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How to record and transcribe interviews quickly and cheaply

Jessica Suarez
Jessica Suarez
6 min read
How to record and transcribe interviews quickly and cheaply

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I like finding computer-based ways to do my job cheaper and faster. Most of these methods are to cover up for my natural procrastination: using hotkeys, text inserters, autoresponders, and capture tools helps make up for the time I spent Googling “child riding boa constrictor.” I really, really love finding this stuff, but I never get to talk about it. Today I’d like to talk about recording and transcribing interviews.

I do 1-4 interviews a week. That’s a lot of audio to deal with, and, for just a little feature, that’s a lot of hearing some guy or girl you used to think was pretty interesting talking about how “melodic” their new record is (a lot of interviewers are terrible, but people forget that lots of bands don’t know how to talk to people either).

I use several things to make doing and transcribing interviews easier: Skype, Audacity, Express Scribe, and a program from Ecamm called Call Recorder. Skype and Audacity are free, and Call Recorder costs $14.95.

Here’s why this trio is an interviewer’s dream:

Skype / Skype Out: I purchased a Skype Out number for $2.95 a month. This allows people to call me from a land or cell line, and lets me call regular land/cell lines. I also get free calls in the US and Canada. I don’t usually have to call overseas, and Skype Out lets you pay as you go for international calls, at reasonable rates. Lately I’ve been using Google Voice for this, because their rates can be even cheaper. Sure it doesn’t have the portability of a cell phone, and you might have to look like this, but the call quality is usually great and it allows you to use the next tool.

Ecamm Call Recorder (for Macs).

This program’s amazing for two reasons:

1) You can set it to automatically record any call if it lasts more than 30 seconds (or any time length you want), so you don’t end up with a bunch of automatic recordings of your boyfriend asking if he should buy cat food or rings where no one answered, nor do you ever forget to turn it on when Cat Power calls you.

2) If you loathe the sound of your own voice and your pathetic questions next to the sound of Chan Marshall purring lazy answers at you, then Call Recorder will allow you to split the sides of the conversation. Cat Power purr on one file, your voice on the other. Now you can transcribe without cringing or crying. This is especially great if you’re grabbing quotes for a feature where you don’t need your questions at all.

3) You can add markers during the call, so, if you’re sprightly and sly, you can add markers like “Question about Scientology affiliation” and “Where he called me a genius,” and they’ll show up as chapter markers in Quicktime. If you convert the file, you can still export your markers (with the timecode) to a text file for easy reference.

4) I said two reasons. There are actually four. You have a visual meter, so you can make sure it’s recording and that it’s recording at a volume loud enough to hear later on.

Audacity (free, open-source sound editor):

Or even better, convert that .mov audio file to mp3 (you can do this with Call Recorder’s built-in scripts), then fire up Audacity and cut out the parts where you were asking questions (it’ll appear as silence on the interviewee’s file). Then you can use Change Tempo to slow it down. I find that -42% keeps the interviewee’s voice clear, but is slow enough to transcribe without having to pause. Hand that edited crap over to your transcriptionist (or intern, or boyfriend). If you’re paying someone and you’re a cheap-o, you could probably get away with editing out your voice, and speeding it up slightly, thus saving on those transcription-per-minute fees. Then you can spend your transcriptionist savings on artificial tears or a conscience.

Express Scribe (free)

If you’re transcribing files yourself and you have a Mac, I recommend using Express Scribe along with your own foot pedal. I just got mine, and it’s excellent, especially when I use it with Express Scribe. The program lets you set universal hot keys, slow down or speed up audio tempo on the fly, and add in time stamps automatically. I usually listen to audio at around 150% speed until I get to quotes I like, then I slow it down and just transcribe what I need.

What about typing during the call?
Some people can do this. I can’t. I usually stare at my own questions, or Google artists or locations they’ve mentioned while they’re talking, so I can come up with smart follow ups. I’ve just never been able to do more than write down the time or scratch a note whenever I’m interviewing someone. I lose my train of thought, or lose the flow of the conversation, if I try to transcribe while talking on the phone.

Oh yeah, also.
Get a headset. No way you can type or Google things or, I don’t know, trim your nails? Eat dinner? During interviews without one. Don’t you want to look this cool:

What about recording on your cell phone?
I have an iPhone, I believe there’s a program that can record your phone calls now. I also used to have one of those attachments from RadioShack that lets you connect your cell phone to a recorder. Me, I use drop.io. For the cost of a single upgrade on a “drop,” I get a conference number where I can place conference calls. The same number will also automatically record the audio and upload it as an MP3 file to your account. The $10 also gets me storage space and outgoing faxes. Not a bad deal. When I need to record an interview on my cell phone I just call my drop.io conference number, then call my subject for an awesome three-way.


How about in-person interviews?
I’ve got an old iRiver IFP for this. It’s about five years old, but it still records to MP3, sync with my Mac, and has super clear audio. The best part? It’s really small. I haven’t recorded to tape since I had my old mini tape recorder in college, but I remembered how interview subjects’ eyes would also glance over at my recorder. I think seeing the thing makes people subconsciously self-conscious. My iRiver player is small enough to keep next to my hand, under the table, hidden behind a salt shaker at a diner, etc., so that the subject knows it’s there, but it’s small enough to forget. Loose lips make for the best interviews.

One last thing.
Don’t forget to check your state’s laws on taping conversations. My state, New York, allows for one-party consent. When I do phone interviews I don’t tell them I’m recording, I assume they know what they say to me is on the record. I usually make clear that I’m recording interviews when I do them in-person, just because they don’t always know everything’s on the record, and I’d rather avoid problems later.

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Here’s some tips from some friends:

From Yancey Strickler:

the trick i always use is just having the internet transcribe my interviews for me. costs about $18 an interview. well worth it: http://waxy.org/2008/09/audio_transcription_with_mechanical_turk/

From my awesome ex-editor Reid Davis:

Also, when I’m away from my computer, I used MacAlly’s iVoice pro hardware plug-in for my iPod along with Griffin’s iTalk Pro software. You can record through the built-in mic, or plug in another device, like a landline phone (Radio Shack telephone recorder, about $12.)

From writer / Tucson friend Curtis McCrary:

also, fyi, google voice will record incoming phone calls for you (but not transcribe them). but it’s an easy shortcut to getting an interview recorded and in easy-to-listen-to form on the computer.



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