Shorthand Dictation with Audacity

Remember the complicated method, where I typed in the passage, then used text-to-speech (after first putting in codes for pauses)? The un-natural sounding dictation and random reminders that I was too cheap to buy the licensed version?

It’s history. Honoured history, but still history.

The new method involves reading at a reasonably constant speed (or a variable speed, if that’s what you like), then using Audacity, an open source (free) sound file editor, to change the tempo.

Alternatively, you can change the speed of any sound file. Start with an audiobook, and change it to your preferred speed.

The new method is also faster, even if you’re a fast typist. Cepstral would sometimes hang, especially if I wanted to replay something. Exporting to a sound file happened in real time, which was a pain if I wanted to prepare a large batch.

Audacity lets me scroll around in the file however I want. It’s fast enough that I can make individual sound files one at a time without going nuts. It will export to many different formats. I can also cut and paste, to make one file with several passages at one speed, or one passage at several speeds. It takes me five minutes (maybe ten) to open the book and prepare a passage at five speeds.

Details, starting with text you want to record.

  1. Calculate how long it should take at different speeds, in seconds.
  2. Read it to the computer at a fairly constant speed, near the middle of your range. You don’t have to be exact. 60wpm is good if you want 40 to 100 in the final recording. Audacity records fine.
  3. Open the file in Audacity, if you recorded with a different program.
  4. Select (drag over) the sounds. (Ctrl-A selects all.)
  5. In the menus: Effects / Change Tempo. Put the target time in “length”. Ok.
  6. Either Save the file, or follow the next set of instructions to get many different speeds.
  7. Select and copy the track.
  8. Click on the sheet below the first track.
  9. Paste to create a new, identical track.
  10. Keep pasting new tracks until you have one for each target speed.
  11. Select the contents of each track and Change Tempo to the target time.
  12. Click on the info to the left of each track and Rename the track. This will be the file name of that track. I like the book, paragraph and speed.
  13. You can add a brief audio description to the start of each track.
  14. In the menus: File / Export Multiple. Each track to a separate file. (It’s easier to use them this way, but you could make one big file with all the tracks.)
  15. Copy files to iPod, read the boards one last time, turn off the computer, and work on shorthand.

Other Info:

If you want to try the beats per minute feature, start by forcing it to the right length for 60wpm. Then tell it you’re starting at 60bpm and you want whatever. I found it easier to go by target length.

You can record in other programs. Audacity will read most of the common formats. The recording program that come with Vista only makes WMA files. Audacity will not read them as first installed (MS doesn’t want them to). It’s easy to add the extension to Audacity, but if you already have Audacity, why bother with the Windows method?

If you start with a different sound file, you’re on your own for deciding how much to change the speed. 50wpm to 60wpm is a 17% increase, but 100wpm to 110wpm is only 10%.


13 thoughts on “Shorthand Dictation with Audacity

  1. Dear Cricket,

    I will certainly have a look at the Audacity website and see if I can get my head round it Unfortunately I’m not on the internet at home (typing this at work in my lunch break – we are allowed to use the internet within reason as long as it’s not detrimental to the employer and as long as we aren’t ‘surfing’ when we should be working). I’d have to see if I could download it to a memory stick or a pod or something. I’m a Pitman girl (a very old one, I’ve had the big 60!!) – that’s what they used to teach in the UK in my younger days, it’s all teeline or steno now, but any learning or practice aid is useful whatever system is used. Being half Irish I sometimes refer to Dr Gregg (who I have always understood to be Irish by birth although he went to the States) as an Irish person who had a good brain. English people sometimes tell jokes about Irish people not being the brightest, (Irish people tell them about folk from County Kerry). Sorry I’ve gone off the point a bit but I’ll certainly check out this very useful sounding open resource.

    Regards Patricia O

  2. Thanks for the tips! I’m sure they’ll come in handy as I learn shorthand, because there really seems to be a dearth of ready-made material – especially in German, which I am currently writing a lot more of then English.

    Incidentally, I had a look at Gregg initially, but everything looked the same to me! I kept thinking I could never sort out different outlines. (I didn’t put much effort into it, though – it was only based on first impressions.) I’m currently thinking of picking up Teeline.

    1. Hi Philip,

      Glad to be of help.

      If you want super high speed, choose a shorthand that’s been developed for German, or a language close to it. The really high speed shorthands take advantage of common patterns. In English that would be obvious things like prefixes and suffixes, and also pretty much any letter followed by “r”. Some developers randomly assign shapes to sounds, some group them by phonetics rather than usage. In “A History of Gregg Shorthand”, they describe how Gregg did thousands of charts of letter, grouping and word frequencies to come up with his first version, and then fine-tuned it based on feedback from high speed reporters, regular secretaries and from teachers. (Yes, the testers didn’t always agree, but many developers told the users, “I don’t care what you found in practice.”

      Several English shorthand systems were ported to other languages without looking carefully at the language. Letter groups that are common in the other language but rare in English would get awkward outlines.

      On the other hand, they say it takes 10 hours of work for each 10 wpm improvement in speed, regardless of system. Unless you’re willing to put in that sort of work, the top speed of the system doesn’t matter. Regular work and writing without hesitation is more important than saving a few strokes.

      Gregg is easier to read if you think of how you would write something rather than the final appearance. Some of the stroke differences seem minor or arbitrary, but it all fits together by the end of the book, much the way basic math (such as omitting the multiplication sign in algebra) seems arbitrary at first but saves a lot of time in the later courses. If an outline or sound doesn’t make sense, read the sentence a few times and explore the options. Also read ahead in the passage. Sometimes the word recurs or the rest of the passage suggests the right word.

      I tried Teeline. The first few chapters require less faith than Gregg does. You don’t have to relearn how to spell. (I told my kids’ teacher she should have parents who worry about how long it’s taking their kids to learn to read to learn shorthand.)

      Users say TeeLine’s maximum speed is 140wpm, compared to Gregg’s 250, but Gregg’s system came of age when high speed pen reporting was required for court work. TeeLine might have the potential for high speed, but there are only a fraction of the writers and no demand for it.

      I quit TeeLine when I reached a page of “arbitrary signs”. Forty pairs of words had identical outline, and the author had arbitrarily chosen variations. I later learned that Pitman has a similar list, and I suspect Gregg does too, though Gregg hides it better.

      TeeLine also lacks the standardization Gregg has. Gregg writers can read anything written by any other Gregg writer using the same or a more recent version. (Gregg issued a new version every few decades, using the same alphabet and principles, but dropping some complexities.) TeeLine writers are encouraged to customize the system as soon as they finish the theory, so it’s almost impossible to read someone else’s (or your own if you keep customizing). Different authors also use variations of the system.

      Gregg encourages you to customize with care, but also has advanced and field-specific books with tested abbreviations.

      Gregg has a very active online group at . There’s also a FaceBook group that I don’t follow purely because I learned about them second and already spend enough time online.

      I think some of the Multiply group use Gregg in German. There’s an official manual at
      Some in the group write many systems, so might be able to recommend one that’s better for German.

      There’s a TeeLine book that has a CD with dictation, but the author escapes me.

      If there were an active TeeLine group, I might have stuck with it. It might suit my needs better. The outlines are more distinct. However, I like being part of a larger group.

      Best of luck in your shorthand progress!

      1. Thank you for your reply!

        I had already chosen a method for German – I’m using Stiefografie, aka Rationelle Stenografie (“Rational Stenography”), which has the benefit of not requiring strong/bold strokes for distinguishing meaning or sound.

        It shares that benefit with e.g. Gregg and Teeline, which is why I had considered those two for English, but not with the effective monopolists in the German-speaking shorthand scene: Stolze-Schrey in Switzerland and Deutsche Einheitskurzschrift (German Unified Shorthand) in Germany and Austria, which – like Pitman, as I understand it – use bolding.

        It is, unfortunately, quite hard to get hold of material in anything other than those big systems for German, so I was pleasantly surprised how easy it is to get hold of, for example, Teeline material. I imagine the situation will be similarly easy for Gregg, though other methods will probably be in a similar minority position to Stiefografie.

        I expect that my shorthand will be primarily for my own use, so being able to read others’ notes (or having others read mine) isn’t as high on my list of priorities.

        And, though my first language was English and that was the language I received my education in – and is the language I use most on the Internet – most day-to-day spoken language exposure is in German, so the choice of German shorthand system is probably more salient to me.

        As for speed, I’m not going to be a court reporter, though being able to follow a conversation occasionally may come in handy. In my limited experience so far, Stiefografie, in its highest published level, seems to be approximately equivalent to the middle level of German Unified Shorthand – so, with a lower maximum speed. But as you say, having a maximum of (say) 250 rather than (say) 140 is not really important if one is not willing to put in the hours required to reach more than (say) 120. (And the teacher of the correspondence course in Stiefografie says he can currently reach 180 syllables per minute – German is usually counted in spm rather than wpm, perhaps because it often uses compound words – so presumably it doesn’t top out quite as low as you say Teeline does.)

        Still, thank you for your insights on some pros and cons of Gregg vs. Teeline – something to bear in mind.

        Again, thank you for your detailed response!

      2. On the topic of Gregg, is there a particular revision you would recommend? There seem to be quite a number of versions, differing mostly (it seems to me) in how far they are abbreviated.

        1. I like Simplified, but both versions have their fans. Those who worked hard at more than one version usually prefer Anni. I suspect Simplified is best for those of us who just want to learn one system well enough to take reasonable notes.

          Anni has a few extra rules, such as reversing a vowel shape to indicate an R following, and leaving out a few more letters. It also blends a few more letters. It has many more brief forms that must be memorized, but they’re introduced in a reasonable order and, when seen all at once, they make sense.

          Anni has much more reading material available. The company generated lots, and it’s now (mostly) out of copyright. Some of the Multiply group members are posting it. You can reach higher speeds, eventually.

          I prefer Simplified because it has fewer brief forms that I’ll only use rarely, and the abbreviation rules appear more systematic. Reading it back will be easier.

          The systems co-exist nicely. Advanced Simplified books bring in many of the outlines and abbreviation rules from Anni.

          The danger of shifting between systems is hesitation when writing. A longer outline, even one that’s awkward to write, is still better than one that’s fast to write that you have to think about. Even worse is wondering whether to write the short or long one.

  3. Don’t rule out weighted systems too quickly. Pitman did very well for English, despite being a weighted and positional system. In Pitman, heavy and light lines have similar sounds. Usually the heavy is voiced (B, D, Z) and the lighter is not (P, T, S), so your first guess when reading will be close to the correct word. Gregg uses line length for that. (Pitman uses line length for other things.)

    TeeLine “letters” are based on the English / Roman / Germanic letter shape. It uses the most distinctive strokes of each letter — although some are a stretch. Related sounds have totally unrelated letters.

    Forkner is a good low-speed easy-to-learn system. Half the “letters” are regular English consonants. Many redundant lines and what looks like an s is an s. There’s no subtlety to the shapes. It tops out at 140wpm.

    Most English systems measure words per minute, with 1.4 syllables per word. It’s only a rough estimate. A court reporter will have brief forms for long legal words and phrases.

    The Multiply group is discussing whether fewer strokes and more memory work is better than more strokes and less memory work. Stopping to remember a brief form is bad. I lean towards easier to remember unless you know you’ll put in the hours for high speed. Even then, practising till the entire outline magically appears on the paper without thought is more important than slightly fewer strokes.

    Reading material is another consideration. Reading well-written shorthand by a variety of writers is surprisingly useful. You get more familiar with permissible variations and more forgiving of your own. It reinforces the theory and, like English spelling, the correct outline begins to “feel right”. You should be able to read at twice your writing speed. Reading your own writing, both immediately after writing and several weeks later, is also useful. Don’t undervalue the importance of reading your notes months later.

    1. You can do some nifty things with weighted systems that you simply cannot do with others (for example, German Unified Shorthand, which uses weight to distinguish between vowels, can use this to very good effect in its higher levels to provide abbreviations – something simply not available to Stiefografie with its one weight). But I imagine that this makes them more difficult to write if you don’t have appropriate writing implements – a special fountain pen or a pencil is that I’ve usually heard recommended.

      I’ve read the “read at twice the speed you write” before as well, and that bugs me a little, because I read Stiefo quite a bit more slowly than I can write it. I wonder when that will change.

      Practice, I suppose; unfortunately, there’s very little written material in Stiefo easily available. (In the heyday of the system’s limited popularity, there was a regular magazine, but that was 35 years ago.) Which is one reason I take notes at church occasionally — not because I want to remember what was said, but simply to have some practice material for reading later.

      I should probably also spend more time during the week practicing writing – just transcribing something-or-other – to produce more reading material. Or possible doing dictations, once I’ve made some audio sources myself, which would also help practice speed a little. I have really no idea where I stand right now in terms of speed, though I suspect somewhere around 40 syllables per minute.

      Writing much would also help, I’m sure, with getting to the “entire outline magically appears on the paper” stage.

      And I agree, stopping to remember “is there a brief form for this?” totally kills speed.

      1. Keep an eye on EBay. Old magazine collections go up sometimes. is good for English material, not sure about German.

        It sounds like you might be ready for Swem’s program:
        It assumes you’re at 85wpm and ready to push speed. This system is much better than writing at what feels like your top speed.

        Normal slowish speech is 100wpm. (It varies widely.) Real time reporters need 225 or higher.

  4. It might be a little late to comment now, but I am learning Teeline and am not ready to give it up for anything else anytime soon (unless I hit a speed wall). Does anyone know if there’s material online to practice Teeline (hopefully for free)? I’d really like to read something in Teeline, but anything would be nice. Thanks for any help, though I think it is a little late to comment here 😦

  5. Hi Baobab,

    There used to be what looked like a good set of teacher’s handouts (the type that’s a mini-textbook), but that was ages ago and didn’t have much material in it.

    There’s a printed text, maybe 5 years old, that comes with CD for TeeLine. I don’t remember what it’s called.

    I corresponded briefly with a TeeLine teacher in the UK who used our text-to-speech converter. She was amazed that Gregg students routinely read each others assignments and that we read novels written in Gregg. She said, “But they wouldn’t be able to develop their own variation!” That agrees with what others have said about TeeLine — that you’re encouraged to develop your own outlines from an early stage. Given that, it’s unlikely there will be much written material online.

    (As an aside, Gregg students are encouraged to stick to the standard outlines until they’ve thoroughly mastered the theory. Inventing our own leads to forgetting what we invented and possible conflicts with theory and brief forms introduced in later chapters. The advanced books have many suggestions for saving time, including guidelines for when you can leave out even more sounds and words. Those suggestions have been carefully vetted so they don’t conflict with the basic rules.)

    It’s worth looking around the internet. There might be an active group.

    You will hit speed walls. It’s a fact of life with any skill. This group
    has tons of advice that applies to learning any shorthand system, including how to break speed walls.

    Your target speed should be 10wpm faster than your comfortable speed.

    Until you’re at 80wpm and know the theory thoroughly, never take dictation cold. Copy the material a few times first, and drill the difficult bits. If you’re desperate, take it at your comfortable speed and then proof-read it very, very carefully. You don’t want to reinforce bad habits.

    In general, your first takes at a new speed should be short. Gradually build from 1 minute to 5. When you are at 95% accuracy at 5 minutes, jump by 10wpm and start at 1 minute.

    Also, if you can’t seem to speed up, try a take at target +10 and target +20. Get down a letter or two for each word, rather than missing entire chunks. Your notes will be “shattered”. You’ll be able to see where you hesitate. Drill those bits, then try your target speed again. It will also stop you from drawing the outlines sound-by-sound. You’ll start writing entire words and phrases. You’ll be amazed.

    End each session with a clean take, as slow as you need, but not so slow you can daydream. This will reinforce the good outlines.

    Begin each session by reading your old notes. This will help you catch mistakes and bad habits. It will also provide you reading material.

    In general, you should be able to read twice as fast as you write. Reading well-written shorthand reinforces the correct shapes and helps you think of them on the fly.

    Best of luck!

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