How I used iBird's birdsong recordings to identify a Canyon Wren

Until we have a Shazam for birdsong (the birding world holds its breath, WeBIRD), the task of identifying birds by song alone remains inconvenient at best. Experts recognize birds more quickly and more often by song than by field markings, but without a good audio field guide at hand, we're left like Jack Black in The Big Year: endlessly replaying birdsong recordings until committed to memory. Mobile apps like iBird aim to improve our condition by ensuring that a good field guide with high-quality audio recordings is always in our pocket.

On a recent trip to Big Bend National Park, we took an afternoon hike to Cattail Falls—at the time little more than a trickling water feature on the backside of Chisos Basin. There, in cool canyon shadows at the base of the waterfall, we heard a most striking birdsong. Pure and penetrating, it flowed through the canyon on a series of liquid, descending notes, like water bubbling through a high-pressure valve. It was mesmerizing. "What is that bird?"

Naturally iBird also includes photos and illustrations.

iBird's integrated birdsong recordings don't require a network connection—a necessity when deep in the field and far off the grid. So my task was merely to isolate the proper recording from iBird's library of hundreds, and to do that required narrowing the possibilities by applying as many of iBird's non-visual search criteria as possible:

  • Location: Texas.
    iBird offers the option to specify whether the location is "common" or "uncommon" for the bird. Take a guess.
  • Habitat: Deserts + Mountains.
  • Observed state/month: Texas + March.
  • Song: Melodic-Musical.
    Other criteria in this category include buzz-reverberate, prattle-chatter, shriek-scream, tweet-chirp, and more.
  • Song pattern: Falling.
    Other criteria: flat, rising, and sing-song. 
  • None of these criteria were applied: Shape, size, color primary, color secondary, breast color, backyard feeder, family, conservation status. length range, weight range, wing shape, flight pattern, tail shape, wingspan, leg color, head pattern, breast pattern, belly pattern, back pattern, crown color, forehead color, cere color, throat color, nape color, eye color, bill shape, bill length, ear tufts, game bird, and order.

Only 15 birds matched all selected criteria, and it took less than a minute to play each song until the correct bird was found. To hear the Canyon Wren for yourself, check out iBird on your favorite mobile device or visit the Canyon Wren page on birdnote.org.

A survey of camping-ready espresso cups

So you're at the camping spot with a Handpresso, a GSI Mini Express, or maybe an old-school Bialetti, and you care enough about the unabridged espresso experience to have learned a few things:

  • Your precious ounce or two of espresso deserves a purpose-built container, not an ordinary, overlarge coffee mug. The right tool for the right job—as it ever was. 
  • Your espresso tool must be short and narrow to limit the cooling surface and retain heat, and double-walled for the same reason.
  • Your tool, like any other at The Spot, must be unbreakable, and because there appear to be no thick, rugged, nondisposable, plastic espresso cups to be found, your espresso tool must be metal. 

Here then is the current metal espresso-cup landscape, with a few absurdly overpriced boutique brands excluded. Stainless steel is the metal of choice for cups of this size. Don't waste your time looking for cups of titanium: you'll find them only in porcelain with chintzy "titanium" metallic coating.   

These are organized in ascending order of capacity. Recall that a shot of espresso is 1 fluid ounce; a double shot (doppio) 2 ounces, and so on.

 —Stanton

GSI Glacier: 1.75 fluid ounces.

GSI Glacier: 1.75 fluid ounces.

GSI Glacier Stainless Double-Walled Espresso Cup

No other metal espresso cup hits the single-shot target like this. If you want one shot and you want it done right, you can stop reading now: this is your cup. Works great at home, too.
IKEA KALASET: 2 fluid ounces.

IKEA KALASET: 2 fluid ounces.

IKEA KALASET Espresso Cup

Holding just two ounces (a double shot), IKEA's offering has a slightly larger capacity than the GSI Glacier. It's taller and more expensive, but comes in pairs—with saucers! Find it at Amazon or your neighborhood IKEA supershoppermegalopolis.

Hahaplace Stainless Steel Double Wall Espresso Cup

The only triple-shot cup in the offering, this item shows the gruesome discolored handle welds that are the hallmark of cheap, China-made metalwork. You'll find the same cup packaged under different names from many online discount kitchenware stores, but at three times the price of the GSI Glacier. At least you get a spoon, but really it's a deal you must refuse.

Crate & Barrel Stainless Steel Espresso Cup

Hahaplace: That won't end well. 3 fluid ounces.

Hahaplace: That won't end well. 3 fluid ounces.

Crate & Barrel: Classic proportions, 4 fluid ounces.

Crate & Barrel: Classic proportions, 4 fluid ounces.

At four ounces, we're starting to move from espresso into Americano territory, but there's much to recommend about Crate & Barrel's cup: it's beautifully proportioned, rugged, well-made, relatively inexpensive, and includes a lovely minimalist saucer. Hard to beat, and another great option for both camp and home use.

GSI Mini Espresso Cup

Another four-ounce contender, go ahead and call it the champ if you place the most value on weight (1.6 oz., a full ounce lighter than the GSI Glacier) or cost (less than $2 U.S. dollars, the most inexpensive of the lot). What it lacks is double-walled construction and stainless steel's stronger ability to resist unsightly cosmetic damage (enamelware eventually chips and flakes). But at this price, you could buy a handful of replacements. 

REI Doppio Stainless Steel Tumbler

GSI Mini: 4 fluid ounces

GSI Mini: 4 fluid ounces

REI Doppio: 6.5 fluid ounces

REI Doppio: 6.5 fluid ounces

Also available under the Petzl brand, REI's Doppio is our last stop on the way to true coffee mugdom (the Snow Peak Stainless Double 240 Mug is a logical next step at 8.1 ounces). But this is something altogether different and wonderful, offering the perfect one-size-fits-all container for espresso, Americano, cappuccino, or a modest regular cup of joe. It includes a drink-through lid that helps prevent sloshes and lock in heat, so if you like to savor your drink slowly, go right ahead. Consider sticking with the plain stainless version, because the coating on the colored models eventually chips off, especially around the rim

My ultimate iPad home karaoke system

Top to bottom: mixer, wireless microphone receiver, speakers, iPad, and wireless microphones.

Back in the dark days of home karaoke, and frequently still today, many would-be home karaoke singers suffered through the all-in-one "karaoke machine," with its tinny, underpowered sound, cheap CD+G player (newer models at least support SD cards), and plaintive aural signature of shattered expectations.

The alternative has been to find a local music supply store that rents proper karaoke rigs. They're much improved in recent years: ratty, margarita-stained karaoke books have largely given way to built-in hard drives and SD cards bearing more substantial track lists. But these bulky packages still require a separate monitor, can be tricky to set up and use, and demand the even trickier morning-after resolve to meet the inevitable return deadline.

Today we have the iPad, and with it several worthwhile if imperfect iOS karaoke apps. Mated with some easy-to-obtain MPG+G karaoke files and a few additional pieces of relatively inexpensive hardware, an iPad setup can help you bypass the "singing machine" blues and make your karaoke dreams a reality. Let's break it down, piece by piece.

 

The hardware

  • VocoPro PV-802 Professional Stereo 400W Powered Vocal Speakers
    Whether you're building a karaoke system or a regular home-audio system, rule number one is as true today as it ever was: don't cheap out on the speakers. Except for the iPad itself, this should be your biggest expense. Ideally, you need not just speakers, but speakers built for vocals. There's a difference, and you'll learn it the first time you try to drive your powered bookshelf speakers to karaokeland only to see them wheeze, sputter, and give up the ghost halfway there. Fortunately, most modern speakers will automatically and temporarily shut down when driven too hard. A decent set of powered vocal speakers like the PV-802's should set you back only a few hundred dollars. If you're wondering why you can't just use the speakers you've already got for your home stereo, I'm here to tell you that you absolutely can do that . . . maybe. If you'd like to give it a try, keep these things in mind: (1) back up and read the previous few sentences, (2) speakers that aren't self-powered need a separate amplifier, which surely you already have, (3) most integrated amplifiers listen to only one input at a time, so you still need a separate mixer, and (4) kind of inconvenient to drag your home stereo system out to the back porch, isn't it? I'm assuming you want to do that. Why wouldn't you want to do that?
  • Apple iPad
    If you've read this far, I trust you've got this component well in hand: you own an iPad (nice, aren't they?) and you want to do big-time lock-and-loll karaoke with said iPad.
  • Radio Shack 4-channel stereo mixer
    You don't have to be a DJ or audio engineer to need a mixer. The mixer's job is simply to channel your two audio outputs — music from the iPad and vocals from the microphones — into the single audio input of your powered speakers. Now, if your powered speakers happen to accept multiple simultaneous inputs (if there's more than one set of inputs on the back and they can both be used at the same time), then you can cross a mixer off your list. However, the other benefit of a mixer is that it enables you to control the volume of your two inputs independently, so unless your speakers also provide that functionality, go ahead and get a mixer. There's no need to go overboard with it: get something simple in the neighborhood of $35 and you're in like Flynn. And remember that four channels generally means two stereo channels (left/right and left/right). 
  • Emerson Professional VHF Dual Wireless Microphones 
    There are many variations of VHF wireless microphone available. Many come with either two or four microphones (now there's a party) and a wireless receiver. Most can be had for $50 to $75. Using a good wired microphone does make a difference in the quality of the audio, but the freedom of wireless is awfully nice when you're drunk and belting out duets of "Islands in the Stream" and "I Got You, Babe" with your mates. Think about it. 
  • One 1/8" stereo mini to dual RCA (male) cable, going from the iPad to one of the mixer's stereo inputs, thus occupying two channels (left/right) of the mixer's four channels. Get a good length of cable: you don't want to be tethered too closely to your mixer.
  • Two dual RCA (male) to dual RCA (male) cables, one going from the wireless microphone receiver to the other stereo input of the mixer; the other going from the stereo output of the mixer to the powered speakers. So again, the mixer takes your two inputs (music from the iPad and vocals from your microphones) and sends them together along one cable to your powered speakers. 

1/8" stereo (3.5 mm) male mini to 2-RCA male audio Y cable

Some apps enable you to upload your MP3+G tracks via FTP, but the experience is typically complex and crash-prone. Using the File Transfers section of iTunes is slow but reliable: just drag your MPG+3 library into the app's Documents window and walk away.

The software

There are several iOS apps that more or less do the job. None are perfect. Most are designed to steer you toward in-app purchases of karaoke tracks. I have not evaluated them on that basis, because for my purposes all I care about is support for the standard MP3+G tracks that I've obtained elsewhere. These apps offer MP3+G support:

Using these apps is straightforward. After you add the media files (below) to the app, simply open the app and tap the song name to begin playing. The iPad will display the usual lyrics as you'd see them on a typical karaoke rig, with visual cues to signify when to pause and start, etc. Meanwhile, the musical soundtrack is traveling from your iPad to your mixer to your speakers, just as your vocals are traveling from your microphone to your mixer to your speakers. All in perfect harmony, right? Right?

The media files: MP3+CDG = MP3+G

Now that you've got your hardware and software ready to go, all you need is the songs. Not just any MP3s from your music library, mind you, but special vocal-stripped MP3s and their associated lyric tracks (CDGs). There are three ways to get them:

All the ingredients you need. Some (not all) karaoke apps read MP3+G media, either as individual files (as they typically come on a karaoke audio CD) or when combined into a single .zip file. 

  • Obtain them via in-app purchase. Again, many karaoke apps want you to purchase each karaoke track through their app. Judging by user reviews on the App Store, the customer experience for in-app track purchasing is generally quite poor. Nevertheless, if using your own media is too difficult or inconvenient, apps like Soulo by Seven45 Studios may be more to your liking. Many such apps do not include support for MP3+G files.
  • Buy some karaoke CDs and rip the MP3+G tracks from the CD to your hard drive. Karaoke CDs are easy to obtain from Amazon and other music resellers. 
  • Dive head first into the Internet and find the MP3+G files yourself. USENET is a particularly great way to preview karaoke tracks before you consider buying them. You probably don't even know that your Internet Service Provider provides USENET access, do you? And if they don't, there are outstanding USENET providers like GigaNews. Check them out, then check out the alt.binaries.sounds.karaoke news group, for example:

alt.binaries.sounds.karaoke, as viewed through Unison, a USENET client for Mac.

How beautiful, bathed by the light of the silvery iPad. (Photographed with iPhone 4S; post-processed on iPad using the Reduce Noise filter of Photoshop Express.)

This is how we do it.