When recording an interview, meeting, lecture or other event with the intention of having it transcribed, you have the opportunity to make the transcription process as efficient and accurate as possible. Paying attention to these tips can improve sound quality and minimize incidental noise. And better quality means lower transcription costs for you, and less mistakes.
- Before you start the event, a sound check (where you record a few words from each subject and then listen to make sure the result is clear) is helpful. When doing a sound check, make sure to speak at the distance from the mike that you will be at during the entire interview and be sure to check all participants. We often hear interviewers fooled by a soundcheck where they only listen to themselves speaking directly into the recorder.
- Try to minimize background noise. Some common sources of background noise include: outside noise coming through open windows; noise from other rooms or hallways through open doors; machinery running in the background, e.g. fans or air conditioners; TV sets and radios in the same or adjacent rooms; people making noise in the background; pets or other animals; clocks that chime (especially those that do so every fifteen minutes); doors shutting or slamming; coughs, sneezes, etc. Some of these can be remedied before the recording occurs. Others, such as a slamming door, could be accounted for by having the interviewer pause or ask the subject to repeat what they said. If anyone is leaving or entering the room during the conversation, encourage them to close the door softly and encourage speakers to pause while the door is being opened.
- Try to place microphones quite close to the speaker and pointing directly toward them. If in an interview with only one microphone, direct the mike to the interviewee as it will be less of a concern to miss out on transcription of the questions than the answers. If you use lapel mikes, make sure they won't be rubbed by a piece of clothing and that they pick up the speaker's voice when their head is turned.
- An increasing number of the recordings we receive are phone recordings, and the quality of those recordings can vary from great to terrible. Voices over a speakerphone or Skype can be very tinny and can drop out completely if the interviewer speaks. We highly recommend using an app or specialized recorder for this purpose (see the Resource section below). But if you are recording by simply placing the recorder near the phone speaker, take special care to adjust levels and volume and to not interrupt the subject.
- If you're concerned about sound quality of a recorded interview, because of background noise, a quiet speaker, or a poor phone connection, you might choose to have an interviewer repeat important responses. Similarly, if you have an audience asking questions but don't use a separate mike for them, you can ask your speakers to repeat the question that has been asked, before answering it.
- It is very important to have a microphone for each speaker. This is commonly done in conferences, but often overlooked in focus groups, group interviews or other smaller settings. Having a speaker some distance from a microphone almost guarantees that their contributions will disappear behind background noise.
- If you have multiple speakers, it's ideal to identify each speaker each time she or he speaks. This could be done by the speaker or the facilitator. Having an identification makes it possible for us to label each speaker individually in the transcript. It also works as a reminder to the group participants that they are being recorded, a fact that is often forgotten soon after the introduction, resulting in a lot of overlapping conversations.
- An active facilitator is very important when recording focus groups. Groups almost always devolve into overlapping conversation and the result may be a lot of lost information in the transcription. In addition, teasing those multiple strands of conversation apart adds a lot to the cost of the transcript. Repeated requests to speak one at a time usually results in a much more complete transcript.
- While it is good practice to respond naturally to a subject while they speak, showing that you are listening actively, small utterances of "yes," "okay," and "mm-hmm," can blot out the subject's voice on the recording and cause you to lose portions of their response in the transcript. This is especially a problem if you are recording a phone interview. In face-to-face interviews, try to show your attention in a nonverbal manner, or place the microphone far from you and close to the subject. In phone interviews, restrain from making these small utterances which in cases of a small delay over the phone, often confuse the interviewee as well.
Working With a Transcriptionist
Context matters a great deal for a transcriptionist. Even a clearly recorded interview can be difficult to transcribe if the transcriber does not know what the content is. Any information you provide about the subject of the interview before transcription begins can be useful. If an interviewer is using a standard list of questions, you may want to provide that list with the recorded interview.
If it's important to get down references to people, places, Web sites, organizations, etc., it's ideal to repeat them clearly or even spell them out for the recording. Alternatively, if your project involves a good deal of jargon or particular terminology, consider sending the transcriptionists a list of terms likely to have been used. The more context the transcriptionist has, the more accurate their work.
Resources & References
Choosing a recording device is an area which changes every year. Digital recorders have taken over the field, but smartphone apps are a real possibility too. Convenience for the recorder can sometimes come at the expense of a quality recording, and therefore a high-quality transcript. The world of recorders changes quickly, but here are some resources that can help to guide you:
- Choosing Digital Recorders, by Baylor University Institute for Oral History
- How to Digitally Record and Transcribe an Interview, Jack Dougherty -- Among other advice, includes suggestions for basic iOS and Android apps for recording audio.
- The 7 Best Voice Recorders to Buy, Lifewire.com -- Buying guides date quickly but here is a good source.
- The Best Voice Recorder, wirecutter.com -- Another buying guide for digital recorders
- How to Record Phone Calls, CNET.com -- Includes recording apps for all types of smartphones
There are many more guides on the internet for making great recordings. Here are some of our favorite ones:
- 10 Tips for Recording Good Qualitative Audio, Quirkos.com
- How to Document, The American Folklife Center
- How to Get the Best Results, Penguin Transcription
If you are doing your own transcription, you need a great transcription program. We have been using Express Scribe dictation recording software since our company began. It comes highly recommended from Wordsworth Typing and Transcription!
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