Updated 11-30-2014 – now includes my notes on the follow-up, the RØDE iXY Lightning.
Several gadgets over the years have come along offering recording opportunities with the iPhone – the Blue Mikey, the Apogee iRig and even an entry from Tascam. But it wasn’t until the RØDE iXY made its debut that I sincerely considered an iPhone as a serious tool for audio drama field recording.
What interested me most about the iXY is using it for stealth sound design – capturing bustling city streets, subways, weird sounds by machines, ocean ambiences, etc. while not drawing attention to myself… “Gee, it’s just another sucker with his eyes fixed on his iDevice!”
Does the iXY fulfill its promise – a compact, portable, ‘just works’ solution for field recording in your pocket? Read on.
A History of Mac Hate
Here’s the big disclosure: I am an unrepentant Mac-hater. Does anyone remember anythingbutipod.com? Yeah, probably not. I have been a PC-guy since the first IBM Aptiva my mom bought the family in 1998 (or thereabouts). I have only ever owned MP3 players that you could plug in via USB and drag/drop files, and when I finally had my arm twisted enough to buy a Smartphone, it was an Android device. Something about living off-grid makes you skeptical of devices that everyone considers the ‘best.’
So, for me to be seriously talking about ditching my Android for an iPhone just to use the iXY, that is a big deal. Yet, that is exactly where I’m at after test-driving the iXY for a couple weeks.
Update – I have in fact converted from Android devices to iPhone, my current rig is an iPhone 5s with the iXY Lightning. Yes, they finally won me over!
Why iXY it to Begin With
Why is the RØDE iXY so exciting? Well, starting in 2012 I made a pledge to carry a field recorder with me at all times. When you’re serious about sound effects, you just never know what you’re going to miss if you’re out in the world and don’t have a way to capture something cool you hear.
I’ve held pretty good to my pledge, though of course the occasions I’ve forgotten to carry a recorder, I’ve missed some awesome sound gathering opportunities. Like what? Like – being at a bonfire out in the woods and then having a bunch of fireworks being shot off impromptu (can you say fill-in for rockets?). Like – being at another bonfire which kinda sorta maybe got a little out of control, and needed someone to fire up a a tractor and come dump gravel on it. Try creating that sound in post (and in case you’re wondering – Fred, what kind of frigging parties do you go to? Well, this is how we roll in the woods of Maine).
Anyways, carrying a field recorder with me at all times requires remembering it, keeping batteries in it, etc. I don’t need to repeat a previous reviews ad nauseum, but as I’ve written I’m in love with my Sony PCM-M10. But while the Sony is an extra thing to carry around with me, I carry my Smartphone (pretty much) everywhere. Doesn’t it just make sense to record great sound on a Smartphone?
Unfortunately, ‘great sound’ and ‘smartphone’ are generally antithetical phrases. To get great sound, you need three things: 1) good mic capsules (which, of course, cell phones don’t have), 2) ability to provide enough ‘gain’ to those mic capsules so that they can record an accurate representation of the original waveform, 3) quality Analog to Digital (A/D) conversion so that the fidelity of the source sound is preserved when it is saved to a digital format (which is why if you plug a good mic into the 1/8″ jack into your cellphone it will sound like shit). Smartphones have great software on them that let you do a lot of things, but record quality sounds is not one of them.
The iXY changes that by integrating audio processing (parts 2 and 3) as well as quality mics (parts 1) into a single device which attaches to the accessory port of the iPhone (models available for both the legacy iOS port and Lightning).
The iPhone’s proprietary 4-pin cable allows for devices like the iXY to bypass on-board electronics and instead transmit high-quality data. Android devices, in contrast, can only support 1/8″ inputs, and while there are various connectors that will allow you to plug-in a pro quality microphone to an Android, I’m skeptical the output in terms of audio fidelity will be worth it. Let us not forget – you can get great portable recorders for $200 or maybe less. So the smartphone option needs to at least match a Zoom H1 or H2n in order to be worth considering.
In summary: the iXY was made for the Apple iPhone not only because it is the most popular smartphone out there, but because it is the only smartphone that offers the ability to add a plug-in sound processor.
Damn, score one for Apple.
Unboxing the iXY
Apple spends a ridiculous amount of time thinking about and optimizing the experience they want their customer to have when using one of their products. Everything from the way the product is wrapped, to the first thing you see when it is powered on, to their ruthless policing of apps, is all thought out in the greater context of user experience (UX). UX is what makes Apple Apple.
RØDE clearly wanted to make sure that opening the iXY appealed the sensibilities of Apple lovers. Seriously, it is perhaps the most beautifully packaged product I have ever seen (and this is from a guy who things that packaging is 99% BS). The wrapper has simple, clear graphics on what iXY will do, and even includes a QR code with link to a product video demo. There is a clear plastic shell which gives the package its heft, and the iXY itself is held at the top of it and packaged in snugly like the crown jewels. Yet, it is not a huge PITA to open, in fact it all snaps apart smartly and bam – within seconds you are holding your little beautifully iXY. Plug it in, and away you go…
RØDEincludes two accessories which are crucial for the iXY – a little zip-pouch for the unit with carabiner, and foam wind screen. Sadly, the wind screen does not tuck inside the zip-pouch, but the pouch itself is vital (this has been corrected on the Lightning edition, which has a bigger portable pouch).
I found myself thinking: “Well, what good is carrying around a second little gadget that I have to plug into my cell phone when I could just carry around a field recorder?” The answer is the little zip pouch – snap it to a loop on your pants and you will forget you have it on there. It is so lightweight, you’ll hardly even notice the power you’ve attached to your belt. Just, um, don’t throw it in the wash with those jeans.
Update – As of this writing (11/30/2014) I still haven’t found a satisfactory ‘dead cat’ style windscreen to go with the iXY, the foam windscreen is OK but it has the unfortunate property of tending to fly off the device and into the city street when you whip out the iXY from the zip pouch (yeah I guess I handle stuff aggressively!). My ideal add-on is nearly permanently affixed to the iXY so it always has wind protection, just unzip the add-on pouch, plug into your iPhone, and may audio happen. Alas, still looking.
Testing the iXY
OK, well, a beautiful product and cool specs mean nothing. What matters is what you gather out there in the real world and what you do with it. I made it my mission to put the iXY through its paces.
My first task was to get the Rode REC App installed onto my first gen iPad. No problem – a quick visit to the iTunes store later, I had the app running, and made some test recordings using the built-in iPad mic. Let’s just say: Ugh. Let’s see how much better the iXY can do.
A quick ‘click,’ and a green LED lights up informing you that the iXY is running (though, annoyingly, it did not fit snugly with the case on my test iPad so I had to pull the iPad out of its folio cover to use the iXY). The recording process of Rode REC is straightforward enough, though there are some oddities that take some getting used to (for instance, the little ‘mic’ icon is actually settings, not recorder, the ‘help’ is hidden under the little Rode brand button in the top left, and the ‘Edit’ on the main screen allows you to change order of recordings, not actually… you know… Edit).
To put the iXY through its paces, we tried a similar exercise with a series of recorders – get inside a car, fumble with car keys, turn on car, turn off car, then get out and record the outside. This set of actions is fairly typical of the kind of field recording I’ll do (capturing ambiences and oddball sounds at environments throughout the world).
You’ve read this far. Now let’s cut to the chase. Here are a bunch of 16bit / 44kHz recordings, undoctored, with a similar set of tests:
RØDE iXY and iPad Recording
Zoom H1 Recording
Sony PCM-M10 Recording
RØDE NT-4 and Sound Devices 702 Recording
About the test-setup and why I chose these devices:
- RØDE iXY – The test device, obviously
- Zoom H1 – A ‘handy’ $100 recorder that gets surprisingly good results given its price point
- Sony PCM-M10 – Currently my favorite compact field recorder
- RØDE NT-4 and Sound Devices 702 – This is my ‘big mama’ rig, we use it for our main field recorded audio dramas. It was the ‘benchmark’ trying to compare how a compact recorder could compare to a serious set of equipment
You can listen to the samples above and judge for yourself.
Here is what I thought:
The RØDE iXY
I was impressed with how well the iXY stacked up to its big brother (the NT-4). The levels looked low on recording, though I figured out midway through you can adjust (without making a sound!) on the fly using the Rec app. The device has surprisingly minimal internal noise, and can hold up to a fair amount of gain in post. There are some handling notes and vocal noises on this track, which are my fault. Part of the reason it’s my fault is that I don’t know the device super-well, but a more annoying problem is that it is difficult to monitor yourself when recording on the iPad. For reasons that elude me you get a strong echo in a set of headphones while recording (Update– RØDE support has informed me that there is a few ms delay when monitoring audio that is a fault of iOS – ick. That is a major disappointment).
Now, in most cases when you’re recording with an iPhone, you probably won’t have cans with you to monitor on anyways, but it still is a weak point. The little foam windscreen did an impressive job of cutting out wind noise though you could still hear it as I exited the vehicle.
For some people the Zoom-H1 is really a wonder device. But, for $100 you do get what you pay for. Again, blame it on me, but the Zoom H1 is the device I have that always seems to be out of batteries when I need it. For the purposes of this test, it actually died on me in the midst of one of our takes. Now, you can read the back of a devices’ box and know what the specs are in regards to battery life. But in the field, you kind of just want it to work, and the Zoom H1 just isn’t that device. You can get good results (and if you listen to this track it’s not half bad) but you have quite limited ability to adjust the levels of your sound, and it is insanely responsive to handling noise. This is a good tool for a beginner (and given how small it is, not bad to keep in your backpack just in case) but professionals really need something a bit hardier.
I know this recorder well and frankly I think it got the best actual result of the portable recorders from this test. Me knowing how to hold it properly and speak into it makes a big difference. A nice solid manual input gain knob is incredibly helpful. I also have the Rycote windshield for it, which made it stand up incredibly well to movement and wind noise. This is the gadget I am going to take with me next time I go to South Africa (sorry, iXY). In fact, I did a later test where I added my RØDE NTG2 to the PCM-M10 and frankly I kind of like the on-board mic sound better in most situations than the shotgun sound of the NTG-2. For ‘run and gun’ recording, the light form factor of a device this size makes all the difference in the world. For serious recording work, having the RØDE NTG-2 and NT-4 available is invaluable. But I’d prefer to pull out this in a bus station than my dead cat…
RØDENT-4 and Sound Devices 702
This track sounds great, but given the $3,000 of audio gear I expected that. I really wanted to try and figure out WHY it is better. The NT-4 is RØDE’s premier X-Y stereo pair microphone, and I think its profound difference compared to the iXY is mic capsule spacing that gives a greater sense of ‘space’ to this recording than what the iXY did. The iXY is indeed stereo, but the sense of space is a little more compressed. Is that a good or bad thing? Not really either, it’s a ‘thing.’ Your application is going to determine the best device for you. You are not going to take this rig onto the subway.
Recalling that the premise of this review was to find a recorder that I would be happy taking with me everywhere, we can look at the results and say, “Damn, for 200 bucks the iXY gives a $3,000 sound recording rig a good run for its money.” I think personally I can achieve slightly better results using my Sony PCM-M10, but given its form factor the iXY is an incredibly powerful little gadget. In fact, now that I have the iXY, I have taken the Zoom H1 OUT of my bag and mailed it to Australia (to help an intern there get started recording her own sounds, not because I want to exile the poor thing).
This is not a review that is telling you one product is great and everything else sucks. This is the take of a person who is obsessed with field recorders and uses them on a daily basis. So in conclusion, let’s remember that the best tool is the one you have in your hand when you need it, that does what you need it do to well. I find having a selection of tools allows me to be more versatile and to use the right one for the job.
Here is currently what I own and how I use it:
- Serious production work:The RØDE NT-4 recorder, RØDE Blimp + Boompole, Sound Devices 702. Since 2007 all FinalRune shows have been recorded with the NT-4. In 2012 we replaced our Marantz PMD-660 with the Sound Devices 702. I could not imagine a better recorder than the 702, but you pay for it. I’m still quite happy with the NT-4 after using it for 6 years, however you learn that it is quite sensitive and picks up stuff you might not notice unless you’re paying attention. So, pay attention.
- Sound effects gathering:The RØDE NTG-2 really shines when capturing ‘spot’ sound effects – door slams, splashes, animal calls, etc. We pair it with the Marantz PMD-660 which we phased out of our main production kit. It can work with the PCM-M10 but that rig is a little awkward just due to the size of the Sony.
- Sound recording when you’re out in the field:By the ‘field’ I mean traveling out-of-country, off-grid, away from the influence of humanity. And for this, the PCM-M10 is still my favorite. It is sturdy and can handle being jostled around in a backpack or being hucked out of a minibus. It has legendary battery life, and I can feel confident that when I pick it up, I’m going to get the sound I want.
- Sound recording in the modern world: Now that I have the iXY to add to my arsenal, it is my ‘go to’ unit for my day-to-day life, which, actually is mostly in the civilized world. It is the device I’m going to have with me in train stations, city streets, office buildings, and maybe even concerts (if I can get it in with it!). I should note that the only way to get your recordings off of it is to send them to Dropbox or SoundCloud, which is incredibly useful, but also a possible limitation if, you know, you are two days’ journey into the bush (Update – this is not quite true. You can get iTunes to talk to the iXY and move tracks that way, but IMO it is a PITA).
- Dustbin:The Zoom H1 is my ‘sacrificial’ unit which I’ll mail in a box to actors or aspiring sound recordists who are doing a small project for me. It can get good results and is dead simple to use. But I don’t trust it enough to carry it with me as a go-to device. Also in this drawer is the Zoom Q3 which I keep around to take video and sound clips of my infant daughter (none of which you are ever going to see). My Zoom H2, the trusty recorder which started me off on this whole adventure of portable sound recording, is going to be bequeathed to someone deserving who will use it. I’m still happy with the sound I get from the Zoom H2, I just think the Sony is better.
So there you have it, the iXY has convinced an Android user to enter the iPhone fold. Anyone want to buy a used Android phone?
Disclaimer: Rode Microphones was kind enough to donate an iXY to me to review. And the big cool boxes you see on this site are affiliate links, if you buy something through them it will send some money to FinalRune productions, which I will convert into more content…