How to Record Bird Sounds With Your Smartphone: Our Tips

August 8, 2016

While pointing your phone towards the sound you are recording, steady your hand and hold the phone with as few fingers as possible to minimize other noises. Photo by Victoria Campbell.While pointing your phone towards the sound you are recording, steady your hand and hold the phone with as few fingers as possible to minimize other noises. Photo by Victoria Campbell.
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If you want to make great sound recordings, you need specialized equipment. But if you just need to make decent sound recordings, a smartphone works remarkably well—if you know what you’re doing.

Recording the sounds of nature is fun, opens up a new avenue for studying the birds around you, and helps scientists when you upload your recordings as part of your eBird checklists. Though smartphones aren’t the ideal equipment, they are powerful, easy to carry, and nearly always within reach. Here are some quick tips on how to get the most out of a phone, from our  recording experts at the Macaulay Library (read their full tips here).

Don’t Use Your Voice Memos App

Chances are the standard recording app that’s on your phone saves recordings as mp3 files. While they sound fine on a quick playback, the mp3 conversion process discards lots of sonic information. You’ll get far better recordings with an app that saves WAV files, such as RØDE Rec (iOS) or RecForge II (Android).

Quickly Check These Key Recording Settings

Most dedicated recording apps allow you to configure some standard settings. Here’s what you want to aim for:

  • File type: WAV
  • Recording quality: High
  • Channels: Mono (your phone’s onboard mic most likely won’t record in true Stereo)
  • Level setting: keep the peaks between -6 dB and -12 dB. Be sure to stay well away from 0 dB or the sound will suffer
  • Automatic Gain Control: Off
For tips on how to record using dedicated audio equipment, here are “The Basics” from Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney. Many of these same suggestions are also useful for recording with a smartphone.

Don’t Worry About Adding a Small External Microphone

Yes, you can get compact, portable mics that clip into your headphone jack. But when we tested a few of these, we found they didn’t make a huge difference. You’ll hear better results by just concentrating on good recording technique. Caveat: It’s possible to connect a shotgun mic or parabolic reflector, and these larger devices can make a big difference in your recordings.

Practice Good Recording Technique

A smartphone is designed to capture loud sounds at close range, and you’re trying to pick up soft sounds from a long way away. Any noise you make as you record—whispering, shuffling your feet, even rustling your clothing—will drown out what you’re trying to record. Here’s how to keep the noise down:

  • Get as close to the bird as you can without altering its behavior
  • Know where the mic is on your phone. Keep your hands and other obstructions away and keep it pointed at your target
  • Rest the phone against a stable surface to help with fatigue
  • Don’t move or talk—even minor movements like shifting your weight or brushing away mosquitoes will create noise
  • Minimize background noise: point your phone away from that highway, ventilation duct, babbling brook, or other source of background noise
  • Take long recordings. You never know when a bird is going to do something different and interesting
  • Make a voice announcement at the end stating what you recorded, the date, time, and weather conditions—before you forget
Want to up your recording game? Check out this video on how to use a parabolic microphone to zero in on your recording subject.

Keep Free Space on Your Phone

Now that we’ve persuaded you to record in WAV, remember to keep free space on your phone. WAV files are much larger than mp3 files (because they preserve all that original sonic information). Fortunately, many phones now have oodles of memory, and you don’t want to start a stellar recording only to be informed that your phone is full.

Back Up to a Computer

Your recordings aren’t truly safe until they’re off your phone—plus, you can reclaim and reuse that memory as soon as you back up your clips. For many users, connecting to your computer is the simplest way to back up your files. You can also use a cloud service like Dropbox, and of course we hope you’ll promptly upload to eBird/Macaulay Library as well.

A “shotgun” microphone can help focus on your recording subject and avoid background noise. Here’s how to get the most out of it. You can find more sound and video recording tips at the Macaulay Library website.

Make Minor Edits and Upload to eBird/Macaulay Library!

Our experts like to stress that it’s unnecessary—and even counterproductive—to “pretty up” your recordings with edits and filters. It’s helpful to trim the ends of your recording and cut out any handling noise. You can also raise the volume if the recorded sound is quiet. But don’t try to enhance the recording in other ways, such as removing nontarget sounds (such as insect noise) or cutting out silences (which tell us something about the bird’s behavior). When you’re finished, enter an eBird checklist and upload your sound files—we’ll accept files as large as 250 MB, so have a ball!

Here’s more complete advice on best practices for recording and uploading audio.

Have Fun

You’re all set! Recording birds is a great way to deepen your understanding of birds. With these tips, plus your trusty smartphone, you’re well equipped to take the next step into the aural delights of the natural world.


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