The Limits of Digital Court Reporting for Depositions – On Yanny, Laurel, and Grandpa’s Belt and Suspenders

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We get asked from time to time whether digital recording is a fully-capable substitute for live stenographic deposition reporting. It’s unlikely, and here’s why. Steno and mask reporters, unlike digital recorders, create a contemporaneous in-room curated record of the proceedings, using the one device most specifically designed for interpreting human speech: the human ear.

A popular web meme a while back gave us the great “Yanny vs. Laurel” debate, which illustrates the point nicely. If you didn’t see this particular New York Times article with its adjustable audio frequency tool, we’d encourage you to give it a try and share it with your family and staff (it is a fun debate-starter). You may be surprised at how different the same audio can sound with a relatively minor mixing adjustment, and at how two listeners can hear different words with the same audio setting!

Ambiguous frequencies unavoidable in recorded speech (due to stray sounds like rustled papers, outside noise like doors and traffic, microphone feedback and the like), are heard differently by different listeners. This is not a limit of a particular type of technology or the skill with which it is employed — it is an inherent limitation of ALL recording technology in an uncontrolled or moderately controlled environment. An ill-timed or ill-placed stray pitch may go unnoticed by deposition attendees in the moment but destroy the ability of a recorder to capture crystal-clear testimony, regardless of how well their equipment may be prepared.

The recorder whose task is to mix audio independent of a second contemporaneous record is, therefore, at the mercy of his or her technology’s limits. So is the offsite transcriber, AI software or proofreader tasked with making judgment calls based off that technology. Without having been in the room, and with only the audio settings available to them, they have to decide:  Yanny or Laurel? (Ever seen the notation “inaudible” or “unintelligible” in a transcript created exclusively from recorded audio? Those are two such judgment calls you rarely see in steno-reported deposition transcripts.)

By contrast, steno reporters generally use digital recording as a backup to their contemporaneous record, because that is digital’s highest and best use: as backup. Backup audio is great for double-checking or clarifying any overspeaking, whispering, et cetera, for a truly verbatim record. But by also being able to draw from their own contemporaneous record, the steno reporter has two bites at the apple when memorializing the proceedings — once as heard by a human, and once as heard by microphone backup. It’s why your grandpa may have worn both a belt and suspenders; sometimes, just one means of support might do, but having two means of support can save an awful lot of embarrassment.

Digital recording methods alone do not have this important level of reinforcement. No matter how many microphones are used, they will all produce similar results: lots of belts, no suspenders. When unavoidable recording lapses occur, the decision not to engage a steno specialist to prepare a contemporaneous record cannot be reversed. Once the moment is gone, it’s gone forever.

Whether you’re Team Yanny or Team Laurel doesn’t matter all that much, but for the guardian of important testimony, which word is correct makes all the difference. If that word were crucial to your case, given the choice, wouldn’t you rather put your trust in the hands of someone with access to both a contemporaneous record of what they heard right in front of them AND a backup digital recording? We’re Team Verbatim, so we insist on the belt and suspenders, and think you should too. (We would never want you caught with your pants down in front of your client.)