Dictaphone and transcribing equipment to record anecdotes
December 13, 2016 12:13 PM   Subscribe

My mother wants to buy a dictaphone and transcribing equipment so that she can record my stepfather telling anecdotes, and then transcribe them. She's looking at the Olympus VN-741PC MP3 Voice Recorder. Is this the right way to go?

At the moment she is planning to transcribe the files herself, though we will look at other options like those described at Stop Scribbling (warning: pop-ups). She's thinking of something with an audio foot pedal to help with this. If you can recommend something along these lines, that would be great, but I'm wondering if she'd be better off using software to slow down and pause the file as she types. Any advice would be helpful.

Any tips for the recording process in general also helpful. I think this may be harder than "start telling anecdote ... NOW!". I've seen this question: How do I do the best job of recording the story of my parents lives?. Many thanks, all. Oh - and we are in the UK if that makes any difference.
posted by paduasoy to Technology (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
No way. The audio quality is pathetic on those things. Something like a Zoom H1. You want to be able to record in stereo and have decent microphones.
posted by spitbull at 12:29 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, the standard software used by academics for basic ethnographic and linguistic transcription is the free "ExpressScribe," which can be used with the excellent and inexpensive AltoEdge foot pedals.
posted by spitbull at 12:30 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have used the Olympus VN-480PC (probably out of date, but in the same family as the VN-741PC) for over ten years and find it perfectly acceptable for recording speech. If the goal is transcription and not storing for future playback, stereo may be more (expense) than you need.

If your mother has never worked with foot pedals, she might find it tricky to get used to the coordination required. Might be something to think about.

ExpressScribe appears to have an on-screen control capability using a computer mouse. The software that comes with the Olympus does, as well. The bad news about on-screen control, however, is unless you have twin monitors, you're always having to toggle back and forth between the playback control panel and the Word doc you're transcribing into. Also, every time you move your hands from the keyboard to the mouse to control the playback, you lose time. This is not a problem if you use a foot pedal.
posted by John Borrowman at 1:02 PM on December 13, 2016

ExpressScribe's controls work while the Word file is open. They're activated by function buttons. Once you start using it, your muscle memory kicks in pretty quickly about which button is pause, which is rewind, etc. I was happy enough with the product that I bought the full version.

That said, I'm still considering acquiring some foot pedals, just to speed things up that tiny bit more.
posted by sardonyx at 1:12 PM on December 13, 2016

I just spent the entire summer designing and doing interviews for my position as a research assistant at a R1 university. And, honestly, we used our smartphones (iPhone and Android.) The audio quality isn't great-- certainly not broadcast level-- but it is plenty good enough for transcription. We found it helps to put the phone on airplane mode (helps preserve battery and minimize notification noises), and place on a level, hard surface about halfway between you. A coffee table, stool, or non-upholstered chair (like a dining room chair) is perfect.

In terms of transcribing, I have a small army of undergraduates working on my interviews (thank God) and here's what we've discovered:

- ExpressScribe used to be the standard but is increasingly annoying in terms of demanding payment for features, including the foot pedal. We've been much happier with InqScribe, which is also compatible with Macs (bonus!). Even though we're an academic and semi-pro level shop we haven't needed anything beyond the features that come in the free package.

- Most free transcription software won't let you save your work. You can deal with this two ways: lots of programs will let you manipulate the audio through the transcription program even if Word open over top, so you can just transcribe directly into Microsoft Word (like sardonyx mentions.) Or, if you need to see the clock and want to have more control over what your transcription program is doing, you can transcribe into the program itself, and every time you get a chunk done, just copy/paste it into a nice Microsoft Word document with a standard format. Regardless of which option our transcriptionists use, we use something like a script format, which plugs in neatly to almost all programs you might use to analyze the data later (less of a concern for you but still neat and easy to read.)

Interviewer: Words words words words word?

Respondent: Words words words words words.

- Foot pedals truly do make a difference. We use the Infinity Foot Pedal but it's a little finicky with Macs -- if you're Mac based you might want to look around for an alternative on Amazon. Foot pedals work like a sewing machine: they play the audio when you depress the pedal and stop it when you lift off. This speeds up transcription a surprising amount. There are also extra side pedals you can cue to do specific things: I have one of mine set up for fast forward and another set for jump back 5 seconds. Super helpful.

- Even if you choose not to use the pedal, make sure you set up hotkeys, as these will speed your transcription flow considerably. If I'm working at home without my pedal, I use tab to stop/start audio and the arrow keys to jump backward or fast forward. This means I almost never have to lift my hands from the keyboard... this speeds things up a lot. more than you think it will. A pedal is still faster, but if you can't manage that, for the love of all that is holy, don't neglect the hotkeys. It takes a little getting used to but you'll be so glad you did.

- Lastly, it helps to have a small spreadsheet that just details a bit of extra info. When did you record this interview, with whom, who is transcribing, and a space for notes with timestamps for "trouble spots". Sometimes you're in the flow and you don't want to listen to your participant mumble for three minutes seventeen times in a row to catch what they actually said. Note the timestamp in the spreadsheet and move on, that way you can easily go back to it later when you're in a quieter environment or a more patient mood.

Hope that helps!
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:20 PM on December 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, and, lastly, we decided on manual transcription over machine transcription because machine transcription generally isn't that accurate and has a learning curve on individual voices and we were interviewing a lot of people once rather than one or two people lots of times. If this person is only interviewing one person and there are only two voices it might be a more viable option.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:25 PM on December 13, 2016

You might want to experiment with Google voice recognition. Some people are now dictating their articles instead of typing them out. It'll be easier to just review the text for some errors.
posted by Coffeetyme at 2:20 PM on December 13, 2016

I want to add: See this site for more info on how to use Google Voice recognition to type up documents. Type with your voice

Your mother doesn't need to use all the fancy commands; straight dictation and later editing will be fine.
posted by Coffeetyme at 5:05 PM on December 13, 2016

The Olympus mono recorder is "good enough" if *all* you care about is transcribing what you record. But if you care about preserving your subject's voice (and you should) it has a (truly) shitty built in mic compared to the cheapest Zoom or Tascam stereo recorders that cost maybe 40-50 bucks more.

You get one chance to record. Don't go cheap. This isn't a business meeting it's your family history. Future generations are going to care about the audio a lot more than the transcript.
posted by spitbull at 4:08 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

2nd caring about the audio, it's quite something to hear a loved one's voice (their cadence, their breath) when they're gone... people save voicemails when they can, because there's nothing like hearing that voice.

I've used the Roland R-09, which imo is fantastic (but I think no longer produced; if you can find a new one on ebay, might be worth it). I think the current model is the R-05; reviews suggest it's just as great.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:18 AM on December 14, 2016

Thank you very much to everyone. This was very helpful.
posted by paduasoy at 2:11 PM on January 6, 2017

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