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Whether you use an iPhone or an Android, with a free or inexpensive recording app and good technique, you can use your smartphone to make 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 for making recordings, but it usually creates highly compressed, low-quality sound files (usually .m4a) and may 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 of your recording app. In almost all cases, you can choose your settings once and your preferences will be saved for future recordings. Menus vary between sound recording apps, but these are the most common control settings. Also see our suggestions 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 option. 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 48 kHz and a bit depth of 24 bits, if available.

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 often record 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. Most are so small that they do not make much of a difference compared to the built-in microphones on smartphones. In general, using good recording technique (see below) makes more of a difference for smartphone recordings than purchasing a small external microphone. However, if you have 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. Check out our 2019 gear review for more information on microphone options.

Use good recording technique

Good recording technique always improves your recording, whether you are using a smartphone or professional recording equipment. Remember, your phone 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 better 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 which microphone your phone is using and keep it clear of any obstructions
  • Point the microphone at the subject
  • Try to point the microphone away from background noise
  • Hold the phone gently or rest it against a stable surface if possible
  • Don’t move or talk while you are recording
  • Make a voice announcement at the end of the recording

For more recording tips, check out the audio recording tips 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 or iCloud. 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, and if not, try to free up some space before going out in the field.

Prepare sound files and archive via eBird

Finally, don’t forget to follow the guidelines for preparing your sound files to archive them at the Macaulay Library. Recordings made with a smartphone are often quiet, so it is important to follow our suggestions and remove handling noise at the beginning and end of the recording and boost the volume of the file. Some apps allow editing of files directly on the phone, but make sure you still follow the guidelines if you choose this method, and note that editing sound files using free editing software on a computer is easier.