Still Transcribing Tapes?

If you feel you’ve been beating-around-the-bush when considering digital recording technology to capture your content – you probably are! Digital recording is here to stay so why wait any longer? If you think you have to start all over again to learn to record digitally, the good news is that nearly all of the recording tips, tricks, and positive habits you’ve honed over the years still apply. Good quality external microphones, the placement of those microphones, and a quiet setting in a controlled environment are all still required in order to capture clean audio. These elements are required regardless of whether you are recording digitally or not. The bad news is that you will have to learn a bit of new technology, do some shopping, and simply get comfortable with the entire “digital” concept. But then again you had to do the same thing when you purchased your first computer. How long did it last before becoming outdated?!

After having numerous conversations with many commercial and academic users of recording devices on what lies behind the mysterious veil of digital recording, one of the first, and most popular questions asked is “Why should I switch?” In order to answer this question, take a look at a comparison between analog and digital recording weighing benefits, costs, and other factors to consider. You will also find a brief explanation of each factor below the table.

  • Lower up-front costs
  • No long term savings
  • Higher up-front costs
  • Long term savings
Market Life
  • Historically long
  • Few new devices entering market
  • Rapidly evolving
  • New devices frequently enter market
Useful Life
  • Historically long
  • Media may become less available
  • Short due to rapid technology growth
  • Dependent on operating system software market
  • Many moving parts
  • Heads require cleaning
  • Software/Firmware updates
Learning Curve
  • Easy to learn
  • Easy to learn with basic computer knowledge
Ease of Use
  • Simple
  • Simple
Audio Quality
  • Can be good quality
  • Depends on quality of tape
  • High quality if uncompressed
Recording Capacity
  • Recordings limited to length of tape (often 90 minutes for transcription)
  • Typically can record longer durations than tapes
  • Dependent on quality of recording and data storage
  • Shorter battery life
  • May be heavy
  • Longer battery life
  • May be very light
  • Mini-plug, XLR
  • Mini-plug, XLR, FireWire, USB
Management of Content
  • Tapes require labeling
  • Tedious duplication or conversion
  • Basic computer file management
  • Easy renaming
  • Simple file copy
  • Can be compressed for distribution (i.e. transcription)
Content Use
  • Complex and time consuming
  • Requires tape player for playback
  • Tapes wear and can degrade with use and time
  • Will have to be digitized for web, network, or playback on PC.
  • Will have to digitized for editing and timecoding
  • Simplified and fast
  • Easily played back on any computer and shared over a network
  • Can be easily compressed for distribution
  • Easily edited and timecoded
  • Can be sent and stored on CD-ROM, hard drive, and networked file servers


Everyone wants to know, “How much is this going to cost me!” The most important thing to realize is that investing in new technology is just that, an investment. Digital recording devices, of adequate capacity, features, and quality cost more than analog recorders. You are paying a premium for new technology. However, it is critical to understand the $300-700+ you spend on high quality digital audio recording hardware/software will quickly be recovered. How? Digital recorders eliminate the cost of tapes, shipping, and time spent duplicating, converting, labeling, and packaging. Digital audio files can be sent and stored electronically. For transcription, clients who record digitally send us their audio files via FTP and don’t pay for duplicating, shipping, or time lost in that process. Additionally, digital audio files typically have better audio quality and can be transcribed more efficiently, thus saving time and cost in transcription with faster turnaround.

Market Life

How long will manufacturers sell and support my device? Analog tape recorders have been around for years. Many manufacturers are still producing analog recorders but have been narrowing their product lines. Many manufacturers have discontinued all models of tape recorders and transcribers ad their focus has shifted to the development and release of digital devices. It’s hard to say how much longer analog devices will be available. Digital recorders on the other hand are a hot item right now for audio equipment makers. Like any technology dependent product, new digital recorders are released into the market like roses on Valentine’s Day. As a result, last year’s new digital recorder may be this year’s paperweight…which brings us to Useful Life below.

Useful Life

How long will I reasonably be able to use my recorder before losing it in the back of a closet somewhere? Analog recorders have a longer useful life than digital recorders. As long as cassette tapes continue to be produced on the market, and your recorder holds up to wear and tear, you may still be using it for several years to come. Digital recorders typically have a shorter useful life simply due to shorter manufacturer support periods and the evolution of computer operating system software. Digital recording technology directly relies on the computer technology market. For example, when Microsoft releases their next version of Windows, all the digital device manufacturers will very likely have to release updates of software that support the new operating system. Manufacturers may not release new operating system drivers and firmware updates for older digital recorders to work with the most recent operating systems. Therefore, while you may get 10 years out of a high quality analog recorder, you’ll likely only get, at most, five years on a digital recorder.


Analog recorders are mechanical by nature. They have motors, gears, belts, rubber wheels, and recording/playback heads. As a result they wear and inevitably fail due to use/abuse. Most importantly the heads inside a tape recorder require cleaning. Dirty heads make for dirty audio. Digital recorders have few, if any moving parts except for the occasional switch or hard drive, and of course, these too will fail over time. The only maintenance that needs to be done is the occasional software and firmware updates available from device manufacturers via the web. Since digital recorders don’t have recording heads to dirty, the recording quality should never degrade with use over time.

Learning Curve

If you can turn on your computer, send and receive email, save and rename files, you can learn to use a digital recorder. A good recorder will have all the same “buttons” as an analog recorder. (Play, recorder, FF, RW, etc.) Better yet, they are often very similar to a CD player. The most “feared” part of digital recording seems to be connecting the device to computer and transferring files to and from. If you have a digital camera, the process is no different and no more complicated.

Ease of Use

If you have basic computer knowledge you will have no problems recording digitally. As mentioned previously, digital recorders have many of the same buttons as analog recorders. Digital recorders also have many of the same connectors used by your existing microphones, headphones, etc.

Audio Quality

Inexpensive analog tape recorders will have inferior audio capability than units of higher quality. No matter how good your recorder however, the quality will also depend upon the type of tape you use. High Bias, Type II cassettes typically have the best quality with low tape hiss and better frequency sensitivity. Some choose to use low bias, Type I cassettes which, while intended for voice, generally have a lot of tape hiss. Microcassette recorders should be taken to the nearest bridge and thrown off. Digital recorders can record superior quality audio files if not using compression. Inexpensive hand-held digital recorders use significant audio compression. While they work fine for business meetings and non-preservation audio recordings, they are inferior for use on historic or oral history-type projects.

Recording Capacity

Analog recorders are limited to the length of the tape you are recording onto. (90 minute tapes are frequently used for transcription purposes.) Additionally, you’ll have to flip the tape part way through a recording. Digital devices with adequate storage capacity can record substantially longer continuous audio programs without interruption. You are only limited by the quality of the audio file and how much storage your device has. Higher quality files require more data storage, whereas lower quality or highly compressed audio files utilize less data.


Hand held digital voice recorders, while very small, are extremely powerful and produce acceptable results while recording files with sizes to lend themselves to easy storage and transfer. At least digital recorders don’t require as much battery power to operate as the old tape recorders. They often come with easily rechargeable batteries with long use life. Older cassette recorders can chew through batteries like kiddies with candy on Halloween.


There isn’t a significant amount of difference between analog and digital recorders in this area. They all share the same range of analog connections for microphones, headphones, and other inputs. Plus, you can always purchase adapters for connections your device doesn’t support directly. XLR microphone connections still offer the best possible quality. Digital recorders will have USB and/or FireWire connectors to interface with a computer for transferring files.

Management of Content

How much time have you spent ordering, labeling, duplicating, and finding safe places to store your one-of-a-kind recordings on cassettes? Digital audio recorders create digital “files” of your audio recordings just like a digital camera creates digital files of your pictures. Of course, the size of the file depends on the length and quality of the recording. Digital audio files are nothing but data. Computer data can be copied, moved, renamed, and stored much more easily than analog tapes of any kind. You’ll be trading in space on your computer for open space on your shelves and in your cabinets. Even CD-ROMs take up less space than analog tapes. Plus you’ll save your hand from cramping up when trying to label your tapes. Digital audio files can be kept in a secure location on a computer network’s file server, backed up, and stored for long term use along with all other critical data your organization maintains. As network technology evolves, your data can be migrated from device to device. Pass the buck onto Information Technology to worry about! If you don’t trust your IT infrastructure, you can always record your digital audio files onto analog tape.

Content Use

The use of audio content has been dramatically affected by digital recording technology. With analog tapes it is critical to make a use copy of your master recordings for sharing, transcription, or other uses. Every time you play your master audio tape to duplicate it, to hear it, or transcribe it (Never transcribe from an original or master tape!) the tape will wear very slightly. Dirty, inexpensive, and malfunctioning tape players can be sudden death to analog tapes. Over time, your once pristine audio recording will sound like a phonograph. Duplicating takes forever! Uncompressed digital audio files can be duplicated and compressed for easy distribution on disk, over a computer network, or over the internet without degradation. If you ever want to digitally share or edit your analog recordings you will have to digitize them at great expense and time. This is where the long term cost savings of digital recording outweighs the short term savings of analog.

If you choose to index or transcribe your audio recordings, digital audio files incorporate a time stamp, or timecode. This can be referenced for content for ease of retrieval as well as inserted directly in a transcript. Just think, your audio content can be indexed in it’s entirety! No more time consuming (not to mention annoying) FF, RW, PLAY, RW, PLAY, RW, PLAY, FF, PLAY to find the excerpt of a recording you are looking for. By timecoding you can jump right to the section of a recording you want to hear. There is no simple way of achieving this with analog audio recordings. Counters on analog devices vary from tape player to tape player. Tape players are notoriously slow to FF & RW tapes.


  • Analog recorders, while very familiar and seemingly cost effective are going the way of typewriters.

  • Digital audio files are enormously more efficient to work with and distribute.

  • The up front investment of money and time in digital recording technology will be returned to you in savings of time and cost of duplicating, shipping, digitization, labeling, storage, transcribing, etc. (All by the time you have to purchase a new digital recording technology!)

  • Digital recording is here to stay. Get might as well make the switch now, or suffer the consequences.