This is a very detailed article for how to transcribe audio, including oral history interviews. It is a comparative review of transcription and voice recognition tools including speech-to-text (voice recognition using Google, Word, and Dragon), paid transcription services, and slick technologies to make the DIY transcribing process more efficient. I write biographies, histories, and do family history work for clients, so I have spent a ridiculous amount of time experimenting with methods to transcribe interviews and audio. It is an important but tedious process.
The best transcription answer depends on the job:
The best answer for me varies depending on the particulars of each project. In short, I’ll show you how to do dictation and transcription using the most cost-effective and efficient tools, and give you an idea of which tool works best for the job. As a note, recently I had 6 audio hours from a client day spent telling stories. It would have taken me forever to transcribe myself so I clipped the audio into half-hour chunks and sent them out to various services, while transcribing some of the work myself using different methods. This got the job done, and also gave a good side-by-side comparison of the costs and time involved with each approach.
This article details how to transcribe using the following methods:
- Transcribing audio with speech-to-text
- Microsoft Word
- How to Transcribe using Dragon:
- How to transcribe with Dragon, Method #1 – Train it to your own voice:
- Dictate on the fly
- Upload an audio file
- Simultaneously listen and dictate
- Sending files out to Rev
- Sending files out to TranscribeMe
- Other methods for having someone to transcribe
- How to Transcribe with YouTube
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1. How to transcribe with Google Speech-to-Text
If you’re not a great typist, speech-to-text technologies can be wonderful, and Google launched its free service to much fanfare. Its powerful voice recognition does not, however, allow you to upload a file to be transcribed. Some people suggest that you can play audio next to your computer microphone and have it transcribe, but when I tried, the result was garbage.
Workaround method to transcribe an audio file using Google speech-to-text:
The workaround for dictating an audio file using Google is that you can listen to an audio file and speak the words aloud. I have found that it is most efficient to listen to the audio on my Android phone with headphones.
These are the steps for using the workaround dictation method:
- Open a Google Doc using Chrome as your browser. Other browsers won’t work.
- Make sure your microphone is on and functioning. Side note: This step is a bit buggy on my Mac and often have to monkey with the settings until it will read my external microphone.
- Click Tools on the navigation bar, select “voice typing.” Then click the large microphone icon that pops up.
- Listen to the audio file using your phone or other device with headphones on. Without headphones, Google would hear your warm voice plus the audio playing in the background. Messy!
- Then start speaking what you hear.
Video of workaround dictation method:
Here is a video that shows me actually doing the listen/dictate process using Google speech to text (click here to watch it: google speech to text best). My body is not seen in the frame because I am sitting in the chair facing the computer, but I am holding my phone and speaking into my desktop computer microphone. You can’t hear the audio because I am listening with earphones (otherwise two voices would confuse the program). You can hear my voice saying the words I hear, and onscreen Google is doing a reasonable job of taking dictation. It does a decent job–not as accurate or fast as Dragon–but hey, it’s free. Also, you shouldn’t need a powerhouse computer. This method takes me about the same amount of time as typing a file using oTranscribe, or 1 hour for 30 minutes of audio. (My typing test speed is 85 WPM). Don’t forget: you have to use Chrome as your browser.
2. How to transcribe with Microsoft Word 360:
Okay, so I originally wrote this article like two years ago and regularly come back and edit it. It wasn’t until I was teaching a class last night that a student told me that if you have a Microsoft Office 360 subscription, you can dictate using speech-to-text right in Microsoft Word. This morning I checked it out and sure enough! It’s slick. The principle is the same as when dictating with Google speech-to-text, described above.
Here are the steps to dictate with speech-to-text technology in Microsoft Word:
Note: these are the steps on a Mac; menus may vary on a PC.
- Set up a microphone on your computer. You might get away with the internal mic, but it will be more accurate if you have a decent microphone that sits closer to your mouth.
- Open Microsoft Word using your 360 subscription.
- Select the “Edit” menu then select “Start Dictation” in the sub-menu.
- Start speaking.
Below is a screen shot showing accuracy of a paragraph I dictated. Two mistakes are highlighted in red. Not bad!
Screen shot of paragraph transcribed using Microsoft Word 360 dictation feature:
3. How to transcribe audio using Dragon
I use Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software a lot (Actually Dragon for Mac, but have used the PC version too). Dragon was a game changer for my workflow, and I did not expect that. Check amazon for up-to-date pricing.
There are four ways I have used Dragon software.
1. How to transcribe with Dragon, Method #1 – Train it to your own voice:
Dictate your own story, emails or other documents using your voice. This is the software’s real strength since it is set up for you to “train the Dragon.” You read stories and it gets smarter by adapting to your own speech patterns and accent. Another amazing feature is running documents you have written and sent emails through it. This teaches the software phrases and acronyms you commonly use. Once I took the time to configure Dragon and learn the voice commands (“Go to sleep” or “Scratch that”), I have found Dragon Dictate to be very accurate in dictating my speech faster than I can type (85 words-per-minute type test speed). It becomes more efficient if you combine real-time keyboard and mouse along with voice commands. I originally did not think I would like it as much as I do, but now I regularly use Dragon to dictate emails and other documents.
Tip: Use a microphone!
One note is that I like using a headset or my podcast grade Blue Yetti microphone that sits closer to my mouth. Although the internal mic on my Mac is decent, it strains my voice after a while if I try to speak loud enough.
In summary: There is some learning curve and setup of Dragon on my Mac, including becoming good at dictation through use of commands, but the payoff for me has been real.
2. How to transcribe with Dragon, Method #2 Dictate on the fly:
Dictate on the fly with a digital recorder
The second way to use Dragon is to dictate into a digital recorder (here’s a link to my all-time favorite digital recorder) or the Dragon app. If you dictate into a digital recorder or a phone recording app (if you save it with high quality bit rate), then you can upload files to be processed by the software. Ideally you want to insert punctuation commands. If the only commands you lear are: “Period, new paragraph,” it will save you a ton of editing later. These commands dictated into a recording will make the transcription infinitely cleaner. The principle behind dictating into a recorder is the same as real-time dictation except there is no ability to make corrections and combine keystrokes with the screen in front of you as you go. This means it is not as accurate, but portability is essential sometime.
Dictating on the fly gets me up and moving
This has been a breakthrough for me as I dictate while getting some easy exercise on my indoor bike or go for a walk. I do a lot of email dictating while on my bike. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of the computer, getting some movement while accomplishing work means a great deal.
Use the Dragon App on your phone
Another way to dictate away from the computer is to use the Dragon app on your phone. I recently sprung for a year’s membership (about $100) for this luxury. Thus far I’m impressed with the accuracy and ease of use. It is supposed to train to your voice, so I expect it to get even better. So, my verdict is that it’s slicker than using other speech-to-text methods on my phone (such as Google) and I’m glad to have it given the quantity of dictating that I do. I think you’d need to be a power user to make this pay, but I am and am glad to have it. Other than price, the other drawback is that you have to be connected to WiFi. I do a lot of dictating in the car, while exercising, etc. So, in these times I’ll be back to dictating into a digital recorder then running the audio files through Dragon — a good method, but involving an extra step.
Here is a screen capture of Dragon Anywhere on my Android phone:
3. How to transcribe with Dragon, Method #3 – Process an interview file (in someone else’s voice)
It is possible to create a profile for different speakers and to upload an audio file into the Dragon software for processing. This method is a lot less accurate because Dragon is not trained to that speaker’s voice. The final transcription will have loads of errors and will contain no punctuation and will not switch between speakers. So, you’ll get a big blob of text that’s full of mistakes and is not at all easy on the eyes. Because of these limitations, if I need a clean transcription it takes me more time to clean up Dragon’s work as to just transcribe it in the first place, especially if the interviewee has an accent or the audio sounds far away.
Where Dragon transcription of an audio file of an interview:
I use this method if I am doing a large number of interviews and only need the basic gist. In this instance, I run each new audio file through Dragon as I go. This gives me enough reference to be of use later. For example, when I’m writing a full book, I run every interview through Dragon and then I paste the all transcriptions into one big master file that allows me to search for key words later.
Two advantages to running interview files through Dragon:
- The rough transcript gives me the gist of a conversation when I want to come back and find details later.
- Pasting multiple rough transcripts into a big master file allows me to do a word search to find when certain topics were discussed. Then, if I need to go back and listen to the full audio file, I know which audio file contains what I’m trying to find. Can you imagine having to listen to 20 audio files in their entirety to find a detail? This saves me that aggravation.
My workflow using Dragon to process interview files (see screen shots below):
- Conduct interview and record audio in the highest quality audio file possible, using a lapel microphone to capture crisp sound. It makes a difference.
- Switch Dragon’s setting from “dictate” to “transcription mode”
- Pull audio files from my digital recorder.
- Upload file(s) into Dragon and select the “Start” button.
- Give it some time to process. I like to start it at night and come back in the morning. When it’s done you’ll be given a file in RTF (rich text format) that you can save as-is or copy and paste into a document. I personally save these in a master document for a project that I entitle “all transcriptions.” Later, when I am in the thick of writing, I can search by keyword and find related conversations and refresh my memory on details.
- Note that after I have the rough transcription, I find that if I spend just a few minutes editing major words, and adding some paragraph breaks, it greatly improves the ability to search keywords later and to visually navigate the document.
So, in summary, when I am working on writing a full biography or life history, Dragon’s rough transcription of an audio file is the right tool to give me a rough transcription of many interviews. It’s the only method I know of to transcribe an audio file.
Here are screen shots of how to transcribe an audio file using Dragon for Mac:
How to transcribe with Dragon, Method #4 – Simultaneously Listen and Dictate:
If I want to do a more accurate transcription of another speaker with more accuracy, the same workaround described with Google speech-to-text applies, except that Dragon is more accurate because it has been trained to my voice.
Here is a recap of the steps using Dragon to simultaneously listen and dictate:
- I listen to the audio on my phone
- I speak the words into my computer using Dragon
- Using this method, it took me 45 minutes to dictate a 30-minute segment, plus a little time for uploading and saving files. For comparison, it takes me an hour to type a 30-minute segment using oTranscribe (reviewed below). As one might expect, the result when dictating with my trained Dragon was a little more accurate and faster than with Google speech-to-text. For example, Dragon did a much better job recognizing punctuation commands in my voice.
Warning! Dragon is a Resource Hog.
Speech recognition is powerful software, which means it needs resources to run. I learned this the hard way on a four-year-old PC at work and a Mac of the same age at home. Installing Dragon ground both machines to a halt. Not only would the software not function properly, but it gobbled up so much capacity that it hosed my whole computer. I ended up rebuilding my Mac so I could function again, minus Dragon, and upgrading my machine at my day job. Recently I bought a powerful new Mac desktop for home and sprung for the latest version of Dragon. Now it runs like a dream and I love it. The software upgrade was enough of an improvement on the prior version to be worth the money. They seem to come out with new versions of Dragon about every year, and because at the field of speech recognition is still developing, each upgrade begs installation. It can be frustrating, though to keep shelling out money. For these reasons, occasional users may want to stick with free Google voice-to-text. Lesson: If you don’t have a fast machine, user beware.
4. How to Transcribe using oTranscribe – A free tool online that mimics a dictation machine
In the olden days when I worked at a law firm, I typed dictation using a foot pedal dictation machine and headset. The machine used little tapes, and the foot pedal setup was was very efficient. These units can can still be purchased for transcribing digital files but I was wondering how to transcribe efficiently without one. I use oTranscribe solely for the straight-up process of listening to and typing up a file, no voice dictation or speech recognition is involved.
Here is how oTranscribe works:
- oTranscribe is a free online app. It is browser-based, which means it does not require you to download software.
- It has keyboard shortcuts for pausing and rewinding instead of using a foot pedal. You can also change the listening speed to faster or slower so you have to rewind less.
- Once you have it open on your browser, you upload an audio file.
- Then, you can listen to the digital file (I generally use headphone) and type what I hear right into the text editor online.
- When I am done, I paste the text into Microsoft Word. Also, oTranscribe does a good job saving the file as you go. When I close the browser and return later, the file is still uploaded and I can begin where I left off (I didn’t expect that). It does occur to me that these files are hanging out there on the Internet somewhere, so when I am processing a confidential or sensitive file, I work offline using Dragon in Microsoft Word instead.
Remember, there is no voice involved with oTranscribe. You cannot use Google speech-to-text or Dragon Dictate together with oTranscribe online. Google speech-to-text must pair with a Google Doc, and for Dragon I dictate into Microsoft Word. (You can use Dragon’s own text editor too). Bottom line, oTranscribe has been a great productivity boost for when I want to physically type up an audio file such as if my voice is tired and I need a break.
For the sake of comparison, using oTranscribe took me an hour and five minutes to transcribe a 30-minute audio segment (my typing test speed is 85 WPM).
Here is a screen shot of a transcription I did a while back using oTranscribe:
5. Paying someone else – send audio out to TranscribeMe
TranscribeMe is a big professional service online for transcribing audio. They have a “first pass” service that I understand uses a combination of machine and human transcription to save money. The cost for this service is $0.79 per audio minute. I sent in four audio files that were each about 30 minutes in length, and was surprised at the quality returned–not perfect, but really quite good. I submitted the files at about 1 p.m. on a Saturday and all four were returned by 8 a.m. on Monday. Bottom line: if the audio quality is decent and you don’t need 100% perfect transcription, I was pleased with the mix of quality for the price. I would definitely use this service again when I don’t have time to transcribe something myself. Here is a link to their website.
TranscribeMe has two higher levels of service:
The “Standard” Transcription Service is 99% accurate, with an edited transcript and 2-3 day turnaround. There are some additional surcharges for certain things like heavy accents or poor audio quality but in general, the cost for this is $2 per audio minute. They also have a coupon code –link pasted below for 20% off. That makes the cost $1.60 per audio minute. I will be sending in an audio file soon to try it , and will update this article when I have results back. Click here for 20% off “Standard” Transcription service. Their “Verbatim” is a 100% accurate word-for-word transcript that would be overkill for oral history purposes. Indeed, some of the filler words would actually detract from smooth reading of an interview. That rate is $2.75 per audio minute.
I just reached out to the company and found out they have a referral program. If you click on this link, you’ll get 20% off your order for “Standard” or “Verbatim” services, and they will give me a 10% commission. Win-win, right? It doesn’t look like the code applies to the “First Draft” service I described above at $0.79 per minute. Click here to get 20% off with TranscribeMe “Standard” service.
6. Paying someone else – sending audio to Rev
Rev is another big transcription company online, with straightforward pricing at $1 per audio minute. They use humans to transcribe, and of all the methods reviewed in this article, this service provided the most accurate, cleanest final result. I was very, very pleased and if I ever need to get a transcription close to perfect (and don’t have time to do it myself), I would use their service again. I submitted a file at 1:00 p.m. on a Saturday and it was returned to me at 5:00 p.m. the same day even though I did not request expedited service. That particular file was 30 minutes in length, so the cost was $30. The word count was 5,090. By experience, I know that it usually takes about an hour to transcribe 30 minutes of audio, but mine would not have been as perfect as what they returned so really it would have taken me longer for an equivalent result. Note that if you use TapeACall, they have an integrated partnership with Rev so it’s easy to send in your audio files recorded by phone for transcription. Here is a link to Rev’s website.
7. Paying someone else – Transcription by Evalogue.Life
Keep in mind that if you would like to hand a file or even a digital recorder over to us, we would be happy to handle the files and transcribe your audio in a professional and confidential manner. We charge $1.20 per audio minute plus a file handling fee if we are pulling files from a device. Note that our service is quite accurate but we do not guarantee 100% perfect because it may be impossible to decipher every word. We also filter out “um” and filler words. In other words, we do not specialize in court-reporting perfection but you will get a nice document in a format suitable for family history purposes. Click here to request this service.
8. Paying someone else – Transcription by VoiceBase
This online service uses machines to transcribe audio. I haven’t used it yet, so I invite comments by anyone who has. Here is a link to the VoiceBase website.
9. Paying someone else – Rev and TapeACall
This handy service allows you to tape any call on an iPhone or Android, and they have an automatic integration with Rev if you want to send your audio file in. TapeACall There is a per-minute option, or current pricing as of August, 2018 is $24.99 per year for unlimited recording. You can try the app for free, but can only listen to a short clip of your call before they make you pay. Lately, I have been using this service a lot for interviews by phone because I never found an app for my phone that worked well. For example, most of the smartphone apps want to record every one of your phone calls. Click here the TapeACall website.
10. How to Transcribe with YouTube
Did you know that YouTube can transcribe the words that are spoken in a video? This was designed for closed captioning, and also for search engines to pick up your video content. One of the coolest features is to transcribe into another language. So if you are working with a video interview instead of audio, this might be the way to go. Alternatively, you can convert an audio file into a video format and then run it through YouTube, but online reviews suggest that the accuracy isn’t all that great. It seems like a lot of steps to convert audio into video, then upload to YouTube and run it through, especially if the results are mediocre. Many of the comments mention that they couldn’t get it to work. Still, I mention it as an option, especially if language translation is important, or if you are working with video already. If you want to give it a whirl, just do a search on YouTube and there are some good video tutorials showing how to get a transcription using YouTube. Here is a link to a 6 minute tutorial with over 100,000 views. https://youtu.be/iWNCPj5jTWM
11. How to Transcribe with Fiverr.com
Fiver.com bills itself as “freelance services for the lean entrepreneur.” Services start at $5 a piece and there are hundreds of individual vendors of transcription services. I haven’t used it, but it is certainly an option. https://www.fiverr.com
12. Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk)
Amazon offers a facilitation service a little like Fiverr but would be better suited for more involved projects. There are transcriptionists available in their network. This is another service that I have not used, and I saw mixed reviews online. One of the complaints is that it can be a bit unreliable. You really don’t know who you are going to get to do a job. College students might be earning some extra cash but can be notoriously flaky in completing freelance jobs. Here is what the official Amazon website says about the service at https://requester.mturk.com:
Mechanical Turk gives businesses and developers access to an on-demand, scalable workforce
- Flexibility: Scale your workforce up and down quickly
- Accuracy: Get high-quality, cost-effective results
- Speed: Start receiving results in minutes
The reality is there is so much more to transcription than meets the eye. Hopefully some of these resources have answered any questions you have and if you have other questions or thoughts about what you have used that works well, please let us know in the comments! Here are some links to other articles relating to transcription and audio. These tips have helped us a lot through the years!
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her latest books: How to Storyboard, and Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story
Disclaimer: This page contains affiliate links which means if you purchase some of the products we mention by using our links, we make a commission. Be assured that I’m only sharing the methods I actually use, but I do appreciate when you buy with my links because it helps fund articles like this one.
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