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Whether you use an iPhone or an Android, with a free or inexpensive recording app and good technique, a smartphone can make decent documentation recordings to add to an eBird checklist. Here are tips on how to make the most of recording with a smartphone.

Download a Recording App That Makes .WAVs

Smartphones usually come with a “Voice Memos” app that can be used for making recordings, but this built-in app usually creates highly compressed, low-quality sound files and does not have any customizable settings. Instead of using your phone’s built-in app, we recommend downloading a dedicated sound recording app. For free or just a few dollars, many recording apps allow you to create uncompressed .WAV files and provide increased control for making recordings in the field. Our team has found that the RØDE Rec (iOS) and RecForge II (Android) apps work well, but many other options are available.

Choose The Best Settings

Before you begin recording, it’s important to check the settings for your recording program. In almost all cases, choosing your settings needs to be done only once before you start your first recording and your preferences will be saved for future recordings. The control settings may vary between sound recording apps, but here are some of the most common control settings.

File Type – Always select .WAV, an uncompressed file format that gives better results than compressed files like .MP3s and .M4As. Why WAV? Learn more.

Recording Quality – Set this to the highest possible setting. Some programs give simplified options, such as “Low” or “High,” while others will let you choose sample rate and bit depth settings. We recommend a sample rate of at least 48 kHz and a bit depth of 24 bits.

Channels – Most phones are only able to record audio in mono, so this is the best option to choose. With the “Stereo” option, the audio will record in two identical channels, unnecessarily doubling the size of the sound file.

Level Setting – Most dedicated recording apps allow you to control the recording level. You should aim to have the peak between -6 and -12 dB, and most importantly, do not let the peak level hit 0 dB.

Automatic Gain Control – Often labeled AGC, this functionality should be turned off on your app, allowing you to control the record level manually.

External Microphones

A variety of external microphones are available specifically for smartphones. We wanted to find out how much of a difference some of these microphones really make, so we recently tested some in the field: the Røde i-XY stereo microphone, the Edutige EIM-001 i-Microphone, and the Sennheiser MKE 400 video microphone. We expected to find that our devices made better recordings using these microphones. However, while they did produce decent results, we concluded that the recordings made with these external microphones were not significantly better than those made with the built-in microphones on the smartphones. Therefore, we feel that using good recording technique will make more of a difference for smartphone recordings than purchasing a small external microphone.

If you happen to have access to a shotgun microphone or a parabolic reflector but not a recorder, a simple cable or adapter can allow you to connect these microphones to your smartphone. These types of highly directional microphones absolutely do make a difference in recording quality.

Use Good Recording Technique

Good recording technique will always help you make the most of a recording situation, whether you are recording with a smartphone or professional recording equipment. Remember, your smartphone is designed to capture a very loud sound (your voice) at close range, while most bird sounds are relatively soft and distant. If you make noise while trying to record a bird sound—by talking, walking, or moving the phone in your hand—your smartphone is going to pick up the noise that you are making much more than the bird sound. With that in mind, here are some important points for making the best possible recording with your smartphone:

  • Get close to the bird
  • Know where your microphone is and keep it clear of any obstructions
  • Point the microphone at the subject
  • Hold the phone gently or rest it against a stable surface if possible
  • Don’t move or talk while you are recording
  • Keep the phone pointed away from background noise
  • Make a voice announcement after the bird stops singing or calling

For more recording tips, check out Audio Recording Techniques page.

Back Up Your Files

Be sure to transfer your recordings to a computer when it is convenient. Smartphones have several options for sharing media. The easiest method to use is a file-syncing or cloud storage service like Dropbox. If you have a Dropbox account and the Dropbox app on your phone, files can be synced to your account automatically and subsequently added to your computer. Other sharing options include email, media message, or connecting your smartphone to your computer via USB and transferring files directly. Remember to make sure your device has enough space to save the high-resolution files you will be creating, and free up some space if it does not.

Edit and Upload!

Finally, don’t forget to follow the ML/eBird Audio Best Practices for editing your recordings before contributing them to the Macaulay Library. Recordings made with a smartphone can often be quiet, so raising the volume of your recording and removing handling noise at the beginning and end is important. Some apps allow editing of files directly on the phone, so make sure you still follow the best practices guidelines if you are using an app to edit.