At the risk of stating the obvious, Apple’s nigh-ubiquitous iPhone has blossomed from a feature-rich smartphone to a full-blown mobile computing platform. Audio and music production apps now range from synths, sequencers, and drum machines to remote controls for Pro Tools, Logic, and Cubase. While stereo recorder apps have been plentiful since iPhone OS 2.0, the phone’s integrated mic is strictly for phone calls, not recording high-resolution audio. So, I set out to find the slickest solution I could for turning the iPhone or iPod touch into a serious stereo field recorder. It had to be compact, affordable, musical, easy to use, and include three necessary components: a stereo mic, a recording app, and high-fidelity earphones. Here’s what I settled on.
With a street price of around 80 bucks, Blue Microphones’ new Mikey has made quite a splash in the mobile audio world. It sports stereo mic capsules, a switch that selects three gain levels, and integrated playback speakers for a quick listen, We spent over a month putting Mikey through its paces on a variety of field recordings. These included backyard ambiences, city streets, close-miking of sources we wanted to sample such as drums and acoustic pianos, coffee house duos, and loud club shows and rock concerts — at these, the least sensitive gain setting was almost as good as carrying a dedicated limiter around. In all cases, Mikey performed like a champ.
We should mention that Mikey was originally designed for use with iPods, and at testing time, didn’t yet have Apple’s official “works with iPhone” endorsement. It fits and works great, though. Just put the phone in airplane mode to avoid the familiar, Morse code-like cell phone interference. While Apple’s new Voice Memos application is incompatible with Mikey, that’s not a big deal, since the iPhone’s onboard mic is fine for recording voice reminders. To get the most from Mikey, we tested it in conjunction with the app FiRe.
AUDIOFILE ENGINEERING FiRe
For only $5.99 at the iTunes App Store, FiRe (Field Recorder) is an extraordinary achievement. It records 16-bit/44.1kHz audio, in mono or stereo, directly to the iPhone’s internal memory, so if you have a few GB of space left in your phone, you’ve got hours of recording time. As for amenities, FiRe is brimming with features that professionals really need, such as creation of markers on the fly, editable WAVE metadata for each recording, and — get this — direct transfer of your recordings via FTP, WiFi, or even publishing to SoundCloud.com. FiRe is a bit of a snob when it comes to compatibility with other products, and won’t work with my first-generation iPhone’s internal mic and speakers, but if you’re buying a Mikey, the amount FiRe will set you back will be the best six bucks you ever spent.
V-MODA VIBE II
For monitoring, we relied on V-Moda’s latest iPhone-compatible earphones, the Vibe II. Like M-Audio’s high-end IE-30 ear buds (reviewed Mar. ’07), the Vibe IIs have separate treble and bass drivers, and if you’re used to cheap, single-driver ear buds, you’ll really notice the difference. Speaking of M-Audio, why not use their phones or a similar “music industry” brand? For listening to music or monitoring, they’re great (and M-Audio’s top-end IE-40 are like Genelecs you can stick in your ears), but the Vibe IIs have an integrated microphone for phone calls, so they’ll double as your hands-free headset for driving.
The blingy aesthetic design did give them a more delicate feel than I’d prefer for rough-and-tumble use, but on the other hand, the included “sport earhooks” wrap the cords snugly behind your ears and let you insert the buds from the top. This provides needed cord strain relief, whether at a packed concert or the gym.
Periodically, the Vibe IIs introduced a touch of slapback echo to phone calls via the integrated mic. Even so, their sound quality is outstanding — with tons of detail and a much more balanced sound than their predecessors, the original Vibe Duo.
Overall, we were blown away by the quality and functionality this trio delivered. If you’re a sampling fanatic, or record lots of interviews, meetings, rehearsals, or shows, the one-two-three punch of Mikey, FiRe, and the Vibe IIs is a total knockout that delivers unheard-of performance for a total cost of right around $200 (plus the cost of your iPhone or iPod Touch, of course). If you’re looking for a hi-res 24-bit/96kHz recorder, you’ll still be better served by a dedicated unit . . . for now.
WHAT IS IT?
Snap-on stereo condenser mic for iPhone, iPod Touch 2G, iPod Nano 2G/3G/4G, iPod Classic, and iPod 5G.
Great-sounding stereo recordings. Three gain modes. Powered by iPhone or iPod, so no batteries are used.
Must be used in airplane mode on iPhone.
$99.99 list/approx. $80 street
AUDIOFILE ENGINEERING FIRE
WHAT IS IT?
Full-featured stereo field recorder application for iPhone and iPod Touch.
Top-notch user interface. On-the-fly logging and marker insert. Multiple sample rates. Uploads to Soundcloud or FTP server, or to local computer via WiFi.
2G iPhone use requires headphones and third-party mic. Apple’s SDK prevents USB syncing with Mac desktop or iTunes.
V-MODA VIBE II
WHAT IS IT?
Dual-driver headphones with integrated mic for phone calls.
Gorgeous design. Pro-quality sound. Leatherette case included.
A tad on the delicate side.