The Smartphone Audio Problem

Posted February 14, 2024
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Time and time again the the question I am asked by people who want to make compelling videos with their smartphone is: “What do I do about audio?” The answer is pretty straightforward.

For over a decade I have been working with journalists and other people all over the world training them to produce great videos. In that time the smartphone has become the standard camera for us and the people we work with. Everyone always talks about the amazing quality of the camera systems on these phones — particularly the iPhone, but less attention is paid to the audio.

It’s a shame because bad audio can really ruin a video. The pictures could be the most stunning images you have ever seen, but with bad audio people will swipe away pretty fast. 

A lot of people settle for the internal microphone on their phones — many of whom have no idea where it is. I once asked a few of my friends with iPhones where they thought the mic was and they pointed to the bottom of the phone. While it’s true that there is a microphone there, that’s not the one being used when your camera app is open, that one is just for phone calls.  Take your iPhone out. flip it over and look closely at the camera lenses.  Do you see that little black dot? That’s it. That’s the microphone that your iPhone’s camera uses. 

Now, like most things with the iPhone, this microphone is pretty good. However, it has two problems. One is that it’s small, and the second is that it is an omnidirectional microphone. That being it records audio in a spherical pattern so while the sound that you may want to capture is in front of the camera, that microphone is also letting in sound from all around you. If you’re just taking videos of your kids or dogs, that microphone is probably good enough. Still, if you want to make a really compelling video, one that draws people into the world of the story and keeps them glued to the screen then you probably want to use an external microphone. 

So the question is: What microphone do you use?

The two options are a lav microphone and a shotgun microphone. They make both for smartphones and the distinction in the one you get is important. Scrolling around the web you’ll notice that most people opt for the lav mic. You’ll recognize these as the mics that clip onto people’s collars. This is what we’re used to seeing people on camera wear and so in the copying manner of the business, it has become the default. Before the smartphone when people had cameras with multiple microphones XLR inputs, one would almost always use both a lav and a shotgun microphone at once. Capturing both channels of audio and utilizing what they need in the edit. The smartphone however has one input, so you have to make a choice. Since the lav mic was always the one seen on camera, most people think that’s the one to use no matter what. Having this as your default microphone is a mistake. Choosing which mic to use is all about the situation that you are in. 

Lav mics are primarily used for capturing people speaking. In a shooting scenario where it is the person’s voice that is most important then that is the mic you want to use. This will sacrifice most of the nat sound however because the person speaking will dominate what is going into the microphone. If you were recording video in a kitchen and the sound that you wanted was the chef yelling at the other people in the kitchen (think Gordon Ramsey) then you would want to put a lav on the chef and they would be able to walk around the kitchen and you would get clear audio from them wherever they were in the room.

The shotgun microphone is great for focusing on natural sound. These in almost every case just plug right into the phone and then are pointing in the same direction as the camera lens. Wherever you point the phone, that’s the audio you are going to get. 

If we go back to the chef example. If he’s chopping carrots (like in the Beginner Shooting course) and we really want to capture the sound of the knife slicing through the carrot then the shotgun microphone is the one we want to use. If we were using a lav in this scenario and it was on the chef, we’d more likely get the chef’s breathing mainly in the audio and the slicing more faintly. 

Similarly, if you’re down shooting a closeup on the hands and knife and the chef starts talking. The sound of the knife would be favored while the voice would be fainter. This isn’t to say that you can’t use a shotgun microphone to get great audio from a person. It just needs to be pointed at the person as they’re talking. 

As more and more people are creating videos professionally for social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram the market for these kinds of microphones has exploded. I remember 10 years ago trying to find a decent microphone for my phone and most camera shops I walked into looked at me like I was crazy. Shortly after Rode, the big audio company, developed a shotgun microphone for smartphones and other companies have followed suit. Now if you search for a smartphone microphone on Amazon you will see pages and pages of options. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for here. The cheap microphones are cheap for a reason. 

We have seen this recently in our training sessions with journalists. The station issues them a top-of-the-line iPhone and then a $10 wireless lav mic. The video is breathtaking, but the audio disappoints. And the people are always frustrated. They worked so hard to capture great video and then when they look back at it the audio is terrible — which makes the video unusable. As many people think of audio last when they are making a video, that mindset creeps in when they are buying their gear. Take the time to read the reviews, go onto YouTube type in the product name and undoubtedly you’ll see someone test it, and look for trusted company names like Rode and others. Don’t just click on the first deal that pops up. 

Now you see the importance of picking the right microphone depending on the kind of sound you want to capture. While for smartphones there are ways to connect multiple microphones, if you’re just plugging the mic into the port on the phone and using the native camera app you’ll be limited to just the one — so choose wisely.


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