Record with smartphones

Whether you use an iPhone or an Android, with a free or inexpensive recording app and good technique, a smartphone can make decent recordings to add to an eBird checklist. Learn 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 (usually .m4a) and does not have any customizable settings. Instead of using your phone’s built-in app, we recommend downloading a dedicated sound recording app. Many recording apps are free or cost just a few dollars and allow you to create uncompressed .WAV files and provide increased control for making recordings in the field. Our team found that the RØDE Rec (iOS), Voice Record Pro (iOS), RecForge II (Android), and Hi-Res Audio Recorder (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 and your preferences will be saved for future recordings. The control settings vary between sound recording apps, but these are the most common control settings. See the instructions for setting up common recording apps on Android devices and iOS devices.

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, so you can control the record level manually.

External microphones for smartphones

A variety of external microphones are available specifically for smartphones. We field tested 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 smartphones 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. We feel that using good recording technique makes 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 techniques

Good recording technique always improves your recording, 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, but most bird sounds are relatively soft and distant. If you make noise while recording 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, follow these tips to make 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
  • Point the microphone away from background noise
  • Make a voice announcement after the bird stops singing or calling

For more recording tips, check out the How to Record Audio page.

Back up your files

Be sure to transfer your recordings to a computer as soon as possible. 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 audio recordings, if not, free up some space.

Prepare sound files and archive via eBird

Finally, don’t forget to follow the guidelines for preparing your sound files to archive them to the Macaulay Library. Recordings made with a smartphone are often quiet, so it is important to remove any handling noise at the beginning and end of the recording and boost the volume of the bird vocalizations. Some apps allow editing of files directly on the phone, but make sure you still follow the guidelines if you are using an app to edit the sound files.