Product Review

Birding World Volume 19 Number 9

Originally published in Birding World, Volume 19 Number 9 and reproduced here by kind permission of the editors. The review was of the Mark I. Comments in italics have been added to highlight where the (current) Mark II differs.

The versatile RememBird digital recorder can carry the bird sounds of all the birds of the Western Palearctic (and more), weighs just 50g and can fit neatly under a pair of binoculars

‘It’s frustrating to read long-winded disputes about the identity of a particular rarity on the internet, with numerous photographs to look at, when a sound recording would have settled the matter in a moment.’ – so reflect Mark Constantine et al. in their delightful new book The Sound Approach to birding (2006). I could not agree more, especially as I have dabbled with, and periodically abandoned, my very amateurish tape-based attempts to record bird sounds over some 30-plus years of birding trips. Could RememBird be my salvation I wondered as I eagerly unpacked this, the first offering for birdwatchers from Software Hothouse Ltd.

This intriguing device, designed to be cradled in the gap between the objectives of one’s binoculars, can record spoken field notes and play back both these and pre-recorded libraries of bird sounds via an earpiece (or, in the Mark II, an internal speaker). Furthermore, the provision of a second, more sensitive, microphone means that it can record the all-important songs and calls of what you are actually viewing through your binoculars. Finally, all the recordings made to its on-board or removable memory (Mark II has so much onboard memory it no longer needs removable cards) can be archived on a personal computer, facilitating paperless note-taking and record-keeping. So, how does it perform?

RememBird comes complete with accessories, including spare batteries, software CD, wrist-strap, earpiece, Velcro(TM) attachment strips and instruction booklet (Mark II is no longer supplied with batteries and has the software loaded onto it so no need for a CD). What is immediately apparent is the care with which the device has been designed: everything fits together beautifully and gives reassurance that this will endure the rigours of many field trips. It functioned smoothly on a recent trip I undertook to the cold and damp Arctic and, equally, I know it has been tested in the heat and clamminess of the tropics. The triangular-section design lends a degree of strength that belies its small proportions, plastic construction and ‘light as a feather’ mass (50g/2oz) – indeed I witnessed one of its designers stamp on it at the Rutland Water birdfair to no ill effect!

Unlike many of its current competitors in the world of compact digital recorders, RememBird has been designed ‘by a birder for birders’ and can conveniently nestle in the space between the objectives of most modern ‘roof prism’ binoculars, held by the supplied Velcro(TM) fastenings (or for those who prefer, a handy wrist-strap is provided). Thus positioned, users will find the two microphones ideally situated: the first downward pointing and lying just above the mouth when the binoculars are raised, and designed for recording softly spoken field-notes (at 16 kbps) (40kbps on Mark II)), while the second, higher-gain (64 kbps) (128kbps default on Mark II)), microphone faces the field ahead, ready to record songs and calls. I found that the recording of spoken notes worked well whatever the weather and ambient surrounding hubbub, while recordings of bird calls and song were of reasonable quality at close ranges (up to ~25 m), making due allowance for the small size and lack of directionality of the microphone and the cost of the product.

Have you ever cursed the fact that your fumbling extraction of your recorder from pocket or case is too late to record the calls of a now rapidly disappeaing bird? Well, this machine has that covered too, with the option to select a handy ‘always listening’ mode. In this state it continuously records and then overwrites on a rolling basis, the last six seconds (up to 10s on Mark II). It can then be directed not to over-write this buffer by pressing the recording button – so just press the button within six seconds of hearing any interesting call and you may well find you have already recorded your quarry at the beginning of the last track.

RememBird (which uses MP3 files) has no moving parts, which enables it to be powered by a single AAA alkaline battery, which gives it a recording life of up to 16 hours. It possesses 32 megabytes of on-board memory, sufficient for three hours of spoken notes and 15 minutes of higher-quality bird recordings. (Mark II has 100 times as much memory - 4GB. More than you'll ever need!)

Crucially, it contains a slot at the head of the internal battery compartment to take tiny removable MMC-type memory cards that can be purchased separately (No longer relevant to Mark II. Use of these gives the owner the opportunity to record to their heart’s content, while bespoke pre-recorded libraries of bird sounds provide one of the most useful aspects of the recorder. Currently, a card is available which holds the calls and songs of most of the birds on the Western Palearctic list. Under license, it is based on the Roche and Chevereau 10 CD set but it contains some extra species and it is more field-friendly, because the calls are split from the songs, and they loop-play automatically (with the voice announcement on the first loop only). A card restricted to British Birds is also available. Shortly, a card will follow for North American birds, and the avifaunas of further regions are promised as future developments. These libraries, I find, make the RememBird ideal for use on foreign trips or for a spot of aural revision before a twitch. Furthermore, modern MMC cards are of such high capacity that they allow not only the provision of a substantial pre-recorded library but they also leave space sufficient for several more hours worth of personal field recordings, thus substantially augmenting RememBird’s own on-board 32MB recording capacity. (Mark II has 4GB on board, does not require memory cards and comes with any one of these audio field-guides built-in at no extra cost

As there is no LCD screen to indicate the track being played, the device relies upon a spoken alphabet-based announcement system in which the user clicks a central control switch on the device to navigate through the archives, confirm the selection and adjust the playback volume. This takes a while to get used to and, it must be admitted, some dexterity, but, after half an hour’s familiarisation, I could whiz through the archive to play any one of the 500 or so species in the Western Palearctic library within a matter of seconds. Use of a portable speaker (not supplied) can impart very impressive playback capabilities, although the suppliers are keen to point out that RememBird has not been designed for this purpose; birders should always place the welfare of birds, especially at breeding sites, at the forefront.

Once you are back home, RememBird can be connected to your PC/Mac via the supplied USB cable. Once the accompanying software has been easily installed from the CD, ll notes and recordings painlessly download to a specially designed database, and then the personal data automatically deletes from the MMC card (leaving untouched any pre-recorded library of course!). The RememBird database is customisable, allowing you to append written notes to the day’s recordings and to arrange and edit the recordings. The crop tool is particularly useful for tidying up recordings, for example, for deleting the introductory mêlée of unwanted assorted footsteps, shakes and rattles that often occur in the few initial seconds recorded as a consequence of being in the ‘always listening’ mode. With RememBird attached to a PC/Mac, as well as playing their own recordings through their PC/Mac’s speakers, owners can also play their library cards. The database software (which is constantly being honed based on feedback received from users), can also be updated over the internet.

I find myself much impressed with this product, especially with its birder-friendly design, its robustness and its pre-recorded libraries. I particularly like the fact that I can leave it pretty much permanently attached to my binoculars and I am therefore unlikely to forget it when I dash out – if only I could say the same for my digital camera gear! It will surely find favor among those who want to find a solution to the age-old problem of summarising a day’s worth of field notes painlessly but who possess too little spare time to write-up comprehensive notes when back at base. Its recording and playback facilities will entice field birders who have an interest in audio recording, but who are otherwise constrained by the costs and bulk of professional equipment. Future developments could see the addition of a Bluetooth capability (wireless earphone or speakers), brighter power- and memory-indicating LEDs and an upgraded high-gain microphone – all something to look forward to. (Mark II has brighter lights, built-in speaker, 100x the memory, supports external microphone, has higher gain and includes an audio field-guide as standard)

In this short review, I’ve only been able to gloss over the many potential uses and functionality of the RememBird, but, being attractively priced (it costs £270 (that was in 2006! Now only 145) including the Western Palearctic birds pre-recorded library), I can see it quickly carving a niche amongst birders. It seems likely to become a trusted companion on many a future birding trip. And, as for Constantine’s conundrum referred to above, it can only be a matter of time before a rarities committee accepts a single-observer record of a Taiga Flycatcher, or such like, where the balance of evidence has been swayed by a RememBird recording.

Reference

1 Constantine, M. & The Sound Approach. 2006. The Sound Approach to birding. The Sound Approach. Poole, UK.

History of RememBird

The original RememBird was launched at the British Birdfair in August 2006.

The "Mark II" was introduced in 2010 - with more memory, audio field-guide as standard and support for external microphones.