Digital Versus Analogue Tape Transcription – The Pros And Cons Considered

For years, analogue audio tapes were the only option available to clients for recording dictation, interviews or conferences and focus groups. Standard audio tapes were the medium of choice for interview or group recordings while mini tapes and micro cassettes for use in Dictaphones were the industry standard for any dictation. Latterly, digital recorders have very quickly overtaken the old tape formats and there are so many advantages to switching to a digital recorder that it can’t be dismissed as just the latest fad.

Digital recorders produce a far superior quality of recording which doesn’t deteriorate over time. There are no length restrictions to digital files as there are to a tape lasting 60 or 90 minutes – digital recordings are as long as you need them to be. Digital sound files do not ‘physically’ break or become mangled or stretched through repeated use as audio tapes are prone to do. Digital recordings can also be copied with no loss of quality, so when you send a digital file to a transcriber, you’re simply sending a copy of the digital recording while the original stays on your PC. There’s also none of the usual deterioration experienced when copying tapes – the digital copy you send is as clear as the original. If you need to add extra material in the middle of a recording, such as when dictating, it’s easy to do with digital but almost impossible with tapes without having to rerecord whatever comes after that section. Similarly, if you want to edit out unnecessary sections that don’t need to be transcribed, it’s far easier with digital than it is for analogue. Audio time markers can be inserted into the transcript to indicate precisely where inaudible or unclear words may be on the digital recording. There are also fewer storage space issues as back up recordings saved to CDs take up less room than tapes.

As with all recordings, it’s worth remembering that all the common sense things involved in making a clear recording apply just as much to digital as they do to analogue recordings. Just because it’s digital, don’t be fooled into thinking that the recording will be unaffected by background noise, the lack of a microphone or equipment interference. If handled properly, digital can produce superb recordings. A good quality recording in turn reduces transcription time and costs significantly and results in fewer inaudible sections and a more complete transcript. As the quality tends to be excellent for all digital recordings, most transcription companies can offer a fixed per audio minute price so that clients know in advance what their overall costs will be. Tape quality is too variable to be able to do this, and is usually charged at an hourly rate.

One of the biggest bonuses with digital recordings is that they can be delivered to the transcriber quickly and easily. The digital files can be sent via a secure FTP service over the Internet. This is a tremendous advantage for business people who travel frequently. Whatever their location in the world, they don’t need to wait till they return to the office, or are near a post office, to send tapes to their transcriber. As long as they have access to a suitable PC and a fast Internet connection, digital sound files can be uploaded from the recorder directly onto a PC and then sent to the transcriber. Using digital recordings also eliminates postage costs – digital files are simply deleted by the transcriber when the transcript is completed. The extra time involved in Poly Headset packing up tapes, visiting the post office and the risk of losing precious original tapes also disappears. If your transcription project is urgent or on a large scale, such as an ongoing interview project or a lengthy conference, the sound files can be divided among several transcribers, which is a lot easier and safer than physically dividing up original tape recordings.

In the spirit of fairness there are some disadvantages to digital. They require a compatible PC with a sizeable hard drive to store large digital files, and a USB connection but typically, most small businesses already have such a business tool anyway! If all the digital files are on one PC, they can be vulnerable if not backed-up. It’s also essential to have a fast Internet connection in order to transfer digital files to the transcription company. Digital files can be very large – some formats take up a lot of memory and using a dial-up connection is simply not practical, taking hours to transmit even the smallest digital file. WAV format produces an excellent quality of sound but does result in huge files. Other formats such as DSS, MP3 or WMA take up less memory. Other formats produce very small files but don’t necessarily produce the same good quality sound – it’s best to check first on a test recording that the quality is adequate for transcribing. Whatever digital file type is chosen needs to be compatible with transcription software in order to be transcribed.

Each digital format has advantages and disadvantages which should be taken into account when considering which recorder to buy, which file type to use, and whether there are any transcription issues involved. With all digital files, there is a trade-off between recording quality and file size. Digital sound files can be extremely large if they’re not compressed, but compression is ‘lossy’. In other words, if you compress an original ‘lossless’ audio file to a smaller size, this removes redundant data but may also result in a reduction in audio quality. This can create problems with the transcription – it’s akin to having an original audio tape copied to a less clear version. It’s advisable to ensure the uncompressed digital recording is sent to the transcriber to avoid any loss in quality from the original. Having made an investment in digital equipment, why compromise on the final recording file quality just to get a smaller digital file and make a faster online transfer to the transcriber? Far better to set aside extra time to upload the digital files (or even leave them ‘cooking’ while you do something else), than end up with an inferior recording which takes longer to transcribe, costs more and may result in an incomplete transcript.

One of the main disadvantages with digital is that some people are reluctant to learn new technology which they perceive to be complicated. It can always be daunting to try out a new recorder for the first time, especially if you’ve been comfortable with an ‘old faithful’ tape recorder which has performed adequately for years. But our experience over many years in the transcription industry has convinced us that digital is the way to go! The superior quality of recording, coupled with the ease of file transmission and, more importantly, reduced transcription costs have convinced many clients to change to digital. Transcription companies are more than happy to assist any client who’s thinking of making the switch from analogue to digital recordings, and can even recommend equipment suppliers who can offer more specialised technical advice to make the transition as trouble free as possible.

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