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Notes on using a digital voice recorder for taking reading notes

In October I asked your advice about using a digital voice recorder for transcription, primarily to smooth out my reading workflow (see How to read a lot of books in a short time). I bought one and I've been using it since mid-November. Following is a report on my experiences and recommendations.

WS-300M: A nice product

I opted for the Olympus WS-300M, a combined voice recorder and music player. It's about $80 on Amazon, and is compatible with Dragon Naturally Speaking (I took Eric's advice to check hardware compatibility).

The unit itself is great, though a tad pricey and pretty small - so I have to be careful not loose it. Main likes:

  • USB mass storage - Just plug it in and voice files (WMA format) are immediately available. No drivers, etc.
  • Music player - I admit I haven't used this, but I like the option. Not sure the output amp has enough power...
  • Nice selection of features - record quality, mic sensitivity, folders, etc.
  • Recording time - Long! I use the HQ mode, which provides over 17 hours. (You can get 66 hours in LP mode.)

There's really not much to dislike. The built-in mic has a lot of handling noise (understandable, and you can buy an external mic), and having only two mic sensitivity settings is a bit all or nothing, but overall it's not holding my reading workflow back.

Sadly, the same isn't true for Dragon.

Dragon: Not so good

The program is pretty good in some ways, but I had a number of issues with it, primarily:

  • Recognition rate too low - I had to make a lot of corrections.
  • Making corrections was too slow - The program learns via corrections, so this is important. However, waiting for the menu to pop up was excruciating.
  • Slow overall performance - Start up, recognition, etc. all took a long time. Clearly one needs a very modern machine to run this on.
  • Poor quality headset - The included headset broke after only a few uses. Official replacement price: $30.

Ultimately, performance was a deal breaker, and I've concluded that manually transcribing and typing is faster.

As an alternative, you can have someone else transcribe for you. Some possibilities (I haven't tried them): CastingWords: Podcast Transcription Service and SpeakWrite: Voice to Document Dictation Service.

(You can find more on typing vs. recognition on the Davidco forums: Typing at 300-400 words per minute?, Best Voice-Recognition Software??, voice recognition, Voice Recognition Software, Help! Touch typing software?, and Alternative to Mavis Beacon's Typing?)

Reading Workflow

So how does it all come together? It's simple, really. I record notes as I'm reading into the recorder, usually during exercise or those "between" moments (waiting for an appointment, etc.) Longer reads are broken up into separate recordings, one per session. The recorder has five folders (each capable of holding tons of files), and I use one folder for each book/video/podcast I'm absorbing. Once I finish, I create a "transcribe ____" action.

When I get to the transcribing, I fire up my editor (see My Big-Arse Text File - a Poor Man's Wiki+Blog+PIM), download the audio file, and start listening and typing. To make this efficient, I never use the mouse. Instead, I switch rapidly between the two programs (alt-tab), using the pause/play shortcut (ctl-p) to catch up on the typing. Simple!


This approach works great, and has led to a few surprises.

First, I like having the five folder limit - It keeps my eyes from being bigger than my stomach. Otherwise, I tend to keep reading (i.e., creating more work), and avoid the (more difficult) transcribing part. However, once they're full, I "heat up" those transcribe actions to make some room.

Second, because the recorder's so small, it's easy to have with me, so I'm not having to capture reading notes in multiple places - it's all in the recorder.

Third, I used to abhor transcribing - it was one of those actions that seemed bigger than it was. However, I've trained myself to look at the play times for the files, and they're just not that long! I'm more likely now to just jump in and do it.

Finally, I've found I really want the recorder with me all the time. Not just for reading, but because I'm noticing sounds I want to share with others, especially my six-year-old's delightful impromptu singing, which is really precious to me.


For the future, I need to improve my typing speed and accuracy.

Also, I'm experimenting with ways to make sure I use what I learn from the reading. Specifically I've created a script that nightly selects a random entry from my text file and emails it to me - a kind of "brain blast from the past." More later.

Reader Comments (11)

I also read that Apple is going to incorporate a high quality [ digital voice recorder | http://digitalvr.wordpress.com ] in the iPods from June 2007. This is great news!

January 16, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdigitalvr

Thanks for the news, digitalvr. Makes sense.

January 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I'd give Dragon another go. It took me a while to train it, but now that I have, it transcribes much faster than I can type (about 60 wpm). Once Dragon is working decently, quit using the voice editing features and edit each graf by hand, which is not particularly arduous. And for those of us susceptible to repetitive motion injuries, it's a godsend.

January 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Thanks, Anonymous. I'll keep your comments in mind. For now, I'll continue typing, though. Cheers!

January 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I've been using SpeakWrite for about 2 years since its use is provided to me by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. It works wonderfully and helps me document my numerous interviews with children, parents, etc. In that time I've dictated approximately 900,000 words at a cost of about $10,000 (free to me, of course).

The Department also provides me with a Tablet PC which has voice recognition software. I've only recently started using this feature but have had moderate success with it so far.

January 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Digital voice recorders are pretty solid buys
nowadays, but the top five models come from
three of the largest electronics manufacturers
on the planet. The device may be really handy
when the recorder has an external microphone
and earpiece for playback in privacy.

More great tips at: [ Digital Recorder Review | http://review-olympus-ds-4000.info/ ]

January 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Baldwin

Anonymous: Thanks for the pointer to http://www.speak-write.com/. A good option to know about - thanks. Good luck with the tablet; sounds like fun.

Shannon: Thank you for the write-up. Some good points there.

January 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Heya Matthew,

Are you using Dragon 9 standard or preferred edition?



January 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohnn

Hi Johnn. I should have said: I'm using the preferred edition, 9.0.

Thanks for reading!

January 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matthew,

I too have gone out and purchased all the gear mentioned in you story. ie. WS-300M and Dragon 9.0 Prefered (Plus SP1) and set it up for Aussie Accent, then did two of the tutorials, then played around in Draon Pad all worked well.
Then I took out the WS-300M and recorded a lengthy piece including mileage from vehicle, with alot of numbers and newlines and places I had driven. I then used the Agent to transcribe.

I was amazed it was perfect word for word and number for number all was punctuated correctly.

I to say give Dragon another go, you have two great pieces of gear at your finger tips.


June 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey, Mike - thanks for your story. I'll reconsider.

June 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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