Dragon by Nuance is my favorite tool for transcribing audio and oral history. Painting of a dragon and castle.

I use Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software for transcribing audio a lot. (Actually Dragon for Mac, but have used the PC version too). What I did not expect was that Dragon would be a game changer for my workflow in general. That’s a topic for another day, because this is a detailed article for transcribing audio using several different methods courtesy of Dragon by Nuance. As background, I am a professional biographer and do family history work for clients, so I have spent a ridiculous amount of time experimenting with methods for transcribing audio from oral history interviews. It is an important but tedious process.  Because I do this for a living, Dragon is my method of choice on a high-end Macintosh computer. It’s amazingly slick and accurate. That said, when I tried Google’s speech-to-text function to see how the free alternative compares, I was surprised at how good it is.  This article focuses on Dragon, however, so you can click here to read about Google’s speech-to-text function, which is free.

Dragon for Mac professional version is what I use for transcribing audio filesAs a note, recently I had 6 audio hours from a client day that we spent telling stories. It would have taken me forever to transcribe all of that myself so I clipped the audio into half-hour chunks and sent them out to various services, while transcribing some of the work at home using different methods. This got the job done, and also gave me a good side-by-side comparison of the costs and time involved with each approach. If you want to read about all the tools I use for transcribing audio all in one place, click here for a comprehensive article. Some of the sections repeat material covered here, but scroll down because there are other helpful tools and ideas.

If you want to check out costs and buying options, there is a home version on Amazon, a professional version on Amazon, and Mac professional version. I have not used the home edition so I cannot say why it costs less. Check for up-to-date pricing. Oh, and a disclaimer, these are affiliate links so if you buy this way, I make a commission. I really appreciate it!


I’ve used Dragon software four ways for transcribing audio.

Method #1  – Train it to your own voice:

Training Dragon to your own voice is one of the most powerful methods for transcribing audio. Photo credit Milan Lauritzen of a princess.
Training Dragon to your own voice is powerful and incredibly accurate. Photo credit Milan Lauritzen.

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 like “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 did not believe I would like it as much as I do, but now I use Dragon to dictate emails and other documents.

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 pretty good, it still strains my voice after a while if I try to speak loud enough.

There is some learning curve in setup and becoming good at dictation through use of commands, but the payoff for me has been real.

Transcribing with Dragon, Method #2 Dictate on the fly:

The second way to use Dragon is to dictate into a digital recorder or the app. Then you can upload files to be processed by the software. The principle is the same as real-time dictation except there is no ability to make corrections and combine keystrokes. This means it is not as accurate, but portability is handy sometimes.

Method #3 – Process a file in someone else’s voice

For transcribing audio files recorded in someone else’s voice, it is possible to create a profile for different speakers and to upload an audio file into the software for processing. This method is a lot less accurate and you get a rich text (RTF) file with no punctuation. Because of these limitations, if I need a clean transcription it takes 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. Still, I use this method all the time and here’s why it’s awesome for transcribing audio in this format.

For most projects I’m working on, I have a large number of audio files and I don’t need a perfect transcription. I just need to refresh my memory of the basic gist, and to know where to find a conversation if I need more detail. So I run all the audio files through Dragon as I go. This gives me enough reference to be of use later. As a tip, I have found that if I spend just a few minutes editing major words and people’s names, it improves the ability to search keywords later. So when I am working on writing a full life history or memoir, with many details from interviews I may want to revisit later, Dragon’s rough-cut accomplishes that.

Here is my protocol: after I return from an interview, I save the audio file from my digital recorder then open Dragon and start it running. I usually do this before I go to bed since it takes a while to process. In the morning, I paste the new transcription into a master Word document with headers for each day’s recorder. That way later, when I am in the thick of writing, I can search by keyword and find each time we talked about a particular topic. It is a great help to refresh my  memory on details. Here is a screen shot showing Dragon’s settings and giving you an idea what the output file looks like:

Transcribing audio to text using Dragon: Here is a screen shot of what the rich text file (RTF) from Dragon looks like after processing an audio file
What the rich text file (RTF) from Dragon looks like after processing an audio file

Steps for Transcribing audio to text with Dragon, Method #4 – Simultaneously Listen and Dictate:

  1. Open the document where you want to transcribe. I use Microsoft Word.
  2. Make sure your computer’s microphone is on and functioning. Side note: This step is a bit buggy on my Mac and I often have to monkey with the settings until it will read my external microphone.
  3. Select “Dictate” mode in Dragon. This is the default mode when I have Dragon open so all I have to say is “wake up,” and it’s ready to go.
  4. Listen to the audio file using your phone or other device with headphones on. Without headphones, Dragon would hear your warm voice plus the audio playing in the background. Messy!
  5. Then start speaking what you hear.

Below is a video that shows me actually doing the listen/dictate process using Google speech-to-text. Yeah, I know this article is on Dragon and not Google and I have good intentions of making a separate video showing me doing this method using Dragon. The principle is the same, however, and you get the idea.

I use this Blue Yeti microphone for transcribing audio with Dragon

Here is what is happening in the video below: my body is not seen in the frame because I am sitting in the chair facing the computer, but I am holding my phone which has an audio listening app on it, and I am speaking into my microphone, shown on the right. 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.

Google voice recognition does a decent job–not as accurate or fast as Dragon–but hey, it’s free. This method takes me less time as typing a file using oTranscribe, or 1 hour for 30 minutes of audio. (My typing test speed is 85 WPM). The only drawback?  My voice gets tired after a while.

Video of me dictating an audio file to Google:

Warning! Dragon is a Resource Hog.

Read why Dragon by Nuance is my preferred method for transcribing audio and oral history interviews. Painting of a Dragon from the New York Public Library collection. 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 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.

Android App: Easy Record  Rewind Transcript

One tool I use for transcribing audio is EasyRecordTranscribe to listen to files. Here is a screen shot of a file on my Android phone

For transcribing audio using the workaround listening/dictate method above, you need a way to listen to the files. You really don’t want to use iTunes or other music players because these apps do not have the functions you need for transcribing audio. Although I have used iTunes from time-to-time, it’s a big pain because the simple controls within iTunes are not designed for pause and rewind, and you can’t change the listening speed. So I’m constantly losing my place or wasting time rewinding too far. The primary strength of the “Easy Record Rewind Transcript” app is the way it automatically backs up a couple seconds when you hit pause. That setting is customizable.

So after frustrations with iTunes, I went in search of something better and it was surprisingly hard to find what I needed. I guess there’s not that big of a demand for this function. I finally found the app “Easy Record Rewind Transcript” for my Android phone and it’s great. Indeed, it was pretty much the ONLY solution I found. Note for clarity, this does not actually transcribe, I use it for listening only. Unfortunately I cannot find an equivalent for the iPhone or iPad so if someone knows one, please comment on this article.

The way I use this app is to go from my phone into my DropBox account installed on my phone where the audio files are saved. I  select the audio file I want to transcribe. Then I click “open with” and select EasyRecordTranscription. It does freeze on occasion, requiring a restart and loss of where I was in the file. But overall it has made my work more efficient. You can download the app from the GooglePlayStore here.

I hope this article on transcribing audio to text has been helpful. For a comprehensive article of all the transcription resources I have used, click on this link. The link below discusses working with audio files so if you need a primer about saving, editing, or otherwise manipulating audio files, that’s the article for you.

Read related article: Record Voice – Edit, Save and Transcribe Audio

Rhonda Lauritzen
Rhonda Lauritzen

Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life, where we tell personal and family stories that inspire. (Let us help you tell yours!) Rhonda lives to hear and tell about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an old Victorian in Ogden and work together in Evalogue.Life, weaving family and business together.

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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