AV Controls

I spend a lot of time transcribing audio, for various reasons. When doing interviews, I usually carry around a portable recorder. That had long been a tape recorder, but lately I’ve been going digital — it tends to cause less problems. Roland’s Edirol R-1 serves perfectly, and I’ve had terrific battery life, no hassles, and fantastic audio quality using its built-in mics, even in some horrible audio environments. While I haven’t done this myself, I know many jazzers spend endless hours transcribing solos. There are also plenty of times when you end up transcribing yourself, playing or humming a spur-of-the-moment musical idea. Often times, I find (especially when composing in a classical idiom) that I have to pay really close attention to musical details, lest I round off part of what made them interesting in the first place.

All of these create the same problem: unlike tape, digital is touch to speed up or slow down. There are various specialty tools for transcription. The Mac-only Transcriva, which I bought and used for a time, is even designed specifically for transcribing text from audio.

Somehow, though, I found all these tools to be overkill. I wanted something dead-simple, lightweight, and always available. And I wanted to easily pop into other tools, like Sibelius for notation (or a pen and paper, for that matter), or apps like TextMate or NeoOffice for words.

Then I happened to dig around in Apple’s QuickTime Player. Hit Window > Show A/V Controls (or cmd-K — ctrl-K on Windows), and you’ll find some nice, simple tools for playing back the audio. You don’t even need to purchase QuickTime Pro to unlock the functionality. (I’ll save that rant for another day.) Playback speed is a pitch-independent speed control. It’s great to slow down interviews without making the interviewee sound like Darth Vader (though they do quickly start to sound stoned). It only runs 1/2x – 3x, but the usable range is about 1/2x – 3x anyway. (Otherwise, digital starts to distort so much as to become unusable — and I find even our own ears start to get confused about the patterns they’re trying to pick up. 3/4x actually turns out to be a nice balance.)

The Jog Shuttle is also handy — more so than the standard transport controls on QT Player itself, because it operates more like a tape jog, perfect for navigating the sound file. My only major gripe is that each time you adjust the Playback Speed, the width of the player resets, so you can’t make the player wider to more easily shuttle through the file. Other than that, though, I’m perfectly happy — and you can’t beat free. (By the way, if you’re wondering about the screenshot, and you’re aesthetically obsessive like me, install Uno on the Mac. You’ll never go back to brushed aluminum again. Yuck.)

Got a favorite transcription technique? Let us know.

  • WMP has had variable-speed since XP. Oddly, it works on .mp3 but not .wav (as far as I can tell). It's very digital sounding, but not terrible.

    At home, I actually use a couple of old Winamp plugins in my media software of choice (QCD) to do the same thing.

  • Microsoft pays me in little chocolate mints. They're delicious.

    Brushed aluminum: This one actually comes from the American Plastics Council. No, seriously — you can fix it. You use Uno. Everything looks great. It's totally meaningless to most people, but I find it makes the Mac interface look more consistent — all the good stuff, none of the bad, like picking out your favorite Skittles flavors (also an obsessive behavior, but I digress).

    QuickTime Pro rant: I tried to avoid it, but here it is. QuickTime was for many, many, many reasons the superior player technology. Better player, better codecs, better encoding, truly cross-platform, generally not — say — RealPlayer. (Yipes.) *That's* what makes Apple's fee for Pro so frustrating. Here, they're sitting on the best player, and they're in a war for adoption. I'm sure it created a revenue stream and made some accountants happy. It also turned off many, many users, particularly Windows users who were confused (rightfully so) about why Apple was taxing them for full-screen mode. Every time I see someone carefully resizing their QuickTime Player window so it covers the whole screen, I groan. Apple makes fantastic Pro products that deserve to be paid for, like Final Cut Pro, and fantastic consumer products that deserve money, like iLife. But … QuickTime Player? I'll happily plunk down $30 for its useful export functions, but no one should have to pay for full-screen mode. That's silly.

    Windows 1/2 the time: If only Microsoft paid me to use Windows. I use Windows because I care about musicians, not OS users, and there are musicians on Windows, Mac, and Linux. (Hope to spend more time with Linux soon, as well.) I also use Windows to get at some fantastic software — not made by Microsoft, incidentally — that happens to run on the platform. I'm not going to apologize for that any more than I'd apologize for using a Mac.

    Arguing about operating systems is a good idea, don't get me wrong. They really do make a big difference, and we do spend an insane amount of time on them. But let's argue about the OSes and the companies themselves.

    I do agree about the Amazing Slower Downer. I've just found QT does the job in a pinch, certainly for text.

  • Evil Paul

    Yep. It's that damn "pay for full screen" concept that pisses me off too.

    I'm a recent Switcher. I only switched because Boot Camp appeared, so I could play games and use the occasional Windows only app.

    I always lusted after SoundHack, back in the day. Now it's more about day-to-day useabilty and being able to use the *nix skills I have picked up at work.

    Thanks for the Uno tip.

  • Ah, SoundHack… I remember the days of running SoundHack convolutions on Mac IIs … overnight, because it'd take 14 hours to run. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Chris S.

    I'm doing a massive oral history project at the library where I work. We use the free Express Scribe and I'd wager it's the sole reason we're actually going to finish our project (hundreds of hours of audio, lots of it recorded by students on crappy cassette players in the eighties). Once you set the hot keys to something easy to reach you'll be amazed how fast transcription goes.


  • I hear ya on the brushed metal look. I installed Shapeshifter some time back. I think I had to pay $20 to keep using it after the trial period, but I didn't mind. Lots of themes available, some of which are over the top, but I like one called "Blueprint".

    My mini-rant about Quicktime Pro is that I had to purchase it twice. When I upgraded from 6 to 7, I was no longer able to use my original key!

  • Chuck Cranston

    I'm surprised that no-one in this thread has so far mentioned "Transcribe!" . IMHO, it's far better for transcibing than anything else I've come across. You can check it out at http://www.seventhstring.com.

  • Rick

    Agreed, Amzing Slow Downer is fantastic transcribing software. The author continues to improve it and supports it well.


    $45, I think, and worth it. Mac or PC.

  • I want to slow dance with the Slow Dancer.

  • er. slow downer.

    (funny thing is that when I tried to post my correction, the blog software said: "slow down cowboy").

    I'm going to go to bed now.

  • GovernorSilver

    Yes, Winamp's capability as a transcripion tool has been known for years, but there hasn't been an known free equivalent for Mac OSX until Pete's discovery of the free Quicktime Player's functionality. Which was his point.

    Thanks, Pete!

  • Ableton Live works in a pinch and is MIDI controllable (disclaimer: I work there) But iListen is what I really want to get for this most tedious of tasks :http://www.macspeech.com/

  • Correct me if I'm wrong, Peter, but doesn't your approach require you to use a mouse? I wrote some AppleScripts to control the QuickTime Player and mapped them to the function keys on my keyboard so I'd never have to stop typing.

    Like a Dictaphone, pressing F10 rewinds the audio slightly and then resumes playing, and pressing F11 stops it. F8 copies the current playback position (in minutes and seconds) to the clipboard so I can paste it into the transcript. Other keys play back the audio faster or slower.

    I transcribed (or verified) all 56 hour-long interviews in my book with that system.

  • A lot of good products mentioned. I like Cubase SX biu price might be an issue with some.

  • I like Cubase SX3, but some might take issure with the price. I lot of the above products are reliable.

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