Journalism tool tips: Software tools for capturing, transcribing, and processing audio files

As Antoinette Siu writes in her first post for the excellent Online Journalism Blog, “Transcribing audio is one of the most time-consuming tasks in a journalist’s job. Switching between the audio player and the text editor, rewinding every 20 seconds in, typing frantically to catch every syllable—repeating these steps back and forth, and back and forth… in an age of so much automation, something isn’t quite right.”

In her post, Siu looks at a new online tool

called Transcribe from Wreally Studios Ltd. (Very hard to find any info or background on Wreally. Don’t even know where they are legally based — an issue since you will be storing your audio files on Wreally’s servers). Transcribe is a browser-based tool which means (I assume) you need to be online to use the free version of this tool. Siu, in her post, says the tool will work offline but I’m assuming she may be referring to the pro version which costs about $30. Wreally does not say much about offline use.

It looks like a neat tool but I think Wreally will have a tough time topping an offering from NCH Software of Canberra, Australia called Express Scribe. I’ve used it for years in my both my print and television work. ExpressScribe lets you assign hotkeys in any app — MS Word, Excel, BBEdit, your Web browser, or any in-house pagination and document creation tool you might use — that rewinds the audio by any time unit you specify (I use a 5 sec rewind); lets you skip forward by any time unit you want (I use 10 seconds); and lets you pause, etc. Again: All this with a hotkey that are active in every single app across your system. With Wreally’s Transcribe you have to do you work in its browser window.

Transcribe also does not allow the user to specify the skip-back and skip-forward increments.

All you need to do is open ExpressScribe and drag-and-drop the digital audio file that contains the recording you want to transcribe. Transcribe, on the other hand, asks you to upload your audio file to its Web site and, as we know, that can be costly if you’re out of the office and paying for every uploaded and downloaded byte while travelling and it can also be slow.

One other note on Express Scribe: If you’re really into transcription, you can go whole hog and buy the pro version which includes foot pedals and all kinds of gadgets that I assume are used by professional transcribers in legislators, courts, etc.

But most importantly: ExpressScribe works offline, without an Internet connection so you can transcribe away while flying or while travelling when a mobile network connection would be ridiculously expensive. This, it seems to me, is a crucial advantage over an online service like Transcribe.

One wrinkle with ExpressScribe: While the Mac version (which is what I use) will handle an .mp3, an .avi, an .aiff, and even strip the audio off an MPEG video you drag and drop to it, it does not handle a .wma ( Windows Media Audio file ). NCH says at its Web site that it does handle a .wma so I assume that the Windows version does.  Wreally’s Transcribe does handle .wma files.

For me, ExpressScribe’s failure to handle .wma files is a bit of a problem because the Olympus digital recorder I use creates .wma files. My workaround? A little freeware utility called EasyWMA which converts the .wma file into a .m4a audio type. (There are any number of audio converters out there. All I can say about this is that I’ve used EasyWMA for years, through Mac OS X right through to Lion and it’s stable, works, and is free). EasyWMA’s conversion process takes maybe 10 or 15 seconds on my MacBook Pro to convert a 20 minute interview recorded in .wma. Once done, I drag-and-drop the converted .m4a audio into Express Scribe, fire up my word processor and get ready to transcribe.

Come to think of it — and perhaps and I’ll do this this morning while there’s a little rain coming down on my vacation (I’m on holiday from reporting on federal politics until next month) — I could do something with Automator, Apple Script or some other scripting language to automatically convert the .wma files on my Olympus record and dump them into Express Scribe.

So for those playing along at home: here’s the setup on my MacBook Pro (2.66 Ghz Intel Core i7 with 8 GB memory) for capturing and processing audio:

Capturing audio:

Processing Audio:
  • Tweeking, cleaning, and editing: Audacity
  • Conversion: EasyWMA
  • Transcription: ExpressScribe


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