Thumbnail image: Jay McGowan/Macaulay Library
>>Kathi Borgmann: Welcome to our live Q&A with the Macaulay Library. Today we have staff from the Macaulay Library. My name is Kathi Borgmann, I’m the Communications Coordinator. And today we have Matt Medler, Collections Management Leader, and Jay McGowan, the Archival Coordinator, here to answer all of your questions about sound recording.
>>Kathi Borgmann: I’m going to start off by asking a few questions, but then we’ll answer questions from the audience. For those of you on Zoom, you can click the Q&A button located at the bottom of your screen, and you can type your questions in the window. If you like someone’s question, please up-vote that question by clicking the thumbs-up icon. We’ll answer your questions verbally and others will be typing questions, and you’ll see the answers in the “answered” column.
>>Kathi Borgmann: We are also live streaming on Facebook. If you are watching on Facebook, you can add your questions to the comments and we’ll do our best to answer those as well. Also please be aware that there have been some spam attempts on our Facebook pages, so please do not click on any links in Facebook that are not posted by the Cornell Lab or eBird.
>>Kathi Borgmann: So first we’ll start off asking a few questions. What is the Macaulay Library?
>>Matt Medler: Yes, I’ll be happy to answer that one. First I’d like to say thank you to everybody who’s joining us today, it’s nice to see some familiar names and also some new friends joining us as well. So the Macaulay Library is the world’s largest and oldest scientific archive of natural history audio, video, and photographs. The archive was founded in 1929 as an audio collection, and since that time it’s grown to include both photos and videos.
>>Matt Medler: So as Kathi said we’ll be focusing today on the audio side of things, but overall the archive includes over 22 million bird photographs, almost 200,000 bird videos, and over 800,000 audio recordings. The audio recordings are focused primarily on birds, but we do also include sound recordings of anurans — frogs and toads — insects, and mammals. So to kind of get us in the sound mood, I’m going to play one of our non-bird recordings: a recording of a Humpback Whale.
>>Matt Medler: This is a Humpback Whale recording made by Paul Perkins many years ago, and it’s part of a large collection of marine mammal recordings that was archived in the early 2000s at Macaulay.
[Humpback Whale sounds playing]
>>Matt Medler: So even though we have the name “library” in our name, we’re not a traditional library where you can borrow books or magazines. We think of ourselves more as a natural history collection, a bit like the American Museum of Natural History. But rather than having physical bird specimens that are in drawers, we have what we call media specimens.
>>Matt Medler: So the media specimens at the Macaulay Library are focused not so much on the physical characteristics of a bird, although obviously you can see that in a photograph or video. But we’re focused more on the behavior of the bird, what did it sound like in an audio recording, what did it look like in a video or photo, what behaviors was it demonstrating? So all together there’s over 23 million media specimens in Macaulay Library, and when eBird and Macaulay Library are fully functional, all of the specimens are viewable and explorable from anybody all over the world with an internet connection.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, thanks Matt. So we had a little bit of technical difficulties getting started live streaming on Facebook, so I just want to welcome all of our Facebook members to our live stream Q&A. We have Jay McGowan, Archival Coordinator, and Matt Medler, Collections Management Leader, answering all of your questions about sound recording.
So if you’re on Facebook, you can just comment your questions in the comment box below and we’ll do our best to answer them. So welcome.
One of the other questions we get asked a lot is, what is the most recorded bird in the collection? Matt, do you know what bird is recorded most frequently in our collection?
>>Matt Medler: I do know that. It’s a Red Crossbill, which is a bird that’s found at times across much of North America, as well as Europe and Asia. And sound plays a really important part in identifying which type of Red Crossbill might be present at an area. So we get citizen scientists, from all over the world really, sending in their Red Crossbill recordings, adding it to their eBird checklists, and documenting the movement of these birds which are quite irruptive. Here in the east, we’re experiencing a big irruption of crossbills and other winter finches, so pretty soon we’re likely to see our 10,000th Red Crossbill recording in the archive.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Wow.
>>Jay McGowan: Just this year alone we’ve had over 2,000 recordings uploaded of the Red Crossbill.
>>Kathi Borgmann: That’s great. And another question we always hear is, you know, there’s so many birds and so many beautiful sounds. Do you have a favorite song that you want to share with our audience today? Jay, do you want to share your favorite?
>>Jay McGowan: Sure, yeah. So this is a bird that I recorded in Senegal, in western Africa. It’s called an Oriole Warbler, and it has a really cool duetting song that the male and female give together. They’re really cool-looking too, but the sound really grabbed me when I when I was hearing it.
>>Matt Medler: You want me to pull that up, or do you —
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, if you could.
[Oriole Warbler sounds playing]
>>Matt Medler: Stop that. Let’s stop the share.
>>Jay McGowan: It got louder at the end there, but it was a bit quiet in the beginning.
>>Matt Medler: Okay. So I’ll play quickly one of mine and see if we can get the sound a bit louder for everybody. So one of my favorite recordings — It’s not my recording, it’s a recording from a former colleague David Ross, who’s done a lot of sound recording in Costa Rica. He recorded this group of Long-tailed Manakins. These are birds that gather on a communal display ground called a lek. And much of the time the birds just give a simple call, but then when a female is present the males will jump into action. There could be three or four birds gathered on a thin branch, and as the female watches the males will perform this elaborate courtship display, where they’ll actually do little jumps over each other and the other one will slide under and they create this this little growling sound as they’re doing this display.
>>Kathi Borgmann: That’s a really interesting song that they make. Do you have another one queued up that you want to share with us?
>>Matt Medler: Sure. Yeah, I’d like to acknowledge our colleague Andrew Spencer who’s helping field questions. Andrew is extremely accomplished sound recordist. He’s recorded all over the world, and this is one of his favorite ones from the Pacific Northwest: a Varied Thrush song. Just share my screen again so that people can see the recording play.
[Varied Thrush sounds playing]
>>Matt Medler: It’s one of the characteristic sounds of a rainforest.
>>Kathi Borgmann: All right, we have a question from the audience that we’d like to answer right now. He says that he’s been recording birds for a year with his phone. And this person is interested in improving the recordings with a microphone, either a plug-in on the phone or a recorder. What equipment would you recommend? Jay, do you want to answer this question?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, sure. We’ve experimented a bit with this, and there are a lot of different external microphones. Some are, you know, really tiny ones that you can just plug into your phone, and others are, you know, full-blown kind of a shotgun or parabola microphones.
I’ve got a an example of a shotgun microphone right here. The bigger the microphone, the better it will typically help your recordings. Usually we found that the really small microphones don’t improve the recording all that much; they’re not very directional so they might boost the signal a little bit, but in general they’re not improving the recording too much.
But the we have a couple — there’s one called a Rode Video Mic Go or Pro, that’s kind of a much smaller version of this shotgun, that is pretty handy to carry around but also does improve the quality of the of the recordings.
We have a — Maybe I’ll just mention it now, it might come up again — Last December Andrew Spencer and I spent some time reviewing some different microphone setups hooked up to different recorders, to kind of see what was the best value for the price to improve recordings. And we posted that in a gear review, that you can find on the Macaulay Library website once everything is back up and running again. So maybe Kathi can throw that that link into the chat so you guys can have that. But it’s a good kind of summary of recording equipment, and what’s a good value.
And all of those can connect to a phone, as well as to a dedicated recorder if you had one of those.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Yeah, that’s great. Do you have any other advice about equipment that you want to share with someone who might be getting started? Or, you know, what is the best way to record with a smartphone?
>>Jay McGowan: Sure, yeah. So you can make pretty decent recordings with a smartphone, as a lot of people probably know. It’s not going to be as high quality as if you have a dedicated recorder and microphone, but in a pinch it’s really great for documenting things like those Red Crossbills that Matt was talking about.
So a couple of tips. I guess I’d say for recording with a with a smartphone: get close to the bird. That’s just good advice for sound recording, no matter what kind of equipment you’re using. Try not to disturb it, obviously. But the closer you can get, the higher the quality of your recording will be.
And then especially with cell phone recording, it’s really important to consider your self noise, the noise that you’re going to be making because you’re so close to that microphone. So trying not to wear swishy clothing. You know, it’s hard in the winter because you need a lot of layers, but those parkas or raincoats and things just make so much noise with any slight movement. That’s going to get picked up in the recording much more than some distant birds. So trying to wear kind of soft clothing, being aware of your movements, not moving your feet too much as you’re trying to make your recording. And especially with the phone try not to move your hand too much. You know, point it and try to hold steady as you’re making the recording, to avoid that handling noise that that can disrupt the recording.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Go ahead Matt.
>>Matt Medler: Yeah I was going to say a few other things to think about with recording with a smartphone. One is make sure you know where your microphone is in the phone, so that you’re pointing it in the right direction towards the bird you’re trying to record.
And then a big thing is consider getting a free or inexpensive recording app that you can use with your smartphone. Most smartphones, they have a free built-in voice recording app, but it highly compresses the audio. And for natural sound recordings of birds, we encourage people to make uncompressed .WAV recordings of the bird sounds.
So there are a variety of different apps, they change all the time, but we have links to a few that have worked well for us on our website. The key thing is finding one that will record .WAV and then ideally just you set up set it up once with a few settings and then you’re good to go and make uncompressed .WAV recordings.
>>Kathi Borgmann: And when you when you say .WAV, these uncompressed files — What does that really mean, and why is that important when we’re recording bird songs?
>>Matt Medler: So you want to take that one?
>>Jay McGowan: Sure, yeah. So a lot of audio codec — the way that audio is saved like .MP3 or .M4A — are what’s called compressed files. And basically they are set up in such a way that they are discarding audio information with the idea of making the files smaller. They’re easier to share, they’re easier to fit on your phone or audio player. And they’re set up to discard information deemed not important to the human ear. So things that we’re not going to really notice are gone from that file.
And that works great if you’re just listening to music or something like that. But because we’re a scientific archive, we’re trying to archive and keep information beyond what’s just important for us to listen to a pretty sound. We’re trying to archive that information that might be important to how these sounds sound to the birds themselves, or even other information that that we wouldn’t necessarily pick up on right away. So we encourage users to record in formats like the .WAV files that are not compressed. So they take up a little bit more space but they’re not discarding that potentially valuable information, they have all of that audio information saved in them.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Yeah that’s really great to know. And there is no limit on size when people upload their recordings with their eBird checklist?
>>Jay McGowan: There is a 250 megabyte limit to the audio files uploaded. But depending on your settings that’s anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes of audio. So it’s usually sufficient to for most the most files, so really no reason not to not to record in that higher resolution format.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Right. So if someone had some recordings, do they need to do anything to their recordings before they add it to their eBird checklist? Matt?
>>Matt Medler: Yeah, we ask people just to do a couple of quick easy things with the recording. And I’ll demonstrate that with one of my one of my recordings here.
Okay, so this is this is a field recording that I made with my smartphone just using the microphone built into to my phone. The very beginning of this recording I can play it for you. A lot of times we’re excited to start recording and we’re kind of moving around and there’s some handling noise some fumbling of the phone and this big spike that you see here at the beginning of the recording is me kind of moving around getting ready to start the recording. So it’s not pleasant to listen to and it’s very loud relative to the bird sound. If we if we look at the rest of this recording here this .WAV form we can see little bumps here, and that’s when the bird which is a Tufted Titmouse —
[Tufted Titmouse song playing]
>>Matt Medler: That’s where it’s singing. So you can hear it there, but if we listen to the very end of the recording, I’m fumbling with my phone to stop it.
[Recording with muffled handling noise playing]
>>Matt Medler: A lot of unpleasant clicking and just kind of yucky handling noise. So there’s no need to archive that yucky handling noise, so what we do is we just do some simple trimming at the very beginning and end of the recording. So in this case the Tufted Titmouse is starting right here, I’m just going to get rid of all this junk before the Tufted Titmouse. I’m just going to delete that. And then I’m going to go to the end of the recording, and this is the last Tufted Titmouse song. So then I’m just going to delete the stuff after that at the very end of the recording. And now if I zoom out I just have five nice songs from that Tufted Titmouse.
But the level is quite low. You can hear it, but it’s quite low, because often the record level on a phone is low.
So the final step in the process is to do something called normalizing. It’s basically a way to amplify the recording up to a standardized level. And once we’ve done that — If everybody does that, then all the recordings on the archive are the same volume. So we have this kind of consistent listening experience. So I’m going to normalize this recording to minus three. And now if we play the recording again we’re going to hear the Tufted Titmouse much more clearly.
[Tufted Titmouse song playing]
>>Matt Medler: Now you can really hear that bird, which is the target of my recording.
So that’s it really. We just trim the ends of any of any handling noise, normalize the recording, and then after that we’re ready to upload it.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great. And we had some questions on in Zoom and on Facebook about the software program that you’re using. What is that called, and how can people get it?
>>Matt Medler: Sure. It’s a free program. Let me go back and I can show it again. It’s called either OceanAudio or OcenAudio. Like I said, it’s a free program, it’s available for both Mac’s and PC’s. It’s developed by a university in Brazil. And if you’re familiar with Adobe Audition, it has many of the same basic features as Adobe Audition. But unlike Audition which is a monthly pay structure, this is totally free.
We teach our sound recording workshops, which we teach each year here in Ithaca. We teach it using OcenAudio because it’s easy for everybody to get, and it performs the basic editing that we encourage people to apply to their recordings. It’s really a great program.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, that’s awesome.
Some other questions that you know we often get. People say, “well I’m not a professional recordist, are my recordings still valuable? Like, do you still do you still want them in the Macaulay Library?” Jay, do you have an answer for that?
>>Jay McGowan: Sure, yeah. The answer is yes. Next question.
No but really, we’re a very sort of open community at this point. So it’s really really valuable to get recordings and media from all different parts of the world, all different sources. So no matter who you are, if you have an internet connection and an eBird account — which are of course free — you can you can upload recordings and contribute to the scientific archive.
We have a yeah contributors from all over the world. And the media is used in so many different ways, from birders just wanting to learn the sound of something, to researchers trying to answer very specific questions and needing a large data set. So, absolutely.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Okay, we have some other questions that came on Facebook, related to our editing process that you shared. So someone asked on Facebook, how do you convert your audio file to a .WAV file? What if I was out recording with my smartphone and I used the installed app that comes free and it recorded in an .M4A file type, how do I make that into a .WAV and then add it to my checklist?
>>Matt Medler: That’s a good question, and we appreciate the intentions of wanting to get that .WAV standard that we ask for, that we encourage. However, if you make an .MP3 recording in the field, or if you make an .M4A recording on your phone with the built-in app, we ask that you archive what you actually made in the field.
Jay talked about that compression. So if you take a phone recording that’s an .M4A or an .MP3 and that’s highly compressed, and then you try to convert it into a .WAV, that could be misleading for a researcher who might — like Jay said, we might have a researcher who requests all the sounds for a particular species. Because there are advantages to analyzing .WAV files, they might choose to only analyze .WAV files.
So even though your intentions might be good, to take your phone recording and convert it to a .WAV, it could cause issues for a researcher who wants to stick just with those uncompressed recordings. So the answer is, if you’ve made an .MP3 or an .M4A that’s okay, we do accept those, and you should definitely archive those. But then moving forward, we’d strongly encourage you to explore one of the recording apps that records .WAV in the field.
>>Kathi Borgmann: What are the other advantages of using a dedicated recording app on your phone? Just that it records in .WAVs or are there other benefits that these recording apps have?
>>Jay McGowan: Uh yeah, there are some other benefits. It allows you usually to control the level a little bit easier, so you sort of know how loud the bird sound is coming in. Often the controls are easier to use, and you know where things are getting stored. Usually have ways to share the files easily as well.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great —
>>Matt Medler: Yeah, that’s — the last thing, sorry. The last thing is a big thing, where some of these recording apps, they have built-in interfaces that make it easy to share with Dropbox or other sharing services. Because that’s the thing people often wonder. Like, I have this recording on my phone, how do I get it onto my computer to do the light editing, and then the upload? And these apps make it easy to get it from your phone to your computer.
>>Kathi Borgmann: That’s great. Matt, we have some more questions about OcenAudio. So could you share that again, so our participants see it. We’re getting some questions about normalizing these recordings and how you do it. Like where the button is on OcenAudio. Do you want to share that with folks?
>>Matt Medler: Sure. We also have some great resources for OcenAudio, and for some other editing programs, again on the Macaulay Library website. But I’m happy to show another example here.
So let’s see. I think I will go to this recording. This is another recording I’ll do, basically demonstrate the same thing again, where very quickly I’ll delete this beginning where I’m moving around. Lose that one song because I’m still moving, but I’ve got lots of other songs. And then I’ve got all this handling noise at the end, I’ll delete that.
So now I have this kind of clean recording where it’s just the Tufted Titmouse, but the volume is very low. If you can see the meter on my right, when the bird sings it’s only going up to about minus 27 on this meter. So what I do is, I go up to this effects menu here, and then I don’t pick that normalize option even though it’s tempting. I go to this next one, “amplitude option,” and then I go over to “normalize” with the three dots after it. And then I’ll have an option where I can either normalize based on decibels, or this thing called percentual. We want to use the decibels as our unit, and we want to normalize it so that the peak sound in the recording goes up to minus three decibels.
So basically it’s going to do some math and be like okay before we were at minus 27 for the loudest sound and then it’s going to figure out how many decibels of gain it needs to add to get that peak up to minus three, so does the math there. And now you can see that this this loudest peak is going up to minus three.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, thank you.
Okay, some more questions. We have a question from Zoom: “Is Audacity comparable to this app in that it can do the same functions? Or is OcenAudio ideal for bird frequencies in general?” Was there a difference between Audacity and OcenAudio, or any other sound editing software?
>>Matt Medler: Jay, you want to take that one?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, sure. Yeah, short answer is, yeah Audacity is pretty comparable and pretty popular with a lot of folks. It does these same kind of basic functions that that we ask you to do for prepping recordings for upload.
Personally we’ve found that OcenAudio is a bit smoother. Maybe that’s because it’s more similar to Adobe Audition, which is what we use for a lot of our kind of official archival here at the Macaulay Library. But I at least have found that it’s a lot more intuitive. If you haven’t used either one yet, I find it’s easier to get started in this OcenAudio. So that’s kind of our preference, but Audacity will definitely get the get the job done as well.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great thanks. We have more tutorials and information on the Help Center, on how to prepare and upload your audio with your eBird checklist, so if you have any other questions that we didn’t get to answer here today be sure to check out those Help pages. They’re functioning today even though eBird and ML are down right now. Those Help pages are alive, so you can go in and check those out.
Jay, then do you want to walk us through how people might add the media to a checklist?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah. I can give a quick demo on that. Let me just share my screen here. Yeah, so I’ll just go through the steps.
So once we’ve completed those steps that Matt was talking about, we’ve kind of prepped our recording for upload. You’ll want to go to your “My eBird” page here, and go over to “Manage My Checklists.” You need — All of the contribution for this audio is through eBird checklists, so hopefully you’ve made a checklist in the field. Or if not, you can submit a checklist for that time after the fact. But it’s best to do in the field.
So in my case I’ve got — So here’s my list of checklists. And the recording I’m looking at, I happen to know is from this checklist here, back at the end of October. So there’s my checklist page. Up here in the upper right, there’s a green button that says “Add Media,” so that’s what you’ll want to click.
If you already have photos or other audio, that’ll say manage media but it takes you to the to the same page so this is now the manage media page. Just like it says up here at the at the top you can drag and drop media from your file system, from your explorer or finder, here. Or you can go to the these “Add Media” buttons for the species. So in this case, I’ve got my prep file of a Brown Creeper. There. So I can bring that over and drop it on to the appropriate row, and it starts uploading. Might take a little while, depending on the connection speeds.
But when it finishes uploading, it will be assigned a unique Macaulay Library catalog number, which is its kind of unique ID within our framework.
And then once that’s there, you can start adding the really important metadata. We haven’t talked too much about that yet. But part of what makes the recordings in the Macaulay Library so valuable for birders and researchers alike is that they’re not just a pretty sound that’s just out there for you to listen to. But they’re associated with some metadata, the data about the recording that gives it additional value.
So just from putting it into our eBird checklist, we already have the date and time that the recording was made, the species that we’ve dragged it onto here, the location that your checklist was plotted to. And even if it’s a complete checklist of all the birds you were able to identify, some kind of relational data about all the other things that might be in the recording or that were in the same area.
So now that our thing is complete, you can see it says “processing audio.” It’ll take a few minutes to go through our system and make a playable audio that’ll show up in the media search and on your checklist. But meanwhile, I can go over here to this panel on the right and start filling in some of that that metadata I was talking about.
I can give it a star rating, indicating the quality of the of the audio. I can add some notes about the context and what exactly was going on there. I can add any age, sex information about the bird in question. In this case, I know that it was an adult, but I’m not sure if it was a male or a female. The sound type, so whether it was a song or a call, or if other sounds were involved, really helps people narrow in on the recordings they’re looking for using our search tool.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Jay, what if I don’t know if it was a song or a call? What do I do?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, that’s a great question. Just leave it blank. There are lots of recordings out there, and it’s better not to guess than to than to choose the wrong one. In this case it was a Brown Creeper just giving these tiny little high-pitched calls, so I’m confident that it was a call because I also know what the song of a Brown Creeper sounds like.
Whether playback was used or not can be an important piece of data. Any additional background species that might appear in the recording. Other behaviors that were taking place during this recording. And then the recording equipment that that I was using at the time. So this might seem like a lot, but like I said those kind of additional data can really help take a recording from just a pretty sound to a valuable asset that can be used in a in a lot of different ways.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Yeah that’s great. I’ve had recordists that I’ve interviewed tell me there’s no such thing as a bad recording as long as it has metadata, because that’s one of some of the most important pieces of that recording. So it’s really good to be adding that data.
Someone from Zoom asked about quality of the recording or background noises. Should we only submit the recordings that we think are worthwhile? Where is there a guideline on what kind of things to submit?
>>Matt Medler: Yeah. I just got sent a question of, you know, what recordings are valuable? And just like eBird, all observation are valuable in eBird. I’d say that at all recordings, as long as you can hear the bird, all recordings have value. Especially when you’re adding metadata like you and Jay have been talking about.
The collection gets constantly used in new and creative ways by researchers, artists, educators, conservationists. So you never know how people are going to use the collection. Right now, we’re working on developing a sound identification tool that will be built right into Merlin, along with the photo ID tool. And in order to do that, we need lots and lots of recordings.
We don’t, you know — Because when you’re in the field and you hear a bird sound, sometimes it’s really close, sometimes it’s really far. In order to build a model that will identify bird sounds, we can’t just use five-star recordings, we need a mix of things. So even though you might have a two-star recording, maybe with your cell phone where the bird’s a little bit distant, that’s valuable. It’s definitely valuable for this project. As long as you can see the bird on the spectrogram, and you can hear it, that’s valuable training data for this Merlin sound ID project that we’re working on.
So yeah, don’t be shy. Don’t think, “oh my stuff’s not good enough for Cornell,” it’s not the case. As long as you have a checklist with your location and date and the time, and then you add what information you know about the recording, that’s the important thing.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, thanks Matt. And what about if I was out in the field recording and it was super windy, or there was lots of car traffic? Can I just go into the recording and remove that sound that’s covering up the bird?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, we’ve had a question on Facebook it looks like earlier, too, if there are any free AI-powered filters or things like that. So that’s something that that comes up a lot, because it’s a big source of frustration, as anyone who’s tried to make an audio recording can attest.
It’s not a good idea though. The reason is similar to what I was talking about for compressed files, is we want to keep this information, because we don’t know how these recordings are going to be used in the future. It’s not just us wanting to hear a pretty sound. We want to keep these in our scientific archives so that they can be used for researchers and things like that. And if we’re going in and kind of artificially manipulating the way it sounds by using noise reduction or other things like that, that are really changing potentially the quality of the recording, it may lead to misleading results in the in the future.
So we do encourage doing what Matt was showing, where if you have a very loud sound like your handling noise at the beginning or the end of a recording, definitely trim that out, that’s not helping anything. But if there’s a dog barking in the background or a little bit of traffic or something like that, we really encourage you to just leave that in, as long as the bird is audible of course. Because taking it out or manipulating it in an artificial way can result in a confusing recording.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great. And Matt, do you want to talk to us a little bit more about what these recordings could be used for, and how they are valuable more than just uploading them.
>>Matt Medler: Yeah. So I think people are probably familiar with some of the ways in which audio appears in the eBird / Macaulay Library / Merlin world but I’ll go over those quickly.
Merlin is the Lab’s free bird identification app, and right now we have Merlin packs for most of the world, covering over 7,500 species of birds. So each Merlin pack will have identification text, audio, photos for birds. So that’s one way in which recordings can be used. Within eBird, the same recordings appear on the Explore Species pages, and also on Illustrated Checklist for country, state, county. But then other ways that you might not be aware of: We get over a thousand requests from students and researchers each year, requesting audio for a detailed scientific analysis.
One of the really cool recent things, you might have seen it, there was a story in the New York Times. Some researchers in Canada started looking at White-throated Sparrows. Common song, common bird that we all probably know. And they noticed that the birds in British Columbia were singing kind of a variant on the classic song. The classic song is, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada.” But they realized that the birds in British Columbia were kind of shortening their song and just saying “Oh sweet Cana, Cana.”
And they thought that that was interesting, and they were curious how widespread that was. Now for an individual researcher or a team to try to cover that on a continental basis would really be impossible. But thanks to the Macaulay Library and other sound collections, they were able to take recordings made by citizens scientists all over North America, and look at the patterns of songs across the bird’s range.
And what they found was really surprising. They found that that song, which they had detected maybe 10 years ago in British Columbia, it actually spread across much of Canada. It was found as far east as Algonquin provincial park in eastern Ontario. So they found that in a very short period of time, the population of White-throated Sparrows across Canada has changed to sing only this song type. So now the classic one is kind of relegated to the Adirondacks in New York and kind of far eastern Canada.
That’s just one of one of many cool research examples that we see on a regular basis.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Hey, and we just had a participant say that she just recorded a White-throated Sparrow and heard the shorter song, in northwestern Pennsylvania. So yeah, these recordings are used for all cool things, and we’re discovering new things about birds all the time. It’s really quite fascinating.
We have another question about voice announcements. Do you want to talk about that, either of you?
>>Jay McGowan: Sure, yeah. So the question was, what’s the best way to label recordings and record metadata in the field, if you’re on a longer trip or where you’re not going to be uploading them right away?
So as Kathi alluded to, the way that a lot of recordists have gotten around that — because it’s true, right? You go out in the field, you record these birds, sometimes you’re watching them there’s complicated interactions or different things going on, and then you’re not always able to come back and upload it that day, right?
So what a lot of us do, most of us do, is make what’s called a voice announcement after the recording. So we don’t want to talk over the bird, right? Ideally you make your recording but then when you’re done, you basically talk into the microphone and say what it was that just happened, that you just witnessed and recorded. So you can include a lot of that metadata, that we were looking at on the on the “Manage Media” page there.
So you would say what the what the bird was. The most important thing is what it was doing, because that’s something that you’re never really going to be able to get back if you don’t remember it and capture it. So say what it was doing, if there were other birds around, how many individuals were involved, if you could tell it was if it was a male or a female, what behaviors was going on. And then if you’re going to be away for a while, you might say the location that you are, the time and date, anything that you think will be useful to later tie that recording back to your eBird checklist.
So I might say, “Okay, so that was a White-throated Sparrow singing at the top of a rose bush, off the road here at the Durland Preserve. It was alone, singing, periodically preening in between song bouts, and it’s about 9:15 AM on the 20th of November 2020.” Any other information that that you might find useful.
And so when you go to actually upload your recording you are encouraged to include that voice announcement there after the recording itself, even though we want you to kind of transcribe a lot of that into the metadata so it’s searchable and associated with the record. But it can be valuable to still have your notes in the field attached to that sound. But if you transcribe everything it’s not required to include either.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Some of those voice announcements are really fun to listen to. There’s some of my favorites from Wil Hershberger, who has recorded a lot of things in the Macaulay Library, and he has some voice announcement at the end of some of his recordings that put you right there with him and they’re just fantastic. So if you have some voice moments, don’t be shy, you can just upload them with your recording. And they’re fun to listen to, and they’re good memories for you to remember what was going on with your recording.
So great questions everyone. Let’s see, do we have more questions coming in? There’s one from, someone asked about if they’ve only had an incidental checklist of one species, and they made a recording, should they include the recording in their checklist?
>>Matt Medler: Yes, yep!
And in fact, sometimes people have older recordings. It’s hard to think of a pre-eBird period, but there was a pre-eBird period. And if you have really old recordings but you’d love to get them into the archive, that’s great. In the Help section, we have a specific protocol for doing that. Basically you create a Historical checklist, put in as much information as you might have, from your field notes or your voice announcement. But worst case scenario you create a historical checklist with one species, just put an â€œXâ€ for that species, and then upload your audio recording.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, thanks. Another question about voice announcements and normalizing. When you’re normalizing your recording, giving it that boost to negative three decibels of the bird song, what do you do about your voice announcements if you’re going to include it in your file?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah. I don’t know if you have an example for that, Matt. I can explain it verbally if not.
>>Matt Medler: Yeah I do, I do have one. So let’s see, we’ll go back to that Tufted Titmouse recording.
Okay so this is my Tufted Titmouse, and then this is my voice announcement. Actually I had already done it, so I’ll just do a quick undo here.
This is my voice announcement after the Tufted Titmouse. It’s maybe a little hard to see, but I was very loud. Because this is a thing about recording with your cell phone. The bird is usually going to be maybe 20, 30 yards away from you, and it’s relatively soft. But then your voice when you’re talking into your cell phone, you’re like inches away, so your voice tends to be quite loud.
So this is my voice announcement. I won’t bore you by listening to it now. Do the same sort of thing, where I’ll trim anything. This is kind of just me moving around before I start talking, and then if we go to the very end we can take a quick listen. Actually we won’t, that’s just handling noise. So I can just delete that there. But that’s really loud, that’s peaking at minus 3, because the voice is generally stronger than a bird signal.
We recommend that you normalize your voice announcement lower. Our target is to normalize to minus 10 for voice announcements. So again, I go up to this “effects” menu, go to “amplitude,” go to “normalize” with the three dots. And in this case I’ll just change the normalized two to minus ten. Doesn’t have to be exactly minus 10, but it gets it a little lower. So that if someone’s listening to the bird sound and then it switches to a voice announcement, if your voice is at minus three it’s gonna kind of blast somebody with their headphones on. So we that’s why we like to bring the voice announcements down a bit.
>>Jay McGowan: Just to clarify one thing there, Matt. So he’s editing his voice announcement because it’s kind of separate. But ultimately if you do choose to upload your voice announcement like I was suggesting, do it attached to your same file. We don’t want a separate catalog number just for your announcement. We want it to be kind of appended at the end as it would be in the field to that recording. But just kind of treated as somewhat separate segments.
>>Matt Medler: Yeah, thanks for the reminder. So yeah, I’ve just done that, I don’t want to show the details now. I think that’s in our Help documents. But basically it’s as simple as copying and pasting that voice announcement, and then just pasting it at the end of the Tufted Titmouse recording. So now I’ve got —
[Tufted Titmouse song playing]
>>Matt Medler: — Titmouse there, and then —
[Recording of voice announcement playing]
>>Matt Medler: — so now it’s all together as one audio specimen, ready for upload. Thanks for reminding me about that, Jay.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great. And again all of these little tutorials and details are found in our Help Center so be sure to check that out.
Question from Facebook about, “Should we use the highest quality recording available, 96 kilohertz, or only if the rest of the equipment is really good as well?” Do you have recommendations?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, that’s a good question. Depending on the app or something, sometimes the high resolution is not even that high. So in general, that’s a good way to go, is to choose the high resolution.
In a case like this, where it’s actually telling you the sample rate of 96 kilohertz, then you can sort of know enough to make a decision. 96 is for the most part overkill for bird recording. It captures frequencies much higher than anything you’re likely to be recording in birds. So something at 48 kilohertz is typically sufficient. You certainly can record it at higher sample rates if you want, but for the most part you’re just going to end up with bigger files and not a huge advantage.
But again, if your app doesn’t really tell you the details of what high quality means, then you should probably go with the highest available.
>>Matt Medler: This is getting into technical details quite a bit, but probably more important than the sample rate is something called the bit depth. The two common choices for bit depth are 16 bits or 24 bits. If you have an option of choosing 24 bits, definitely choose 24 bits. It allows you to take a recording that might be recorded at a low level, and then take it and amplify it afterwards, and the result will be cleaner than if you record it at 16 bits.
So I typically record it 48 kilohertz and 24-bit. But like Jay said 96 is fin,e it’s just it ends up making a bigger file and it’s usually overkill.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Right. Okay. A Facebook question asks about higher resolution spectrograms, or any sort of spectral selections that can highlight different species. Is anything like that coming in the future?
>>Jay McGowan: Not specifically like that, I guess. It’s likely that Matt mentioned, the kind of sound ID training that is in testing, theoretical phases at this point. So there may be something associated with that, that would allow you to annotate a recording you were making. But for the for the most part, the automatically generated spectrograms are kind of the base level of the recordings in the archive at the moment.
>>Matt Medler: If you’re interested in starting to explore sound analysis on your own, the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, which is one of our sister departments at the Cornell Lab, they are the ones who produce the Raven Sound Analysis software. There’s different versions, but there is a free Raven Light version. So yeah, so if you want to start exploring bio-acoustic analysis, I would recommend downloading a free version of Raven Light to do that.
One thing I’ll note is, the Raven programs are really meant as sound analysis programs. Sometimes people will, when they start off contributing to Macaulay Library, they’ll use Raven as an editing program. It’s really not designed for that. So we would recommend — and even with our colleagues we recommend — doing your sound editing for Macaulay in OcenAudio or Audition or Audacity, and really leaving Raven for what it’s intended for, which is sound analysis.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, thanks. Someone asked on Facebook a question about normalizing to negative three decibels. Wondering the reason why negative three was chosen. Especially because it could be quite loud for people if they have their headphones on during high frequencies. Is there a reason why we’ve chosen that as a level?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah. It’s a pretty widespread archival standard. Basically, zero decibels full scale is the maximum that a sound file can be. So it’s kind of just below that.
The reason that we encourage people to normalize it — You’re right, if your volume’s turned up it will be loud. The point, though, is that the more we can standardize the entire archive, the more — if you when you switch to another recording, that one should have a similar volume. So the idea is that if everybody’s normalizing their recordings, then you can switch between them and they’re all kind of at the same level. That’s where it comes from.
It also really helps assess the quality of a recording, or kind of how loud the background sound is compared to the target bird. Because if you have a really low recording, it’s sort of hard to tell that — what we call the signal-to-noise ratio, how loud the bird is compared to the background. But if everything is brought up to the peak at the at a standard level then you can really assess like, “oh in this one the bird is peaking at that minus three decibels and the background sound is very very quiet,” versus the background sound is quite loud.
So that’s another reason that we really encourage normalization, is it’s much easier to compare recordings, and just hear them in general.
>>Matt Medler: Just as a kind of a real world comparison. You know when you’re watching TV, you’ll be watching a program and then a commercial comes on and it seems way louder? And it’s kind of annoying? They’re supposed to broadcast everything on TV at the same audio level.
And that’s what we’re striving for with the archive. So that you don’t have one recording that’s, you have your volume up all the way, and then the other one you have it down really low. That’s the goal, is to have a consistency across you know thousands of recordings.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great. So another question related to that is, “Should we delete old un-normalized recordings, and replace them with the version that is normalized to negative three decimals, if we’ve uploaded a bunch already to the archive? What do you think we should do about those?”
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, that’s a good question. In general, I would say don’t worry about it. We have thousands of recordings out there that that may not have had that applied to it. And you know if other people have already referenced these recordings that are that are uploaded, it’s probably fine. If there’s particular ones that that seem exceptionally quiet that you think would benefit from having a better version uploaded, or a louder version uploaded, then you’re certainly welcome to do that. But I would focus on recordings going forward, trying to follow those guidelines.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, thanks. So it looks like we’re already running out of time. It’s kind of amazing how quickly that hour went. So any last words of advice for our recordist community?
>>Matt Medler: I’d say just, it’s a tough time of year, but at least here in the northeast it’s exciting with finches. I’d say just get outside with your phone or a recorder, and try to make some recordings, and have fun with it. And make sure, have fun but make sure you’re collecting good data, and maybe make some voice announcements to kind of jog your memory. And then during the really cold days of winter, you can trim those recordings and get them uploaded to the archive.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Right. And can people access all of their recordings really quickly, if they’re in the archive? How do they do that?
>>Jay McGowan: Yeah, absolutely. So if you go to the eBird page or the Macaulay page, there are links to the media search there. And once you’re there, if you’re signed into your Cornell Lab account, there’s a big “My Media” button at the top of the search results. Or you can go to “Contributor” and type your name in. But either way, that will search for all of the media that you’ve uploaded.
You can switch between audio or photos. You can add additional filters, like just ones recorded in your home state, or recorded in another country. There are all sorts of ways to kind of customize your media library. As well as download those original files that you’ve uploaded, if you need to. So it’s kind of like a cloud backup for your recordings, as well as allowing them to be used by researchers and the Cornell Lab team and all sorts of other uses.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Great, thanks.
And we also just want to say thank you to all the people who have uploaded their recordings. They power some incredibly cool things that we work on here at the Macaulay Library, with some new things coming up in the future. So stay tuned for that.
Before we sign off, I just want to share with you all some resources, if you haven’t already known, like our website here. It’s down right now, but be patient, we’re getting things back up and running. There’s the link to the Help Center. And also if you have any other questions don’t be shy, feel free to reach out to us at the email MacaulayLibrary@Cornell.edu.
There was also one question about if this video would be available afterwards. The answer is yes. We will have it available on the Bird Academy page, and it’ll be archived on Facebook for you to listen to anytime you like.
So thank you Matt, thank you Jay, thank you to the entire team in Macaulay Library. It was super fun.
>>Jay McGowan: Thanks everybody.
>>Kathi Borgmann: Bye
>>Matt Medler: Bye.End of transcript
Join us for a live Q&A session with staff from the Macaulay Library. Ask an archivist about sound recording, get recording tips, learn how to archive your recordings, and learn more about the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab. November 18th at 9 am Eastern