How should I record and transcribe phone interviews?
March 25, 2008 10:42 AM   Subscribe

What's the best solution for recording and transcribing phone interviews? And what kind of digital voice recorder should I buy?

This question has been addressed before, but not recently, and there have been significant advances in (1) digital voice recorders, (2) speech recognition software, and (3) Web sites that will place calls for you, record them for you, and e-mail you an MP3.

The situation: I need to record and transcribe phone interviews. Right now I'm using an old-fashioned solution: Making the calls on a land line with an inline phone-to-audio device attached, recording them onto audiotapes, then transcribing them by hand. I'll also occasionally need to record lectures.

1. Should I buy a digital voice recorder, and if so, which one? If I were going to buy a digital voice recorder, I'd need it to have slow-playback capability, so that I could transcribe as I listened. The Olympus DS-40 and WS-300 both advertise this feature.

2. Is speech recognition software at the point where it can accurately transcribe a phone interview (rather than, say, slow and clear dictation)? Some of Sony's digital voice recorders come with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but that's only a selling point if the transcriptions are fairly accurate.

3. What about computer- or Web-based solutions, such as or Skype? Do any of these services offer accurate transcription services? It would be great if I could occasionally do interviews from my cell phone and have a third party record and transcribe them.
posted by incandescentman to Shopping (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
On a Mac or PC, use skype to make the calls and Pamela on a PC or Call Recorder for Skype. The transcription thing: use Mechanical Turk, do it yourself, or find a local student.
posted by parmanparman at 10:56 AM on March 25, 2008 lets you record the call, and download an MP3, but doesn't offer any transcription abilities.
posted by dcjd at 11:21 AM on March 25, 2008

+1 for GrandCentral. For transcribing, I've read that you can outsource it to a virtual assistant in India for a very small fee. I've never done it myself, so I'm not too sure of the details.
posted by trace.log at 11:54 AM on March 25, 2008

Transcription software has gotten a lot better in the last 5-10 years or so, but it's still not at the level where I'd trust it for something like that. For the time you spend going through to find an obvious mistake, figure out what was actually being said and correcting it, you might as well just transcribe.

I've been doing this for more than ten years now, and I still use an inline audio device. I've recorded to cassette tapes, minidiscs (NEVER DO THIS) and a very expensive hard-drive based portable recording system. Now I use an Olympus VN-960 PC and I love it.

I use it with a phone-audio tap hooked to a cordless phone handset and an old Plantronics headset. The output on the P-A plugs into the Olympus. It works just fine. To transcribe, I copy the files as WAVs over to my computer via the Olympus's USB port. It comes with software that organizes files and mirrors them to a folder on your hard drive automatically when you connect it.

To transcribe, I just use Winamp (or actually Spider Player these days). Anything that will let you set global hotkeys. Then, while I'm typing in my word processor, a CTRL keystroke will pause the playback, or back it up five seconds at a tap so I can replay a bit. I don't worry about slow playback - not even sure if the Olympus has it. I just use it to record and it does that very well.

It's not stereo, so you're not going to want to be taping concerts with it or anything, but for interviews I prefer it to MUCH more expensive and sophisticated tech. The built in mic's excellent for live interviews and, unlike everything else I've used, it's just bulletproof. It's never let me down, it weighs nothing, it's the size of a small MP3 player and it runs forever on a couple of AA's. Have I mentioned how screwed you are if your minidisc player runs out of power while you're still recording? Have you ever had to call someone back and ask them if they'd mind answering the same questions again? I did. Once.
posted by Naberius at 12:16 PM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have an Olympus WS-300M which I simply placed next to my phone and used the speaker phone. Quality was good (enough). Often people will recommend a better microphone, but I haven't needed one. The 300M is very lightweight, also a USB drive and runs on a single AAA battery.

For transcribing, I searched around and looked here too (e.g. this thread). I intended to do it myself using the free Express Scribe (askme thread here) which allows you to play back slowly and control with a pedal (which I got from In the end I bit the bullet and went with CastingWords 6-day transcription and was deliriously happy with the choice. Super fast (6 days was typically more like 3 days even for a 1.5 hour recording), high quality, nice interface, multiple formats and not outrageously expensive. They use Mechanical Turk (and Amazon S3) on the backend.
posted by idb at 12:28 PM on March 25, 2008

I also use an Olympus WS-300M and have been quite happy with it. It doubles as a nice USB drive as well.

To record phone calls, I bought the Olympus TP-7. It's incredibly simple to use. Just pop it in your ear (it can hurt after long interviews) and then plug the other end into the recorder. Works great.

For transcription, I love Express Scribe precisely because you don't have to use a pedal--you can use your function keys. Super awesome.

When I don't have time or I'm piled up, I've used escriptionist and have been happy. Rates are also inexpensive. Works best when it's a one-on-one interview with no background noise--they'll charge extra for additional people on the interview or bad recordings.
posted by faunafrailty at 2:05 PM on March 25, 2008

I do transcription as a side job, and have played around with some automatic transcription software under the theory that even if it's not accurate, it might still be a worthwhile time savings to have the software do a first pass, and then clean it up myself. Ultimately nothing I tried was good enough to make even that feasible; I always wound up spending more time than I would have just transcribing it myself.

Obviously I'm not an uninterested party here since I make some cash at it, but at least as of a couple of years ago, the software just wasn't there yet.

For whatever it's worth, for audio recordings I typically use ExpressScribe. I find that it's just as easy to do with keyboard shortcuts and I often don't even bother to bust out the foot pedal, but that's probably not true for people who aren't using it regularly. InqScribe and Transana are similar programs to look into, though Transana's a lot more specialized and chances are you don't need something that complicated.
posted by Stacey at 4:01 PM on March 25, 2008

The digital recorder question depends on how much you want to spend. Be aware that most of the Olympus recorders use their own proprietary file format, which is difficult to convert for general PC use and transcription.
I have an Edirol R-1 which is excellent for all sorts of interviews (records in MP3 so you get a lot of data on a small compact flash card), has removable media (so easy to transfer to PC for transcription), and has an excellent mic that picks up speech even in large meeting rooms. The latest Edirol digital recorder (the R-09) is available from Amazon for $399. I have also heard good things about the new Olympus LS-10 which is available for $329 from Mineroff Electronics in NY. But of you only want to record the occasional phone interview, you can connect the phone to audio device to your PC microphone input and record them directly to PC.
For transcription, I also use Express Scribe, which is free. I agree with Stacey that dictation software is not there yet. You will have to "re-voice" the interviews for the software. This may be worth it -- I found that dictation has the unexpected benefit that it makes you think about every word the subject says, which can be quite productive in research! Dragon Naturally Speaking 9 is supposed to be OK (but not perfect). I have a British accent, so IBM ViaVoice seems to work better for me ...
See the UK CAQDAS website for lots of resources and discussions on software and equipment for qualitative research.
posted by sgmax at 7:49 PM on March 25, 2008

Indeed my theory is that transcription software will probably never be "there" for this application. It does a fantastic job if you can give it a range of expected responses - people reading off their account numbers, saying yes or no, etc. And it can probably do a great job of things a little more complicated than that too.

But given all the back and forth and crosstalk in a typical interview, the odd word choices, just the fact that people will occasionally use words the software isn't familiar with, and you're suddenly in a surprisingly demanding situation. A writer friend of mine is toying around with it for dictating her stories, and it works fine for a few sentences, but every so often it's going to screw up and you've either got to go back and fix it when it screws up, or you don't notice when it screws up and some ridiculously mangled text gets by you. And this is just the voice it's trained for.

And given that the main reason it's gotten so much better lately is demand for automated telephone voice response systems, and that they've pretty much nailed that functionality, I'm not sure who's going to invest the much greater amount of money to get a few more percentage points of accuracy out of it and push it up that curve of diminishing returns.
posted by Naberius at 8:11 PM on March 25, 2008

Do you have an older iPod? By which I mean, if you were an early adopter and you've still got your ancient iPod lying around, up through the fourth generation I think, you can simply purchase a Griffin iTalk. I used one of these for years, and there is a mic output at the top so you can connect it to your telephone recorder thingamajig.

The iTalk can of course also be used to record in-person conversations, town hall meetings, etc. Not music, though. If you like, you can connect a really fancy mic to it.

Beware that these will not work with newer iPods, which do not have the appropriate prong insert at the top. But they're great -- and inexpensive -- voice recorders, and once you get the file onto your computer you can simply press pause while typing.

Alas, I know of no transcription software that would help you.
posted by brina at 9:21 AM on March 26, 2008

Thanks for all the excellent responses. I ordered an Olympus DS-40 digital voice recorder, and I guess I'll keep transcribing by hand.

It would still be helpful if I could do the occasional spontaneous interview—say, on my cell phone, and without my voice recorder with me. GrandCentral would seem to be the perfect solution, since it places the call for you and e-mails you an MP3 of the recording—but it looks like since they were acquired by Google, they're not accepting new signups. Does anyone know of a competing service?
posted by incandescentman at 11:34 AM on March 26, 2008

We use You sing up for a free basic account and they give you a special number for you and whoever you're talking to to call into and a special passcode. To record the call, just press *9. Then you can go into the site and download the .wav file for transcribing, or just listen to it right there. Hope this helps!
posted by carofowler at 1:25 PM on July 22, 2008

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