You may be wondering why and how the SongFinder came into being. In brief, it is my brainchild and was born of necessity in the aftermath of violence. When I was about eight years old, I was in a firecracker accident where a “cherry bomb” exploded just above my head, greatly impairing my hearing in the high range.
At first, I couldn’t hear anything, but after a few days my situation improved, at least enough so that I could hear other humans speaking again and basically get on with my life. I noticed that I could no longer hear the “ping” of a dime falling to the sidewalk, or the steamy hiss of water boiling on the stove, but that didn’t seem like a big deal, so I forged ahead, thinking my hearing was “pretty much okay,” at least in terms of sensing the important things in life.
All went smoothly until college. That’s when a chance event brought my hearing loss back into focus. I had made friends with a professor who studied bird vocalizations. During a field excursion in late spring, the prof got very excited when he heard a Worm-eating Warbler singing in the distance. I didn’t hear a thing, so the prof led me to the tree in which the bird resided, and the two of us watched it sound off from a limb no more than twenty feet away. Still, I didn’t hear a thing. Watching the warbler open and close its beak in silence was an excruciating experience. All of my imagingings of being a hear-all/see-all field biologist evaporated in an instant! For awhile, I even wished I’d never learned how bad my situation was.
It just so happened that I was the proud owner of a Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder that I had been using to record frogs. A few days after being unable to hear the warbler, I went into a seemingly quiet forest and recorded for several minutes at the highest speed setting. Then I played the recording back at half-speed and quarter-speed, thereby slowing the playback and lowering the pitch accordingly. I was stunned at what I heard … LOTS of birds singing, most of which I could not hear at all when played at normal speed.
Subsequently I had my hearing tested and discovered that I had severe hearing loss above 3000Hz, so much loss that conventional hearing aids would not be of help. While this was shocking news, there was a silver lining. I thought: “If I can hear these songs when they are lowered in pitch (as I did with the tape recorder), then there must be a device that will do this for me in real time, allowing me to hear these birds when I take walks outdoors.” So I searched high and low, only to discover that no such device existed.
The nearest thing I found was a pitch-shifter built for the music industry. Invented by Harald Bode (a contemporary of Robert Moog of Moog Synthesizer fame), the “Bode Frequency Shifter” utilized the heterodyne and ring modulator principles to produce outputs that were lower (or higher) in pitch than the original sound. So, in 1977, I contacted Mr. Bode about building a portable version, specially-designed to lower the pitch of bird songs (and insect songs too!). Luckily, Mr. Bode was excited by the idea and soon built me my very first bird song frequency shifting device. It worked great, although it was quite large … a beefy “rackmount unit” with batteries inside, allowing it to be toted into the field.
For a number of years, I lugged this device around, using it rather sparingly, and always being annoyed by its size and by various drawbacks associated with using a heterodyne to lower the pitches (which often altered bird songs so much that it made them difficult to identify). As the digital age unfolded, I began longing for a smaller device that performed a more elegant pitch shift, just like my recorder did decades before, but functioning in real time.
So I hit the road in search of someone to help, and in the early 1990s I met Herb Susmann, an electrical engineer fresh out of Cornell University who took an interest in the project. Because birding was getting quite popular, and many older birders suffered from high frequency hearing loss, we decided there would be a market for a portable pitch-shifting device designed specifically for birders and other nature lovers. We immediately went to work designing a prototype, which we decided to call “The SongFinder – A Digital Bird Song Hearing Device.”
Luckily, a number of affordable, miniaturized digital signal processors (DSP chips) were appearing in the marketplace, with just enough “umph” to do the necessary work. A major challenge was developing an algorithm that would instruct the DSP to do the the pitch shifting. With a little hard work and some good luck, we soon conjured up a very effective solution.
The first SongFinder came into being in the mid-1990s. It was too large to fit in a pocket, but it was a major step up from the bulky Bode unit I had used before. Much attention went to the headset design, which involved carefully mounting miniature microphones so that they would be positioned at each ear. This allowed for binaural reception of sound and reasonably accurate judgement of the distance and direction of each birds song.
Our first customers were elated, some to the point of tears, at being able to hear the high-pitchers again. With the flick of a switch, they delighted once again in the high songs of waxwings, warblers, creepers, kinglets, and sparrows. Herb and I felt pretty good about producing such a special product. Not only was my personal problem more-or-less solved, but many others with high-frequency hearing loss were now able to share in the fun, thanks to a one-of-a-kind device developed especially for people in their shoes.
The rest is history. In the early 2000s, we incorporated new electronics that made the SongFinder smaller and more efficient. Our user base continued to grow, with the vast majority of buyers being hugely happy to have discovered the SongFinder solution. Around 2008, we improved the design once again, making the unit small enough to fit into a shirt pocket and extending the battery life to nearly twenty hours.
Nearly two decades have passed since we produced the first units commercially. To our delight, the SongFinder still fills a special niche in the marketplace, providing birders and other nature lovers with a elegant and affordable solution to high frequency hearing loss. Why live in a world where birds don’t sing and crickets don’t chirp? At the flick of a switch, these creature-sounds can once again come flooding-in, increasing one’s appreciation and enjoyment of the natural world.