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Lecture and speech transcription:
how to organise and facilitate a clear recording

The impact of a lecture or speech need not end when the applause fades. If the eventual aim is to transcribe and publish the text, it's important to organise the event to maximise the chances of a clear recording. This can make the difference between an accurate transcript or one riddled with 'inaudibles'. This article discusses the factors which influence a clear recording and highlights any specific transcription issues that need to be considered.

Much time, effort and money is invested in organising high profile speeches, keynote speaker presentations or academic lectures. It's vital that a clear recording is made to enable an accurate transcription. However, the recording is often ruined by poor equipment and lack of preparation. Even when using a venue's in-house recording facilities, there are factors to consider which will maximise the chances of a clear recording, and which it would be prudent to discuss with the venue in advance.

Location, location, location…
Recording in a quiet, indoor environment ensures the best quality sound. However, it's worth bearing in mind that a large room with a high ceiling ('church' like conditions) produces significant echo which your ear can filter out but a microphone can't. This will result in a 'booming' recording which makes the speech difficult to hear, especially if the lecturer has a quiet voice.

Seek professional help
A venue specialising in hosting events will have its own in-house recording facilities with specialist technicians who can advise on the best recording option, or they may recommend an audio visual company whom they regularly use. They can then take care of all the technical issues related to recording the event, such as choosing the appropriate equipment.

If you're given a choice between analogue and digital recordings, opt for digital, which produces an excellent sound quality. If you wish to capture individual speeches from a podium, the ideal solution is to connect standard lectern or lapel microphones to the recorders via a direct feed. Roving mics will also be needed to capture any audience participation in question and answer sessions.

A dress rehearsal
While the venue is conducting its test recordings, see if you can listen in through headphones. What you hear will be a fair indication of what the transcriber will hear. If it's too faint, ensure they move the microphones or provide additional ones. Once you can hear the voices clearly, the transcriber probably can too. Check the venue is prepared to adjust any recording levels during the event itself. This can be useful if you have a speaker with a quiet voice or there is a sudden background noise.

Obtain necessary permission from the speakers before the event. Ensure they know they'll be recorded and transcribed. If they suddenly object during the event, you may have to abandon the recording.

Brief the speakers and anyone sharing a 'top table' on the platform to turn off mobile phones. Text messages or voicemails emit a radio frequency which is inaudible to the human ear but recording equipment will pick it up, and the resulting buzzing noise will drown out whatever is being said. Turning mobile phones to 'silent' or 'vibrate' mode is not enough - they need to be turned off completely.

Ensure the speaker can be heard. It may be tempting to think that all lecturers and speakers are used to speaking in public. Although this is usually the case, it doesn't apply across the board. So if you're aware of someone's inexperience in public speaking or they have a quiet voice, they may need a gentle reminder to speak clearly and loudly. Invariably, people don't realise they're speaking softly - we rarely 'hear' our own voices. If they regard giving a lecture as important enough to set aside time, the chances are they'll want to be heard. Most people are happy to speak up if asked to do so. Platform lecturers, particularly those with slide presentations, also have a tendency to wander around the stage. This is not such a problem if they wear a lapel microphone but causes problems if the mic is on the lectern. Speakers need to be aware that they need to stay within the microphone's recording range.

Ensure that the venue has made sufficient preparation to minimise background noise and given some thought as to where the microphones are sited. Noisy machinery such as air conditioning or laptops will all emit noise which is often more intrusive on recordings than we realise at the time, and voices can be swamped, especially if people are softly spoken.

Provide the transcriber with an agenda, list of speakers and delegates, as well as any presentations, handouts or background material supplied by the speakers. The latter is very useful as it helps to establish 'key words' that may not be in common usage, but are particularly relevant to the topic of the speech.

During the event itself, ensure that windows are closed - however hot the day may be! Noise from traffic, roadworks and planes will all have an impact on the recording. Unless a noise cancelling microphone is being used, most mics are not as selective as the human ear and can't filter out extraneous noise in the same way we can. They record everything they hear and the loudest noise will dominate.

Similarly, if you have a panel of speakers waiting their turn on the platform, keep an eye on any 'bad habits' developing. It's tempting to have tea or coffee to relax the speakers or to allow them to bring cups back after any breaks. If you do, then the clattering of the crockery may be the loudest sound on the recording. Be aware of the noise of shuffling papers or 'scratching' pens near the table microphone. As this may be the source of the nearest noise, that's what the microphone will hear and it will drown out whatever is being said.

A final 'don't' may be helpful. If budgets are tight but a transcript is still needed, don't cut corners on the recording method. For example, don't use a portable recorder whilst sitting in the audience. Balancing a dictaphone or recorder on your knee will NOT pick up the speeches from the stage. All it will record is the noises nearest the recorder. While you may be able to hear a speaker clearly from the middle of an audience, your recorder will pick up other noises such as you scribbling notes, your neighbour coughing or the person three rows back having a sneezing fit. Needless to say, none of that will produce a recording that it is possible to transcribe.

If you're a member of the audience, consider contacting the organisers for a detailed transcript after the event. If time doesn't allow for that option, the only way you'll record anything audible is to place a microphone on or near the podium. Even then, there are issues over feedback noise from the sound system, the other microphones and distance from the speakers. Be prepared for a less than clear recording and an incomplete transcript in such circumstances. More technical recording issues are discussed in another article.

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We specialise in digital transcription services including MP3 digital transcription, WAV digital transcription, WMA digital transcription among many other digital audio file formats. We also provide standard audio cassette tape transcription covering micro cassette or micro tape transcription, plus mini tape or mini cassette transcription which is also known as audio transcription or audio typing services. This can be extended to include minidisc or minidisk transcription services. Extensive experience in conference transcription services allows us to offer transcription of conference proceedings including keynote speaker and plenary session transcription, lecture transcription, seminar and symposia transcribing, Q&A session transcription and transcription of breakout sessions, roadshows, roundtable discussions and workshops. Interview transcription services form a core part of our service and include one-to-one interview transcription, as well as multiple participant interview transcription. We are pleased to offer discounted transcription services for charities, students and universities for their research interviews, particularly qualitative analysis transcription compatible with Nvivo and Atlas Ti. Support for oral history interview transcription projects can include both digital transcription services and audio tape transcription. A niche specialty is our podcast transcription services which also covers webcast transcription. Transcription services for authors, writers and journalists can include anything from digital dictation for article transcription and manuscript typing through to research interview transcription. Also offered is focus group transcription, forum transcribing, market research and vox pop interview transcription as well corporate or group meeting transcription services. Word processing services and digital dictation for correspondence is also included. Teleconferences and telephone interviews can be transcribed from digital and analogue formats. Analogue video tape transcriptions are offered along with digital video transcription services. Different transcription styles are available including Intelligent Verbatim Transcription, Complete Verbatim Transcription, Edited Transcription and customised transcription styles for Oral History projects and Focus Groups.

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