Intro from Jay Allison: Radio producers have long been intrigued by the idea of bootstrapping an iPod or iPhone to make legitimate field recordings, even if only for backup or emergencies. Kludges have fallen short, but they're falling a good deal less short these days. Transom's Tools Editor Jeff Towne takes a couple of new devices for an extended spin. He says, "The good news is that in some circumstances, the Blue Mikey and the Alesis Pro Track can capture audio that rivals stand-alone audio recorders. But let’s not get carried away..." Come check them out.
from Jeff Towne
iPhones, iPods and other portable media players have included recording utility applications for several years, but there haven’t been good ways to connect a high-quality microphone as an input. Even if one could, the rest of the input circuitry was less than ideal, often resulting in noisy, grainy or distorted recordings. Additionally, these devices often recorded at unacceptably low quality. Some of these devices have been able to record at high sample rates and bit-depths for some time, but getting a good quality signal INTO the machine has been a challenge.
But now, a few different approaches have presented solutions for recording onto an iPod. The first is the simplest: a high-quality microphone that attaches to the dock connector on most iPods and iPhones. There have been several such devices on the market previously, but the Blue Mikey from Blue Microphones represents a significant advance in quality. The second approach is more elaborate: an add-on accessory case that connects to an iPod, and provides two built-in microphones, as well as professional-quality XLR inputs for using external microphones. There are two devices that use this second model: the Alesis ProTrack, and the Belkin GoStudio. I’ve read enough reviews of the Belkin that mentioned its background noise that I didn’t bother considering it. We at Transom are pickier than most about hissy mics, so when the general-interest reviewers are complaining about it, we can be pretty confident that we’ll be bugged by it!
The good news is that in some circumstances, the Blue Mikey and the Alesis Pro Track can capture audio that rivals stand-alone audio recorders. Let’s not get carried away: there are many compromises inherent in these devices, and the final sound quality doesn’t match that obtainable with the best professional recorders. But it gets surprisingly close, which makes these devices worth considering for spontaneous recording, or as a back-up to a professional rig. You wouldn’t want your wedding photographer to be shooting with a cell phone camera, and I wouldn’t recommend these devices as the primary hardware for serious audio journalism, but just as it’s possible to take decent photos with a cell phone cam, it’s possible to grab viable audio with these devices.
Neither the Blue Mikey nor the Alesis Pro Track list the iPhone or iPod Touch as officially compatible iPods, but we’ve found that the iPhone 3Gs seems to work just fine (and a newer version of the Blue Mikey does explicitly describe itself as a mic for iPods and iPhones.) That’s where the most exciting potential lies: the ability to use an iPhone app to record and even edit your sound, and being able to ftp or email the audio file directly from the recorder is a significant improvement over conventional flash recorders, at least for some users. Even something as basic as a large meter and a waveform display on an iPhone screen is much more satisfying than the tiny meters on most pocket-sized recorders. But even using a basic iPod offers some advantages over something stand-alone: it’s a gadget you may already have, and already carry with you, making these add-ons less expensive and less bulky than using a dedicated audio recorder.
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Neither of the dock connectors on these devices makes as solid of a connection on the iPhone or Touch as it does on conventional iPods, but if some care is taken to secure that junction, all the proper connections seem to function correctly. The ProTrack has a clear “sled” that both protects and secures different models of iPods to the chassis, but an iPhone or iPod Touch does not fit under that cover. It can be left off, but it’s a good idea to secure the iPhone or Touch, perhaps with an elastic band, or the old favorite: gaffer’s tape. If the dock connector separates during recording, not only will the recording stop abruptly, but also, restarting it may result in a complete failure of the recording. Unplugging and re-plugging the microphone while a recording is in progress can cause the recording program to lose synch, resulting in garbled, off-speed sound that’s impossible to repair.
iPhones don’t generally have as much storage capacity as some iPods, but the large-capacity disc-drive based iPods make mechanical noises that can be picked-up by the microphones, so flash-memory based iPods are preferable. A gigabyte of space will allow well over an hour of stereo recording (ten megabytes per stereo minute is the rule for 16-bit 44.1 khz soundfiles) so even the smaller-capacity iPods or iPhones can store a lot of sound.
The current iPhone software (v. 3.1.3 at the time of this review) displays an alert when either the Mikey or Pro Track is attached, warning that it is not an approved device, and asking if you’d like to turn on “airplane mode.” The correct response is yes, airplane mode turns off the transmitter and receiver on the iPhone, eliminating annoying interference that pollutes audio recordings. Of course, you cannot make or receive calls when in airplane mode, so at least you won’t have your phone accidentally ring in the middle of an important interview! The warning that it’s not an approved device can be ignored, it functions correctly if some care is taken: make sure the Mikey or Pro Track is firmly connected, and stays connected, before launching the recording application. Newer updates to the hardware, or phone software, may eliminate this supposed incompatibility.
On an iPod, recordings are made as voice memos within the iPod’s own operating system. On an iPhone or iPod Touch, any of several recording applications can be used. Blue, the company that makes the Mikey, has a free app called Blue Fire that has good level meters, a flexible display that rotates 180 degrees for ease in viewing in several operating positions, and good file transfer options. There’s a full version for $10, called Fire, with even more options, including software input gain, limiting and EQ, and the ability to tag the files with metadata. The Danish company Nsaka makes an app called Hindenburg Mobile that provides good metering, allows editing of the soundfiles, and offers a few methods for transferring files. The important thing is to make sure that your recording app has a setting to record high-quality uncompressed wav files: 44.1 hhz sample rate and 16-bit resolution. Some of the basic voice memo programs record at lower quality.
It’s important that the app supports high quality recording, but the hardware, the actual mics and/or preamps, plays a large role in the ultimate sound quality.
The Blue Mikey takes a simple approach: it’s a high-quality microphone, with a minimum of options. There’s one switch that allows selection of low, medium or high sensitivity. The low sensitivity setting is best for loud sounds, like recording amplified music, and is marked by three wavy lines, signifying lots of sound. Medium resolution, marked by 2 wavy lines, is appropriate for most sounds, including up-close recording of spoken voice. High sensitivity, best for distant sounds, such as a lecture or quiet ambience recording, is marked by a single wavy line. A switch for Low, Medium and High gain levels is not as good as a continuous knob to set record levels, but it works better than one would expect.
Other than that three position switch, there are no other adjustments to be made to the Mikey. There’s no limiter, no low-cut filter, nothing else to tweak, except for the position of the mic, which is on a basic hinge. It would be nice if it could swivel from front to back, but the one movement it does make allows the mic to point straight up or straight forward, if the iPod or iPhone display is facing up. This allows the user to hold the recorder in a fairly natural position, with a good view of the screen, with the mic facing toward an interview subject. Because the mic attaches to the bottom of the iPhone, the bottom of the iPhone screen is pointing up when held like that, but thankfully, both the Blue Fire and Hindenburg recording apps are smart enough to rotate their displays 180 degrees, for easier reading.
The Blue Mikey’s strongest points are its pleasing sound quality and ease of use. Blue is a highly-regarded maker of studio microphones, and they have somehow squeezed a good-sounding stereo mic into a tiny, and inexpensive package. It’s small and relatively affordable (list price is $80, but it’s often available for closer to $60). The newest version of the Mikey adds a line input, and a headphone adapter for monitoring. On the down side, it’s not easy to position the mic ideally for conducting interviews while keeping the metering in visual range. The Mikey works much better for collecting stereo ambience, although it’s important to not that it’s very wind-sensitive and subject to handling-noise, as most directional microphones are, so it may pick up significant rumble and distortion when used outside, or when moving the mic rapidly.
There can be a very low-level background hum in some circumstances, there are no inputs for adding an external microphone, and most frustratingly, there’s currently no direct hardware monitoring of the microphone available. There is monitoring through some of the recording programs, but as with all software monitoring, there’s a slight latency, or delay, which is quite distracting, especially when trying to conduct an interview. (This issue may have been addressed in the updated model, but it was not available to test at the time of the review.) Additionally, the dock connector that mates it with iPods and iPhones does not fit securely in all iPhones and iPod Touches, although the particular Mikey I tested felt pretty stable in my iPhone 3Gs. There’s also no easy way to mount an iPod or iPhone on a stand. Many small recorders, as well as the Alesis Pro Track, have standard threaded holes for mounting on a tripod.
Some of the shortcomings of the Mikey are addressed by the Alesis Pro Track. It does have direct hardware monitoring, with a hardware volume knob, allowing for live verification of what you’re recording, with no delay. Most importantly, it has XLR combo-jack inputs with phantom power, allowing connection of professional microphones, and quarter-inch line-level signals. Each of the two inputs has a dedicated hardware input gain knob, and there’s a bright LED ladder-style meter. There are also built-in stereo microphones, and a limiter. These additional features come at a cost, both literal and figurative. Literally, it’s priced at about double the Blue Mikey, usually selling for about $150. But the bigger practical expense might be its physical size. It’s very lightweight, mostly hollow plastic, but large enough that the whole rig is about the same size as some of the larger hand-held flash recorders, such as the Zoom H4. In fact, it resembles the Zoom H4 in many ways, with the pair of microphones in X-Y configuration at its nose, XLR jacks at the opposite end. It’s certainly less expensive than any stand-alone flash recorder with XLR jacks, but it’s not much smaller.
But how does it sound? Surprisingly, it has properties that are exactly opposite to the majority of self-contained flash recorders, in that the built-in stereo mics sound pretty terrible when recording quiet sounds, but the recording quality is quite good when using external microphones through the XLR jacks. As has been the case with almost all of the small, affordable recorders we’ve tested, sound quality was much better with high-output condenser mics than with lower-output dynamic mics, but despite a small amount of background hiss, recordings made with the kind dynamic omni mic popular with reporters were still usable. The built-in mics sounded clean-enough when recording ambiences, but with the Blue Mikey, they are very wind-sensitive, so one should always use the foam windscreen when recording outdoors.
On the positive side, the Pro Track provides a way to interface a professional microphone, even a condenser mic that requires phantom power, with an iPod or iPhone, and it sounds good! In most cases, if phantom power is accidentally left on, it has no effect on dynamic microphones, but when using the Alesis Pro track, make sure phantom power is turned off unless you need it!
Also in the positive column, the inputs can be monitored on headphones without any latency through a dedicated (mini) jack with a volume control. The limiter sounds decent. If recording with a single external microphone, that signal can be routed to both the left and right channels for ease of monitoring. The Pro Track can be operated on 4 AAA batteries or with AC power, and that power adapter even comes standard.
On the negative side, the batteries don’t last very long, between 2 and 3 hours at best, and for some reason Alesis does not recommend using rechargeable batteries. Perhaps the biggest downsides are that the unit itself is physically bulky, and that the built-in mics are noisy. The latest versions of iPhones and iPod Touches will work with the Pro Track, but they do not fit beneath the protective sled, and require a bit of a kludge to make them secure.
One major quirk I discovered was that at one point, in my headphones I was hearing the external microphones that were plugged into the XLR jacks, but what was being recorded was the signal from the built-in microphones! In a variation of that problem, I found it occasionally difficult to be sure that the internal microphones were active, rather than the iPhone’s built-in mic. I’ve taken to always powering-up the Pro Track, first, then connecting external microphones (if using them) then seating the iPhone in the Pro Track, then launching the recording app last, in that order. And then I double-check which mics are live by tapping lightly on the microphones while watching the software meters of the recording app. Also, note whether the recording app is showing a stereo or mono recording – it will usually revert to mono if the iPhone mic is active, rather than the built-in stereo mics. This is one of the big problems of using an iPhone or iPod Touch, because neither device sits as securely in place in the Pro Track as a smaller iPod does. The Pro Track wasn’t designed to work with these larger iPods, but the ability to run more sophisticated recording apps, and to use the versatile touch-screen interface, makes the iPhone and iPod Touch much more appealing, even as they are more prone to have difficulties. The ability to transfer audio off of the device wirelessly is also a major appeal of using an iPhone or iPod Touch.
When recording with either the Pro Track or the Mikey, one ends up with recordings stored on the iPod or iPhone, which need to be transferred to a computer for editing and mixing. Unfortunately, due to the design of iPods, the files do not simply appear in a directory when the iPod is connected to the computer. In most cases, the recordings are saved on the iPod as Voice Memos, and those can be transferred to iTunes by performing a sync. Check your iTunes preferences to make sure it’s set to sync Voice Memos.
I found this to be unreliable, at least when using my iPhone 3Gs. None of the my recordings would show up in iTunes despite multiple synchronizations. Thankfully, most recording apps include other ways to move files. The most effective one that I found was to use “browser access” from within the Blue Fire, or Fire, app. If your iPhone or iPod Touch is connected to the same WIFI network as your computer, the app will provide a numerical URL to type into a web browser on your desktop computer or laptop. Entering that URL will bring up a page listing all the audio clips with links to download them. It’s not as fast as a direct USB connection, but it works fine. It’s important to note that this method does NOT work over the internet, only on a local WIFI network, so this particular function cannot be used as a way to send files to a distant location. Some recording apps have built-in FTP utilities, or allow emailing of soundfiles, so it would be possible to make a recording in the field, and send it immediately to remote destinations. Keep in mind that .wav files are pretty large, so uploads may take a long time, depending on your connection, and email systems often have file-size limits.
So, does it make more sense to retrofit an iPod or iPhone to be a recording device, or to just use a stand-alone flash recorder? There’s not a simple answer.
- If you already have an iPod or iPhone, either of these accessories is a relatively small investment.
- The Blue Mikey is very small, affordable and simple to use.
- Professional external mics, even condenser mics, can be used with the Alesis Pro Track.
- Metering and file playback is quite good on an iPhone or iPod Touch using specialized apps.
- Basic editing and file upload is available in the field when using an iPhone and certain apps.
- Hardware controls and monitoring are inferior to most stand-alone recorders.
- The potential for garbled or failed recordings is greater with iPod-based recording.
- Connections to the iPhone and iPod Touch are not as secure as with smaller iPods, which raises the odds that a recording may not turn out right.
- Available storage capacity is often smaller on iPods than with dedicated flash memory recorders.
- No interchangeable memory cards on iPods.
- USB transfer is not as fast or simple with an iPod as it is with a stand-alone recorder.
- Alesis Pro Track built-in mics are noisy.
It’s generally more reliable to use a dedicated recorder for serious work. The more complex a system, the more things can go wrong; it’s much more likely that an iPhone app will crash, or an iPod memo will garble, than a stand-alone flash recorder will fail. But, if you already own an iPod or iPhone, either the Pro Track or Mikey can provide an affordable way to collect good-quality audio in the field. Even starting from scratch and buying a new iPod Nano and an Alesis Pro Track is currently the least expensive way to record with microphones using XLR cables. But that combination is not significantly smaller than a stand-alone flash recorder.
These devices would make excellent back-ups to a dedicated field recording kit, or good machines to have handy for spontaneous or non-critical recordings. If you are using an iPod-based recorder for an important session, it’s a really good idea to make a short test recording and listen back to it, just to verify that everything is working correctly. That’s not a bad practice in any situation, but especially critical in this one, when it’s possible that what you’re hearing in your headphones is not what’s being recorded.
The last few years have brought some pretty dramatic advances in audio technology. Tiny flash-memory recorders make it possible to collect good-quality sound and are small enough to carry with you all the time. Even so, there are plenty of circumstances when it’s not practical to purchase or carry a dedicated device, so it’s natural enough to want to consolidate. For many people, their cell phones have become their everyday cameras, so why not let your iPhone or iPod be your everyday audio recorder too? With either of these accessories, that might finally be practical.