(Originally posted on the Columbia LRC Blog)

Welcome to the first post in our new “Free Technology” blog series. In this series we will look at some of the best free technologies out there and how you might use these tools to teach or study languages. In today’s post we will look at Transcriber and Audacity, two tools that help with transcribing interviews from audio files.

A word about “free”

Before we look at the tools it is worth mentioning what kind of “Free Technology” you can expect in this series. There are many definitions of the word “free” and in education you run into different ones all the time. There are the services that are “free” until you start using them regularly, those that are free to you as a teacher but charge money of your students and colleagues at other institutions, and there are all those services online that are free as long as you let them follow you while you teach or track your students as they learn.

This series is about a different kind of free, “free” as in “freedom”. We will be looking at technology built by free and open source communities and meant to be shared. These are tools with no up-sell, no hidden fees, and no registrations required, the kind of tools you can give to your students with confidence. Audacity and Transcriber are great examples of such tools.


Transcriber is a program designed from the ground up to help you transcribe audio recordings. It can handle anything from simple speeches with only one speaker to complex group discussions with many participants and it is available for Mac OSX, Linux, and Windows.


You can find installers for your operating system from the project download page.

Opening a file

Once you have transcriber installed, open it up and the first thing it will do is ask you for a file to open. Transcriber needs audio files to be in the WAV format, which is an older format that has nearly universal support from other audio recording and editing programs. Your audio recorder may already have an option to save your audio as a WAV file. If you have your audio file in a different format, just follow along for now and we will cover how you can convert that file to WAV using Audacity later in this post.

Once you open your WAV file in Transcriber it will take a minute to read through the file and generate a visual representation of the sound in your recording. This gets displayed at the bottom of the screen and scrolls along as you play back the file. Having a visual representation of the audio can be really useful for navigating back and forth in a recording when transcribing. Once Transcriber is done creating this visualization of your audio file you are ready to begin transcribing.

Basic commands

Transcriber can do many complicated things but all you need to know for a basic transcript are the Tab and Enter keys. Other than that, just type into the main window.

In Transcriber the Tab key works as a Play/Pause button for your audio file. Every time the audio is moving faster than you can remember what to type, just hit Tab to pause the recording while you catch up. Any time you are not sure what someone just said, hit pause and click back a little on the audio visualization at the bottom to go back, then hit Tab to listen to that portion again. Basically you will be hitting Tab a lot and that is why Transcriber uses a nice big key like Tab that you can easily reach while typing. If you have ever tried to transcribe audio in a word processor or plain text editor you may be surprised just how much easier this one command makes the whole process.

Technically Tab is the only command you need to know in order to transcribe your recording but for recordings longer than a few minutes you probably also want to use Enter. In Transcriber the Enter key does two things, it moves the cursor down to a new line just like you would expect when writing a document, and it also creates a link between the start of the new paragraph and where you are in the audio file when you hit Enter. If you ever want to go back to that moment in the audio recording all you have to do is click on that paragraph of text and Transcriber will rewind the audio back to the beginning of the paragraph so you can start playing from there. This can save you significant time if you want to go back and listen to a tricky word again when you hear it used more clearly later on in the recording or if you just need to double check a particular piece of audio, perhaps before using it as an important quote in your work.

Saving a transcript

Save early and save often. Transcribing, even with Transcriber’s helpful features, can take a long time and you do not want to have to re-do any of that work should your computer die in the middle. It is a great idea to just hit “Control-s” every time you make a new paragraph, or whenever you can.

Once you are finished with transcribing your recording just select all the text in the main Transcriber window and copy and paste it into a new text document. Now you can read through it to make sure that everything is spelled correctly (this is a great time to run your spell checker!) and do whatever re-arranging you need so the text is organized into the natural paragraphs as the speaker spoke them. Congratulations, you have transcribed your recording.


Audacity is a professional quality audio Swiss army knife. You can mix multiple tracks, record audio directly into it, apply various filters and transformations, and a whole range of other things beyond the scope of this piece. Importantly for us, it is free, available for Mac OSX, Linux, and Windows, and we can use it to convert our audio recording into WAV or to slow down the recording somewhat if the speaker in the recording talks too fast for us to keep up with while transcribing.


You can get Audacity from the project download page. On that page you can also find legacy versions of Audacity for older operating systems, going all the way back to Mac OS 9 and Windows 98. Once you have installed Audacity, start the application and open your file using the File menu or by just dragging your audio recording into Audacity.

Saving as WAV

If your recorder saves files as mp3 or aac or pretty much any other format besides WAV, you can use Audacity to convert it to WAV. Just open your file in Audacity, go to the “File” menu, and select the “Export audio” menu item. That will pop up a file save dialogue window. Change the file extension for your file to “.wav” in the top left of save dialogue window and select the “WAV (Microsoft) signed 16 bit PCM” option from the drop down menu of file formats near the bottom right of the window. Then just hit “Save” and open your new WAV file in Transcriber.

Advanced option: Slowing down a recording

Using the Tab key in transcriber to pause your recording as you type should be enough for most speakers and typists but occasionally you will deal with a speaker who talks very fast or uses many complicated phrases that are slow to type. If you listen to your recording and think that you are going to have to pause every other word in order to get that recording transcribed you may want to slow the audio down before you start.

Because this will slow down your whole audio file you should only do this BEFORE you start transcribing a talk or else none of your previous text will line up in Transcriber. This feature is best for people who have multiple recordings to transcribe or have transcribed recordings with Transcriber or a similar tool before and know how fast they will be transcribing a particular recording.

Should you want to slow a recording in Audacity simply open the recording, go to the “Effect” menu, and select the “Change speed” menu item. I have found slowing 10-15% is the maximum you want to try slowing down a speaker; anything more than that distorts the audio significantly and can make it hard to recognize words, especially if you are not a native speaker of the language spoken on the recording. Once your file is slowed just export it as a WAV and open it as a new file in Transcriber.

Further reading

If you are interested in reading more about how to use either Transcriber or Audacity, both have comprehensive documentation online: Transcriber manual, Audacity manual.

If you want to learn about more great free technology, keep an eye on http://www.lrc.columbia.edu/blog/ for more posts in the Free Technology series. Thanks for reading!

Updated on Mar 8, 2017 to point at new location on the LRC blog.