six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This week's sponsor

Protect your privacy and decipher iOS 11 network features with a new book by Glenn Fleishman. Get 25% off with code SIXCOLORS.

By Jason Snell

Recording podcasts on iOS (or not)

When I wrote about editing a podcast on iOS using the Ferrite Recording Studio app, and then discussed it on The Talk Show, I heard from a bunch of people who wanted to know what I used to record audio on the iPad.

That’s an easy answer—I didn’t—with a more complex issue wrapped inside it. This is a tough one. Even Federico Viticci of MacStories, who uses iOS to do his entire job, still uses a Mac for recording podcasts.

Audio on iOS is primitive when compared to OS X. Only one app can play audio at a time—if you’re playing music and you open YouTube and start playing a video, your music doesn’t keep playing (as would happen on the Mac)—the music is stopped and then YouTube begins to play. And while the Mac’s innate audio-input abilities are not great (thank goodness for utilities like Audio Hijack and Sound Siphon and Call Recorder for Skype), they’re a darn sight better than what’s available on iOS.

As with playing audio, only one app can record audio on iOS at one time. And yet most of the podcasts I create on iOS require that I use a communications app—usually Skype—to talk to the other people on the podcast. The moment Skype begins a call on iOS, it grabs control of the microphone and any other recording app is stopped in its tracks.

There may be some workarounds possible—GarageBand and other apps have been written to use an app called Audiobus to send audio back and forth across apps. It’s a clever hack, but I’m unclear if it could work with Skype (given that it’s sending and receiving call audio all the time, which is more complex than either playing or recording alone), and even so, it would require Skype to be updated to support the feature. (Skype could, of course, offer a feature that let you record your own microphone locally, or offer a recording of your call in the cloud, but Microsoft seems uninterested in pursuing such features.)

So the best hope here is that iOS gets an update at some point that allows multiple apps to have access to audio input. Every year I hope it’s one of those little features that Apple displays on a slide at WWDC that says, “100+ other great features!” or somesuch. It’s never been there.

In the meantime, there is a way to make a Skype call and also record on a high-quality microphone using only iOS. It’s just kind of ridiculous: You make the Skype call on your iPhone, presumably with iPhone earbuds or other compatible headphones with a microphone, while sitting in front of an iPad that’s attached to a microphone and recording locally. The people on Skype hear your bad microphone, but your good microphone is what gets used on the actual podcast. Serenity Caldwell used this method for both this week’s Incomparable Radio Theater and Upgrade episodes. The risk is that if your recording fails, all that remains is a lousy recording of your voice on a set of earbuds via Skype—not a great backup.

I’ve got a Zoom H6 recorder, so if I wanted to travel with just iOS devices, I think I would just record my microphone locally using that, then transfer the file for editing. That also allows me to bypass another problem with recording on an iPad or iPhone: support for external microphones.

There are a few microphones and mixers out there with a native Lightning connector, but most USB devices that rely on Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter. Unfortunately, the Lightning connector is limited in the amount of power that it can supply; most USB devices won’t work with it unless you connect the microphone via a powered USB hub. Things get messy quickly. It’s workable—I discovered that even my Sound Devices USBPre2 audio interface can work with the iPad if you bring a powered USB hub and put it in a special compatibility mode—but it’s not ideal.

That’s the longer answer. The short answer is, recording podcasts on iOS today is not as easy as editing them. It can be done, but only with a number of workarounds that aren’t necessary on the Mac, which has a more mature sound system that can handle playing and recording multiple audio streams in multiple apps simultaneously.

Ah, well. Maybe in iOS 10.

[If you appreciate articles like this one, help us continue doing Six Colors (and get some fun benefits) by becoming a Six Colors subscriber.]

[Don't miss all our podcasting articles.]