Comparison of Spectrogram Apps

I took a dive into iPhone apps that produce spectrograms of recorded sound, with an interest in bird song (of course). I got into spectrograms looking at the figures in Handbook of Bird Biology. I’m mainly looking for something that I can match to Field Guide to Bird Sounds, with the thought that this could even be a useful field tool for the deaf/hard-of-hearing (D/HH) to enhance experience of the outdoors. I wasn’t willing to buy the super fancy apps with my limited knowledge. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the apps I tried.

Let me start with some disclaimers: I’m just starting to learn about sound analysis. From what I can gather, it seems that the best thing to do is get the highest quality recording possible (preferably with advanced equipment) and run it through a sophisticated program. Also, I’ve been testing these apps with a chickadee call from my computer speaker, which has its pros and cons…

  • pros
    • close sound source
      • maximize signal-to-noise ratio
      • clarity
      • volume
      • prototypical recording
    • control of background noise
  • cons: alteration of certain qualities of the sound from my relatively crappy laptop speaker, thereby affecting the resulting spectrogram

I’m in a bit of a bind, therefore, in testing the apps: in some ways, it’s the best bird call signal I can expect to get with my iPhone microphone, but I do wonder about the consequences to the spectrogram of the speaker. So, I decided to test it out with the fancier Raven software.

Screenshot 2017-11-11 15.23.41
Comparison of black-capped vireo song files: original recording vs. phone recording of that file’s playback from computer speaker. Top: sample audio file distributed with Raven Lite 2.0. Bottom: My iPhone 6s (iOS 11) recording of that file with the native Voice Memo app, played through my computer speaker. I then saved the file from my phone to Drop Box, and converted it to AIFF through iTunes with all default settings from selecting that converter.

Probably one of the weirdest effects in the phone recording from my speaker is the speeding up of the audio file. Also, notice the loss of some of the higher frequencies in the playback. All this to say, perhaps getting a raw recording of an actual bird on my iPhone will improve the spectrograms (and I’m sure even more so if I had a microphone).

Related, I am curious about the quality of the recorder in a given spectrogram app, because the recording software is bundled with the spectrogram app (or perhaps it uses the native phone recording functionality). Nonetheless, it was a bit of a relief (in a sense) that weeding out apps was not difficult based on design.

My Favorites (in order)

  • Spectrogram Pro ($2.99): This is how I generated the cover photo, and the app just real-time generates a spectrogram on the screen. Here are the settings I like…
    • S: I only need the spectrogram
    • 6 sec mode: this is the range of the x-axis on the phone screen (there are several options depending on your needs)
    • aud: those “heat map” colors
    • 512: neater lines in the graph
    • linear (for both scales)
  • Spectrum View (free): This seems to be a more sophisticated app, in that it allows you to choose various options for your sound analysis. There are lots of display options, etc. You can also import a recording from your phone into the app for analysis.

Not Worth the Download

At the time of this posting, these apps don’t make the cut for me.

  • Visual Audio: My main gripe with this one is that the spectrogram is backwards.
  • Spectrum Analyzer: The 1st thing you do when you open the app, unless you pay to upgrade, is watch an ad video. Next!
  • iSingad: not iOS 11 compatible
  • Spectro Real: I think this app is just an ad?
  • Voice Spectrogram: It’s weird and lags; to start fresh, you have to delete the history but that takes a long time even if you’ve made less than a minute of recording.
  • Finger Voice: There’s only a limited time you can record.
  • Sonocord ($0.99): Clunky, hard to navigate/slow and not many options.
  • Live Spectrogram ($1.99): Nothing beyond an ever-scrolling spectrogram, and less options than the above Spectrogram Pro.
  • Spectrograph ($9.99): It doesn’t seem compatible with the latest OS upgrade?

Out of my Budget

OK in reality these aren’t all “out of my budget,” but more my point that I’m not buying $100’s worth of apps just to compare them. (If you’ve bought one of these though, please comment your review!)

  • Music Spectrograph ($9.99)As the name implies, it’s geared toward music, so I get the sense that the bells and whistles you’re paying for might not be worth the extra cost for my purposes.
  • Audio Analyzer ($19.99): This is the one I’m most curious about trying.
  • SignalScope ($24.99): From the price tags here, this is probably fairly sophisticated, so I probably wouldn’t go down this road until I bought a microphone.
    • Pro ($74.99): It’s hard to tell from the description, but this might be the only one that actually produces a spectrogram!

My understanding is that an app probably won’t give you the output that’s as nice as anything in a professionally produced book figure. I’m wondering if at our point in smart phone technology, a real-time spectrogram produced within an app on a phone screen will have much standalone utility. In other words, with no auditory cues, is it realistic at this point to capture a sound with your iPhone mic and get a spectrogram that can be matched up to a figure in the book?

Please comment with your reviews of these (or any) smart phone apps for spectrograms!

Resources for Learning to Identify Bird Song

Like anything else, learning bird songs takes practice and close attention. Here are some resources and my experiences that may help guide you.

How I Learned

  • Mnemonic/Sound Pattern Recognition: When I took ornithology in undergrad, we used Peterson’s Birding by Ear which groups songs by characteristics and thereby teaches you to listen for broad characteristics, patterns and mnemonics. Thus, I’m a little biased and potentially a little “old-school.” Yet, I’d highly recommend this resource to start learning “how to listen” to bird songs.
  • Repetition of Bird Songs: Audio sources that include a compendium of bird songs with the bird species names, such as Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, let you replay the song until you can commit it to memory. Other collections of songs that don’t start with the bird species name can be used for quizzing yourself.
  • Quiz: The aforementioned Peterson’s Birding by Ear audio CD has tests at the end, and since then Larkwire has been released, which quizzes the listener with songs from groups of 4 species at a time. There is still demand for different quiz formats, though, that are feasible to implement with a little programming elbow grease!

A Newer Technique (in the sense of availability): Spectrogram analysis

We didn’t learn this when I took undergrad ornithology, but it’s my understanding that this is now more commonly taught. There are also now many more tools on the scene that make spectrograms of bird songs accessible.

  • Handbook of Bird Biology:  This was the newer textbook on the scene, again introduced after I took the class. Chapter 10 is titled “Avian Vocal Behavior” which is largely illustrated through spectrograms, and has links to online material.
    • Bird Academy: The online material for the textbook is freely available, and under the umbrella of this site.
  • Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America
  • Analysis Software
    • Raven Lite 2.0
    • Spectrogram Phone Apps: While it appears some of the automated bird song identification apps have some catching up to do, you could still potentially record the spectrogram of a call/song and compare it with the above book.

My New Twitter Game: #NameThatBirdSong

I’ve started a game on Twitter, running weekly with the hash tag: #namethatbirdsong

Every Weds 12pm I’ll post a bird song, and you tweet your own original (or post for a friend with attribution) mnemonic device, that differs from the widely accepted mnemonics taught for the posted bird song (#altmnemonic) along with the game hash tag (#namethatbirdsong)! I’d love it if you use both tags, but you only need to use the game hash tag, to be sure I see it. So, for example, if I posted red-eyed vireo as the challenge bird for the week, I’m stealing this example answer from my friend Kate for what a tweet entry should look like:

“It sounds like it’s talking to itself. ‘Do I turn left here?’ ‘Yea it’s a left’… #namethatbirdsong”

You can answer until 11:59pm central time Weds, and if you don’t have an entry, you can vote on the day’s entries with “likes” for the tweets. I’ll compile the top 4 entries into a poll posted no later than 10:30am Thurs morning, and voting will be open until 3:30pm. The winner will be announced no later than 4pm Thurs.

Ecomusicology & Bird Song Mnemonics

Thanks to a conversation with my friend, Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney, over Twitter, I learned that there’s an entire field of study that is poised to look formally into some of the concepts that have been nebulously floating about in my mind about how we process bird songs. Most recently, I’ve been interested in mnemonics, which are commonly used to describe and help people remember bird songs. There are common ones (some so common and relatively recent they comprise the modern English common names of some of our bird species) and ones that people make up in the field as they go. I always loved when my friends who were learning bird song would make up mnemonics as we were hiking, and I still wish I’d written them down somewhere back when! I experienced the same thing when I taught forestry summer camp, and students would come up with mnemonics when they first paid attention to a particular species song.

Mnemonics are commonly used because they generally work so well for us. My favorite resource to aurally learn bird song, Peterson Birding by Ear, relies heavily on mnemonic devices. There are mnemonics that are almost universally taught (e.g. “oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” for white-throated sparrow, though even as I type that, there’s another very common one for that species that comes to mind). Even some that didn’t make their way to the current commonly used name for a given species are in our public American consciousness (e.g. “caw, caw” for the American crow; notice I said recent because the name “crow” probably did originate from a very old onomatopoeia). So, I’m interested in why some of these mnemonics became so popular, and why they were associated with particular sounds in our linguistic systems.

It’s unsurprising (yet no less nifty, in my opinion) that each spoken language or perhaps dialect has their own onomatopoeic representations of the same sound; for example, take the many representations of dogs barking in different languages (with the acknowledgement that different breeds prevalent in different areas do produce differing sounds, too). Thus, it begs the question of how/why certain syllables enter onomatopoeic representation, when as the previous linked list shows via transliteration, often the same basic sounds are available to a given language. Assuming that most of my readers are English-speaking, consider our onomatopoeia for a dog bark (“bow wow”) vs. the transliterated barks on the list.

Dr. Whitney introduced me to the works of a colleague of her husband, Dr. Alexandra Hui, via a link to her faculty page and I was excited to read some of the titles of her presentations in her CV (examples listed in the works cited); these are presentations I wish I could have listened in on, for sure! I look forward to learning more about the field of ecomusicology, and particularly how it relates to the etymology of our bird names and common mnemonics that persist in teaching today.

Works Cited

  1. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Max Kade Center for European and German Studies, Vanderbilt University, “From Vogelflöte to wichity wichity wichity: Standardizing the sounds of nature in the first decades of the twentieth century,” Nashville, TN, February 3, 2016.
  2. Hui, Alexandra. Invited talk, Georgia Institute of Technology, “Listening to Nature: Representing bird song, 1885-1945,” Atlanta, GA, September 14, 2015.
  3. Hui, Alexandra. “From Silence to Fee-bee fee-bee fee-b-be-be: the place of nature in the sonic environment, 1948-1969,” presented at the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada, April 3-7, 2013.

Birding w/my iPhone

In these days of tech addiction, it seems always a struggle to balance how much I should use my iPhone! “Modern day birding” is no help. 🙂 In fact, it’s the main reason I can’t justify deleting social media from my phone. Ironically, an activity that otherwise immerses us in nature is wrapped up in what some consider a boon on today’s society. Here’s how birding these days is inextricably linked to my iPhone…

  • Camera: documentation through binocular/phone-scoping photography
  • Facebook
    • banner notifications for whenever a friend posts to the state’s rare bird alert group
    • checking the state bird group to see if something didn’t get cross-posted
    • share my sightings with the state birders in a timely manner if need be
  • GroupMe: a text group for quick dissemination of bird info in our area to locals
  • eBird: eliminates the need for pen/paper and instantly submits data records online
  • Sibley
    • my field guide without the bulk, offline accessible
    • the “compare” feature
    • audio sound recordings attached to each species account

So, like many things, there are of course pros and cons. Cell phones have revolutionized info distribution: I’m more likely to see that rare bird with instant alerts that grab my attention when I’m sitting at home. Then, when I go out to look I keep getting instantaneous alerts about where it has moved so I can redirect my course. Therefore, technology helps my life list. It also increases quality of records and amount of info available with camera availability and microphone, which are easier to evaluate by others who weren’t present (and also revisit). I save paper and time by submitting straight to eBird from my phone. Quick reference means more certainty with an ID.

The con really isn’t specific to birding, just the thought that it sort of enables my tech habit. Birding is my top hobby, so I always want to be connected to info sources about it. This can be a slippery slope for me, as it provides an incentive to always have my phone with me and the ringer on. It gives me an excuse to be more tied to it, which makes me more likely to engage in deleterious (or at least unproductive) phone habits. I’m ever having to mindfully check my phone use, especially where I should disconnect!

Burlington Bay: Lake View Park & WTP

Today I fought my cold and went birding in the rain and 50’s°F to look for a Pacific loon reported in the morning. Unfortunately I didn’t find it, but I did find a red-necked grebe on the lake. I walked down to the beach next to the water treatment plant and looked for rocks. After the rain picked up, a red-breasted merganser came into one of the coves. The water is so clear I watched it forage around the rocks underwater before it went back out to deeper water. In trying to get a closer look, I happened upon a lapland longspur at an overlook. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen one in an environment resembling “lapland”! 🙂

Some Tidbits (& Tid-Bytes?) for Linux

I use Google Drive through google-drive-ocamlfuse because it has a native mount, so it looks/acts much like the folder you’d be accustomed to on Windows. However, it’s much slower to sync, so be aware of that (i.e. it doesn’t do what the Windows side does, which is to make a folder and sync on its own time or not at all). So, if you have a big file, the best thing to do still is to upload over the web interface. On that same note, working with files in that folder is still “remote” so though you can map to it, you may find processes a lot slower unless you move the files locally.