Using a Mobile Phone as an Audio Recorder
Examining the potential uses of mobile phones and other mobile devices as simple voice recording and audio blogging tools.
It is a reasonable assumption that these days almost everybody has - or has access to - a mobile phone. This ubiquitous device has achieved a huge global presence within a remarkably short time, and now offers - in addition to its primary use as a telephone - many different functions, especially in most recent incarnations.
All telephones require a microphone and speaker, and some have connectors for external audio peripherals. These may be accessed by other applications for voice recording, audio playback, analysis and measurement, synthesis and many more audio applications. Although there are limitations to the quality of recording which can be achieved on a phone (at least at the present time), its size, portability and familiarity make it useful as a quick and easy audio recorder.
The ability of many new 'smart' phones to connect to the internet also introduces possibilities for sharing, aggregation and collation of audio recordings through online collaboration and Web 2.0 technologies. This offers an unprecedented immediacy in recorded communication, and opens new paths for delivering educational materials through online communities. Here we examine this nascent movement, and attempt to project its longer-term impact in education.
At a technical level we look at the principle and practice of using a mobile phone for voice recording within a few common scenarios, and assess its suitability for these tasks, and also take a look at some leading models to assess the features they offer to those creating learning materials and recording oral histories. We will discuss how to transfer recordings to computer for editing, processing and delivery, upload them to shared databases and online archives, and access them using a variety of tools.
Strengths and limitations - quality vs stealth
In the context of creation of educational audio materials the primary focus should be on content and accessibility, rather than the sound quality of the recorded material, which is a secondary consideration. Desirable as high fidelity may be, and its pursuit encouraged, a lack of audiophile recording equipment should not be a barrier to using audio in teaching, learning and research. Indeed, the informal nature of using a phone as a 'Dictaphone' style recorder can help shift attention away from the fact that an audio recording is being made, and avoid the self-consciousness this sometimes entails.
Of course for the serious sound recordist, a mobile phone can never replace purpose-built recording equipment for sound quality and flexibility, but sometimes a recorded moment cannot be planned or orchestrated; as the rule from the world of photo journalism puts it: "f8, be there!". A snapshot is better than no shot at all, and can on occasion be better even than a carefully staged set-piece. All pro photographers carry a point-and-shoot compact camera, and nowadays even images and video shot on mobile phones are commonplace in the media, and we can apply the same logic to sound.
Note Some phones, while allowing recording, make no facility for downloading these recordings to any other format or location, so if you need to archive or transfer to any other device or medium then check your phone's facilities, and the complete lifecycle from recording to delivery, before using it for any important recording!
When to reach for your phone
Have you ever left a message on an answering machine? Probably. How about the same message on several people's machines simultaneously? Less likely. Or maybe an off-the-cuff message or recording posted to the ether for the edification of whoever fancies listening to it, based on the title and tags you choose for it? Maybe not. But this is effectively what mobile phone recording with immediate online collaborative sharing can allow you to do.
If you think of a phone recording as being like an answering machine message or audio memo, but with no specific recipient yet selected, you can begin to imagine the real world applications:
Of course the simplest method of leaving someone an audio message is to call their number and speak to their answering machine. This is a pretty familiar and well tested procedure for most people. Sometimes though, you might want to review your message before sending it out, or not wish to call a number which might be answered when the intention was just to leave a message!
Several phones offer the facility to record a voice message, which you can then review, and approve or re-record, and send via MMS or sometimes email.
Notes to self
As well as leaving messages for other people, you can of course also remind your future self of thoughts, tasks and ideas which may otherwise slip your mind. Recording voice memos is a very intuitive way of capturing what is in your mind without needing to structure and formalise it into written text, and also can convey emotions which are difficult to express through the written word without resorting to smiley faces.
As an example, I discovered that an old phone of mine allowed me to ring my own number, but because I was on the phone (naturally) I was redirected to my own answer machine, where I could record a message, and then pick it up later. There was no facility for downloading this recording (or not that I ever discovered anyway) but it was an invaluable tool for recording quick voice memos when nothing else was available. I used it to remember musical ideas which I knew I would forget otherwise, and occasionally notes-to-self - remember Mother's Day, buy milk etc. Quality was less than ideal, but the information was intact, which was the goal.
I now have several dedicated audio recording applications, on a phone with far higher recording quality, but the principle is the same, though the process is, if anything, a little less intuitive.
Location recording - quick and dirty
Sometimes it can be useful to have an audio record of a meeting or conversation for review and research purposes. Recordings on phones will almost always be monophonic, and reliant on the quality of the built-in microphone, but if this is sufficient for your needs then positioning your phone to pick up your desired source can allow you to capture a rough recording.
A couple of newer smart phones have significant internal memory, and can record in CD quality, or a compressed equivalent. Additionally, some also allow connection of external microphones, which can offer significant further improvements to recording quality:
Apple iPhone 3G with Macally iVoice III microphone, recording to the buit-in Voice Memo application
Here is a test recording we made - you can either play it using our audio player below, or right-click and save this link Audio Demo 1 [mp3 - 96kbps mono] to download it.
A phone can be an ideal medium to capture an informal recording of a meeting, tutorial, or any kind of small group discussion, to act as an aide memoire in the same way that written minutes do. If all participants agree to you recording them (always ask permission) then simply place your phone in the middle of the table and press record.
Note: For any kind of group recording, be aware that your recording will sound much more reverberant than you may expect. The brain filters out a lot of room echo and background noise, which a microphone will not do, so don't expect an ordinary room to sound like a recording studio!
Some new smart phones can record short passages of audio and post them directly to the internet for sharing. Applications such as AudioBoo let you record a couple of minutes of sound, and upload it immediately to an online server, where other users can subscribe to your username feed, or simply cherry-pick recordings based on the tags and titles given to them by their creators.
While a very informal process, this kind of 'audio blogging' provides a sometimes fascinating, sometimes mundane window into our collective audio worlds, oral histories, and current vernacular.
When explaining any subject with which you are familiar, and about which you can speak confidently and fluently, you can achieve excellent levels of audience engagement by using sections of recorded speech among your learning materials, which will effectively convey your enthusiasm for, and confidence in a favourite subject. Sometimes a text document - no matter how well written - can impose a quite 'formal' form of communication, which can drain the material of some of the energy that can be conveyed by an animated speaker.
Try using your phone in a 'dictaphone' style to catch a useful 'bite-sized' piece of information, transfer it to your computer, and include it among the respective Course Documents on your VLE. Find a quiet, and preferably small and echo-free space, and don't worry too much further about sound quality, but just (as they say in the movies) act natural.
Sharing your recordings
Audio blogging, as mentioned above, is one easy way to share your recordings, but you will sometimes need to embed audio from your phone into a more structured learning environment. Most VLEs have one or more ways of delivering audio to students, and the whys and wherefores of this process are covered (with specific reference to Blackboard VLE) in our Audio via Blackboard advice document.
The critical thing to bear in mind is that you must be able to transfer your recorded file to a computer in a format which it can understand enough to transcode into one of the popular delivery formats (usually wav or mp3). This will depend on the model of your phone, and it should not be taken as read that just because you have a recording on your phone, it can be transferred to your computer. The possible hardware/software variations here are far too many to address, but my recent post to our blog Voice Recorders on the iPhone takes a look at a couple of the applications for audio recording on the iPhone, the mobile device which currently offers the widest range of audio tools, and the formats and methods by which users can transfer these recordings to computer.
As with all audio recording, it is advisable to capture a short test recording of a representative source to check that the equipment is working correctly, is positioned to pick up its desired subject(s), and that quality of results are acceptable. This is especially true for location recording, where acoustics and background noise can have a significant effect on your recording. If you are recording anything other than your own voice with your phone, try a brief 'dry run' beforehand if you possibly can, to ensure all parties can be intelligibly heard.
Implications for educators
As podcasts, audio enhanced presentations, audio course materials, and recordings in general become more commonplace in education, so the demand for both immediacy and quantity of audio communication has increased. While the fixed (or indeed portable) audio workstation is the ideal tool for audio capture of most types, and should be the first choice for critical tasks, there is still a big gap to be filled in this demand, both in terms of suitable equipment, and users' competence and confidence in its operation.
However, as the demand for audio recordings has increased, so also have the recording capabilities of the humble mobile phone - to the extent that in many situations it can substitute quite acceptably for dedicated portable recorders. As an added benefit, mobile devices will often offer advanced sharing and delivery tools which offset the (increasingly small) compromise in recording quality.
Of course not all mobile phones are suitable for, or indeed capable of this kind of use, but in the same way that a serviceable phone camera has become a requirement for many phone users we suspect that a good quality and well integrated audio recorder may become a significant factor when choosing a phone. The widespread audio enrichment of VLEs, and the rapid growth of services such as AudioBoo and iTunes U are a strong sign of the rise of audio + internet as a preferred method of disseminating educational content to learners in a palatable and engaging way. In combination with these services, the familiar interface and basic audio capabilites of the mobile phone can present an accessible and simple way of creating and delivering audio content with the minimum of time and training. And the chances are, it's already in your pocket.
Published in: Creating