Image 1: This EQ fix for iPhone recordings nixes rumble, clarifies low mids, and restores lost sparkle.

If you own a smart phone or tablet, chances are you already know it’s a great tool for capturing musical ideas anywhere, anytime. How cool is it to carry a recording studio in your purse or pocket?

Meanwhile, ingenious app developers are doing amazing things with iOS and Android software. There are powerful multichannel DAWs, from Apple’s GarageBand to such third-party options as Harmonicdog’s Multitrack DAW and Music Studio by Alexander Gross. There are fine amp simulators like IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube for iPad and Positive Grid’s BIAS. Positive Grid even offers Final Touch, a frickin’ mastering suite for iOS!

But just how good can phone and tablet recordings sound, given the devices’ hardware and software limitations? What are the best results you can expect from their humble built-in mics? How much of an upgrade should you expect when you connect third-party mics and audio interfaces? In other words, can a mobile device be more than a musical notebook? Can you create keeper tracks?

I wasn’t sure either, so I tried a few experiments while home for the holidays, far from my studio gear.

When recording with phones and tablets, aim for the driest sound possible, because the built-in mics tend to capture room ambience in an unflattering way.

Phone Alone
I focused on miked acoustic recordings because you can get keeper electric guitar tracks using a mobile device, a decent interface, and a good iOS amp modeler, like the ones in GarageBand, AmpliTube, and BIAS. (As an example, check out the audio clips in PG’s April 2014 BIAS review.) At the very least, you can get a decent dry recording, something you can reprocess or ReAmp when you return to the Mothership.

First, I recorded a brief acoustic passage on my iPhone 6 using GarageBand. (Disclosure: I’ve worked as an Apple audio developer.) I was in my childhood bedroom—a bland-sounding space with thick carpeting and a soft, absorbent ceiling. I set the iPhone on a small folding table in front of my guitar, experimenting with different angles. Audio 1 is the best sound I got.

The result is boomy, dark, compressed, and noisy. You hear the acoustic space, though not in a particularly cool way. The microphone also exaggerates string, instrument, and fidgeting noise.

Later I popped the file into Logic Pro to see how much I could improve it. I applied the EQ shown in Image 1, removing some lows and low mids, adding treble sparkle, and applying a touch of stereo room ambience to combat the boxy feel. Those adjustments help—but only so much. Audio 2 is still a bit noisy, flat, and uninviting.

Tablet Time
Next, I repeated the experiment with an iPad 2. It’s interesting how different the mic sounds, yet the same weaknesses are apparent. There’s another problem, too, and I’m not talking about my sketchy intonation. (Sorry, I was so busy troubleshooting that I forgot to tune. I suck.) I recorded the clip while listening to a pair of GarageBand loops. Even with only those two stereo tracks playing, the processor load introduced the digital clicks in Audio 3 (Maybe I’d have had better luck with a newer, faster iPad.)

In Audio 4, I’ve applied fixes similar to the ones in Audio 2. They help—but only so much.

Mind you, Audio 2 and Audio 4 are quick fixer-uppers that don’t demonstrate the sort of invasive surgery you can perform with dedicated audio-repair software like iZotope’s RX 4, where you can eliminate unwanted room ambience, preamp noise, and digital clicks. These recordings can sound better—but getting there requires advanced tools and skills.

Tone Tip #1: When recording with phones and tablets, aim for the driest sound possible, because the built-in mics tend to capture room ambience in an unflattering way. Try working in a room with soft, absorptive surfaces. Spreading a blanket or comforter on the floor may help.