How to record quality voice over using smartphone. The ultimate guide.
Either you’re a traveling professional voice over artist or just a person who thinks you need an expensive piece of equipment to get top notch sounding voice recordings – this is a guide for you. In next few minutes I’ll teach you how to record quality voice over using smartphone in a situation where a professional studio is out of reach and you just need that job, because if you won’t do it, someone else will. You know the drill, right?
Although hundreds of inadequate people, without any knowledge of voice over work specifics nor equipment and techniques are constantly teaching people how to record quality voice over using smartphone on YouTube and other internets, surprisingly there’s NONE, that is completely TRUE, COMPLETE, PROVEN TO WORK and actually shows how to do it. Behold I!
To prove I that I know what I’m talking about, please listen to both sound files below and try to guess which one of them was recorded using a Sennheiser MKH-416 (voice over industry standard shotgun mic) and which one just an usual Apple iPhone 7 (you’ll see and hear this name quite a lot in next few minutes – please be advised, that I’m not advertising for Apple, it’s just what I use at the moment).
I post-processed both recordings like I would do in real life situation where I need to prep the files for airing. Also – would you mind guessing WHERE the actual recording session took place (I’ll reveal everything at the end of this article)?
Sound sample #1 – recording A.
Sound sample #2 – recording B.
With more than ten years of experience on recording and directing voice-overs as well as being an audio professional who’s constantly in search for more efficient and unconventional ways to do my job, I proudly present you THE ONE AND ONLY ULTIMATE GUIDE ON HOW TO RECORD QUALITY VOICE OVER USING SMARTPHONE. Let us begin then!
1. Download a decent recording app. Built-in crap won’t cut it.
Believe it or not – you won’t be able to record quality voice over using smartphone – THE BEST YOU CAN IN GIVEN SITUATION – with built in apps. No built in voice recorder application be it on iOS or Android will give you professional results (i.e. won’t have adequate settings). Because those apps are created for dummies and packed with fool-proof features. So anyone can just tap big red circle, say some stuff, hit save, and share it on Facebook in low quality mp3 or even worse – some esoteric .m4a format.
I know we all wished it was as simple as pushing big red button, but it isn’t. Good news though – some apps that can give you a recording of broadcast quality (48kHz/16bit/mono/wav) is free. For this guide I’ll be using Rode REC LE (iOS version only), but you can try out other option.
I thought I’ll list some here, but then tried several out, inspected the results and realized that most of them are crap with either lossy formats (meaning you loose quality trough format compression to reduce file size), or despite the stated “CD quality” the output file is still nothing close to it (with some strange EQ settings applied or frequency spectrum being cut off at 15kHz). So one alternative for iOS to the app I’m using would be Voice Record Pro. As for android – there should definitely be something decent enough on the marked I only have no way to test it. But I promise someday soon I will.
As I mentioned in order for you to record quality voice over using smartphone first of all you need to be able to capture your performance and deliver it in quality / professional / industry standard format, which is 48kHz/16bit/mono/wav. Looks good? Please follow me about the settings.
First of all forget stereo! Everything in professional audio world is happening in mono (at least in recording stages). And although your phone can record in stereo it basically is duplicated version of the same mono data. Recording in mono also helps you to reduce file size twice. With that being said some apps (even more “professional” ones) might not let you choose between mono or stereo and write everything using latter setting. No problem here at all. Just FYI: mono is preferred because of two times smaller file size and stereo will only be the same mono track rendered onto the final output file twice.
Next – if you’re recording audio for visual content – you must choose sampling rate of 48kHz (48000hz). I won’t dig deep here – but this is the standard in audioVISUAL industry since dawn of digital audio.
If you’re recording your voice for production that will end up in radio or some sort of podcasting realm – chose 44.1kHz (44100Hz). Again – standard procedure. Some apps let you record at even higher sample rates, but c’mon – you’re using your smartphones microphone. Be realistic about the world. You can squeeze wax out of shit (an ancient Lithuanian saying) but just to a certain level.
Next – bit depth. Either 16bit or 24bit will be fine. Bit depth represents dynamic range of a digital audio data. Meaning higher bit depth (24bit) gives more space between quietest and loudest parts before first hitting digital noise floor and latter hitting overload margin. In reality – if you will follow my guide thoroughly, 16bit will work (and is actually working everywhere in the voice over world quite well) – because using tips and tricks I’ll talk about later we will try to get the hottest signal possible and maintain the best signal to noise ratio. Fancy words – ignore me here.
File format – if your client is an ass like me – you must deliver in WAV or AIFF (with 320kbps MP3 being worst case scenario where WAV and AIFF options were just banned by the king of the world). WAV and AIFF are lossless audio data storage formats. And in a situation where we’re forced to record on our smartphones we need to LOSE AS LESS as possible.
To conclude – your settings in recording app of your choice should be one of the following:
- 48kHz / 24bit / mono / AIFF
- 44.1kHz / 16bit / stereo / PCM WAV (a.k.a. CD quality)
- any combination of those numbers and letters
2. Disable automatic gain control (AGC) and all other processing.
This is big. And this is what differentiates a professional voice recording application from the one intended for dummy use.
Automatic gain control (or AGC) can and will 100% ruin your voice performance (or any other performance in fact).
The process of AGC instantly brings up the volume of quiet parts in your recordings. Not only it eliminates natural dynamics of your speech, but also creates a tiresome pumping effect as well as instantly makes everything, that’s not necessarily your voice louder or to be exact it matches the quietest parts (e.g. your fridge in next room) in volume to the loudest parts (e.g. your voice). This can not be undone in post-production, hence renders the recording useless. Remember to always disable AGC or similar letters, that mess (“helps”) with your recording’s volume in automatic way.
Different developers love to improvise on behalf of naming the AGC function. So be sure to browse trough your chosen recording app’s settings and disable everything that involves “gain adjustment”, “post-processing”, “processing”, “enhancement” etc.
Other unwanted favors on your smartphone might include noise gating, or ambient noise suppression which are both automatic and bad processes if we seek to get a quality result.
3. Locate where the mic is.
Locating the exact position of the microphone hole on your smartphone will give you an idea of where to speak into and at the same time where not to (good one, I know).
Good news is that most mics in conventional smartphones are omni-directional, or have combination of microphones “hearing” in all directions, meaning they will capture your voice in an equally decent way no matter at what angle your mouth is positioned in regard to actual microphone hole.
But in order to record QUALITY voice over using a smartphone we still need o locate the actual mic. To do that just rotate your smartphone of choice around with recording enabled while speaking, blowing air or taping your fingertip into the body of the device. Watch input / volume meters – when they jump up or when they’re hottest – it means you’ve found the hole. Monitoring trough headphones can also help just as reading the manual. Keep in mind that direct monitoring of the input trough headphones is unavailable in majority of apps. No biggie though!
Better news is that by talking directly into the hole your voice will still sound better (clearer, brighter, cleaner, fuller… You name it) compared to a method where you speak off axis. And clearer is what we want in our situation. But…
Bad news is that clearness comes at a price, that can actually ruin your recording even more than enabled AGC. If you’ll try to talk directly into the mic hole you will (or to be more precise will the air blowing directly from your mouth into the mic) overload the mic instantly and cause irreversible distortion in your recording. If not instantly then overloads will occur after plosives like P, B, T, D and similar sounds that involve sudden bursts of air.
As I said – knowing where the mic is will help us understand where we can speak into as well as were we actually can not. Luckily I have solutions for both cases.
4a. Use pop filter or anything you have to prevent direct air bursts from your mouth into the mic.
Yes, I know that a professional pop filter might not be at hand especially if you’re already in a situation where you need to record quality voice over using smartphone. But actual pop filter would help A LOT. And if you don’t have one at hand, you can either:
- use your t-shirt or other piece thin fabric (I got exact the same amount of air burst dispersion using my t-shirt as I did using a dedicated pop-filter!).
- or if you happened to have a piece of soft foam fabric you can stick it on the mic hole as well and make it work like a foam pop filter / windscreen (this method is harder to implement and might not be as effective as the t-shirt way).
Be it DIY windscreen or pop filter – it only needs to be thick enough to prevent the mic from overloading. To be sure – constantly check the input meter on your app or even better monitor yourself trough headphones (rarely possible though) so you can hear when there’s enough fabric and you no longer hear distortion and see meters turn red on stop consonants and air bursts.
Pop filter / t-shirt will work better if placed in closer proximity to your mouth than the mic.
Wind shield (because of higher density of the material used) will work better if placed in closer proximity to the mic (actually it needs to touch the surface of your phone and probably be attached to it with some sticky material – just don’t cover the mic hole with the sticky stuff).
Sound sample #3 – pop filter doing it’s job (see pic #6 for visual reference).
Sound sample #4 – a relatively free and arguably more effective solution to pop filter – a t-shirt. Lift it up without taking it off while holding on the collar. That’s it.
Sound sample #5 – “wind shield” made of piece of foam (pic #2). More prone to error than pop-filter / t-shirt option, yet still an option. Keeps hands free, needs some double checking though.
Using both air-burst-prevention-methods distance between the mic and your mouth should be about 10cm. The closer you move the more exaggeration of sibilants (consonants like S, SH, Z, ZH, TS etc.) you get, and since we just got rid of overloads from plosives we don’t want to deal with overloads from sibilants, don’t we?
4b. Find a perfect angle and distance so you don’t overload the mic with plosives (P, B, T, D).
Ok, now let’s move to a more realistic approach in a situation where we need to instantly record quality voice over using smartphone while remaining on vacation. No problem at all if you don’t have a pop filter or windscreen (even a DIY version). In fact you might not loose any quality using this next method at all. The only downside is that you will need to constantly check (visually or trough headphones) if you’re not overloading the mic with your carbon-dioxide-saturated plosives and sibilants.
Sound sample #6 – this is how speaking directly into built-in mic sounds like and this is what we’re trying to avoid at all costs in order to record quality voice over using smartphone.
To prevent the overloads first try to approximate the position of the mic by placing your palm next to your mouth. Blow some air at your palm and turn, lift, move it until you feel strong stream of air coming from your mouth no more. This will be a position for your smartphone.
Sound sample #7 – finding a good angle (e.g. like in pic #3 below) will reduce your chances to “blow up” smartphone’s built-in mic from 100% to maybe 5%. Some manual/mouthal (whaaat?) control will still be needed. By further adjusting my angle and iPhone direction I could have gotten rid of those little bursts on word “popping” at 00:04.
Most likely you will end up with your smartphone at 90° angle to your mouth and speaking into the lower third of the device while your screen is facing your mouth. See illustrations as this is hard to explain using letters.
5. Don’t put your smartphone on a surface. Keep it in your hand – if you can’t, put it on a “stand”.
Once you’ve found a perfect distance and angle (and hopefully got an impromptu pop filter) you will most likely need to hold your phone in your hand. Because placing the device on any surface (be it a table or your bed sheets) will cause unwanted sound reflections that will unpleasantly “color” your voice recording and no one will be able undo it in post.
If you’re a hipster – then you should have a guerilla tripod and a case that holds your smartphone and attaches to the tripod – perfection! Use that instead of your hand.
If you’re not a hipster – better keep the device still and steady in your hand without even moving the fingers as those might cause noises trough direct contact with the smartphone’s. I know it’s not comfortable, but trust me – the result will be much better than say if you’ll just put the device on a table or any other flat and reflective surface.
In worst case scenario – if you don’t have strong hands, are no hipster or need to record several hours worth of voice over, you can try building a “tower” (best) with some soft topping to lay your smartphone on top of. Just be sure to stick the mic-holding-end of the device as far out as possible to prevent reflections as much as possible (see: pic #8).
Sound sample #8 – iPhone placed on a yoga brick (pic #8) to lift it up to a more comfortable position as well as eliminate reflections that might build up due to close proximity to hard surfaces.
Sound sample #9 – iPhone placed on a book (pic #5). Unpleasantly exaggerated high frequencies are clearly heard in this one compared to all other samples.
Sound sample #10- much uncomfortable yet effective handheld way.
Sound sample #11 – aural illustration to complement pic #4. This one has too much information and energy on the lower end of the frequency spectrum, hence sounds duller compared to other samples.
Bottom line – do whatever you want, just don’t put your smartphone on a flat, hard, soft and reflective surface. Because it will cause an unpleasant filtering effect which will again render your recording useless. You also won’t be able control the distance, hence reduce signal to noise ratio as well as increase reverberation and ambient noise amounts (FYI reverberation and ambient / background noise – two different beasts).
6. Use a space with least amount reverberation: car, closet, on be with blanket overhead (not ideal).
If people not related to voice over industry could choose one aspect that separates professional performance from a “home made” one, that would be reverberation. Ability to hear the “room” in which the recording was made instantly triggers “amateur” banner in our brain.
Professional voice over must be dry. Absolutely dry if sent for further processing to a client’s post-production house, or on a decently drier side if processed by a fellow sound engineer who knows what he’s doing and isn’t an a-hole (yeah, that’s me). Small amount of reverberation can be edited out with good skill and knowledge.
Two best places to record impromptu voice overs is either:
- a car (a larger and more luxurious the better)
- or a closet full of clothes.
- If you know some other place – good. Just evaluate reverberation and ambient noise factors carefully.
If you happened to have a car – great. Find your comfort on the back seat. Keep away from windows (cover those with soft materials like clothes or blankets if possible) and from the center of the back seat (being in the center will cause weird reflections from side windows since you’ll be at similar distance from both of them and this will work as a amplifier of certain frequencies). You might also want to cover the opening between front seats to reduce the space and eliminate reflections from the front windshield.
Even if you won’t be able to use soft fabric in the car – it is by far the best place to record quality voice over using smartphone.
But who on earth does have a car during vacation??? In this case be my guest to use a closet in your room. Use all hangers and all your clothes to make the closet look habitable. Place yourself so that you’re looking into the closet. Keep the doors fully or half open. If you can, take those bed sheets and hang them on the doors. Also overhead. And behind. This way you’ll form a nice tent – not too small, not too big. It is important that you face the closet because all the clothes will eliminate reflections coming from the back of your smartphone/mic and if you don’t have bed sheets (which is not likely at all), your body will form a reasonable reflection killer from the front of the device.
With all that being said – the thicker the sheets the better. But remember – try not to reduce your recording “tent” to a minimum. This will also cause too much early reflections and will be audible as well as annoying for a professional mixing engineer, hence even might render your effort to record quality voice over using smartphone useless.
This is why covering yourself under the bed sheets while lying on top of your bed might be much worse of a solution than recording in a closet or inside a car. Not only it might sound worse that doing IT in two before mentioned ways, but you will find yourself in a very uncomfortable positions.
Sound sample #12 – recording made in the middle of a living room. The recording quality is good by itself, but large reverberation amounts triggers “amateur” light in our brain.
Sound sample #13 – most popular yet highly uncomfortable thus least effective (effort vs. result) way to decrease reverberation time – cover yourself with a bed sheet and record on your bed.
Sound sample #14 – recording voice overs in a well prepped closet increases effectiveness several times. Lot’s of fresh air, comfortable position while seated or standing (as opposed to cringing on your bed).
Sound sample #15 – back seat of a car is by far the best way to record quality voice over using smartphone. No “unprofessional” reverberation, all the benefits of comfort + great views if needed.
Still if you’ll end up recording in your bed – try to make the “tent” as large as possible. Use every soft piece of bedding you can find. The more the better. The thicker the better. Because thickness will also help you eliminate unwanted noise from the outside a.k.a. ambient / background noise.
Also while recording in bed keep a towel for all that sweat, don’t forget to hydrate a lot and remember to reward yourself with small doses of fresh air from time to time. At the end of my demo recordings on my bed (that took about two minutes) I was completely soaked…
7. Use quiet environment.
This is obvious – you must choose a location as quiet as possible. Street, city and similar outside noises are of course out of your control and you can reduce those only by closing the doors and windows as well as placing blankets to cover cavities around.
What you can do is listen to inside noises, those that can be controlled. A ticking clock on a wall, active personal HVAC, fridge, computer fan, ceiling fan, snoring friend etc. Just listen carefully and switch it off, move it away or move away from it.
Good news is that even some louder sounds can be edited out or concealed in the final mix (if done by an experienced and creative engineer like myself) if good manners and smart techniques were used to record quality voice over using smartphone.
Sound sample #16 – recording done in relatively a noisy environment.
Sound sample #17 – same recording as above, only with great deal of cleaning up processes.
And if you feel that one or the other take might got ruined by a plane fly-by or a crazy biker – ALWAYS re-record it.
If you will keep close proximity to the mic as we already discussed, will be able to get rid of major part of reverberation, keep your ambient noise at a decent level and are on good terms with the mixing engineer – you’re most likely good to go.
8. Always do test recordings to double-check every step as well as set the input gain right.
Actually you can set a approximate gain right after step 3 (locating the microphone) and then adjust it if needed. Now how do you know how much gain is enough? Just read your copy or say some lines and watch the meters of your recording app. On loudest parts those should not overload the microphone and there should be some headroom left.
Good news for a less experienced user – most recording apps have input level metering – a graphic representation of recording source’s volume. Just read the manual to have a clue on what to aim for.
Although we’re aiming for best signal to noise ratio, let’s not get extreme – about 6dB of headroom (’till red light turn on on the meter) is perfection, 9dB is very good, 12dB is also good. In fact all manuals recommend to keep our recording levels at -12dB full scale on non professional equipment, but we’re talking extraordinary situation here (microphones in smartphones have high self noise also they’re omni-directional hence are capturing sound coming from all directions equally), so if you can keep your voice at constant level peaking at -6dBFS – that will give you the bestest results (at a cost of some practice to actually keep your voice under -6dBFS).
Sound sample #18 – low gain. Setting mic’s input gain too low may induce too much self noise (hiss). Although in the “silence” tail the noise level matches the one on “normal gain” recording (because of internal noise reduction probably), one can clearly hear that this recording has more hiss during the speaking part.
Sound sample #19 – normal gain. Even built-in smartphone microphones have “unity gain” or “ideal gain” where signal to noise ration is the rightest. On pro-sumer equipment it will usually be where the input meters are just sometimes jumping from green into yellow zone.
Sound sample #20 – high gain. If set too hot, microphone input gain will cause sound distortion, higher level off hiss as well as higher unwanted sound volume. Meter’s indicating red mean – you’re recording way too loud.
If you’re a professional you should be able to keep your peaks at a relatively constant level. No worries though if you have less control over volume of your own voice, just be sure leave more headroom meaning reduce input gain on your smartphone using in-app settings.
Fact is that professional equipment will get you to great sounding voice productions very fast. But there is no reason to underestimate mass use technologies like smartphones. With proper knowledge, good guiding (like mine is), some experimenting and good post-production skills – it is actually quite easy to achieve results, where no one will be able to tell if your voice over was recorded in a multi billion recording studio or in your hotel room using your smartphone.
Two things for closure:
- The first recording was made using iPhone 7 (utilizing all advice provided in this article), second – Sennheiser MKH-416 going into RME Babyface.
- Both recordings were made on a backseat of my Hyundai i40 Wagon.
Final thoughts on how to record quality voice over using smartphone
Last thing – I wrote this article before recording the actual test takes and all sound samples on this post. I knew it is possible to record quality voice over using smartphone, but I didn’t expect it to come out THAT good with that little effort (keeping in mind that I already knew how to get the best results utilizing all the tips and tricks mentioned above). To be honest, I can’t tell the difference as well as hear quality “drop” if listening on my laptop, or even monitor speakers at all. There are some diversity in color/tone, because it was not my intention to make the recordings as similar as possible. I just performed all the processes I usually do to all my voice over recordings without comparing them one to another.
I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely blown away by the results. Fact is quality of the microphones on different smartphones might vary, but now all the “experts” encouraging people to buy external mic’s to increase the quality of their podcasts, game-plays, vlogs etc. sound like they’re have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about.
If you have got a smartphone you most likely have the tool and after you’ve read my post you already have all the know-how to record quality voice over using smartphone.
Now let me know if you’re interested in discovering how to process your recordings to push your your smartphone audio production to the next level without spending a penny.
As always – thanks for reading. Hope I was able teach you something new and useful that will save your ass once you’re out on your next vacation and a huge ASAP order comes in. Comments, questions, suggestions and remarks highly appreciated. Have fun!