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Lecture and speech transcription:
10 technical tips for ensuring clear recordings

The speakers are booked, the venue organised and delegates invited. What else? If the lectures or speeches are to be reproduced as text afterwards, then they'll need to be transcribed. This article offers specific technical advice on what you should take into consideration when organising the recording of lectures or speeches and, in particular, highlights any relevant transcription issues.

If keynote speakers or lecturers are giving their time to deliver presentations, the least they will expect is that the organiser should arrange a recording that is clear enough to be transcribed, either for eventual publication in conference proceedings or as supporting coursework for students. So it's essential to take into account the technical aspects involved in making a clear recording. It's no good finding out afterwards that an ad hoc recording is inaudible, unclear or full of background noise. This can make the difference between an accurate transcript or one riddled with queries. Even when booking a professional venue and using their in-house recording facilities, there are still technical issues to consider which it would be sensible to discuss with the venue in advance. Advice on how to facilitate a lecture or speech recording is dealt with in another article.

1. Check the quality of the venue's recording equipment. Check with their past clients to ensure they've been happy with the clarity of the recording the venue has produced. If the venue is hiring an external audio visual company to do the recording, check if they've recorded similar events and talk to their past clients.

2. Go digital. Check the venue is using recording equipment that's fit for purpose, i.e. digital equipment. Digital recorders produce an excellent sound quality which in turn will cut down on transcription time, minimise the number of inaudibles and reduce costs.

3. Microphones. Ensure the venue has a sufficient number of microphones available. There should be a standard lectern microphone, plus at least one microphone on any 'top table' if there is to be a panel of speakers. If there are more than three or four speakers on the panel, you'll need more than one microphone on the table. Has the venue made adequate arrangements for a roving microphone to pick up any audience participation? If speakers are likely to be using PowerPoint presentations or slides and may therefore be wandering around the stage, a microphone only on the lectern will not be sufficient. Each speaker should have an individual microphone, either a lapel or tie-clip mic. If the latter are used, you'll need to brief the speakers to be aware that these also pick up the sound of rustling clothing, or any sotto voce comments they might not want others to hear!

4. Choose an uncompressed digital recorder setting - most digital recorders offer recording settings ranging from SHQ (stereo high quality) down to LP (long play). SHQ produces the largest digital file size but the best sound quality. HQ is a good compromise but LP produces the poorest quality. Don't compromise on quality just to save memory space on the recording. Check the venue have set up the recorder to use the highest uncompressed quality level possible. This will produce larger digital file sizes, but any issues over the file size and the length of time it takes to transmit the digital files are trivial compared to the production of a good quality recording.

5. Decide on a suitable digital audio level and file type - 8,000kHz is a suitable level only for dictation and 44,100kHz is the highest end of the range and produces exceptional recordings, and this is what should be used for recording speeches. Wav files produce the clearest quality sound but the largest file size. WMA and MP3 files are a good compromise, producing clear recordings but with a more manageable file size.

6. Sound rehearsal. When the venue tests their recording equipment, try and listen to that through headphones, but ask them to do a realistic test. Someone standing very close to the microphone shouting 'testing, testing' at the top of their voices is not a realistic representation of a lecturer's delivery! So try and encourage the venue to replicate the circumstances of the speech. What you hear on that test recording will be a fair indication of what the transcriber will hear on the final version. If it's too faint, ask them to move the microphones or ensure that additional microphones are made available. Once you can hear the voices clearly, the transcriber probably can too.

7. Test the sound levels. Check that the venue will be able to adjust any sound recording levels during the speeches. Most digital recorders will set the recording level automatically, but you'll need to be sure there's some kind of manual override available in order to capture any speakers with quiet voices, or if a sudden background noise interferes.

8. Don't use voice activation. It shouldn't be an issue if the venue records events regularly, but it might be worthwhile checking that their equipment or microphones are not equipped with a voice activation feature. If the speaker is too far away from the microphone or speaks softly, this may not be picked up by the equipment. We've found that some recorders are not very sensitive and will sometimes switch off in mid-sentence if the sound level goes below the minimum pick up threshold, especially with quietly spoken speakers. There is also a slight time delay between someone speaking and the recorder starting up again, so the beginnings of sentences are often chopped off.

9. Speaker briefing. There are a few 'housekeeping' issues which all the speakers should be made aware of before the event. Ask them to turn off their mobile phones. Text messages or voice mails emit a radio frequency inaudible to the human ear but which can be picked up by any recording equipment. The subsequent buzzing noise will drown out whatever is being said. Turning mobile phones to 'silent' or 'vibrate' is not enough - they need to be turned off. You'll also need to ask the audience to do the same with their phones, especially anyone in the front row near the lectern microphone.

10. Minimise noise - if it's sufficiently loud, any background noise, such as air conditioning or laptops, is often more intrusive on recordings than we realise at the time, and voices can easily be swamped. Ensure that the windows are closed to reduce the impact of any noise from outside. Be aware that any crockery on the top table may be too near the microphones and that any 'clattering' will drown out any voices. A similar effect can occur if people shuffle papers or write near the microphone. They may seem like insignificant noises but our ears are selective and can tune out such sounds. Microphones are rarely so selective and will just give prominence to the nearest and loudest noise.

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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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