Recorder is the Best Invention Since the Google Search Box

Google's Recorder transcription app could change the way we record history

A reporter using Google Recorder to interview a subject

 Lifewire / Joshua Seong

Google Pixel 4 has gotten decent-to-middling reviews, but most, including mine, at least paused to recognize one impressive piece of algorithmic alchemy: Recorder.

This real-time mobile transcription app is unlike any I’ve tried to use before. It’s incredibly fast, shockingly accurate, and has already transformed how I do my job.

Getting the Words

Now nearing the start of my fifth decade of reporting, I can think back to all the various ways I’ve tried to ease the burden of real-time note taking and transcription. As a cub reporter in the field, I recall scribbling furiously on a pad, praying my pen didn’t give out and my fingers didn't cramp up—both happened on occasion. Even when they didn’t, my handwriting often looked like poorly-etched hieroglyphics. It was English, but only in the way McDonald's might be considered cuisine.

Later, I started using an Olympus digital recorder for high-value Q&As and then dreaded the slow and tedious process of actually transcribing the interviews.

Google Recorder animation
How Recorder transcribed this column.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

The funny thing is that I always took notes at the same time as I recorded and, if I was really on my game, I sometimes wrote down time stamps next to certain portions so I could go back and listen to the recording to verify a quote. This got a little easier with my iPhone and apps like iTalk, but it was also disheartening to learn just how often I thought I heard something one way only to learn by listening to the audio that it was said a different way. I’m not saying that what I wrote down didn’t capture the essence of the quote—it invariably did—but the precise phrasing was usually a word or two off.

This is why reporters usually paraphrase. Precise quotes from hand-written notes are hard to come by and transcribing every single interview is incredibly time-consuming.

Honestly, I dread interviews for precisely this reason. There are, however, instances where recordings have revealed fresh insights (like when I happened to record Jeff Bezos’s impromptu press conference on video), or, in the case of consumer technology stories, revealed key tech details I would have otherwise missed.

A New Tool

When I originally reviewed Google’s Pixel 4, I had only a little time to try out Recorder and, perhaps unfairly, dismissed it as a somewhat imprecise utility of negligible use. Now, however, I see it differently.

During one recent press briefing, I precariously balanced the Pixel 4 on my leg, turned on Recorder, selected “Transcription,” and then turned my attention to capturing some photos with my DSLR. Meanwhile, the presenter spoke like he was competing in a speed-talking competition (did he even pause for a breath?). I glanced down at the Pixel 4 phone and saw the words he was saying pouring out onto the screen pretty much as he was saying them. It was even picking up paragraph breaks. In between those breaks were time stamps, which would come in handy later.

At my next press briefing, I placed the Pixel 4 on a small table in front of me and let Recorder do its work.

Would it need cleanup and some back and forth to verify that he did in fact mean, “The Collie had all the answers,” and not “Polly had more of the answers,”? Sure.

In both instances, the quality of transcription was beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. There were some errors, a word or two here and there that it clearly got wrong, a missed punctuation mark, but where it failed, I could select the nearest time stamp and replay the audio to get the words right.

Better yet, instead of storing the transcription in some esoteric file format, I could email it to myself as plain text.

Recorder for More

Even though I can send myself the transcript, Google maintains a deep and important connection between the audio and transcriptions. If I have a vague recollection that one of my sources used a certain phrase or word but cannot remember when during our 20-minute conversation he said it, I can search for the key word and Recorder will highlight the exact location or locations of that phrase. It can also do this across all my recordings. I spent years using iTalk to record interviews, but without my own painstaking transcriptions, I could never have searched my recordings like this.

Recorder is all the more impressive because Google is not reaching out into its expansive cloud-based knowledge graph for AI assistance. Instead, all the processing and text and context recognition happen on the Pixel 4’s hardware and software.

Google Recorder screen shots
Pixel 4's Recorder app lets you record, transcribe (right), save (left), and search across all your recordings (center).  Google

So What

When I step back for a minute and think about what Recorder can do (and yes, I have tried other transcribers and none of them were this fast and accurate), I realize that this has the ability to change everything from doctor and psychiatrist visits to police reports and courtroom transcriptions.

Obviously, there has to be some transparency in place—“Hey, I’m going to record you, okay?”—but the accuracy, which is sure to improve over the next few years, could get so good that these recordings and transcriptions become the official record. And imagine what it would mean for science where researchers have to pour over recordings looking for crucial signals. Recorder transcriptions and search would let researchers quickly access mentions of a particular feeling, result, need, or interactions across results from hundreds of subjects.

For writers, Recorder could be a revelation. I imagine author James Patterson pacing the floor—his Pixel 4 sitting on a nearby coffee table—spooling out his latest thriller and then, using his voice, telling Google Assistant to mail it to his editor. Would it need cleanup and some back and forth to verify that he did in fact mean, “The Collie had all the answers,” and not “Polly had more of the answers,”? Sure. But as someone who writes for a living, I know that my fingers often don’t type as fast or nearly as accurately as I can think and speak. This might be the first transcription software I trust with my precious prose.

There is, unfortunately, a big limiting factor here. The Recorder only works on Pixel 4 and, soon, older Pixel phones. As far as we know there’s no plan to offer the Recorder app on other Android devices or platforms.

If I were working at Google, I’d take Recorder and wrap a slick piece of hardware around it (yes, it would need a touch screen and, at least WIFI, to transfer its recording data), and sell it as a new kind of digital voice recorder. Price it at $59.99 and it will sell like crazy. First customers will be journalists, second, maybe doctors. I bet court stenographers would love it. After that? Who knows?

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