Transcribing a group discussion is very time-consuming and quite nerve-wracking. Especially the transcription of group discussions requires good concentration. The noise level in the recording is often higher and the conversations are usually more turbulent than in a “contemplative” one-on-one conversation.
To put this into perspective, we calculate a transcription time of 5-6 hours per hour of interview for the transcription of a two-person conversation, and 8-10 hours per hour of interview for group interviews.
However, by taking a few precautions, you can significantly reduce the amount of transcription needed later and save yourself unnecessary time. In this article we will give you some useful tips and show you with the help of sound examples how heavily some effects can affect the sound quality.
1. Avoid rumbling tables
There is often a table in the middle of a discussion group. So it makes sense to place the recording device there. But beware: You probably know the effect of placing a vibrating tuning fork on a tabletop? The table transmits the sound and resonates. This is similar to what happens to the recording device when you place it on the table. Rustling paper, tapping, taking notes, a beamer or notebook nearby, spoons in coffee cups, pouring water … All these sounds are transmitted directly to the recording device. Even if you are not explicitly aware of them during the conversation – the recording device captures them all. And listening to them afterwards is really unpleasant. Our suggested solution:
- Use a mini tripod or position the recorder on a book, sweater, cap, etc. to absorb vibrations from the table (writing, tapping).
- If dishes are unavoidable, make sure the recording device is as far away from clattering cups as possible.
- Do not leave a projector or the like in the vicinity.
2. Selecting the right level and format
In order to record a group as well as possible, the right recording device and the settings made on it are among the most important factors. Please note:
- If your device supports manual leveling, turn it on and level it well. If you are not sure: it is better to level too low. The recordings can later be edited with Audacity or MP3Gain levelled out (made louder). Once too loud and thus overdriven – and the recording is almost irretrievably unpleasant to listen to.
- The recording format should be .mp3 and the bitrates should be between 192 and 320 kB/s. Please do not use .wma, .dss and/or .m4a! Most recording devices, e.g. Philips DVT 4000, Olympus DM-650 and/or LS-12, natively support different bitrates in mp3 mode. If you have the choice, please always choose a fixed and not variable bitrate. The latter can lead to deviating time stamps when using transcription programs and make re-listening or correcting transcripts more difficult.
3. Silence please – the room sounds with
The choice of location or room is extremely relevant. As cozy as a beer garden may be, it is one of the most unsuitable locations for a group recording to perform a reasonably efficient transcription. You should also avoid very large, reverberant rooms. At the latest when participants speak at the same time, only a “mishmash of voices” can be recorded, making a breakdown difficult. It is almost as important to influence the situation so that background noise such as street noise through open windows or neighboring rooms is not recorded as well. Therefore:
- Close the windows and doors and ventilate only in phases if possible.
- Avoid outdoor shots or, if you can’t avoid them, be sure to use a fur windshield and manual leveling.
- Ensure a quiet environment. Harmful are conversations in the background or e.g. café atmosphere.
- Choose a room appropriate for the size of the group with as little reverberation as possible (carpet, curtains, or a full-frame room are beneficial).
- Be careful not to place quiet speakers too far away from the recorder.
Conversation guidance supports
If you have now made the preliminary planning for the recording of the group conversation, you can still do a few things on the day of the recording to make the later typing as pleasant as possible. This is especially true if the speakers are to be identified and labeled throughout (i.e. Anna always as B1, Peter always as B2, etc.). From our experience in transcription services we can give the following hints:
- Ask the participants to briefly introduce themselves in turn by name and function: The recording then provides reference points that can facilitate later speaker identification (very important especially in the case of outsourcing).
- Make a seating plan to help locate voices on the recording later based on the position of the recorder, presenters/interviewers, and other people.
- “Luxury” option: Note in a list of speakers the order in which people speak. CAUTION: This is only useful if done consistently and closely enough.
- If the topic and/or research question allows, moderate the conversation to minimize overlap and especially “wild” jumbled talk.
- If the group is larger, use a second recording device and record it in parallel. This way you can listen to any unintelligible passages (from a different angle).
Here is an example of such a moderation – DM-650 on the table. (download)
Here again all recordings for comparison
For the following test recordings, we chose four different recording devices that are frequently used. Olympus DM-650 (automatic recording), an Olympus DS-7000 (dictation device in dss format), iPhone 5S (m4a format) and an LS-12 (manual recording and mounted on a tripod). We used the Sony PCM-D100 as a reference for very high-quality and comparatively expensive recordings.
In the first sound samples, there is a lot of background noise and the speakers often interrupt each other. The second group discussion example is a guided moderation. What differences do you hear in the recordings? What do you find distracting?
- Olympus DS-7000 (download)
- Olympus DM-650 (download)
- iPhone (download)
- Olympus LS-12 (download)
- Sony PCM-D100 (download)