You Can Record Great Video & Audio Using Your Phone and Simple Accessories

Karen and Dambara sing “Larks Fly High” with young friends at Ananda Village.

I wrote this guide because I was saddened by how many sublime performances by Ananda’s singers and musicians are lost forever simply because they aren’t recorded. I undertook a hobby project to prove that it is possible to make excellent video and audio recordings using simple, relatively inexpensive equipment.

David James came over to repair our disposal, and when he was done he revealed that a group of men were planning a surprise for Jyotish and Devi, who would be giving a weekend program here in Palo Alto. After Sunday service, the men’s group would sing a lovely American song, “Shenandoah,” with spiritualized lyrics by Jyotish. David asked if I would be willing to video the event, and I happily agreed.

I recorded the video with the simple setup described below. To watch it in full quality, be sure to set the resolution to 720 or higher.

It has received 1,416 views so far, with 99 likes and positive comments. Several folks privately expressed surprise at how good the audio sounds, even though it was recorded with a phone.

The Opportunity

Now that Dwapara Yuga has put a wonderful movie camera in every pocket and purse, video has become an important medium for sharing ideas, information, and inspiration.

But can you really make good videos with a phone?

Yes – you can!

Next question: What does it take, and how much will it cost?

Here are some suggestions for simple gear that costs about $175, not including the phone. Because the microphone is the most expensive link in the chain, I’ll add some suggestions for cheaper mics.

You’ll need three items besides the phone.

  1. Apple Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter. This $9 adapter allows you to connect an external mic to the iPhone.
  2. Ulanzi U Rig Pro Smartphone Video Rig. This $19 frame holds the phone and microphone.
  3. A microphone. A good choice is the Comica CVM-VM20 ($129). Its advantages are that it has very good sound and provides a complete solution in a compact package:
  1. It’s battery-powered, so you won’t need an external power supply. (Most pro-level mics require 48-volt “phantom power.” For the iPhone, you’d need a power supply that costs $50, is bulky, doesn’t attach easily to a frame, and adds weight.)
  2. The battery in the Comica mic lasts up to 60 hours on standby. (If the battery runs low while you’re recording, you can attach an external power brick and keep recording.)
  3. It includes the correct TRRS plug to insert into the $9 Apple 3.5mm adapter. (Two cables are included in the box. Be SURE to use the TRS to TRRS cable – the TRRS connector has three rings; the TRS has two.)
  4. It includes an excellent shock mount to reduce “handling noise” as you work with the phone.
  5. It has two “low-cut filters” that help eliminate ambient noise (air conditioners, fans, traffic, etc.).
  6. It has a built-in audio gain (volume) knob, so you can adjust the volume for loud or quiet performances.
  7. It comes with foam and furry (“deadcat”) covers to help silence wind noise. This is important, as microphones “hear” wind much more sensitively than our human ears.
Today we’re recording a performance of “The Christmas Mystery” by world-renowned tenor Luciano Snoopirotti. Click the image to enlarge.

If your budget doesn’t stretch to the $129 Comica mic, a cheaper, but still decent option might be the Rode VideoMicro ($58.50). Other mics to consider are the Comica CVM-V30 Pro ($53.99) and the Movo VXR10-PRO ($49.95).

Tips for Getting Good Video With a Phone

First, a little-known secret. The AUDIO is FAR more important than the visual image in a video. People will watch videos that have poor image quality but good sound, but they will quickly stop watching if the audio is bad.

For evidence, see this video of a piano competition in Nice, France. (Fast-forward to the first piece by Josef Haydn at 3 min 40 sec.) The video is terrible but the audio is sublime, and as a result the video is very watchable.

You can, of course, record your audio on the phone without an external microphone. The audio technology in all iPhones since at least the 4S is outstanding. (The iPhones’ headphone audio quality puts expensive “audiophile” gear to shame. Here’s a technical discussion of iPhone 5S Audio Quality, by professional sound engineer Ken Rockwell.) So getting good audio OUT of the iPhone is a breeze!

But getting good audio INTO the iPhone is a different story.

For RECORDING, the iPhone tech simply doesn’t matter. What determines if your audio will be wonderful or terrible is two things:

First, the quality of the signal coming into the phone, which means the quality of the microphone.

You can think of the iPhone as a dumb recorder – it simply captures the digital signal you send to it, without trying to improve or otherwise alter it. If your mic is of good quality, the phone will capture a clean signal that sounds good.

Second is your recording technique – how well you are able to control the factors that can deteriorate the sound quality, such as ambient noise from wind, fans, air conditioners, traffic, sirens, etc.

Another factor is your ability to set the volume of the recording so that the audio isn’t too quiet or too loud. If you set the volume (“gain”) too low, you’ll have to boost it in post – and, oops, you’ll also be boosting the ambient noise – wind, fans, motors, etc. If you set it too high, the loud passages may be clipped – an irreversible error, since you cannot pull clean audio out of those clipped loud passages that sound like a giant mechanical farting machine. I’ve never experienced clipping with the iPhone, perhaps because I have little experience. By asking questions on the Apple user support forums, I’ve tried to find out if iPhones have a built-in low-pass filter (or some other tech) to eliminate clipping, but nobody seems to know. Research continues.

Because of Apple’s wonderful tech, the iPhone’s tiny microphones can sound surprisingly decent. And you can make an iPhone recording sound surprisingly close to a professional mic by editing the audio files. See How to Make Phone Recordings Sound Like Pro Voiceover. But it will only ever be an approximation, and it will take time.

The point is: for best audio quality, you absolutely need an external mic.

Chatting with Sig. Snoopirotti after the concert. Click the image to enlarge.

Video Quality

Phones today can take beautiful video. This is especially true of the latest iPhones.

Stabilization

Nothing is more certain to make your videos look amateurish than camera shake. Watching your shaky video, people will think, “Who shot this – a seven-year old?”

Quick Suggestion: If budget allows, get an iPhone 12 Pro Max or an iPhone 13 Pro or 13 Pro Max for their wonderful built-in stabilization. (The 13 Pro Max costs $100 more than the Pro and is bigger, at 6.7” vs 6.1”; but the cameras are exactly the same.)

There’s an unfortunate fad among professional filmmakers today to “go for the handheld look.” Initially used to convey intense emotion during action scenes, clueless directors and camera operators now mistakenly believe that their footage will look edgy and exciting if the operator moves the camera randomly. But a shaky camera is off-putting to audiences – it suggests drunkenness, palsy, and delirium tremens or all three in the camera operator, rather than high drama.

How to keep your video steady? As mentioned above, the latest iPhones have excellent built-in stabilization.

The stabilization in iPhones before the 11 is a bit more problematic. They may require that you use an external gimbal, tripod, or monopod to achieve better stability.

Gimbals are a pain. They require lots of fiddling to balance and operate correctly. They can be unreliable, and they are expensive. Few gimbals made specially for phones will work properly if you attach a filter or a microphone. None of the dedicated phone gimbals will work with a frame. This means you must buy a more expensive, more complicated gimbal for over $200.

You may be able to clamp a mic to the gimbal’s handle, but then you’ll have to worry about accidentally pulling the audio cable out of the phone.

My advice: depending on your budget, buy a more recent phone, or use a monopod. The Amazon Basics 67-inch Monopod costs $21 and will serve nicely. You’ll want to add a tripod head to the monopod, preferably one that’s made for video and will pan smoothly. I use a really excellent little Panshui Fluid Drag Head that sells for $33.99 on Amazon.

I love monopods – they greatly improve stability with any phone. They even help stabilize the phone while you’re moving to follow the action.

If you want to record live performances with an older phone, just sit in the front row with the phone in your lap in its frame, with elbows braced lightly at your sides. Hold the phone still and you’ll get stable video.

How to Optimize Your Audio

Our Ananda music director loved the audio in the Shenandoah video She asked if I had applied any enhancements to augment the sound.

I’ve watched dozens of instructional videos on improving audio, and they all boil down to the following ridiculously simple advice:

  1. Know what the tools do. It’s good to learn about audio compression, noise reduction, EQ, etc.
  2. Twiddle the dials and sliders in your audio software until the music “sounds right.”

This is what the audio pros do. For most corrections, they don’t suggest numbers; instead, they urge you to hone your listening skills and adjust the dials until the audio sounds good. It isn’t an exact science – after all, every musical performance is unique – though they do suggest applying corrections in a certain order – for example, saving Reverb for last.

While augmenting the audio in your software, try to do “just enough” and not too much.

I edited the Shenandoah audio in Adobe Audition, where I applied the following effects:

  • I added a touch of amplification to make the sound a bit louder, so people wouldn’t have to turn up the volume to listen to the song.
  • I applied a bit of Adaptive Noise Reduction. Too much noise reduction causes an unpleasant “tiled-bathroom” effect, so I applied just a little. (A bit of noise is natural in outdoor settings.)
  • I applied some Reverb, just a touch for fullness.
  • I applied a bit of Stereo Widening – again, for fullness.
  • I applied a bit of Effects > Special > Vocal Enhancer (Music). This seemed to add richness and clarity to Keshava’s voice and help bring it to the fore.

I probably could have done more to tame the wind noise in Audition, but I felt it might risk distorting the music.

Microphones – Addendum

As I mentioned, the Comica VM-M20 shotgun mic partners extremely well with the phone, because it includes the right cables and accessories. Reviewers say its sound quality is the equal of mics that cost at least twice as much.

However, the Comica would not be a good choice for recording a small ensemble or full choir close-up. To use a shotgun mic like the Comica in these situations, you would have to stand back quite far to “fit” the group within the mic’s narrow recording pattern. And because of the distance, you would pick up more ambient noise (fans, heaters, air conditioners, traffic noises, sirens, etc.).

For these situations, a shotgun mic such as the Comica is a compromise. The alternative would be to position a microphone on a stand, close to the ensemble or choir. Ugh – too complicated!

To record music at live events, you’ll want to keep your gear simple and small. I would bring just the phone, frame, mic, foam and deadcat windscreens, and cable adapter – and that’s it.

Recording Live Music

If your music director asks you to record a live choir, ensemble, quartet, trio, duet, or solo during Sunday service or a concert, what mic, or mics, should you use?

Here’s a very good guide on the Shure website (Shure makes excellent microphones): How to Choose the Best Mics for Choir at Worship. The article describes a number of options. Something to consider is that you can buy the recommended types of mics at greatly reduced cost used on Ebay.

You can also choose less expensive but still excellent options. I recently ordered a matched pair of used (open-box display model) Behringer C-2 mics (highly praised by customers on Amazon and Sweetwater) at Sweetwater for $45. That’s a bargain! MUCH cheaper than the Shure KSM137 mic ($299) mentioned in the article. The Samson CO2 matched pair of mics are also excellent. Buy either matched set and keep one mic as a spare. Per the Shure article, you will only need one mic for up to 20 singers. If there is guitar, cello, or piano accompaniment, you’ll be covered. With these mics you’ll need 48-volt phantom power — see the next section.

I’ll add tips for connecting two external mics to a phone as soon as I’ve tried it (the Behringers arrived today).

When planning to record audio for live events, keep aesthetics in mind. The Shure article recommends small, unobtrusive mics like the Behringers and Samsons mentioned above for choirs and small groups, as well as hanging mics that are truly tiny but capture wonderful sound. If possible, try to avoid sticking a big, black hand-grenade-sized studio mic in front of the choir, or much worse, obscuring the faces of ensembles, duos, or solists. The audience (and any photographers and videographers present) will thank you!

Can You Use Studio-Quality Mics with the iPhone?

For pre-arranged, “formal” recording sessions where  you’ll be recording audio only, you can use heavier gear. This goes a bit beyond our theme of “simple and cheap,” but I’ll share some thoughts.

If your music director asks you to record an ensemble in a quiet setting, I can recommend two very good, relatively affordable mics. Or you can simply borrow a good studio mic from your local Ananda music ministry.

First is the Senal SCM-660 Large-Diaphragm Multi-Pattern Condenser Microphone ($169). Here’s a review of the Senal mic by Ken Rockwell, who found that it performed as well as the legendary Neumann U87 which costs $3600 and is the standard against which other studio mics are compared.

If you can’t afford the Senal, a good option might be the CAD GXL3000, which you can occasionally find on Ebay for as little as $90 (it’s $199 new). I’ve recorded Keshava playing cello with the CAD GXL3000, and it sounded wonderful. The Amazon reviews suggest it’s very good for vocals too.

Both mics have three switchable sound pickup patterns: Omni (records from all directions), Cardioid (records from the front), and Figure Eight (records equally from front and back). Both have high-pass filters to reduce ambient noise, and a low-pass filter to help protect against clipping.

To record on the iPhone with these mics, you will have to supply them with 48-volt phantom power. You can do this with an add-on (battery-powered) power supply such as the IK Multimedia iRig Pre 2 Microphone preamp for smartphones, tablets and video cameras ($50). You will also need an XLR cable, and an XLR female to 3.5mm male adapter to connect the mic to the Apple 3.5mm to Lightning adapter.

 And finally, a rant on camera handling

In the “Shenandoah” video, I tried to be careful to avoid camera shake. I used a stable camera, the iPhone 13 Pro Max, and I tried to move the camera slowly and deliberately. This is extremely important, because SLOW, SMOOTH, DELIBERATE camera movement is the essence of good taste for video.

If you watch professionally filmed live music events, you’ll notice that the cinematographers take GREAT CARE to make their movements SLOW, SMOOTH, and INCONSPICUOUS, and NEVER introduce absent-minded, unnecessary or meaningless (stupid) motion.

It can take time to convince yourself of how extremely important it is to be CONSTANTLY aware of how you’re moving the camera.

A mistake that amateur camera operators ALWAYS seem to make is to imagine that the audience will “get bored” if the camera isn’t constantly moving hither and yon – whereas EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE: audiences will LOVE you if you hold the camera ROCK-STILL for long portions of a take, and NEVER move it simply because YOU are feeling bored.

“Hey, maybe I should film the cute little squirrel that’s running up the tree – oh shucks, the squirrel is gone. Or maybe I should show the cute little kid who’s smiling so sweetly at his father – uh-oh, now the cute little boy is picking his nose, and now he’s studying the boogers.”

Do you get the point? If your aim is to drive your audience nuts, feel free to wave the camera about.

Think of it this way – every time you move the camera unnecessarily, your video will lose fifty percent of its potential likes on YouTube, and you’ll (profoundly) decrease the chances that you’ll be asked to shoot another event (unless your sweet gurubhais are moved by compassion to breathe not a word about your naivete).

I’ll add further thoughts as they occur, including simple approaches to editing video on Mac, PC, iPhone, and iPad. Feel free to offer suggestions or ask questions in the comment section or through the Contact Form.