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Dictation Machines and Dictaphones

Dictation machines have been a feature of offices for over 100 years and recording speech for the purposes of transcription pre-dates recording music for commercial ends. Indeed, Thomas Edison put “Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer” at the top of the list of intended uses for his 1877 Phonograph, the first machine capable of recording and reproducing the human voice. Dictation machines are also known as “Dictaphones”. Dictaphone (from 1907) was originally a proprietary name for dictation machines made by the Columbia Phonograph Company, then the Thomas A. Edison Company's main competitor. But Dictaphone would soon become a generic name for all dictation machines.

Dictation machines can be used in any context that involves voice recording for later transcription. In addition to personal assistants and transcribers, they are used by qualitative researchers (for recording depth interviews, focus groups, workshops and ethnographic studies), journalists (interviews, journals) and writers (who record their own voice for later transcription).

Dictation machines at Paperstone

Even a digital recorder with enough memory to store 55 hours of voice recording can cost less than £40. Prices rise with greater memory and added functions and features like stereo, voice activated recording, file organisation and variable speed playback. At the top of the range are professional transcription sets with PC transcription software, networked dictation files and ergonomic foot control.

Other features of dictation machines to look out for and choose between include:

  • Analogue or digital (see below).
  • File format – DSS, WMA, MP3. Digital Speech Standard (DSS) is a proprietary compressed digital audio format, a speech format equivalent to the MP3 for music.
  • Voice activation. The dictation device is activated in response to speech.
  • Noise-cancelling playback filters out background sounds.
  • Recording time / memory. Mini cassettes are available in 30- and 60-minute sessions. An Olympus WS-331m with 2GB of memory can store over 555 hours of voice recording. That's over 20 days!

Analogue versus digital voice recording

There can be little avoiding the fact that digital voice recording has significant advantages over analogue voice recording. Advantages of digital over analogue include:

  • Superior sound quality, without the inherent hiss you get from magnetic tapes.
  • The ability to record for far longer – digital sound files aren't restricted in duration as tapes are.
  • Digital sound files do not physically break, as tapes can.
  • Copying such files involves no deterioration of quality.
  • Easy editing. You can insert additional recorded information wherever you like in an existing recording.
  • The files can be sent instantly with an email. Plus no postage costs.

That said, analogue dictation machines are yet to disappear. Some of us still feel a little insecure when it comes to digital technology. You can hold a cassette in your hand but a digital sound file is rather more abstract. This is a serious issue when it comes to data security and confidentiality, both important in the context of voice recording. Someone being interviewed in confidence may not feel that happy about their voice being recorded digitally and saved on a file that can be pinged across the ether. The age of total confidence in Internet security is yet to dawn. On a practical level some are simply used to doing things in a relatively outmoded way and are quite happy to continue thus. Or certain systems may be in place that require you to provide tapes rather than digital files.

So until the cassette-less office triumphs absolutely, we at Paperstone will continue to cater for both analogue and digital dictation needs.

Dictation machine history

The history of dictation machines is more interesting than it sounds and comparatively rich. Their development was much shaped by military exigencies and the history of the dictation machine, like that of so many other everyday objects, is deeply gendered.

The history of dictation machines – as with sound recording in general – is one of changing and proliferating formats, with some formats like the compact cassette (or, simply, cassette or tape) surviving longer than others (like reel-to-reel). Digital recording emerged in the 1990s and technological advances and the continually falling price of computer memory ushered in smaller and more affordable digital dictation machines. The latest digital recording machines (some of which are sold here) can store hundreds of hours of voice recording and the sound files can easily be transferred to a computer via a USB connection.

The role of Philips was instrumental in the development of the dictation machine. In the 1960s Philips introduced the compact cassette, better known simply as the cassette. By 1970 competitors had taken to the cassette to such an extent that an over-abundance of formats was no longer a problem. Along with Sanyo and Olympus, Philips remains a key player in this market.

The excellent Early Office Museum provides a well-illustrated chronology of dictation machines while Recording History's pages on dictation machines highlight clearly the military connection. Both are detailed and very readable.