For those interested in finding out what tools you might want to use to record and transcribe data for conversation analysis + some thoughts on some factors that might affect your decision-making processes.
This page is where I make recommendations about choosing various kinds of hardware resources and software programs that are useful for doing CA. If you are already an experienced user of CA-relevant technologies, go directly to the “Specific Recommendations” section of this page by clicking here. If you are just starting out doing CA, it may be useful to read the “General Thoughts …” section that follows immediately below. For more specific written and/or video instructions on how to use these technologies, go directly to the “How To” page, which goes hand in glove with this page, so you will probably end up going back and forth between these two pages quite often.
The first section of the present page is called “General Thoughts about the Resources Discussed on this Page.” Here, I begin by discussing the relative importance of hardware and software and emphasize the importance of making appropriate choices in terms of the technology you eventually buy. Second, in the “Back it Up!” section, I emphasize the need to back up your work on a regular basis; many readers will doubtless think that some of these recommendations are overkill, but I assure you that they are not. Third, in the “Where to Buy” section, I provide some advice about where to buy equipment. Since I live and work in the US, many of the suggestions I make will take you to businesses that are located in the US. However, to the extent that this is possible, I also try to make suggestions that will be useful to researchers who live elsewhere. Fourth, in the “Specific Recommendations” section, I make recommendations for buying individual pieces of equipment that are organized in clusters or ecologies of technologies that can be used in tandem with each other in increasingly complex ways. Note that within and across clusters of technologies (there are three in all: Basic → Intermediate → Advanced), the ones listed at the top of a cluster are the ones that you should get first. The further down the list you go within a cluster or, as you move across the Basic → Intermediate → Advanced clusters, the technologies become more specialized. Consequently, they will become progressively more difficult to use than simpler technologies that are at the top of the list and will most likely cost more too. In other words, this organization allows you to find out what technology X is and how it might be useful to you. But it also encourages you to think about how technology X might interact with technologies Y and/or Z in interesting ways. Fifth, the section called “Some Real-World Examples of Other Researchers’ Technical and Workflow Choices” showcases the equipment and other choices made by colleagues who are at different stages of their careers, who live in different places, and who have different equipment preferences. And finally, in the Conclusion, I emphasize that this page is definitely not about “the person who has the most toys wins.” Ultimately, the only thing that really counts is how good you are at analyzing talk-in-interaction; the equipment that you use is just a means to an end.
General Thoughts about the Resources Discussed on this Page
Let me start by noting that when I’m talking about hardware, I’m mostly telling you what kinds of external drives, microphones or RAID arrays etc. you might think about getting (huh? what’s a “RAID array?” Click here and find out!). So, what I want to emphasize is that while many conversation analysts use Apple computers (myself included), it really does not matter what kind of computer hardware you use to do your research. Work with whatever you are most familiar with and can afford, but make sure that you have enough RAM and hard drive space (either onboard or on external hard disks) for the software that you intend to use. And remember: the software you buy is always far more important than what computer(s) you use!
Remember also that the choices that you make regarding getting new equipment are influenced by the answers that you give to a series of interrelated questions such as the ones listed here: 1) How comfortable are you are with using technology; 2) What is your individual workflow? 3) What is your budget? 4) Where do you work? Specifically, do you live in a high income, economically developed country or in a low to middle income developing country? 5) Does your university provide funding for research, including giving you access to discounted educational pricing for new equipment? 6) How much technical support do you have access to, and does your university support Apple or Windows machines or, in the best of all possible worlds, does it support both platforms? 7) Do you have access to the internet—and, if so—how fast and reliable is your internet service? 8) Do you have free, unencumbered access to websites that are hosted outside your own country? Etc. etc.
Generally speaking, if like me, you live in a high income, economically developed country, and also work at a research-intensive university, you will have a lot of choice. If, on the other hand, you live in a low to middle income developing country, your choices will unfortunately be much more restricted. So, regrettably, there will always be important disparities in terms of what equipment you can realistically aspire to obtain in different economic, sociocultural and geographic contexts. Specifically, basic infrastructure in developing countries may leave much to be desired. While infrastructure can improve over time, other things such as climate-related factors are much more difficult to deal with, much less control. So, for example, if you live in an extremely hot (up to 500C/1200F), dusty country like the Sudan (where I worked a long time ago), there is little point in getting the latest, bestest, most bleeding edge (Apple?) equipment because this is exactly the kind of stuff that is most likely to fail in such a challenging environment. So, fellow Mac users, consider this doubtless unwelcome piece of advice: if you are doing ethnographic field work (particularly in remote rural areas), it is not overkill to consider getting yourself a really durable, dustproof Windows computer for the duration … Now, how about that for an innovation that is tough to swallow!
In short, the most important question that you should always ask yourself is: “Do I really need to get this new software program/video camera?” Irrespective of where you live, whether technology is or is not your friend, or how much technical support you have, etc. you should always go through a rigorous decision-making process which involves carefully considering the costs and benefits of getting (or not getting) whatever you are considering buying. Above all, always be ready to adapt your aspirations and/or your equipment to local circumstances. It is only after you have gone through this preliminary decision-making process that you are in a good position to make an informed decision. I return to these kinds of issues in more detail at the end of this page when I discuss how AI-assisted technologies might be helpful for CA transcription.
Back it Up!
Your mantra should be “All hard drives will probably eventually fail.” It’s happened to me at least once in my career and it was an absolute catastrophe. Since then, I have always been fanatical about backing my stuff up. So, for example, for reasons I will not discuss publicly (well, actually, I was just really dumb), I recently deleted 30 years’ worth of data from the hard drive of my research desktop and laptop and, just for good measure, I also deleted these data from my external backup drive. But fortunately, I forgot to delete these priceless data from the back up drive of my backup drive. And in any case, I also had cloud backup of all these data in case all my drives failed … Now, all this may sound incredibly anal, but having this level of redundancy is considered best practice in the photography industry (and yes, I am also a photographer). So, please, don’t scoff at my recommendations for suggesting these seemingly ridiculous levels of backup. Sooner rather than later, you will thank me for having taken this advice to heart. And if you don’t believe me, then please also look at what David Woods (the CEO of Transana) has to say on this topic. Having proper backup will save you untold grief: in short, it’s money well spent!
Where to Buy
Think carefully about where you buy your equipment and pay attention to whether you can get an educational discount, which can potentially save you a lot of money. For example, while Amazon.com is an obvious generic choice for buying computers, etc. in many countries, it does not offer educational discounts. Furthermore, Amazon is not able to offer expert advice on the kind of equipment you may want to buy. So, a more specialized store may be a better choice. For example, if you live in the US, you should check out the B&H website. And even if you live outside this country, their website will at least show you what the recommended equipment looks like. This is arguably the best professional camera store in the US—they are very knowledgeable and reliable—but what is important for present purposes is that you can buy pretty much everything you will find in the recommendations listed below too. Furthermore, B&H offer very competitive educational discounts to faculty and students who can provide the proper credentials. In addition, they always take back any equipment you don’t like/want within 30 days of purchase with no questions asked, provided you return it in its original condition. And best of all, they have a very advantageous credit card called the Payboo credit card. In the US, this card allows you to: a) choose not to pay sales tax on items you purchase; or b) instead of paying sales tax, you can elect to spread your payments out over a 12-month period. If you live outside the US, click here for more information, then on the “Payboo Benefits and Program Details” link, and then on the “Can I use the Payboo Card to pay for internationally shipped purchases?” link to find out the terms of service for international buyers who use this credit card.
This last piece of information obviously raises the question of whether it might be cheaper for you to buy equipment directly from B&H rather than from a similar store in your own country. For example, if you live in the UK, where camera prices are higher than in the US, you might be able to save approximately 25% on equipment before taxes, customs duties and shipping costs are added into the mix. Click here and then click on the “Duties and Taxes” link to figure this out.
Finally, a last piece of commonsense advice. Be careful! For example, always check the SPECS link that is available for every piece of equipment sold on the B&H website to make sure the equipment you want to buy is going to work in your country. In particular, check on compatibility issues, such as whether that video camera you want to buy is only available in the NTSC format or whether it is also available in PAL-SECAM. So. Please! Do your research carefully! If in doubt, always consult with customer service if you have any technical (or indeed other) questions. They are very good and can help you avoid making expensive mistakes!
A Cultural Note about B&H
The owners of B&H (and many of their employees) are Hassidic Jews and all Jewish holidays are rigorously observed. This means that the store can sometimes be closed for as much as two weeks straight (see the store hours here), so plan ahead!
PS: I do not have a commercial relationship with B&H and do not receive any financial incentives from this store to provide the information that follows to readers of this site: I am doing this as a public service to the CA community.
While a CA lab at a research-intensive university in the US/UK/Sweden etc. might well have a need for a lot of the equipment listed below, you as an individual should obviously only buy what you need/can afford, etc. So, mix and match carefully. When you read this list, you may well feel overwhelmed by all the information that it contains. This is particularly if you don’t know very much about camcorders and cameras, for example. So be sure to get advice from your university’s media center, more technically knowledgeable friends and/or the customer service people at B&H before you get lost in too much detail. So, in addition to getting good advice from sources you trust, and before you even look at the list that follows, a good way to narrow down your choices to manageable proportions is to ask yourself some preliminary, common sense decisions about what you need. Here is a preliminary list to get you going: 1) How much money do you want to spend? 2) Do you need HD or 4K video? 3) If you want to print your frame grabs, how large do they need to be in order to be acceptable for publication? 4) How long can a particular camcorder or camera record for? Remember that many camcorders and cameras cannot make recordings that last more than 30 minutes! Etc. etc. Also, remember to look at the “How To” page for detailed text and/or video instructions on how to use the hardware and software listed on this page.
Cluster 1 (Basic)
- 1+ surge protector
- 1 laptop of your choice Mac/Windows + peripherals
- 1 i-Phone or Android cell phone and/or a a consumer level camcorder (for a low tech approach to taking photographs and recording audio or video. Click here for maximum recording limits for various camcorders)
- 1 tripod and head to support recording equipment (get the best you can afford. A good tripod is the first thing you should buy after you have bought a camera and lens)
- 2+ 1TB external drives (for backup)
- Microsoft Word (or other word processor of your choice which is often used as generic transcription software) + Endnote (citation software)
- Quicktime (a good video player and video editing program for older formats; easy to use; can be used to make video snippets and frame grabs for multimodal transcripts)
- VLC (the can opener of media players; opens lots of different current file types; works on all platforms)
- Audacity (excellent free audio recording software; good to use even when you have video but want to do a first pass at transcribing the audio track without being distracted by embodied actions)
- Photosketcher (a very simple drag and drop program used by Chuck Goodwin to convert photos into line drawings; useful for a first pass at anonymizing multimodal transcripts)
- Dropbox or Box cloud backup (both sites provide encryption and are good generic backup solutions; to understand how they differ, click here. Different plans provide different storage options. Check with your university’s Institutional Review Board whether you are required to store sensitive research data like audio/video recordings on these (or other) platforms.
Cluster 2 (Intermediate: Everything in Cluster 1 + some more advanced options)
- 1 desktop of your choice Mac/Windows + peripherals
- 1 professional camcorder or 1 mirrorless still/video camera + 24-70mm or nearest equivalent zoom lens (a higher tech approach to taking photographs and recording video. Click here for maximum recording limits for various camcorders and cameras)
- 1 RAID array (for extra backup)
- DOTE (a really nice example of specialized transcription software, whose particular claim to fame is that it allows users to produce both Jeffersonian and Mondadan transcripts within the program)
- Wondershare Uniconverter 14 (very good program which allows you to play and edit videos, convert audio and video files into many different formats, burn DVDs, do simple speech-to-text processing and record your computer screen)
Cluster 3: (Advanced: Everything in Cluster 2 + some even more advanced options)
- 1+ portable audio recorder (especially important as a backup to the audio soundtrack on video recordings made in noisy situations like F/SL classrooms)
- 1+ external microphone that is compatible with the camera system you selected in Cluster 2 and with the portable audio recorder in this cluster
- 2+ wireless lavalier microphones + click here to choose which type of microphone you need (especially useful for both studio and classroom recording situations
- 1 Wacom tablet (especially useful for doing very accurate edits of photographs in conjunction with post-processing software programs like Photoshop, Lightroom CC or ON1 RAW)1+ 360o video camera (especially useful for 360opanoramic field recordings in the wild)
- 2+ pairs of Superhexa smart glasses (these glasses show what users are gazing at and where they are looking, which could be especially useful for Mondadan style multimodal studies of bodies in motion. These glasses have a maximum recording time of 30 minutes. They may prove to be a useful alternative to the kind of eye tracking equipment used by Peter Auer and his associates in their walking in the woods studies. Since each pair of glasses livestreams video + audio tracks to separate URLs, this technology may also eventually help disambiguate individual participants engaged in noisy, small group interactions in the classroom, particularly if it is used in conjunction with the specialized transcription program Transana that is discussed in the Software section below. Note: Superhexa is a small Chinese start up which may (or may not) get blown out of the water when Apple finally gets its act together and comes out with their rumored Apple Glasses). Or maybe some other big tech giant will beat Apple to the punch, who knows?
- Transana (a very sophisticated transcription software program which, when combined with Speechmatics, a commercial automated transcription service, allows users of Transana V5.0 to speed up the transcription process in 48 languages (provided the quality of the audio is reasonably high). See the “How to” and “Updates” pages for more details).
- ELAN (a very sophisticated video annotation tool, which allows for very precise alignments logocentric and visuocentric elements of social interaction, particularly, but not exclusively, in Mondadan multimodal transcripts)
- CLAN (a very sophisticated transcription program which can be used in conjunction with ELAN. The interface looks intimidating at first because it uses a command line interface. However, there are good text and video-based instructions on the internet)
- Otter AI (automated transcription software that is usefulfor transcribing Zoom meetings, for example. Make sure to get the individual subscription, as you can import audio manually from Zoom into Otter AI and have Otter AI transcribe the talk after the meeting has finished. Note: it can’t handle overlapping talk yet)
- Inqscribe (a nice program which has some very nice touches, like being able to use an optional foot pedal to speed up transcription. It used to be particularly popular for making subtitled transcripts for conference presentations very easily. However, the newer versions of this software no longer work with Quicktime videos, so the text of the subtitles has to be “burned into” the video. See the instructions on the How To page to understand what all this gobbledygook means but, IMHO, this is a major pain in the proverbia
- Adobe Creative Cloud (This suite of products is most likely to be attractive to you if you are a photographer and know (or are interested in learning) how to use post-processing software. Otherwise, it is likely to be overkill. Specifically, Adobe Creative Cloud is the industry standard in the graphics and photographic industries. It tends to be expensive—so check out your educational discounts if you qualify—and it is often difficult to learn and/or use. You can either buy the whole suite of programs or else buy programs individually. The most useful programs for doing Goodwinian—or hybrid Goodwinian/Mondadan—multimodal transcripts (see Majlesi and Markee, 2017) are: Acrobat [for reading, editing and publishing different kinds of PDFs]; Photoshop and Lightroom CC [post-processing software, used either independently or in conjunction with each other to edit exposure, contrast and many other more complicated things that are important in making photos look good]; InDesign [a page layout software used by Chuck Goodwin to lay out his transcripts]; and Premiere ).
- ON1 Raw (post-processing software that combines the strengths of Photoshop and Lightroom CC into a single intuitive package. Can be used in conjunction with these two Adobe products or as a replacement for them. Very nice indeed!)
- Camtasia (a very good screen recorder that allows users to record all the keystrokes during a writing session. Particularly useful for analyses of how learners do writing-in-interaction, since you can sync what is going on on the screen with what participants are saying as they type)
- Backblaze (for backing up large collections of big photographic and video files)
I would be remiss if I did not urge you to consider exploring the world of AI-assisted technologies in general. These technologies will likely turn out to be some of the most important game changers in recent history. So, minimally, you should inform yourself about what these technologies can and cannot do (for example, it currently knows nothing about anything that has happened since 2021). Perhaps most importantly, be aware of what its critics say about it (for example, click here, here and here for three opinions on this matter in English, here for one opinion in French, here for one opinion in Italian, here for one opinion in Spanish and here for one opinion in German. Please forgive the European linguistic bias!). However, if you use it responsibly and wisely, it can do amazing things very quickly and very well. For example, what have you heard about ChatGPT? In my case, I first heard about it as a classic plagiarism tool for students enrolled in Rhetoric 101 classes. So, my first reactions to it as a former ESL writing instructor were very negative and I therefore ignored it for a few months. Then I talked about it to my friend Jim who does very complicated IT stuff at my university and who also happens to do my tech support when I get into trouble (which happens often). He told me how he had used ChatGPT to teach himself a programming language called C++ so that he could help his son (who is in a computer science class which has an enrollment of 1000 students!) understand his homework assignments. Long story short, Jim taught himself C++ in less than a week. Naturally, I was very impressed (though not at all surprised) by this feat, but what really sold me on ChatGPT—and led me to adopt it myself—was when we asked ChatGPT “in conversation analysis, what is the difference between Jeffersonian and multimodal transcripts?” Here is the answer that ChatGPT provided. Personally, this practical demonstration of what ChatGPT could do for me was probably what persuaded me to adopt it, at least for now … However, be aware that sometimes ChatGPT gets things quite wrong! If you don’t think the first answer is right, ask follow-up questions, and usually the quality of the responses goes up, sometimes dramatically, sometimes not (see how this works here). So always use it as a starting point, but don’t treat it as an infallible oracle.
Finally, recall that in the “General Thoughts about the Resources Discussed on this Page” section, I urged you to make equipment choices that are appropriate to your professional needs, your comfort levels with technology, your budget, etc. These lay observations may have struck you as rather self-evident. However, it may be useful to develop a deeper understanding of how complex managing social change (whether at the individual or societal level) really is. Now, it just so happens that the anecdote above illustrates rather nicely how and why people choose to adopt or reject innovations such as ChatGPT from the perspective of diffusion of innovations theory. This literature has been an academic interest of mine for a long time (see Markee, 1997: Chapter 3; Filipi & Markee 2018, Chapter 11; and Markee, 2021, Chapter 1), and I believe that CA practitioners would do well to have a basic consumer’s understanding of how these issues play out. Minimally, this would help you understand (for example) how complicated making equipment choices really is. If you are interested in pursuing this matter, click here to see how the ChatGPT anecdote above can be used as a practical jumping off point to understand the theoretical issues discussed in Markee (1997). Lastly, to make this exercise as personally relevant to you as possible, I strongly suggest that you extend this exercise by choosing an innovation that you either adopted or rejected and analyze the similarities and differences between the ChatGPT anecdote and your own personal experience.?
Some Real-World Examples of Other Researchers’ Technical and Workflow Choices
So far, the advice you have found on this page has come from just one source: me. So perhaps it would be a good idea to showcase some real-world examples of what clusters of technical and workflow choices people at different stages of their careers choose to work with. Here, without further comment from me, are the equipment choices of different colleagues at different stages in their careers who have been kind enough to share their choices with me.
The discussion on this page will hopefully have given you an idea of where different clusters of technical and workflow choices might lie on a continuum of complicated equipment and workflow choices. But remember that ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether you are a techno-wizard or not. Ultimately, the only thing that really counts is how good you are as a conversation analyst. In this context, some of the best practitioners of CA that I have known have not/do not use much technology to do their work, often because they do not need to (although it is also true that one person who was very conservative in this area resisted change because, quite frankly, he/she was just a Luddite …). In other words, there is no single “correct” way to pick the technologies that work best for you, but some combinations of choices will probably work for you better than others, so it’s up to you to decide how to make these decisions in ways that make sense to you. Good luck!