Listen to some RememBird recordings
The RememBird is an unusual multifunction device, part audio recorder and part digital voice recorder. As an all-in-one mic/recorder combination, it isn't designed to replace your normal field recorder, but it is small enough and handy enough to be with you all the time. On the principle the best recorder a recordist has is the one switched on at the time of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the RememBird can be with the recordist at all times, ready to record, and even has a short preroll buffer capturing the eight seconds before you press record. Designed and marketed for birdwatchers to capture avian vocalisations in the field, and capture field notes in the form of human voice recordings, I took a loan device out to test in the field. This review is of the RememBird, RememBird-X and RememBird software 1.5.11 as of February 2007. At the time of writing the product is available from the RememBird website at £195 incl VAT.
RememBird is a small and sturdy little box powered by one AAA cell. It is in fact smaller than my current digital voice recorder I use for birding field notes, an Olympus VN-120PC. The device has two record buttons and two microphones, one at the rear to record voice notes and one at the front (right-hand side in this photo) to record the birds. Like the Olympus the RememBird records to digital memory storage, either 32MB on board or to a multimedia card (MMC).
RememBird in operating position underneath binoculars
The small size precludes any LCD screen though there are some LEDs on the device to indicate how full the memory is and if the device is recording. RememBird is designed for operation by touch without looking at it, so you can keep your eyes on the bird through the binoculars, and audio cues tell you what is happening. This also makes the device much more usable for visually impaired operators than many modern recorders with small LCD displays and complex menu structures.
The triangular case is ingeniously designed to fit in the crevice of roof-prism binoculars, and can be velcroed in place or just held there manually. In this position the forward-facing microphone is inherently aimed straight at what you are looking at, while the rear-facing mike is pointed to your mouth and can pick up even whispered field notes.
Operation is straightforward. You record by pressing one of the record buttons (to the right in the photograph) - the one at the front logically starts the front bird recording mic and the one at the back starts the voice recording mic. It is possible to keep recording without holding the record button by pressing the other record button momentarily while holding first (the default mode is having to keep the record button pressed while recording). This slightly reduced occasional handling noises for me, but is not a major issue.
You can play the recordings and step forward and back using the four-way and press joystick control in the middle. To switch the device on and off you press and hold the on/off button at lower left - a visual and audio confirmation is provided.
The PC application, which you use to transfer recordings from the RememBird, comes on a CD-ROM.
Recordings are made in mono mp3 format. You have a wide range of mp3 bitrates selectable from the PC software, from 64kbps to 320kbps in 32k steps (16k gaps for the first four steps) for the bird recording front mic, which samples at 44.1kHz, and from 8 to 64kbps in 8kbps steps for your own voice recordings, sampled at 22.05kHz. I settled at 224kbps for the bird recordings, and found 24kbps perfectly acceptable for intelligible notes. Downloading your recording erases the RememBird memory freeing the space up for re-use. RememBird uses its own file system, so you cannot transfer recordings by putting the card into a PC based card reader.
The first surprise with RememBird is that there is no record level control, nor is there a level meter. Recording truly is a straightforward single press operation, which makes it more attractive for the target market - the birder with a singing bird in the field of his binoculars.
I assumed the recorder used AGC when I first listened to the playback in the RememBird application but I was pleasantly surprised to find out I was wrong when I saved an mp3.
RememBird operates at a fixed gain, using the wide dynamic range of the digital medium to take up natural variations in sound levels. Since it is targeted at bird sounds at binocular range, the 80dB between maximum level and the noise floor is enough to cope with most of the variation in volume you encounter with this type of subject and distances. Naturally that means a bird at 50m is going to be at least 20dB down on one at 5m but this can be compensated for losslessly by using replaygain on the mp3 file, or by converting to wav and normalising the audio level.
Recordings made with the front mic are more than adequate for ID purposes if the bird is within binocular range, and the wind is not too high. The mic pattern is omnidirectional; this would not be the natural mic pattern of choice for a bird at binocular range, particularly in a noisy environment. However it is a compromise to achieve an attractively small size, and minimises handling noise. Users wishing to use their own selection of microphone can use the RememBird-X variant (see below). The microphone is a sensitive electret insert. Comparing this with the much more expensive mics some WSRS members may use, the tone colour of the recordings is not as clear; there is some colouration to the higher frequencies. However, in the context the recorder will be used and of course the price, the performance is fine.
listen to a Dunnock recorded using RememBird (distance about 5m).
I made several sound recordings using the RememBird, which you can find and listen to on the RememBird recordings page. These are downloaded from the recorder with no post-processing done apart from lossless gain adjustment via the mp3 scale factor. Some of the recordings are compared with a midrange newcomer's starter recommendation of MKE300 and HiMD recorder. While the recordings of the latter generally have the edge, if you take one of my RememBird recordings and play it to someone who knows the species, they will be able to tell you what the bird is, and identify some of the species in the background too, and you can't really ask for more from an all-in-one mic and recorder! The results are far better than those from the Olympus VN-120PC digital voice recorder, using ADPCM compression. Bird recording is not part of the design brief for the Olympus, so there is no criticism that it makes a rotten job of it. Novices are sometimes attracted by the low cost and simplicity of operation of voice recorders. If you are in the market for simple, one-touch recorder then the RememBird is a very good way to go. It solves the need to use a suitable type of compression, and removes the AGC issue. Birdsong is so intermittent that no common AGC system so far copes properly with it.
My main issue in the field was wind. Comparing the BBC weather forecasts with my results I would estimate wind blast starts to get annoying above about 5-8mph. As a product aimed at birders, I would have liked the option of a 250Hz high-pass filter to minimise wind blast, particularly in windy British coastal locations. You need to monitor your recordings in the field using the RememBird earpiece, so you can shield the mic or try and turn it out of the wind if possible - once wind blast is in your recording, you can't get rid of it by filtering. The mp3 compression seems to make high-pass wind-blast filtering even less effective than on a straight PCM recording. I did experiment with a Rycote mini-windjammer but it was hard to get an effective air seal because the earpiece plug comes out close to the mic.
The RememBird-X is a version of the recorder without the internal microphone - you can connect an external mic to the recorder via an adaptor to the earphone socket. This allows you to connect your choice of mic to the device in place of the front (bird recording) microphone, leave the note-taking mic in place. RememBird presents plug-in-power to the mic input, so a microphone that will work powered from a minidisc recorder may also work with RememBird. The Sennheiser MKE300 works well with this product, and the higher-output ME66/K6 would probably be an even better match - the latter is popular with WSRS members looking at recent Sound Magazine tracks.
listen to a Robin recorded using RememBird-X and MKE300 (distance about 5m).
RememBird with MKE300
Since WSRS readers will probably already have a suitable good microphone, RememBird-X offers an interesting option for recordists, where your digital voice recorder can also work as a backup recorder should your main recorder fail or be in use elsewhere. Likewise it is attractive for partially-sighted users who may not find the small LCD displays on some recorders easy to use in the field. Just as with RememBird, recording is a single press away, and you can set the device to have a preroll buffer continuously recording, to catch up to 8 seconds before you press the record button.
RememBird-X uses the same fixed gain strategy as the original RememBird, which is reasonably matched to the sensitivity of electret microphones (see technical report for sensitivity and noise). If you are using it as your main recorder, a FEL preamp may work off the plug-in-power, giving a useful boost of 20dB gain, and improving the noise figure to a level where the microphone is probably the noise-determining element in quiet surroundings. Unfortunately, in most of the British countryside the ambient noise will be greater than the microphone and RememBird-X self-noise, so there is little need for a preamp in practice. You can hear this approach in the Skylark recording
The note-taking aspect of RememBird is very well designed. It excels over my Olympus digital voice recorder not so much in the RememBird hardware, though that does give you more pleasant sounding recordings, but by the PC software which makes so much more sense of your recordings by presenting them in a diary format using the timestamps on the recordings.
This presentation is much more efficient than the file listing of Olympus's digital wave player software for my VN-120PC. RememBird's presentation is linear in time, just as your scribbled notes would be in a notebook, rather than a jumbled heap of undifferentiated audio files. The green bars are the bird song recordings, with some indication of relative length, and the notepad icons represent the voice notes.
RememBird allows you to keep the audio files in order, listen to them and annotate the audio files directly so you can keep the audio with the text, and add in your species sightings and counts. The software also automatically groups your sighting together into visits, and prompts you to allocate them to a geographical site. It is difficult to put in words the revolutionary nature of this method of managing audio notes by taking out much of the tedious organisational grunt work but it really does make the whole idea of using audio birding notes practical. The only omission I can see is that there is as yet no easy way I can see of exporting the data and sightings to a listing program.
The application normalises on playback over a period of a few seconds. This does not do a lot for the quality of the preview through the application, but does of course compress the volume range of your recordings so you do not have to continually rack the volume control as you play different tracks recorded at varying distances. The price of this convenience is what can sound like really heavy AGC pumping. Extracted files are free of this - they are just what the recorder laid down during recording. You can divide and trim your recordings in the application without decompressing and recompressing - you are presumably limited to cutting on the MP3 frames, which is fine for this kind of application.
The amount of time you save dealing with a day's worth of field notes is well worth having - you can sort your notes out on a laptop in a few minutes and then head off to the bar for a well earned pint after a day's birding, as opposed to sifting through a string of WAV files, which you have to transcribe as soon as possible if you want to make any sense of them.
Although RememBird is targeted at people wishing to record bird songs, it is also well-suited to applications such as students recording lectures, and business meetings, where the diary presentation of recordings and the ability to link in text annotations are of great practical help too.
A range of integrated audio bird guides is available, supplied on a MMC card, with some space left for your own recordings. Downloading your recordings does not erase the guide. You navigate to the species you want using the forward and back joystick, and audio confirmation gives you feedback of which page you are on. This is difficult to describe in words but works surprisingly well in practice. Like recording, you can navigate by touch with audio feedback without having to take your eyes off the bird.I was left feeling that the bird sounds were somewhat over compressed for my liking. This is a subjective call, and wildlife sound recordists may be more exacting in their requirements than usual. In a new area where you are unfamiliar with most species, however,you can still differentiate species by cadence and overall pitch, if not exact tone colour.
RememBird is probably the cheapest single-device integrated mic and recorder combination that will make worthwhile recordings of bird song within binocular range in good field conditions. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into making it usable without looking at it, so you can keep your eyes on the bird.
RememBird scores in the whole system working well - it is more than the sum of its parts. To place it in the spectrum of recording kit choices, you can get a basic digital voice recorder for about a tenth of the price, and the RememBird is about two thirds of the cost of our starter MKE300/MD recorder combination. The former will make serviceable datestamped voice notes, and the latter will make better wildlife sound recordings. Neither will permit the birder to do both, while still looking through his binoculars at the songster. I hope this product introduces many more birders to add an aural dimension to their birding, and we look forward to welcoming some of you to the WSRS!
Even if you normally use a more ambitious sound recording rig, the handy nature of RememBird means you can have it within easy reach for snapshot recordings - if I had been using this as my voice recorder I would have a recording of a stoat fight I observed in summer 2006!
One feature would make a good product even better in my view. The extended low-frequency response of the internal mic means wind, aircraft and traffic noise are more disturbing than they need to be for the bird recordist. A software selectable low-cut filter about 200Hz would be a worthwhile addition to the RememBird.
Birders without prior understanding of the particular challenges of bird recording often try to use their voice recorder on birds, only to find they are just not up to the job. RememBird is - and is an excellent choice of note recorder for the birder interested in capturing calls on the way. The controls are well laid out, and the one-touch operation combined with the preroll buffer means that recording calls does not impact the visual aspect of birding in the same way as operating a more conventional recording setup would.
Listen to some recordings made with RememBird
The RememBird website is:
The inclusion of any item on
any page of this website, is
based on an
individual's comments and experiences, and are not an endorsement by
Wildlife Sound Recording Society.
The opinions expressed are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society.