The open source journalist’s toolkit pt3: Transcription software

November 14 2010

Yeah, it's a Windows screenshot, but it works just as well in Linux, honestly.

If you do a lot of interviews, either you have to get very good at shorthand or you’ll spend a lot of time with a pair of headphones clamped to your ears trying to figure out if the last sentence on the tape was was “ending cheap loans” or “send in the clowns”. Transcription is a necessary, and the part of the job I hate the most. It’s also very important – I find that even when my notetaking is at its finest, there’s almost  always something I catch on a tape which adds something important to a story or angle which I’d missed before.

ExpressScribe isn’t open source, but it is free and the best transcription software I’ve ever used by a long way. There’s  versions for Windows, OSX and Linux which are all identical and simple to install – in fact it’s one of the only Linux programs I know of that has a straightforward Windows style installer rather than a  .deb or .rpm package or required repository. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it does mean that anyone coming to Linux from Windows should be able to set it up without too many problems.

The two issues you may have are that NCH, the developer, has stopped linking to the Linux version from it’s front page – but can download it directly from this link – and that you may need to remind  it where your sound card is occassionally. I find that every now and then hitting a global hotkey for ‘Back 5 seconds’, for example, will jump the audio forward by a random amount. If  this happens, go to Options>Playback and change the sound device from ‘Default’ to the name of your soundcard (it’ll be listed in the drop down menu). A third, minor point is that it’s worth manually clearing the cache of old recording now and then if you’ve archived them somewhere else.

Otherwise, Express Scribe really is great.  You can load just about any kind of audio file (WAV, MP3, AAC, etc, and even some proprietary formats) and setting up hotkeys just  works. It even supports a footpedal, and I’ve been toying with the idea of making one from an old mouse.

For reference, I bind around the ALT key and the number pad or cursors because they’re easy to reach with your little fingers when typing – ALT+0 is pause and rewind five seconds, ALT+left is rewind 5 seconds and ALT+right is forward 5 seconds.

Other posts in The open source journalist’s toolkit: Build a multimedia journalism studio for free.

February 16 2011 @ 11:29

Hi Adam, I found your comments really helpful. I understand that transcription software generally trains itself around 1 voice, but I’m assuming when you say ‘interview’ you have 2 voices on your audio file. Please clarify whether ExpressScribe can handle 2 voices, and whether a foot pedal is essential. I’m a student researcher and wondering if this could help me. Thanks,


February 16 2011 @ 11:32

Hi Shena,

I’m afraid this is old fashioned transcription – you listen to the recording in small sections and type what you hear. It’s the only reliable method as far as journalism is concerned.

In terms of voice recognition software, which does the transcription for you and I think is what you mean, I haven’t got a lot of experience. Although I am quite impressed with the free Dragon Dictation app on the iPhone, which is passable for making notes. I’m not sure there’s any free desktop software I’d recommend I’m afraid.

You don’t need a footpedal to use ExpressScribe though – it just supports them if you’ve grown up using one. Personally I get on fine with the keyboard shortcuts.

Hope that helps!


March 4 2011 @ 23:06

I’ve spent an hour or so trying to find open-source speech-recognition/auto-transcription software to produce a rough draft I can then correct using old-fashioned transcription. Doesn’t seem to exist – there’s something called CSM Sphinx but for the life of me I can’t figure out how to install it. But this program seems to be good enough to make ‘old-fashioned’ transcription OK – before, I was just using ordinary media players, which don’t do a very good job. Thanks!

November 13 2012 @ 19:03

Adam, Ive seen comments that say Express Scribe put loads of ads your way which are annoying, or even tries to get into your email accounts… Have you any experience of this please?

November 13 2012 @ 19:04

I haven’t – but then I use the Linux version, so it may be different from the Windows one. There’s no ads it, but it hasn’t been updated for a while and needs a few tweaks to get running with Ubuntu these days.

January 25 2013 @ 13:34


Just to update you, ExpressScribe is no longer free. Boo hoo.

April 13 2013 @ 13:59

Hi Sue,

That’s very sad. It’s still the best program I’ve found for transcribing. Good news for some of is that the Linux version is still free – although it needs a bit of a tweak to work properly as it hasn’t been updated in ages.

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