 16kHz (probably because it was created with headset phone calls in mind). Professional broadcast audio usually has a sample rate of 44.1 or 48kHz. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any situations in which using a Bluetooth mic with its 16kHz limitation can actually be good enough. The Instamic was primarily designed to be a standalone ultra-compact high quality audio recorder which records 48/96 kHz files to its internal 8GB storage but can also be used as a truly wireless Bluetooth mic in HFP mode. The 16kHz audio I got when recording with Filmic Pro (here’s a guide on how to use the Instamic with Filmic Pro) was surprisingly decent. This probably has to do with the fact that the Instamic’s mic capsules are high quality unlike with most other Bluetooth mics. One maybe unexpected option is to use Apple’s AirPods/AirPods Pro as a wireless Bluetooth mic input. According to BBC Mobile Journalism trainer Marc Blank-Settle, the audio from the AirPods Pro is “good but not great”. He does however point out that in times of Covid-19, being able to connect to other people’s AirPods wirelessly can be a welcome trick to avoid close contact. Another interesting wireless solution comes from a company called Mikme. Their microphone/audio recorder works with a dedicated companion video recording app via Bluetooth and automatically syncs the quality audio (44.1, 48 or 96kHz) to the video after the recording has been stopped. By doing this, they work around the 16kHz Bluetooth limitation for live audio streaming. While the audio quality itself seems to be great, the somewhat awkward form factor and the fact that it only works with its best feature in their own video recording app but not other camera apps like Filmic Pro, are noticeable shortcomings (you CAN manually sync the Mikme’s audio files to your Filmic or other 3rd party app footage in a video editor). At least regarding the form factor they have released a new version called the Mikme Pocket which is more compact and basically looks/works like a transmitter with a cabled clip-on lavalier mic. One more important tip that applies to all the aforementioned microphone solutions: If you are shooting outdoors, always have some sort of wind screen / wind muff for your microphone with you as even a light breeze can cause noticeable noise.

Micpocalpyse soon?

Looking into the nearby future, some fear that Apple might be pulling another “feature kill” soon, dropping the Lightning port as well and thereby eliminating all physical connections to the iPhone. While there are no clear indications that this is actually imminent, Apple surely would be the prime suspect to push this into the market. If that really happens however, it will be a considerable blow to iPhone videographers as long as there’s no established high-quality and reliable wireless standard for external mics.

To wrap things up, I have asked a couple of mobile journalists / content creators using iPhones what their favorite microphone solution is when recording video (or audio in general):

Wytse Vellinga (Mobile Storyteller at Omrop Fryslân, The Netherlands): “When I am out shooting with a smartphone I want high quality worry-free audio. That is why I prefer to use the well-known brands of microphones. Currently there are three microphones I use a lot. The Sennheiser MKE200, the Rode Wireless Go and the Mikme Pocket. The Sennheiser is the microphone that is on the phone constantly when taking shots and capturing the atmospheric sound and short sound bites from people. For longer interviews I use the wireless microphones from Mikme and Rode. They offer me freedom in shooting because I don’t have to worry about the cables.”

Philip Bromwell (Digital Native Content Editor at RTÉ, Ireland): “My current favourite is the Rode Wireless Go. Being wireless, it’s a very flexible option for recording interviews and gathering localised nat sound. It has proven to be reliable too, although the original windshield was a weakness (kept detaching).”

Nick Garnett (BBC Reporter, England & the world): “The mic I always come back to is the Shure MV88+ – not so much for video – but for audio work: it uses a non proprietary cable – micro usb to lightning. It allows headphones to plug into the bottom and so I can use it for monitoring the studio when doing a live insert and the mic is so small it hides in my hand if I have to be discrete. For video work? Rode VideoMicro or the Boya clone. It’s a semi-rifle, it comes with a deadcat and an isolation mount and it costs €30 … absolute bargain.”

Neal Augenstein (Radio Reporter at WTOP Washington DC, USA): “If I’m just recording a one-on-one interview, I generally use the built-in microphone of the iPhone, with a foam windscreen. I’ve yet to find a microphone that so dramatically improves the sound that it merits carrying it around. In an instance where someone’s at a podium or if I’m shooting video, I love the Rode Wireless Go. Just clipping it on the podium, without having to run cable, it pairs automatically, and the sound is predictably good. The one drawback – the tiny windscreen is tough to keep on.”

Nico Piro (Special Correspondent for RAI, Italy & the world): “To record ambient audio (effects or natural as you want to name it) I use a Rode Video Mic Go (light, no battery needed, perfect for both phones and cameras) even if I must say that the iPhone’s on-board mic performs well, too. For Facebook live I use a handheld mic by Polsen, designed for mobile, it is reliable and has a great cardioid pickup pattern. When it comes to interviews, the Rode Wireless Go beats everything for its compact dimensions and low weight. When you are recording in big cites like New York and you are worried about radio interferences the good old cabled mics are always there to help, so Rode’s SmartLav+ is a very good option. I’m also using it for radio production and I am very sad that Rode stopped improving its Rode Rec app which is still good but stuck in time when it comes to file sharing. Last but not least is the Instamic. It takes zero space and it is super versatile…if you use native camera don’t forget to clap for sync!”

Bianca Maria Rathay (Freelance iPhone videographer, Germany): “My favorite external microphone for the iPhone is the RODE Wireless Go in combination with a SmartLav+ (though it works on its own also). The mic lets your interviewee walk around freely, works indoors as well as outdoors and has a full sound. Moreover it is easy to handle and monitor once you have all the necessary adapters in place and ready.”

Leonor Suarez (TV Journalist and News Editor at RTPA, Spain): “My favorite microphone solutions are: For interviews: Rode Rodelink Filmmaker Kit. It is reliable, robust and has a good quality-price relationship. I’ve been using it for years with excellent results. For interviews on the go, unexpected situations or when other mics fail: IK Multimedia iRig Mic Lav. Again, good quality-price relationship. I always carry them with me in my bag and they have allowed me to record interviews, pieces to camera and unexpected stories. What I also love is that you can check the audio with headphones while recording.”

Marcel Anderwert (Mobile Journalist at SRF, Switzerland): “For more than a year, I have been shooting all my reports for Swiss TV with one of these two mics: Voice Technologies’ VT506Mobile (with it’s long cable) or the Rode Wireless Go, my favourite wireless mic solution. The VT506Mobile works with iOS and Android phones, it’s a super reliable lavalier and the sound quality for interviews is just great. Rode’s Wireless Go gives me more freedom of movement. And it can be used in 3 ways: As a small clip-on mic with inbuilt transmitter, with a plugged in lavalier mic – and in combination with a simple adapter even as a handheld mic.”

As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to drop them below or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you would like to be notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Takeaways Telegram newsletter about what happened in the world of mobile videography / content creation during the last four weeks, subscribe to my Telegram channel.

#34 Apple is about to give us 25fps in the iPhone’s native camera app (finally catching up to Windows Phones) — 17. November 2020

#34 Apple is about to give us 25fps in the iPhone’s native camera app (finally catching up to Windows Phones)

One of the things that has mostly remained a blindspot in video recording with the native camera app of a smartphone, is the ability to shoot in PAL frame rates, i.e. 25/50fps. The native camera apps of smartphones usually record with a frame rate of 30/60 fps. This is fine for many use cases but it’s not ideal under two circumstances: a) if you have to deliver your video for traditional professional broadcast in a PAL broadcast standard region (Europe, Australia, parts of Africa, Asia, South America etc.) b) If you have a multi-camera shoot with dedicated ‘regular’ cameras that only shoot 25/50fps. Sure, it’s relatively easy to capture in 25fps on your phone by using a 3rd party app like Filmic Pro or Protake but it still would be a welcome addition to any native camera app as long as this silly global frame rate divide (don’t get me started on this!) continues to exist. There was actually a prominent example of a phone maker that offered 25fps as a recording option in their (quasi)-native camera app very early on: Nokia and later Microsoft on their Lumia phones running Windows Phone / Windows Mobile. But as we all know by now, Windows Phone / Windows Mobile never really stood a chance against Android and iOS (read about its potential here) and has all but disappeared from the smartphone market. When LG introduced its highly advanced manual video mode in the native camera app of the V10, I had high hopes they would include a 25/50fps frame rate option as they were obviously aiming at more ambitious videographers. But no, the years have passed and current offerings from the Korean company like the G8X, V60 and Wing still don’t have it. It’s probably my only major gripe with LG’s otherwise outstanding flagship camera app. It was up to Sony to rekindle the flame, giving us 25fps natively in the pro camera app of the Xperia 1 II earlier this year. 

And now, as spotted by BBC multimedia trainer Mark Robertson yesterday, Apple has added the option to record with a frame rate of 25fps in the native camera app on their latest iOS public beta 14.3. So far, you were only able to record video at 24, 30 and 60fps (if you exclude the dedicated slow-motion options 120/240fps). This is a pretty big deal and I honestly didn’t expect Apple to make that move. But of course this is a more than welcome surprise! Robertson is using a new iPhone 12 Pro Max but his colleague Marc Blank-Settle also confirmed that this feature trickles down to the very old iPhone 6s, that is if you run the latest public beta version of iOS. The iPhone 6 and older models are excluded as they are not able to run iOS 14. While it’s not guaranteed that all new beta features make it to the finish line for the final release, I consider it to be very likely. So how do you set your iPhone’s native camera app to shoot video in 25fps? Go into your iPhone’s general settings, scroll down to “Camera” and then select “Record Video”. Now locate the “Show PAL Formats” toggle switch and activate it, then choose either “1080p HD at 25fps” or “4K at 25fps”. Unfortunately, there’s no 50fps option at this moment, I’m pretty sure it will come at some point in the future though. I recorded several clips with my iPhone SE 2020 and tested the frame rate via the MediaInfo app which revealed a clean 25.000fps, Marc Blank-Settle on the other hand apparently got some minimal deviation in his testing, nothing to write home about though I suppose. What other implications does this have? Well, many interested in this topic have been complaining about Apple’s own iOS editing app iMovie not supporting 25/50fps export. You can import and edit footage recorded in that frame rates no problem but it will be converted to 30/60fps upon export. I believe that there’s a good chance now that Apple will support 25/50fps export in a future update of iMovie because why bother integrating this into the camera app when you can’t deliver in the same frame rate? Android phone makers in the meantime should pay heed and consider adding 25/50fps video recording to their native camera apps sooner than later. It may not be relevant for the majority of conventional smartphone users but it also doesn’t hurt and you can make certain “special interest” groups very happy! Why exactly Apple has finally decided to make this move now is anybody’s guess. If you are not part of the iOS public beta program you can follow this guide by Lifewire to sign up. I highly recommend that you don’t run the beta on your daily driver phone as beta versions often still contain bugs that can cause trouble in everyday usage. If you have an older secondary iOS device that is eligible for the iOS 14.3 beta, then go ahead!

As always, feel free to comment here or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this blog post, do consider subscribing to my Telegram channel to get notified about new blog posts and also receive my Ten Telegram Takeaways newsletter including 10 interesting things that happened during the past four weeks in the world of mobile content creation/tech.

#33 Auto-transcribe all your audio for free with Live Transcribe! — 26. October 2020

#33 Auto-transcribe all your audio for free with Live Transcribe!

While writing my last blog post about Google Recorder 2.0, I stumbled upon a hack that can also be utilized for another app from Google, one that currently understands over 70 languages, not only English: It’s called “Live Transcribe & Sound Notifications” and is available for pretty much every Android device. Have you always been looking for a tool that transcribes your audio recordings but doesn’t require an expensive subscription? Here’s what I like to think is a very useful and simple trick for achieving this on an Android phone. You will need the following things:

  • Android device running at least Android 5.0 Lollipop (if your phone is less than 5 years old, you should be safe!)
  • the app Live Transcribe & Sound Notifications by Google (free download on the Google Play Store)
  • an internet connection (either mobile data or wifi)
  • a quiet environment

Let’s say you have recorded some audio like an interview, a meeting, a vox pop, a voice-over for video or even a podcast on your smartphone (look here for some good audio recorder apps) and would like to have a text transcription of it. If you read this before making such a recording, do include a few seconds of silence before having someone talk in the recording and it’s also important that the recording is of good quality in terms of speech clarity, the reasons will become obvious soon. 

Here’s how it works!

Live Transcribe can be used to transcribe speech/audio from over 70 languages.

Open Live Transcribe and check the input language displayed in the bottom toolbar (if the toolbar isn’t there, just tap on the screen somewhere). It needs to be the same as the recording you want to have transcribed. If it’s a different one, tap on the gear icon and then on “More settings”. Choose the correct language. Unlike Google Recorder which I wrote about in my last article, Live Transcribe works with a vast number of languages, not only English. Also unlike Recorder however, Live Transcribe needs an active internet connection to transcribe, you can’t use it offline! If you are planning on pasting the transcription into a context with a white background later on, you should make sure that “Dark Theme” is disabled in Live Transcribe. Otherwise you will be pasting white text onto a white background. Leave the settings menu and check that Live Transcribe’s main screen says “Ready to transcribe” in the center. Now double-check that you are in a quiet environment, leave Live Transcribe and open the audio recording app. Locate the recording you want to have transcribed and start the playback of the file (do make sure the speaker volume is sufficient!), then quickly switch over to Live Transcribe. One way to do this is to use Android’s “Recent Apps” feature which can be accessed by tapping on the square icon in the 3-button navigation bar – some Android phone makers use a different icon, Samsung for instance now has three vertical lines instead of a square. If you are using gesture navigation, swipe up from the bottom and hold. But you can also just leave the audio recording app and open Live Transcribe again without going into recent apps. The recording will keep playing with Live Transcribe picking up the audio from the phone’s speaker(s) and doing its transcription thing as if someone was talking into the phone’s mic directly. This actually works! Don’t worry if you notice mistakes in the transcription, you can fix them later. Once the recording and subsequently the transcription is finished, long-tap on any word, choose “Select transcription” and then “Copy”. You have now copied the whole transcription to the clipboard and can paste it anywhere you like: eMail, Google Docs etc. That’s also where you are now able to correct any mistakes that Live Transcribe has made (within Live Transcribe, there’s no option for editing the transcription yet). Two more things: You can have Live Transcribe save your transcripts for three days (activate it in the settings or activate auto-save under “More settings”) and if you want to clear out the app’s transcription cache, you can also do this under “More settings”, then choose “Delete history”.

Can you do the same with video recordings?

When in recent apps view, tap the app’s icon to show a pop-up menu. This menu looks slightly different on different Android devices. LG G8X (center), Pixel 3 (right).

Active app windows of Live Transcribe and Google Photos on one screen using “Pop-up window” feature on the LG G8X.

What about video recordings? Could you have them transcribed via Live Transcribe as well? Basically yes, but it’s not quite as easy. That’s if you want to do it using only one device (it’s very easy if you use a second device for playback). When you leave an app that’s playing back a video, the video (and with it its audio) will stop playing so there’s nothing for Live Transcribe to listen to. You can work around this by using Android’s split-screen or multi-window feature to actively run more than one app at the same time. On Android 7 and 8 you are able to access split-screen apps by long-pressing the square icon (recent apps) in the bottom navigation bar and select the app(s) you want to run in split-screen mode. Things have changed with Android 9 however. For one, gesture navigation was introduced as an alternative to the “old” 3-button-navigation bar. So if you are using gesture navigation, you access recent apps by swiping up from the bottom and then hold. If you use the 3-button-navigation, long pressing the square icon doesn’t do anything anymore. Instead, just tap it once to access the recent apps view, tap on the app’s icon at the top of the window and you will get a pop-up menu. Depending on what Android phone you are using the menu will have slightly different items, or at least they are named differently: On my LG G8X I get “App info”, “Multi window”, “Pop-up window” and “Pin app”, on my Pixel 3 I get “App info”, “Split screen”, “Freeform” and “Pause app”. The items you will want to choose to run two apps side by side are “Multi window” (G8X) / “Split screen” (Pixel 3) which will split the screen in half or “Pop-up window” (G8X) / “Freeform” (Pixel 3) which will display the app(s) in a small, desktop-like window that you can move around freely. By doing this, you can playback a video clip and have Live Transcribe running at the same time. Of course you can also use this feature to have both Live Transcribe and the playback of an audio recording app on the same screen simultaneously but for audio file transcriptions, you don’t have to go the extra mile.

Can I do this on an iPhone as well?

Google Translate main interface on Android (top) and iOS (bottom).

Google has a whole range of apps for iOS, but unfortunately, Live Transcribe isn’t among them – it’s currently Android-only. But hey, maybe you have an older Android phone in your drawer that you could put to good use again? That being said, there is the possibility that Google will eventually release an iOS version of Live Transcribe or Apple will come up with an app that does something similar. I also thought of another way, using a Google app that is already available for iOS: Google Translate. Yes, it’s meant for translation and not transcription but in the Android version, you can also find a “Transcribe” button. Initially, using this will only give you a transcription of the translated language but if you tap the cog wheel in the bottom left corner and choose “Show original text”, you will actually get a transcription of the original language which you can then copy and paste. When checking the iOS version of Translate though, I noticed that there is no “Transcribe” button. There is a “Voice” button (which in the Android version has been moved to the search bar) but this will only pick up a limited amount of input and is quite slow. There’s also no “Show original text” option. I suppose there might be a chance that Google will update its iOS version to match the Android version but there are no guarantees. The Android version of Google Photos has had a pretty impressive video stabilization feature for quite a while now, something that is still missing from the iOS version. It might be a purely strategic thing and Google wants to give certain features only to users of its own mobile operating system, but it might also be for technical reasons like that the core transcription engine is deeply rooted in the Android system and it’s just not possible to tap into this on iOS where Google is “just” a 3rd party app developer. Let’s see how things will turn out in the coming months.

If you have any questions or comments, leave them here or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. Do also consider to subscribe to my Telegram Newsletter to get notified about new blog posts and receive the new “Ten Takeaways Telegram” monthly bullet point recap of what happened in the world of mobile video creation during the last four weeks.

#32 Google Recorder 2.0 – A fantastic update for an already brilliant app! — 18. October 2020

#32 Google Recorder 2.0 – A fantastic update for an already brilliant app!

Note: The Post-It in this image was added by me and is not part of the Google Recorder app icon.

Not too long ago, I wrote an article about my favorite audio recorder apps for Android. One of the apps I included was Google Recorder. Officially, the app is only available for Pixel phones but can be sideloaded to a range of other Android devices. Google Recorder has a unique place among audio recording apps because of one killer feature: it transcribes audio into text – offline and for free. This can be extremely useful for a lot of people, particularly journalists. With the launch of the new Pixel 5 / Pixel 4a 5G, Google has introduced version 2.0 of Recorder and it packs some really exciting new features and improvements!

Edit the transcript

As good as Google’s voice recognition and subsequent transcription works, it occasionally makes mistakes. Before version 2.0, you weren’t able to make any kind of edits to the transcription within the app (it was possible to export the text and then make corrections). With the update you can now edit your transcript, however only one word at a time.

Edit your recording

Another new feature of version 2.0 is that you can now edit the audio recording itself by cropping/trimming (cut off something at the beginning/end) or removing a part in the middle. You can actually also do this by removing words from the transcript and it will automatically cut the audio file accordingly! You can access this feature by tapping on the scissors icon in the top right corner when having a recording selected. This particular feature can also come in very handy to bypass a limitation of another new feature which I will talk about in a second.

Create a video with waveforms and captions

Quite possibly the coolest new feature of version 2.0 is the ability to create a video with waveforms and captions from your audio file. This is very useful for sharing audio snippets or teasers on social networks where everything is primarily focused on visual impressions. I was even more delighted to find that you can customize a couple of things for the video: You can choose whether you want the waveforms plus captions or only the waveform. You can also select the aspect ratio of the video (square, portrait, landscape) and the color theme (dark/light). This is great! One thing they could have added is an option to choose a photo as a background image for the video. You will also notice that there are two watermarks at the bottom (the Recorder app logo and a “Recorded on Pixel” branding), unfortunately there’s no way to hide them before exporting. You can however use a separate video editing app to crop the image or place a black/white layer over the bottom part to cover it up. One last thing to mention: You can only create videos from clips that have a maximum length of 60 seconds. So for longer recordings you need to cut out a chunk via the editing tool, save it as a copy and then create your video from this excerpt. The export resolution of the video is 1080×1080 for square, 720×1280 for portrait and 1280×720 for landscape, all at 30fps.

Perfect? Not quite!

Two shortcomings that I already pointed out in my other blog post and that unfortunately haven’t been improved with version 2.0: Google Recorder is still limited to English. I’m sure though that support for other languages will be coming soon because Google’s own Live Transcribe app which I think uses the very same engine for voice recognition and transcription is already polyglot. The second minor set-back concerns its potential use in a professional (broadcast) environment: The app only records with a sample rate of 32kHz. It’s not a problem for professional use per se because I think it’s fair to say that you can also call it a “professional” tool when you “just” use the transcription for your work. But if you want to use the audio recording as such (say for broadcast radio), the sample rate doesn’t match the usual standards of 44.1/48 kHz. If Google Recorder allowed importing audio files from outside the app, this limitation could be circumvented but you can only use files recorded within the app – and I don’t think this is going to change soon as Google probably wants the user experience to be as easy as possible and importing files from other apps might not fit the bill. Ease of use is probably also the reason for not being able to customize anything in terms of recording quality. The sample rate of 32kHz should however be just fine for less “official” formats like podcasts or social media / the web. I have also thought of a hack to record in higher quality but still take advantage of Google Recorder’s features: Record you audio with another app that gives you a higher sample rate (for instance ShurePlus Motiv) and then play it back on your phone while simultaneously recording with Google Recorder. Google Recorder picks up the playback from your phone’s speaker and treats it as if you were talking into the mic. This actually works quite well but of course you need to be in a quiet environment. If you want to use the app’s ability to create a video with waveforms and captions but incorporate the original audio and not the lower quality re-recording, export the re-recording as a video file, then import the video into a video editing app that lets you exchange the audio with the original higher quality recording.

For which devices is Google Recorder available?

Officially, Google Recorder is only available for Google’s own Pixel phones, excluding the very first Pixel (XL). These are: Pixel 2 (XL), Pixel 3 (XL), Pixel 3a, Pixel 4 (XL), Pixel 4a, Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5. If you have used version 1 but can’t find the new features, you need to update the app. So are you totally out of luck if you don’t own a Google Pixel? Not quite! It’s actually possible to sideload the app to a whole range of other Android phones running Android 9 or newer (version 1 of Google Recorder) or Android 10 or newer (version 2). However, while the app can be installed on other Android devices that – in theory – should be able to run it, not all do so without problems in reality. I have had excellent results with phones from LG (V30 running version 1 of Google Recorder and now the G8X running version 2) where the app seems to work flawlessly. It also works well on the Huawei P30. On the other hand, the OnePlus 3 only does the recording part, not the transcription. And the Xiaomi Pocophone F1 lets you install and open the app but the moment you try to start a recording, the app crashes. Bottom line: Your mileage will vary with non-Pixel devices and if you’re about to buy a new phone and want to make sure Google Recorder 2.0 runs with all relevant features, you should get one of the recent Pixel phones. If you have a non-Pixel phone that theoretically should be able to run the app by sideloading it, just give it a go, you might be lucky!

How can I sideload the app and is it safe?

Unlike with Apple’s iOS, Android lets you sideload apps to your device. Sideloading basically means you can install apps from other sources than the official app store, in the case of Android the official app store is Google’s Play Store. When you download an Android app from outside the Play Store, you will get an apk file that you can then open and install. For security reasons, installs from other sources than the Play Store are disabled by default on Android and the system will give you a warning when trying to install an apk file. You can override this protective layer though by allowing certain apps (in most cases it will be the browser which you used to download the apk file) to perform installs from so-called “unknown sources”. I highly recommend only downloading and installing apk files from sites you trust. Personally I have only downloaded apks from XDA Developers and APKMirror so far. Now if you want to rush over to APKMirror and get the Google Recorder 2.0 apk, there’s one more hoop you have to jump through, at last for the moment: The download is provided not as a single apk file but as an “apk bundle”, this is a different way of packaging an app to reduce the file size. But while Android can handle installing single-file apks out of the box, you need an extra app to install apk bundles. I used APKMirror’s own APK Mirror Installer which you can download as a regular app from the Google Play Store. After downloading both the APKMirror Installer and the Google Recorder 2.0 apk bundle onto your Android device, open APKMirror, tap “Browse files” and select the Google Recorder 2.0 apk bundle (it has an .apkm file extension). Choose “Install package” and you’re finally done!

To wrap it up: With the 2.0 update, Google has immensely improved its fascinating Recorder app and made it an even more powerful tool for recording, auto-transcribing and sharing audio, one that might be a decisive factor for choosing a Google Pixel over any other phone, be it Android or an iPhone. What’s your experience with Google Recorder? Have you used it? If you have sideloaded it onto a non-Pixel device, how does it work? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this article, do consider subscribing to my Telegram Newsletter to get notified about new blog posts.

#30 “Android Airdrop” is here – and it’s called Nearby Share! — 6. October 2020

#30 “Android Airdrop” is here – and it’s called Nearby Share!

Nearby Share logo

One of the things I really like about Apple’s ecosystem is the cross-platform integration of a functionality called “AirDrop” which lets you fast, wirelessly and offline transfer (big) files between Apple devices that are close to each other, be it Mac, iPhone or iPad. This is extremely helpful when transferring video files which as we all know can get pretty heavy these days, particularly if one records in UHD/4K. Shooting on an iPhone and then transferring the footage to an iPad for editing with a bigger screen is a pretty popular workflow. Android on the other hand had something called “WiFi Direct” relatively early in its career but it never got picked up consistently by phone makers which preferred to introduce their own proprietary file transfer solutions which of course only worked with phones/devices of the same brand. So for quite a while I resorted to third party apps like Feem and Send Anywhere that also worked cross-platform between mobile and desktop – Android, iOS, macOS and Windows. As for Android-to-Android device wireless file transfers, Google introduced an app called “Files Go” (today Files by Google) in late 2017 which was primarily a file explorer but also had the ability to share files offline to another device by creating a WiFi Direct connection. While the app ventured somewhat close towards becoming a system resource in that it came pre-installed on many new phones as part of Google’s app portfolio, it was hard to deny that Apple’s AirDrop was more easily accessible.

Google is finally giving Android proper wireless file sharing

Enter Nearby Share: Recently, Google started rolling out a new Android feature called “Nearby Share” that should soon be available on all Android devices that sport at least Android 6 Marshmallow (Android 6 was released in 2015, we’re now at Android 11). Nearby Share allows for fast wireless sharing of files to other nearby Android devices, even offline (that is without using an internet connection). The feature is distributed automatically via the Google Play Services app (which comes pre-installed on basically all Android devices) so you don’t need to download anything. Nearby Share is integrated into the Android system, it’s not a separate app. As of now, roughly 90% of my own Android devices (and believe me I own quite a few!) have already received Nearby Share.

Does your Android device have it already?

And here’s how to check if you have it: On your Android device, go into “Settings”, then select “Google” and then “Device connections”. You should now find an option called “Nearby Share” (not be confused with something called “Nearby”!). To use it, you need to activate it by switching the slider to “On”. If you have not yet activated Location and Bluetooth it will ask you to do so because that’s how it will look for and find other devices. There are also a couple of options: You can customize the name of your device (under which name it will be visible for other devices). You can select between three different  “Device visibility” settings (All contacts, Some contacts, Hidden) and you can choose by which means the transfers are achieved (Data, Wi-Fi only or Without Internet). Regarding the last bit, I personally always switch to “Without Internet” so it uses the fast peer-to-peer WiFi Direct protocol and doesn’t consume any mobile data when not connected to regular WiFi. Before actually initiating the first file transfers I suggest one more thing (it’s not really necessary though): You can add Nearby Share to your Quick Settings. Quick Settings is the bunch of settings directly accessible when pulling down the notification shade from the top of the screen. Now it’s not exactly the same on all Android devices, but there’s usually a small pen icon in the Quick Settings which allows to add or remove certain items to/from the Quick Settings. Scroll down do find two horizontal lines that are intertwined (Nearby Share) and drag the icon to the main Quick Settings. The reason I recommend doing this is because you can easily make your device visible to others for Nearby Share or turn the feature on when it’s off. Long pressing the Nearby Share icon will also take you straight into the settings for Nearby Share without clicking and scrolling through the general settings.

How does it work?

So how does a file transfer via Nearby Share actually work? Keep in mind that Nearby Share is for sharing to physically nearby devices, not to someone on the other side of the globe! 

  1. Assuming you want to transfer one or multiple video files, locate the file(s) in your phone’s Gallery app (the native Gallery app or Google Photos). Select the one(s) you need and then tap the share button. 
  2. Now look for the Nearby Share icon on the share sheet and select it. If you are using Google Photos as your Gallery app it will give you three options, select “Actual size”. Your sharing device will immediately start looking for devices that are close by and have Nearby Share activated (it usually doesn’t have to be opened).
  3. On your receiving device you will get a prompt “Device nearby is sharing. Tap to become visible” (If it doesn’t, open Nearby Share from the Quick Settings on the receiving device). After doing so, your receiving device will pop up on the radar of the sharing device.
  4. Select your receiving device and tap “Accept” on the receiving device itself. The file transfer will start and you are done. Your transferred files will be available in the “Download” folder of your Gallery app. 

Is it any good?

So far, Nearby Share worked really well for me and it makes transferring big files to other Android devices so much easier. It’s a bit of shame that unlike with phones, there aren’t too many powerful Android tablets out there to make a phone-tablet workflow a tempting proposition. It’s basically only Samsung that offers a tablet with flagship specs for video editing these days. The biggest shortcoming for me though is that it’s currently only available between Android devices and doesn’t build a bridge to desktop/laptop computers or iOS. This isn’t exactly a surprise. While Apple produces both mobile and desktop/laptop hardware with their own software, Google doesn’t really. “Laptops” is debatable because Google has Chromebook devices like the Pixelbook / Pixelbook Go and Nearby Share is supposed to roll out for their ChromeOS as well but I would assume most of us still associate “laptop” with devices running Windows, Linux or macOS. There’s actual hope though: Google is apparently planning to make Nearby Share part of its Chrome Browser and thereby opening up a whole new sharing world with the option to share to iOS, macOS, Windows and Linux. And even in its current state, Nearby Share can be very helpful in many situations, for instance when having multiple phoneographers in the field and you want to collect the footage on one device afterwards for editing or if as a journalist you talk to a person that filmed something interesting on his/her phone and wants to share it with you.

Does your Android device have Nearby Share? Have you used it already? How does it work for you? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on the Twitter @smartfilming. You might also want to have a look at Google’s own blog post about Nearby Share.  If you like this blog, please consider subscribing to my Telegram Newsletter which will notify you when new posts are released.

#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.

 

#27 No, you don’t need a second video track for storytelling! (… and why it really doesn’t matter that much anymore) — 25. June 2020

#27 No, you don’t need a second video track for storytelling! (… and why it really doesn’t matter that much anymore)

As I pointed out in one of my very first blog posts here (in German), smartphone videography still comes with a whole bunch of limitations (although some of them are slowly but surely going away or have at least been mitigated). Yet one central aspect of the fascinating philosophy behind phoneography (that’s the term I now prefer for referring to content creation with smartphones in general) has always been one of “can do” instead of “can’t do” despite the shortcomings. The spirit of overcoming obvious obstacles, going the extra mile to get something done, trailblazing new forms of storytelling despite not having all the bells and whistles of a whole multi-device or multi-person production environment seems to be a key factor. With this in mind I always found it a bit irritating and slightly “treacherous” to this philosophy when people proclaimed that video editing apps without the ability to have a second video track in the editing timeline are not suitable for storytelling. “YOU HAVE TO HAVE A VIDEO EDITOR WITH AT LEAST TWO VIDEO TRACKS!” Bam! If you are just starting out creating your first videos you might easily be discouraged if you hear such a statement from a seasoned video producer. Now let me just make one thing clear before digging a little deeper: I’m not saying having two (or multiple) video tracks in a video editing app as opposed to just one isn’t useful. It most definitely is. It enables you to do things you can’t or can’t easily do otherwise. However, and I can’t stress this enough, it is by no means a prerequisite for phoneography storytelling – in my very humble opinion, that is. 

I can see why someone would support the idea of having two video tracks as being a must for creating certain types of videography work. For instance it could be based on the traditional concept of a news report or documentary featuring one or more persons talking (most often as part of an interview) and you don’t want to have the person talking occupying the frame all the time but still keep the statement going. This can help in many ways: On a very basic level, it can work as a means for visual variety to reduce the amount of “talking heads” air time. It might also help to cover up some unwanted visual distraction like when another person stops to look at the interviewee or the camera. But it can also exemplify something that the person is talking about, creating a meaningful connection. If you are interviewing the director of a theater piece who talks about the upcoming premiere you could insert a short clip showing the theater building from the outside, a clip of a poster announcing the premiere or a clip of actors playing a scene during the rehearsal while the director is still talking. The way you do it is by adding the so-called “b-roll” clip as a layer to the primary clip in the timeline of the editing app (usually muting the audio of the b-roll or at least reducing the volume). Without a second video track it can be difficult or even impossible to pull off this mix of video from one clip with the audio from another. But let’s stop here for a moment: Is this really the ONLY legitimate way to tell a story? Sure, as I just pointed out, it does have merit and can be a helpful tool – but I strongly believe that it’s also possible to tell a good story without this “trick” – and therefore without the need for a second video track. Here are some ideas:

WYSIWYH Style

Most of us have probably come across the strange acronym WYSIWYG: “What you see is what you get” – it’s a concept from computational UI design where it means that the preview you are getting in a (text/website/CMS) editor will very much resemble the way things actually look after creating/publishing. If you want a word to appear bold in your text and it’s bold after marking it in the editor, this is WYSIWYG. If you have to punch in code like <b>bold</b>  into your text editing interface to make the published end result bold, that’s not WYSIWYG. So I dare to steal this bizarre acronym in a slightly altered version and context: WYSIWYH – “What you see is what you hear” – meaning that your video clips always have the original sound. So in the case of an interview like described before, using a video editing app with only one video track, you would either present the interview in one piece (if it’s not very long) or cut it into smaller chunks with “b-roll” footage in between rather than overlaid (if you don’t want the questions included). Sure, it will look or feel a bit different, not “traditional”, but is that bad? Can’t it still be a good video story? One fairly technical problem we might encounter here is getting smooth audio transitions between clips when the audio levels of the two clips are very different. Video editing apps usually don’t have audio-only cross-fades (WHY is that, I ask!) and a cross-fade involving both audio AND video might not be the preferred transition of choice as most of the time you want to use a plain cut. There are ways to work around this however or just accept it as a stylistic choice for this way of storytelling. 

One-Shot Method

Another very interesting way that results in a much easier edit without the need for a second video track (if any at all) but includes more pre-planning in advance for a shoot is the one-shot approach. In contrast to what many one-man-band video journalists do (using a tripod with a static camera), this means you need to be an active camera operator at the same time to catch different visual aspects of the scene. This probably also calls for some sort of stabilization solution like phone-internal OIS/EIS, a rig, a gimbal or at least a steady hand and some practice. Journalist Kai Rüsberg has been an advocate of this style and collected some good tips here (blog post is in German but Google Translate should help you getting the gist). As a matter of fact, there’s even a small selection of noticeable feature films created in such a (risky) manner, among them “Russian Ark” (2002) and “Viktoria” (2015). One other thing we need to take into consideration is that if there’s any kind of asking questions involved, the interviewer’s voice will be “on air” so the audio should be good enough for this as well. I personally think that this style can be (if done right!) quite fascinating and more visually immersive than an edited package with static separate shots but it poses some challenges and might not be suited for everybody and every job/situation. Still, doing something like that might just expand your storytelling capabilities by trying something different. A one-track video editing app will suffice to add some text, titles, narration, fade in/out etc.

Shediting

A unique almagam of a traditional multi-clip approach and the one-shot method is a technique I called “shediting” in an earlier blog post. This involves a certain feature that is present in many native and some 3rd party camera apps: By pausing the recording instead of stopping it in between shots, you can cram a whole bunch of different shots into a single clip. Just like with one-shot, this can save you lots of time in the edit (sometimes things need to go really fast!) but requires more elaborate planning and comes with a certain risk. It also usually means that everything needs to be filmed within a very compact time frame and one location/area because in most cases you can’t close the app or have the phone go to sleep without actually stopping the recording. Nonetheless, I find this to be an extremely underrated and widely unknown “hack” to piece together a package on the go! Do yourself a favor and try to tell a short video story that way!

Voice-Over

A way to tackle rough audio transitions (or bad/challenging sound in general) while also creating a sense of continuity between clips is to use a voice-over narration in post production, most mobile editors offer this option directly within the app and even if you happen to come across one that doesn’t (or like Videoshop, hides it behind a paywall) you can easily record a voice-over in a separate audio recording app and import the audio to your video editor although it’s a bit more of a hassle if you need to redo it when the timing isn’t quite right. One example could be splicing your interview into several clips in the timeline and add “b-roll” footage with a voice-over in between. Of course you should see to it that the voice-over is somewhat meaningful and not just redundant information or is giving away the gist / key argument of an upcoming statement of the interviewee. You could however build/rephrase an actual question into the voice-over. Instead of having the original question “What challenges did you experience during the rehearsal process?” in the footage, you record a voice-over saying “During the rehearsal process director XY faced several challenges both on and off the stage…” for the insert clip followed by the director’s answer to the question. It might also help in such a situation to let the voice-over already begin at the end of the previous clip and flow into the subsequent one to cover up an obvious change in the ambient sound of the different clips. Of course, depending on the footage, the story and situation, this might not always work perfectly.

Text/Titles

Finally, with more and more media content being consumed muted on smartphones “on the go” in public, one can also think about having text and titles as an important narrative tool, particularly if there’s no interview involved (of course a subtitled interview would also be just fine!). This only works however if your editing app has an adequate title tool, nothing too fancy but at least covering the basics like control over fonts, size, position, color etc. (looking at you, iMovie for iOS!). Unlike adding a second video track, titles don’t tax the processor very much so even ultra-budget phones will be able to handle it.

Now, do you still remember the second part of this article’s title, the one in parentheses? I have just gone into lengths to explain why I think it’s not always necessary to use a video editing app with at least two video tracks to create a video story with your phone, so why would I now be saying that after all it doesn’t really matter that much anymore? Well, if you look back a whole bunch of years (say around 2013/2014) when the phoneography movement really started to gather momentum, the idea of having two video tracks in a video editing app was not only a theoretical question for app developers, thinking about how advanced they WANTED their app to be. It was also very much a plain technical consideration, particularly for Android where the processing power of devices ranged from quite weak to quite powerful. Processing multiple video streams in HD resolution simultaneously was no small feat at the time for a mobile processor, to a small degree this might even still be true today. This meant that not only was there a (very) limited selection of video editing apps with the ability to handle more than just one video track at the same time, but even when an app like KineMaster or PowerDirector generally supported the use of multiple video tracks, this feature was only available for certain devices, excluding phones and tablets with very basic processors that weren’t up to the task. Now this has very much changed over the last years with SoCs (System-on-a-chip) becoming more and more powerful, at least when it comes to handling video footage in FHD 1080p resolution as opposed to UHD/4K! Sure, I bet there’s still a handful of (old) budget Android devices out there that can’t handle two tracks of HD video in an editing app but mostly, having the ability to use at least two video tracks is not really tied to technical restraints anymore – if the app developers want their app to have multi-track editing then they should be able to integrate that. And you can definitely see that an increasing number of video editing apps have (added) this feature – one that’s really good, cross-platform and free without watermark is VN which I wrote about in an earlier article.

So, despite having argued that two video tracks in an editing app is not an absolute prerequisite for producing a good video story on your phone, the fact that nowadays many apps and basically all devices support this feature very much reduces the potential conflict that could arise from such an opinion. I do hope however that the mindset of the phoneography movement continues to be one of “can do” instead of “can’t do”, exploring new ways of storytelling, not just producing traditional formats with new “non-traditional” devices.

As usual, feel free to drop a comment or get in touch on the Twitter @smartfilming. If you like this blog, consider signing up for my Telegram channel t.me/smartfilming.

#26 Checking detailed properties of video clips on Android and iOS — 16. June 2020

#26 Checking detailed properties of video clips on Android and iOS

Have you ever had sleepless nights wondering whether the video recording app you are using really shoots in the frame rate and bitrate that it says it does? What’s the codec of the video file that was just sent to me? And (how much) does my editing app of choice crunch the bitrate (“quality”) of the original clips when exporting the project? No? Good for you, you may skip this article! But since you are already here you might as well read it anyway! I’m going to look at three different apps, one Android-only, one iOS-only and one that is available for both Google’s and Apple’s mobile platform.

You might ask, “Do I really need an extra app to get some basic info about a video file? I can do that with a keyboard shortcut on my desktop computer!”. Well, yes and no. That depends on what you consider to be “basic info”. Generally speaking, it’s a lot easier to access some standard file properties on Android than on iOS. Not only does pretty much every device come with a file manager that actually deserves the name but you will also be able to get file size, file container format and the resolution from the device’s Gallery app. Usually, an option labeled “Details” or “Info” is available in a menu after selecting a video clip. One would think that such trivialities should also be accessible from iOS’s Camera Roll, but … no. In case you don’t know, “Gallery” (Android) and “Camera Roll” (iOS) refer to the “image bucket” where all photos and videos go unless they are stored directly within an app. The only info about a video you get in Apple’s Camera Roll is the length of the video. Yes, there’s a way to get a little bit more data without installing a 3rd party app: Select a clip in the Camera Roll and share-copy it to iOS’s “Files” app by choosing “Save to Files” from the share options. Tap on “On My iPhone/iPad” and select any folder (or create a new one!) where you want the copy to go, then tap on “Save” in the top-right corner. Next, open the Files app, locate the file and long press on it. From the pop-up menu, select “Info”. You will now at least know the file size and the resolution (“Dimensions”) of the video. A tad tedious? Seriously? Ok…

“Metapho” for iOS.

Head on over to the Apple AppStore and download an app called Metapho (shout-out to Mr Marc Blank-Settle who initially pointed me towards it). The app is free (never mind the App Store always telling you that it’s “processing payment” when downloading an app, even if it’s free!) and will give you the following info for video files: File container format (usually it’s a Quicktime Movie aka .mov), length, frame rate, resolution, file size and video codec (in most cases either H.264 or the newer HEVC/H.265). There’s an in-app purchase for 4.49€ but it doesn’t give you more in-depth specs, “only” other additional features like removing or altering the metadata. If you need to dig deeper and are curious about video and audio bitrates, audio codec, audio sample rate etc. you will need another app though.

“VidTrim” for Android.

But first, let’s move on to Android for a second. If you want more detailed information about a video file than you can pull from the system’s Gallery app or file manager, go have a look at an app called VidTrim. VidTrim is primarily meant to be a simple one clip video editor with which you can trim a clip, transcode it or extract the audio as an mp3 file. But I don’t think I have ever used it for such purposes. Instead, it’s my go-to app for moderately detailed info about a video’s properties: resolution (“Picture Size”), file size, rotation, frame rate, audio codec, video codec, video bitrate and audio bitrate. There’s a paid version for 3.29€ by the name of VidTrim Pro but unless you are bothered by the ads or want to export a video from the app without a watermark, you are totally fine with the free version.

“MediaInfo” for Android and iOS.

If the metadata available in VidTrim is still not good enough for you, you should check out the app MediaInfo which is also available for iOS (although with a little catch). MediaInfo is a well-known standard tool on desktop computers for many video production professionals. There was a time when I wished, MediaInfo would launch a mobile app. And well, they did in late 2018! The UI isn’t really pretty to look at when viewed in portrait orientation (scaling needs to be improved!) so unless you are using it on a tablet, you should always hold the device in landscape mode when working with MediaInfo. I will refrain from listing every single video file property that MediaInfo gives you because, taking the risk I might be wrong on that after all, it appears to me that it basically exposes every bit of metadata there is. So if you really want to go down the rabbit hole, have at it! MediaInfo is free without any ads and full core functionality. There’s the option to support the development of the app with a subscription of 5€ per year, the bonus features including the use of a dark mode are not really spectacular though. Before wrapping this up, I need to add a quick note about using the iOS version of MediaInfo, coming full circle so to speak. While the app’s functionality is no different from the Android version, accessing files can be really painful if the file you want to check out is located within the Camera Roll and not the Files app. For some reason, MediaInfo doesn’t access the Camera Roll, but only the Files app. It’s also not possible to share to MediaInfo from the Camera Roll. This basically means that you need to copy the file you want to inspect from the Camera Roll to the Files app to access it from MediaInfo. As you might remember I explained how to do just that earlier on. It ain’t pretty, but that’s the way it is at the moment. I have contacted the developer about this and they have acknowledged the problem so there might be a fix in the near future.

One last thing: If you only need certain file properties of a video, you might be able to see those in the media library of advanced camera apps already, but the info is usually limited and it’s also good to double check outside the app you shot your footage with.

As usual, comments and questions are welcome here or on Twitter @smartfilming. If you like my blog in general, consider signing up for my Telegram channel t.me/smartfilming.

Download Metapho for iOS

Download VidTrim for Android

Download MediaInfo for Android or iOS