Thursday, June 18, 2009

Managing interviews

I've been conducting freelance interviews (as opposed to interviews related to newspaper assignments) for well more than a decade (this is a sudden realization that has both startled and disturbed me somewhat just now). (Parenthetical statements also tend to annoy me, which is why I don't normally include them in my writing. So you can indeed see visual proof of my startlement and distrubitude.)

For those 40-something-plus interviews with authors, artists, editors and whatnot, I relied on my trusty microcassette recorder from the newspaper days. I replaced the hardware twice over that time period, but the tech stayed consistent and dependable for the most part. After conducting said interview, I'd then hole up in my office and spend a week or so on the tedious task of transcribing the conversation. Most of my interviews lasted approximately an hour, and would average up to around 5,000 words prior to editing. Even allowing for my somewhat slow typing speed and undisciplined approach to the task, the process was a major time sink. But as I only conduct limited numbers of interviews in recent years, it hasn't been that onerous.

This isn't the case anymore. Upon taking up the challenge of the Chicken Ranch book, I knew that the backbone of the project would be interviews--as many of them as I could manage, with as many people connected to the brothel as I could possibly track down. Which meant far more interview material than could easily be transcribed from my old cassette recorder. I'd have to buy a lot of tapes, there was the issue of organizing them and cataloging and... well, the long and short of it is that I bit the bullet and finally went digital. I invested in a Sony digital recorder of modest quality, but one that came with a built-in USB port so that I could download the audio files to my computer, and from there burn them to CD as MP3 files. I certainly wish I had this capability for my old interview recordings.

The transcription was still an issue, but the Sony device came with transcription software, so that I can control the playback on my desktop as I type it out. Nice. Even so, that's still an incremental improvement over my previous setup. Enter Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Dragon is a voice recognition software package, designed for dictation and the like. Which I don't need, but the ability to convert MP3 files into text certainly got my attention. I found a used copy of version 9 on Ebay for cheap (10 is the current release) and installed it onto my computer. Except... I made a mistake. The used software I bought didn't come with an external microphone for the computer. As I wasn't going to use it for dictation, I didn't worry about it, and skipped the part of the installation where one would train the program to recognize the peculiarities of one's accent, diction, etc. Those initial MP3 interviews came out looking uuuuug-ly when I ran them through the transcriber. Yikes! Talk about counter-productive.

So I bought a mic and plugged it into the computer, hoping to train the software properly to improve the transcription success. Granted, the majority of talking during the interviews is someone other than me, but my questions, at least, can come out in a coherent manner. And even though my Texas accent is pretty mild by most standards, it's closer to that of the old-time Texas folk I've been talking with than the standard upper-midwest voice the software comes programmed to use as a baseline. Except that the software refused to let me train it. Because I had skipped that step upon initial installation, it would not allow me to go back and take a mulligan.

After much angst and failed workarounds, I gave up and deleted the software from my computer, then did a complete reinstall. This time I made sure to go through the initial training steps. Once the tutorial finished, I could go back and train the software at any time. Some of the things provided to read to the computer are tedious beyond belief--business and sales letters, ugh--but others, such as Kennedy's inaugural address and a Mark Twain speech, are pretty darn interesting. It is, alas, a time-consuming project but I want to have the program thoroughly prepared before trusting it with the transcription of my interviews again. Maybe this weekend we'll be ready to give it another shot.

Fingers crossed.

Now Playing: Glasnots Mayfly Matinee

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