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The Tuts+ Guide to Transcribing Audio Notes

by
Gift

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Even though technology has come so far, completely automated speech-to-text transcription still isn't a reality. If you want to turn audio from interviews, meetings, lectures, personal voice memos, and more into text, you'll still have to spend hours transcribing it. But it doesn't have to be a painful process. Using the right techniques and tools, you can make light work of your transcription tasks.

In this tutorial, you'll learn everything you need about recording audio quickly on your mobile device, and then how to use the best tools available to transcribe that text easily.

Recording Your Audio

Capturing clear audio is the key to getting a recording that's easy to transcribe. The first thing you'll want to do is choose a quiet environment to record in—if possible—and reducing as much ambient noise as possible. Depending on what you're recording and where, that might mean closing windows to cut out street noise and wind, or moving to a quieter corner of the coffee shop or conference hall you're in.

Next, you'll want to have your recording equipment reasonably close to audio sources, whether that's on the desk at a meeting, at the front of the class during a lecture or close to your mouth when capturing a personal voice memo. Naturally, the ideal distance depends on the volume of sound you're capturing and the sensitivity of the microphone on your recording device, so be sure to test for optimal quality by recording a short snippet and playing it back before you begin.

When you're recording a meeting, conversation or personal voice memo, try to speak slowly and clearly, and encourage others to do so as well. Similarly, ask participants to take turns speaking one at a time, so that voices don't overlap.This will make it a lot easier to transcribe quotes accurately, and will help you avoid playing back your audio repeatedly to figure out what was said. And of course, always ask for permission before recording conversations, whether in person or over the phone.

Finally, make sure your recording device is ready for the task: free up storage space by backing up old recordings and deleting them from the device memory, use fresh or fully charged batteries and set your device to record in the highest quality format possible for clear audio with minimal noise.

Recording Devices

Now it's time to pick the right equipment for the job. If you own a smartphone or tablet, you already have a pretty good recorder in the palm of your hand: all you need is an app that lets you record and export high quality format audio. 

Notability for iOS
Notability on iOS records audio and saves your handwriting or text too

On iOS, Notability records voice notes and syncs them (along with your accompanying handwritten or typed notes) with your iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box or DAV cloud storage accounts (here's a sample recording). Android users can turn to Easy Voice Recorder, which generates high-quality WAV format files when you enable PCM recording.

Easy Voice Recorder for Android
Easy Voice Recorder for Android lets you record and export high quality WAV files

It's important to choose an app for your device that supports high-quality formats. Here's an audio sample that illustrates the difference between low-quality (compressed) and high-quality recording formats on an Android device (Google Nexus 7).  It may not be a big deal if you're just recording a short voice memo by yourself in a quiet room, but if you're transcribing long audio clips, clarity is a must.

If you're interested in a standalone recording device, the Sony ICD-AX412 ($75 on Amazon) -and Olympus VN-702PC ($44 on Amazon) come highly recommended, and offer both on-board and expandable storage.

Once you've got your environment and equipment set up, you're ready to record: just hit the red button on your device or app and you're good to go!

Transferring your recordings

When you're finished recording, you can transfer your audio files to your computer so you can use them with apps for easy transcription.

For Android devices with Easy Voice Recorder installed, connect your device via USB cable to your computer, and access your files via My Computer (Windows) or from the drive icon on  your desktop (Mac). Alternatively, install and use AirDroid on your Android device to sync with your computer over Wi-Fi via your web browser. Then, navigate to the EasyVoiceRecorder folder in your device storage and copy the recording files over to your computer.

For iOS devices with Notability, enable syncing to your cloud account of choice and grab the recordings from the downloadable zip files that the app exports.

For standalone recorders, connect your device via USB cable to your computer, and access your files via My Computer (Windows) or from the drive icon on  your desktop (Mac). Copy the recording files over to your computer.

You can then use these files with a transcription tool.

Transcribing Tools

Now that we've got our audio files ready to go, we can begin transcribing them. The main issue we face is typing out notes while listening to audio is that sometimes you need to pause the recording to finish typing out a sentence. You might also need to slow down playback to hear a phrase correctly, or fast forward to the next important point. And on top of all this, you've got to deal with switching to your text editor window to type what you hear. Thankfully, there are a couple of great apps that can make the task a whole lot easier.

Transcribe

Transcribe by Wreally combines a text editor with an audio player that supports keyboard shortcuts. With Transcribe, you can type, pause, slow down or speed up playback without ever moving your hands away from your keyboard or even switching windows. The app costs $20/year to use, but includes a free 7-day trial so you can take it for a spin before you commit.

Using Transcribe
Transcribe combines a text editor and keyboard-controlled audio playback in the same window

To use Transcribe, just sign up (no credit card required), log in and on the next screen with a blank document, click Choose File near the top of the window to locate and load your audio file. The app supports MP3, MP4, M4A, AMR, WMA, AAC and WAV files, so recordings from most smartphone apps and recorders will work just fine.

Once you've loaded your file, press your Esc key to play it back and begin typing in the text editor. You can then use the keyboard shortcuts shown in the audio player to control playback without having to use your mouse—press Esc to pause or resume playback, F1 to slow it down, and F2 to speed it up. And where you're done, click the Export button in the text formatting toolbar to export your file as a .doc that you can open with Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Transcribe also saves your transcribed text in the browser cache, so you can even use it offline and you don't have to worry about losing your work.  

Draft

Draft is another web app that helps with transcription. Although it primarily offers a Markdown-based text editor and document manager that you can use with any browser, it also packs a neat transcription tool that lets you load both audio and video files from the web, your local storage or cloud storage accounts. Draft is free and supports Vimeo, YouTube, MP4, and FLV video formats, and audio formats like MP3, M4A and AAC that you can load up just by pointing Draft to the source URL. You can also upload files in these formats from your computer, Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, Box or FTP storage.

Draft for audio transcribing
Draft handles both audio and video files, including those hosted online

To use Draft for transcription, sign up for a free account, log in, click the arrow next to the New Document button and select New Transcription. Next, upload your file or paste a URL to your audio or video content. When your file has finished loading, indicate a section to loop by entering its start and end points.

For example, if you'd like to loop the first ten seconds, enter 00:00 and 00:10 in the empty fields, and press Play. You can then skip forward (Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+P) or backward (Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+O) in increments equal to the length of the loop you first set up. The audio or video will loop repeatedly until you pause (Ctrl/Cmd+Spacebar) skip forward or backward, and you can get through your transcription quickly and easily.

move through audio in Draft
Create loops and skip forward or backward in increments in Draft

When you're done with your transcription, Draft will save your document and allow you to export your file in a variety of formats. To do this, click the Home button at the top left of the screen, then click Export and select your preferred format (Text, Markdown, HTML, PDF, Word or Google Docs document, MOBI, PDF or ePUB) and you're done.

Transcribing Offline

Another way to transcribe files on your computer is to use global hotkeys with a desktop media player app while typing in your favorite text editor. Global hotkeys allow you to control playback in your media player using keyboard shortcuts without having to switch between apps. This works with QuickTime, VLC, and many other audio and video playback apps.

Of course, the caveat here is that your global hotkeys need to be configured so that they don't conflict with other shortcuts or programs on your computer—otherwise, you'll end up launching apps and ordering functions you don't intend to. Your best option is the play and pause buttons on your keyboard, if you have them, combined with other keyboard shortcuts for extra options like skipping and speeding up audio.

Conclusion

Choosing to record and transcribe content is a great way to free yourself from having to take notes while a meeting, conversation, lecture or train of thought is in progress. You can instead focus on listening and engaging with other participants, or in the case of personal voice memos, hear yourself think out loud and trash or build on your own ideas freely. And with the easy-to-use tools available today, you can breeze through your transcription tasks quickly and easily.

Do you have any tips for recording or transcribing notes? Let us know in the comments!

Resources: Microphone icon by Travis Yunis from the Noun Project; Paper-Shredder icon by Maximilian Becker from the Noun Project.

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