The moving computer writes and having writ moves on
May 27, 2011 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Transcription for newbies. Halp!

My boss needs to do a long interview with someone, and I need to transcribe it. We have no experience in this area, and need guidance.

What we have on hand: an iPhone, mac laptops and iPods.

1. Is there a way to record the interview using the iPhone or a laptop? The interview is expected to be several hours long, if that makes a difference. My boss is concerned that the length makes it difficult/impossible to use the iPhone. So maybe the laptop. Does a newer mac laptop (don't have it front of me to note the model) have a microphone built in?

2. How am I going to transcribe an hours-long interview? Last year we did a similar project that involved me being emailed an MP3 file about one hour long. Transcribing it was a nightmare, because I did it in iTunes and had to constantly use my mouse to stop and start the playback.

3. So maybe we'll buy a transcription package with recorder and foot pedal? Recommendations for a mac-compatible system? Budget not a huge issue, but we don't want to go nuts.

Thanks in advance for your help!

I saw this recent question, but the answers were thin.
posted by BlahLaLa to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
How about using dictation software, then listening again to correct the mistakes?
posted by acidic at 8:01 AM on May 27, 2011

Iphone and macbooks both have mics built in -- iphones have a fairly long record time, but several hours will probably be too much. The macbook mic is fairly directional, so you may have problems recording everyone in the room if they are sitting around the table. I'd recommend getting an external mic.

You'll want to test your gear in advance to make sure that everyone is clearly audible in the recording. If you're going to use speech recognition software, you'll want everyone's voice to be as crystal clear as possible.

You can change the speed of mp3 files played back in itunes, btw -- if you record it as an m4a file, change the file extension to m4b and itunes treats it like an audiobook. During playback, you can have it play at half speed, which should make transcription somewhat easier.
posted by empath at 8:10 AM on May 27, 2011

If you have a budget, get a little digital recorder -- a decent enough recorder can be had for under $50. It makes a world of difference over a laptop's built-in mic, which will pick up all of the mechanical noises that the computer is making.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 8:18 AM on May 27, 2011

In terms of transcription, you could email the mp3 to an online transcription service or Amazon's Mechanical Turk service.
posted by sharkfu at 8:26 AM on May 27, 2011

Transcribing it was a nightmare, because I did it in iTunes and had to constantly use my mouse to stop and start the playback.

At the very least, you should use the media keys on your keyboard instead of switching back and forth to iTunes to pause and unpause the audio. I can't even imagine how frustrating it would be to use the mouse for that.

There are some simple AppleScripts for rewinding/fast forwarding in five second increments that you might find useful, too.
posted by bcwinters at 8:33 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've used castingwords, and felt that it was worth it.
posted by idb at 8:55 AM on May 27, 2011

Thanks for the advice so far. I'd also love it if someone had specific recommendations -- get THIS digital recorder. Get THIS playback kit with footpedal. Etc.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:58 AM on May 27, 2011

It's been a few years since I had to do some transcription, but I used Express Scribe (free) and a digital voice recorder from Olympus (WS-300, I think). Got a foot pedal from TranscriptionGear.Com. Most of these were after browsing threads here and amazon reviews.
posted by idb at 9:25 AM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dragon NaturallySpeaking has an iphone version I believe. I don't think it's stand alone, it works with a window's pc I believe. It would make the job a lot easier though if you could use software.
posted by Not Supplied at 11:54 AM on May 27, 2011

Seconding idb. Express Scribe can play back at variable speeds and uses hotkeys to pause/play/rewind five seconds (the most valuable one of all). And is free!

Also, the new Olympuses—Olympi?—have a swing-out USB jack that eliminates the need for adaptor cords, and record in WMA rather than the old proprietary DSS format (at which point the WMA can easily be converted to MP3 via the free Switch [from the makers of Express Scribe]).
posted by LDL_Plackenfatz at 3:56 PM on May 27, 2011

I have used a variety of transcription approaches. ExpressScribe is a great program that can accommodate a foot pedal (I just use keyboard controls with it).
Dragon NaturallySpeaking is more trouble than it is worth, IME.
My favorite transcription program is Soundscriber. It loops through short sections of the audio (the length of the loop and number of repeats are configurable), so it allows you just to re-listen to the audio, as you only tend to register 3-4 words at once when transcribing (and then forget the last two while you are typing the first two). Soundscriber was developed by Eric Breck for a project at the University of Michigan. It is pretty old now, but it does run on Windows 7 provided that you open the mp3 file from within the program. The help file can be a bit dodgy on newer versions of Windows (but the author helpfully provides an RTF version to get around this). Try it out - it saved a huge amount of stopping and starting for me while transcribing -- I still use the program!
posted by Susurration at 4:27 PM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh - and I use a Zoom H2 for audio recording interviews. Foolproof, records in mp3 and the length of the recording is only limited by the battery life (it comes with a mains power supply) and the size of the SD card (my 1GB SD card will record about 16 hours of 128kbs mp3 audio, which is way good enough for interviews). It has a microphone on the front and back, so you can record in 2-channel stereo using both mics and capture both interviewer and interviewee really clearly (don't use the 4-channel recording format as this is nonstandard and needs special software to play it back). OK - it is $149 extra, but the audio for interviews is crystal clear.
posted by Susurration at 4:35 PM on May 27, 2011

I am a linguist who often has to transcribe stuff (usually in other languages, though, which makes it a bit different.) I use Elan. If you set up all the options the way you like them, it is fast and easy to start, stop and replay sections of the recording. It's probably overkill for a simple English transcription, though, since it is designed to enable multiple layers of annotation. (It is, however, free.)
posted by lollusc at 6:10 PM on May 27, 2011

It's going to be much more efficient to hire a transcriptionist than to try to transcribe it yourself. Sure, it'll cost money, but if you look at the opportunity cost of the time you would spend transcribing things yourself, it seems to me to be a no-brainer.

Although if this is your only task and there's nothing else on your task list, go to town.

From this question I asked previously (, I ended up hiring Kedrowski Transcription, and they were fantastic. Really reasonable rates, quick and efficient and accurate. Before committing to doing the transcription yourself, I suggest checking out some services. Even if you get transcription software, it's still a really hard task.

I have found that the iPhone does a pretty good job with it's built-in mic. I've used it to record focus groups before. I don't think there's a need to get a specialized audio recorder. I like the NCH Record Pad app. It has a lot of options for the recording format and should have no problem with such a long recording. If your iPhone is 3GS or earlier, this mic is a great upgrade: If you have an iPhone 4, (or if you don't like the Mikey for some reason) take a look at this link:

If you want to record on a laptop, I highly recommend either the snowball or yeti mics, also from Blue ( I use both at my current job and they are really great. For audio recording software, Audacity ( is pretty straightforward to use and free.

Speech recognition will not work for your purposes. Dragon installed on a computer will work best for one speaker and has to have some training, however minimal. On mobile platforms, it's really only best for short passages. Both are highly dependent on audio quality. Additionally, it takes a lot of training (for the human) to get good at using the speech recognition software.

How often do these interviews happen, and how long are they usually?
posted by reddot at 8:33 AM on May 28, 2011

I use the Evernote app on my iphone for interviews. You just add a "voice" note and talk away -- the sound isn't bad and you can fast-forward and rewind really easily. Also, don't have to be connected to the internet to record, but when you are connected, it syncs with your computer so the copy is available online or on the desktop app of Evernote. Pretty awesome and amazing!!

Good luck!
posted by caoimhe at 3:48 PM on May 28, 2011

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