Getting the best from a recording for transcription

There are many transcription services available but sometimes an affordable transcription service can seem hard to find. Transcription is not cheap, because it is a lot more involved than copy typing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good deal with a transcription service, and what’s more, by providing good quality recordings you can make the transcription more affordable, as it will take less time to complete.

Here are a few things to consider:

Time Taken to Transcribe

When pricing up your options the most important thing to remember is that it’s just not possible to type as fast as you speak. Even an experienced transcriptionist will be able to average four times as long for a good, clear one-to-one interview – so an hour of recording will take an average of four hours to transcribe. (Industry standards obtained from the Industry Production Standards Guide, published by OBC, Columbus, OH, USA). But a poor quality recording will take much longer. So how can you make sure that your transcript is clear, in order to get an affordable transcription price? Basically, the easier you make the transcription for the transcriptionist, the more likely they are to be able to give you an affordable transcription quote.


First of all, use the best transcription equipment you can afford, and make sure it’s right for your needs. This means that for interviews you should have a recorded with an external microphone rather than one built into the recorder, which is only designed to pick up dictation. For focus groups you should ideally have several microphones so that all participants are audible, and for conferences the speakers should have good microphones and there should also be people in the audience with ‘roving’ microphones to take around to any audience members wanting to ask a question.


Always try to make sure that you are recording in a quiet environment. Open windows can cause big problems unless you have a ‘noise cancelling’ microphone, which many digital ones are these days. So can air conditioning, so if you do have an air conditioning unit in the room try to ensure your speakers are not situated close to it. If conducting interviews by phone, and assuming that you have arranged these in advance (and asked permission to record, of course) then it’s helpful to ask your interviewee to try to make sure they’re in a quiet environment too!


If you are interviewing and you want the names included then it is helpful to spell out your interviewee’s name at the beginning of the recording, before starting the interview, and speak out any information you would like on the transcript header e.g. the date, the job title of your interviewee etc. For conferences a speaker list and also a delegate list, if there will be audience questions, can save the transcriptionist a lot of time in trying to work out names and organisations.

Care with Conversation 

During the interview, unless you need to interrupt in order to take back control of the interview, try not to speak over your interviewee. Often in a normal conversation we say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ or ‘right’ or ‘OK’ more to indicate we’re listening than for any other reason. Every time you say that you are likely to be obscuring a much more important word or group of words spoken by your interviewee. And in conferences or panel discussions, if one speaker is giving a talk (i.e. without interruptions, not a discussion) make sure everyone else’s microphones are turned off. I have, in the past, had to mark whole sentences or even paragraphs of a talk as inaudible, because all I could hear were two panel members chatting about their holidays or little Jonny’s operation, and not the speaker!


Most transcriptionists work in a standard format, whether that be tabular, tabbed, interviews shown as initials or full names etc. Again most are happy to work to your specifications, but the standard format might well be cheaper, so think carefully about whether you need something different or not. Find out what the standard format is in advance if it concerns you, and you may be able to adapt it to your needs.


Finally, give some serious thought to whether or not you need a verbatim transcription. Verbatim transcription includes every repeated word, every ‘um’ and ‘erm’, all those ‘filler’ phrases like ‘you know’ and ‘know what I mean’ that may be repeated a hundred times in one interview, and can also include pauses, coughs, throat clearing etc. if required. Needless to say, this takes longer. If the transcriptionist can filter out all this stuff the transcript is quicker. In my company the cheapest level is what we call ‘intelligent verbatim’ which cuts out all these fillers but leaves the rest exactly as it’s spoken. Different transcriptionists work this differently though, so always check when you’re phoning for your quote. You can find detailed information about our editing levels on our website.

There are, of course, occasions when verbatim is required – depending on your topic it might be required for legal reasons, or you might be studying the language. But if you really don’t need it, don’t end up paying for it!


And finally, remember that the cheapest transcription quote might not be the most affordable one in the end. There is an oft-quoted phrase: if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Will it really be cost-effective to send your hard-won interviews to the cheapest service if what comes back is gobbledygook and you have to go through the whole thing correcting every other word? How much time will you then waste that could have been spent more productively? Recommendation is always the ideal way to find a service, but if no one you know can recommend a transcription service then look for testimonials. A good company with a strong track record should always be able to provide these. If you’re still not sure, ask questions and base your decision on the quality of the answers. Things you might like to ask are: turnaround time (when will you get the transcripts), confidentiality procedures, whether they have experience in your field, what the standard format is etc.


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