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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

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.

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

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. Oh well, there’s always another mobile platform to go to if you’re not happy with iOS anymore 😉

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.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

#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.

For an overview of all my blog posts click here.

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