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.
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.
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.
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.”
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