Five years ago, I wrote about how I transcribe audio with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, splitting interviews into small segments and distributing the work among dozens of anonymous people. It ended up as one of my most popular posts ever, continuing to draw traffic and comments every day.
Lately, I’ve been toying with a free, fast way to generate machine transcriptions: repurposing YouTube’s automatic captions feature.
How It Works
Every time you upload a video, YouTube tries to generate a caption file. If there’s audible text, you can grab a subtitle file within a few minutes of uploading the video.
But how’s the quality? Pretty mediocre! It’s about as good as you’d expect from a free machine-generated transcript. The caption files have no punctuation between sentences, speakers aren’t broken out separately, and errors are very common.
But if you’re transcribing interviews, it’s often easier to edit a flawed transcript than starting from scratch. And YouTube provides a solid interface for editing your transcript audio and getting the results in plaintext.
It took about 30 seconds for TunesToTube to generate the 15-minute-long video, three seconds to upload it, and about a minute for the video to be viewable on my account.
It takes a bit more time for YouTube to generate the audio transcriptions. Testing in the middle of a weekday, it took about six minutes to transcribe a two-minute video, and around 30 minutes for the 15-minute video. Fortunately, there’s nothing you need to do while it processes. Just upload and wait.
I ran a number of familiar film monologues through the YouTube’s transcription engine, and the results vary from solid to laughably bad. I’ve posted the videos below with the automatic transcription and their actual text.
As you’d expect, it works best with clear enunciation and spoken word. Soft words over background music, like in the Breakfast Club clip, falls apart pretty quick. But some, like Independence Day, aren’t terrible.
good morning less than an hour aircraft from here will join others from around the world and you will be launching largest aerial battle in the history of mankind man China word should have new meaning for almost a day we can be consumed by amp petty differences anymore we will be united in our common interest perhaps space today’s 4th July and you will once again be fighting for our freedom not from tyranny and oppression and persecution from annihilation we’re fighting for our right to live to exist and should we win the day the fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday but as the day when the world declared in one voice we will not go quietly into the night we will not Nash fine we’re going to survive ok today we celebrate I independence
Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world and you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. Mankind. That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interest, perhaps it’s fate that today’s the fourth of July and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression or persecution, but from annihilation. We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist. And should we win the day, the fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday but as the day when the world declared, in one voice, we will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on, we’re going to survive! Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!
he didn’t say it he didn’t do it wouldn’t you agree your highness technicality that will shortly be reminded but first things first to death to the pay quite familiar with that phrase unexplained and I’ll use small search will be sure to understand you warthogs faced soon maybe you the first time in my life a man is dead insult me it won’t be the last to the pain is the first thing you lose will be your feet below the ankles in your hands at the race next who knows and then my tongue I suppose I killed you to quickly the last time a mistake I don’t mean to duplicate tonight I wasn’t finished the next thing you lose will be left I followed by a right and then my ears I understand let’s get on with it your is you keep not tell you why so that every shriek every child seeing your hideous this will be used to church every baby that weeps your approach every woman who cries out did god what is that thing will echo in your perfect is that is what the pain means it means I’d leave you in anguish wallowing freakish misery for I think you’re bluffing possible paying I might be bluffing conceivable you miserable comment is mass moneyline because I lacked the strength to stand and perhaps I have the strength after troop your so the sea up
“He didn’t say it, he didn’t do it. Wouldn’t you agree, your highness?” “A technicality that will shortly be remedied. But first things first. To the death!” “No! To the pain.” “I don’t think I’m quite familiar with that phrase.” “I’ll explain and I’ll use small words so that you’ll be sure to understand, you warthog-faced buffoon.” “That may be the first time in my life a man has dared insult me.” “It won’t be the last. To the pain means the first thing you lose will be your feet below the ankles, then your hands at the wrist, next your nose.” “And then my tongue, I suppose. I killed you too quickly the last time, a mistake I don’t mean to duplicate tonight.” “I wasn’t finished! The next thing you lose will be your left eye followed by your right.” “And then my ears, I understand! Let’s get on with it.” Wrong! Your ears you keep, and I’ll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. Every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out ‘dear god! what is that thing’ will echo in your perfect ears. That is what ‘to the pain’ means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever.” “I think you’re bluffing.” “It’s possible, pig. I might be bluffing. It’s conceivable, you miserable vomitous mass, I’m only lying here because I lack the strength to stand. Then again, perhaps I have the strength after all. Drop your sword. Have a seat.”
let me have your attention for a moment you talk about what talking about bitching about that sell you shot some sort of a bitch don’t wanna buy land somebody know what we sell some broad trying to screw so forth let’s talk about something important here one I’m gone anyway let’s talk about something important put that coffee down coffee’s for closers on is a gunfight with you I’m not fucking I’m here from downtown I’m here from mention Murray and I’m here on a mission of mercy James Levine you call yourself a salesman’s edge analyst ship you certainly don’t POW does the good news is you’re fired the bad news is you’ve got all you’ve got just one week to regain your job starting with tonight’s starting with tonight’s sit I’ll I got your attention now good was wearing a little something to this month sales contest as you all know first prize Cadillac anybody wanna see second prize second prizes third prizes you fight picture laughing now God leads mention Murray paid good money get their names to sell them you can’t close the leisure giving you can’t call shit you shit the bricks POW and beat it cuz you are going out the leads are weak leads week fuckin reads all week you’ll I’ve been in this business fifteen years what’s your name you that’s my name you know why mister as you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW thats my name
Blake: You’re talking about what. You’re talking about… Bitching about that sale you shot, some sonofabitch who don’t wanna buy land, some broad you’re trying to screw, so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?
Williamson: All but one.
Blake: I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important. Put. That coffee. Down. Coffee’s for closers only. You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from Mitch and Murray. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Levine? You call yourself a salesman you son of a bitch?
Dave Moss: I don’t gotta sit here and listen to this shit.
Blake: You certainly don’t pal, ’cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is – you’ve got, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Starting with tonight’s sit. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. ‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now? You got leads. Mitch and Murray paid good money, get their names to sell them. You can’t close the leads you’re given, you can’t close shit. You are shit. Hit the bricks pal, and beat it ’cause you are going OUT.
Shelley Levene: The leads are weak.
Blake: The leads are weak? Fucking leads are weak. You’re weak. I’ve been in this business 15 years…
Dave Moss: What’s your name?
Blake: Fuck you. That’s my name. You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here tonight. I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. That’s my name.
give mister burning we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday attention for every Wed but we think you created to make it rain and you think we are she is as you want here in simplest terms mostly definition applied we found out is that each one this is a brain an act great and a basket case a princess and the crime then she questioned into yours practically done the
Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.
Obviously, this is no replacement for human transcription, but potentially a good starting point for your own transcription efforts, or used to feed Mechanical Turk. Paying someone to edit a flawed transcript may be easier than starting from nothing. Let me know if you end up playing around this.