Transcribing Recorded Interviews and Notes

I’ll have to credit the topic of this post to John Wooley. During a recent presentation, he stated that transcribing takes four times the length of the taped interview. Did I hear that correctly? Taped? What are we living in, the 19th century?

It does take time to transcribe anything recorded. However, we have options and most importantly, none of them involve using tape. Today all you need is a cell phone, iPad, Android tablet, or digital voice recorder.

I’ve touched don Evernote in an earlier post. This is an amazing piece of software. It works on any platform and stores data in the cloud. I’ve recorded several meeting with Evernote. However, I must admit to never transcribing anything recorded. A quick search of Evernote’s Trunk reveals a service called Quicktate.  For a fee, they will transcribe your recordings. A word of caution about transcription services. While they save you time on transcribing audio, you have no control of what they choose to leave out. It could be something small, yet more significant than the main answer.

If you’re not into Evernote and wish to use a digital voice recorder. These are available from any online retailer or your neighborhood brick and mortar office supply store. I received an Olympus years ago as a gift. It’s a handy device. With it configured for basic audio, I can record over 70 hours of audio. Once done I can pop it into my laptop’s USB port and transfer the files. You should be able to find a DVR that creates recordings in your favorite file format.

Once the file is transferred, you’re left with the same issue of start, stop, back up, and type some more, that leads to such a long transcription time. Thanks to the world of dictation, there are solutions you can purchase for your PC. Olympus makes a kit that allows you to use a foot switch to control the playback so you can continue to type. This can be a huge time saver. But with all things that save time and increase productivity, it comes at a cost.

There are many models of DVRs made by a multitude of manufactures. Go to Amazon or Newegg and search for digital voice recorder. No matter what your previous choice of recorder, wax cylinder, wire recorders, reel to reel tape, or cassettes. None compares to the flexibility of digital devices.

You may be thinking that you can use your cell phone too. This is true. Most smartphones have recording capabilities. But they are geared more for recording notes, not lengthy interviews. How many times a day do you have to connect your phone to a charger? An hour-long meeting puts the smack down on my Android phone’s battery and electrical outlets are not always handy. However, I’ve had excellent luck with the iPad2’s battery. But if you have that all import interview that could go hours, nothing beats a DVR and a fresh AAA battery.

Microphones are another consideration. My Olympus DVR can pick up more audio than any other device I have. This includes making recordings while it sits in my shirt pocket. The mics on laptops and mobile devices can be hit or miss on quality. Some handle ambient noise better. Others may be too directional to be functional in an interview setting.

Do you use recording devices for notes or interviews? Please share any tips or tricks you’ve learned over the years.


Filed under Application, Writing

8 responses to “Transcribing Recorded Interviews and Notes

  1. Left-Brained Business for Write-Brained People

    Richard, I’d like to commend you for giving people a lot of options, but digital has one liability that you admit to not knowing when you say “However, I must admit to never transcribing anything recorded.”

    I really appreciate everything you’ve said in your posting, as it truly gives options everyone needs to hear. But having interviewed countless people for countless hours to do book length projects, I wanted to point up a few other things you and anyone else might want to consider. In a nutshell, for long interviews I still use tape–and for good reason. For short interviews, I use digital. This may sound oxymoronic, since the digital recorder sounds perfect for long interviews when you don’t want to have to keep changing out tape, but here are the reasons why:

    I have copied hundreds of hours of transcribed notes. Tape is usually best for this because you can easily back up a few seconds to get what you missed as you were typing the previous transcription. As you transcribe, you type or write as fast as you can and hold onto the thought as the recorded message goes on, and you stop the recording when you realize your brain didn’t quite take in the last thing the recording said. For tape, that’s easy. For a digital recorder it’s not–mine has no backup or forward key, and I’ve never seen a handheld digital recorder with that option. My car CD player has one, but apparently while Toyota has determined it’s important to drivers, the manufacturers’ of handheld products I’ve seen don’t think it’s important, or maybe it makes a recorder too big.

    And yes, I know I can use my Windows Media and slide the recording back and forth–and have. But using my computer doesn’t help in speed, as I’m flip-flopping back and forth between my word processing program and the Windows Media screen. If I used a desktop I could do this more easily, I know, with a dual screen option, but since I prefer a laptop, and I don’t like to work on a smaller word processing screen, it keeps putting each page on top of each other as I have to again touch the Windows Media pause key or slide bar. Even if I use the much smaller Windows Media block, hitting stop or pause makes me have to again reactivate my word processing screen. It’s just a second or so, sure, but multiply that by the thousands of times you’ll do it in transcribing a long interview, and you’re back to the same 4 to 1 time frame you have with tape.

    All of that said, when I do transcribe with my digital recorder, it is faster–usually 3X instead of 4X–as long as the interview is a short one. Like John Wooley, I find 4X the interview time pretty much the norm for transcribing taped interviews, but I feel more confident about having everything exactly correct when I finish. Because my digital recorder has the “go” and “pause” buttons on top, I can more quickly stop the recording to catch up on the ongoing transcription. However, if I feel I miss something, I either have to start the recording over from the beginning to listen again, or note the digital time of that spot in the recording and stop, move the file onto my computer, pull up Windows Media, and listen again to the segment that way. Then, of course, my word processing screen has been overlaid by Windows Media, and the circle of tedium begins again.

    I have tried a lot of options, too, to get software to transcribe my interviews for me, but that really is more trouble than blessing–and that’s if the software understand anything on the recordings at all. A lot of recorders cannot even be heard by voice software–no matter how high you turn up the volume. Sony seems to have the best option for this, but even it doesn’t do enough to save me any significant time by the time I relisten to the recording to fix what the software didn’t transcribe correctly.

    So, all in all, unlike John, I use both tape and digital for my interviews. But if the interview is a long one that I have to transcribe, I go the tape route, as it actually pays off in time savings and confidence engendering in the long run. For short interviews, I can usually save time using digital, but then it’s only 3:1 instead of 4:1.

    Thanks for posting all of this info, though, Richard. There’s a couple of new bits here I hadn’t heard before, and it all definitely gives people new options.

    • First let me say I wasn’t as clear as I should have been in my post and that’s my fault for not being more diligent in my editing. When I stated I had not transcribed anything recorded, I was specifically referring to recordings made with Evernote. I have transcribed recordings from tape and digital recorders. Again, full disclosure. Have I transcribed every word of a two hour recording? No. What I have done is pick sections of interest to transcribe, getting two minutes here or fifteen minutes there.

      I agree with you on using a standard program like QuickTime or Windows Media player to transcribe. Even with multiple monitors to minimize flipping windows, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. However, I am puzzled by your comment about not being able to fast forward or rewind with a digital recorder. Mine displays the time in HH:MM:SS format and has the ability to fast forward or rewind in one second increments. This allows me to make a note of the time while I’m recording and then fast forward to that section during playback. The tape counter never really worked well for me, I’d always forget to reset it when changing tapes. My digital recorder also has the ability to create multiple files by simply stopping the current recording and starting a new one. This provides the ability to divide an interview or seminar into subjects or sessions. The whole process can be done in less than two seconds. This provides for speedy flexibility I never had with my micro cassette recorder and I never misplace a tape.

      It is interesting that you mix old and new recording technologies to match your workflow. A lot of people I know will try to use a one size fits all solution, and that’s not always the most productive.

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