Audacity’s been around for a long time—since mid-2000—and for good reason. It’s a relatively lightweight, open-source, and completely free audio editor that can handle pretty much every task you throw at it. Need to edit together a podcast? No problem. Looking to do some simple noise reduction? Looking to turn your PC into a music computer? Audacity’s got you covered.
Although it’s available for free, it’s not exactly the most intuitive program. The interface isn’t necessarily dated, but it does look pretty spartan alongside programs like Adobe Photoshop and even Microsoft Office. Getting up and running with Audacity isn’t hard, but it does take a little know-how.
The toolbar of Audacity is home to all of the app’s basic tools.
The first thing you’ll want to get familiar with is Audacity’s packed toolbar. It’s filled with tools, and fortunately, they’re all labeled. Hover over a button, slider, or drop-down box, and you should see a text label pop-up with the name of the tool. There are a lot of tools, but you really only need a small subset of them for all but the most demanding projects.
Make note of the playback controls—play, pause, record, et cetera. They’re essential to all audio editing since you’ll want to constantly be reviewing your work as you go along. Next, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got your output and input devices set correctly. Both should be set to your Windows default devices—if they aren’t, make sure you select the correct ones in the dropdown. Once you get your audio into Audacity—we’ll cover that in a second—you can monitor your levels in the output and input level monitors (usually somewhere near the center of the toolbar).
You’ll also want to make sure that you’re always aware of which cursor tool is currently selected. The standard Selection Tool is exactly what you’d expect; it’s a cursor that lets you mark your position on a track and highlight specific sections. The other essential tool is the Time Shift Tool which lets you move clips along the timeline.
Importing is a cinch.
If you’re working with pre-recorded audio, getting it into Audacity is just a matter of jumping into the File menu and selecting Import > Audio—hit Ctrl+Shift+I if you’re feeling fancy. Find your audio files and they should pop into Audacity as separate tracks.
If, on the other hand, you want to record a voiceover or instrumental track directly into Audacity, all you have to do is check to make sure that your input levels are set appropriately (a maxed out slider is usually fine) and click the record button. Clicking stop will end the recording whereas clicking pause will let you continue recording on the same track.
Now you can get down to the fun part: actually editing your audio. The tools and effects you’ll use will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish, but we’ll run through some basic tasks that most projects will require.
The Remove Audio dropdown in the Edit menu will be your audio-editing brother-in-arms.
Most audio editing projects requires a fair bit of cutting, splitting, and rearranging sections of a track—or multiple separate tracks. Cutting, splitting, silencing, trimming, and deleting is all handled in the Remove Audio section of the Edit menu. The shortcuts are simple and worth learning since these are common tasks in any editing endeavour. Highlight the section of the track you want to manipulate and select the action you want completed. Trimming removes everything but the highlighted area on any continuous piece of audio. Cutting moves the selected clip to your clipboard, and shifts the remaining pieces over. A split cut or delete removes the selected audio, and preserves the empty space between the two remaining clips.
Like a kid in a cand...audio effects store?
Most of the other things you’d want to do to an audio track is under the Effects menu. Here you can amplify, bass boost, change pitch, fade in and out, and normalize audio. Most of the effects are self explanatory and work as you’d expect. Some of the commands lets you select specific settings when you click on the effect.
Pump up the bass!
Bass boost gives you control over Frequency and the amount of Boost. Other effects like Fade In and Fade Out simply alter the audio without any confirmation. Pay attention the waveform and you’ll see it turn into a gradual fade. The expansive effects menu is one of Audacity’s greatest features. It’s the reason why the program has been a freeware staple since it's release.
Where and how you want it are your choice.
Once you’re done editing, you’ll want to get your audio out of Audacity into a format that works for your project. Audacity supports a pretty large number of formats, although exporting as an MP3 requires an external codec. If all you want to do is get your file out as a WAV, FLAC, or any of the other available formats, you just have to go to File > Export and select where you want it to be saved and the format you want it in.
MP3 file exports are available after downloading the LAME MP3 encoder. It’s completely free, but can’t be distributed with Audacity directly because of software patents. Head over to the LAME download page and download the “Lame v.399.3 for Windows.exe” installer. Start up the installer and don’t change the default destination of the program. Once it’s finished, try to export your Audacity project as an MP3 and you should be asked to find “lame_enc.dll”. Go to “C:\Program Files\Lame for Audacity” and select the dll. Your project should export as an MP3 file and you’re ready to enjoy your finished product in an audio player of your choice.
You probably aren’t an audio editing expert yet, but hopefully you’re well on your way to editing out unwanted noise, adding fades to clips, and editing homebrew podcasts with Audacity.