The only way to get a really good quality transcription of a focus group or meeting is to get a really good quality recording in the first place. Poor recordings not only take longer to transcribe but also give rise to errors or inaudible content.
For groups of more than two or three people it’s best to use a digital recording system which are manufactured by various companies, including Olympus, Philips and Sony. For a one-off meeting it may be possible to either hire the equipment or find a venue which already has digital recording systems in place.
Check that the file type produced by the digital recording system is compatible with transcription software. The most common file types are .wav, .mp3 and .wma but there are many other types, including some manufacturer specific ones.
External omni-directional microphones provide the best recordings, ideally one microphone for every two speakers but certainly as many microphones as possible. Internal microphones are not designed for use in meetings and will not provide the quality required.
A couple of notes on the equipment settings: the recording should be uncompressed and preferably either stereo high quality (SHQ) or high quality (HQ). For longer meetings it is important to ensure that the memory card is large enough to hold the entire meeting. Any time stamp settings should be inactivated to avoid the machine beeping at regular intervals, as should any voice activated settings.
Arranging the meeting
Microphones don’t discriminate between voices and other noises and will record them all equally. A location with a lot of background noise and/or with open windows, especially near a busy road, will negatively impact the quality of the recording.
Similarly, if food and drinks are provided during the meeting the microphones will pick up the sounds of cups and saucers rattling and sometimes even people eating, which is never pleasant for a transcriptionist to listen to on headphones. Invariably the crockery on the table will be closer to the microphone than the participants and therefore louder than what they are saying.
Once the equipment is set up it is a good idea to do a quick trial run to check that it is recording everyone in the room. Bear in mind that this doesn’t have to be done with the participants but can be done prior to the start of the meeting by the facilitators.
Managing the meeting
The main driver of a successful recording is having a firm and experienced meeting facilitator who can manage the participants successfully. It is human nature that participants will talk over each other, all trying to get their point across. Two or more people talking at the same time makes for a very messy audio which is then difficult to transcribe; this can be minimised by careful management of the meeting.
Before the start of the recording participants should be briefed about the recording and told that only one person should talk at a time. Mobile phones should be switched off as they can interfere with the recording equipment. If it is not possible to switch them off they should be placed around the edge of the room, as far away as possible from the recording equipment.
If you require individual speakers to be identified in the transcript then each participant should introduce themselves on the recording and say a few words in order for the transcriptionist to be able to identify their voices from there on in.
Finally, a reminder again that the microphones will pick up every noise so it is also best to keep any paper shuffling or similar to a minimum!