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Transcribing trick

May 6, 2012

The toughest interviews to transcribe are the ones where people talk really quickly. I usually try to type as the interview playing in real time, but when the subject is speaking faster than I can type, I have to pause the playback and catch up. The more often I have to pause, the longer it takes me to transcribe.

I’m proud to say I can usually type at a speed in the 90-100 wpm range, but that can keep up with only the most sluggish of speakers. An energetic speaker like Robert Schneider (who had also just pounded a cup of coffee before I turned the recorder on) can ramble at easily twice that clip. When he gets really excited, I have to pause a few times each sentence.

Or I would, if there wasn’t an easy way to work around this. I record my interviews on an Olympus digital recorder, about the size of a candy bar. It connects to my computer via USB and exports each file as a .WMA, which makes playback pretty simple. I use a basic QuickTime to play the files, though lots of applications support this file type, and most of those offer the same important piece of functionality: variable playback speed. Of course, this sort of technology existed with cassettes, too:


For most interviews, a playback speed of around 75-80% gets the job done. Most people sound drunk as hell when heard much slower, though for someone like Robert, I set it at 50% and it’s fine.

It seems counterintuitive that slowing down the interview would speed up the transcription, especially when clicking “pause” or “play” is so quick, but the time spent jumping between windows every few seconds adds up quickly. More importantly, the more time I spend doing stuff like that, the harder it is to get into a groove, and the easier it is to get distracted. It takes as many clicks to pause and restart an interview as it does to check my email, and the procrastinatory part of my brain knows that well. When so much of my work now is done on my computer, staying focused is probably my biggest challenge. This helps.

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