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The How-To Geek Guide to Audio Editing: The Basics

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Ever get the urge to edit some audio but you’re not sure where to start? Settle in with this HTG guide to the free audio editor Audacity that’s written for beginners but caters to geeks of all levels.

Note: this is the first article in a multi-part series that we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.

Oh, the Audacity!

In this series, we’ve chosen to highlight a particular application, Audacity, because of a few important reasons.  It’s free, which is always optimal.  It’s open source, and that’s always appreciated by geeks like us.  It’s cross-platform, so even though our guide is done in Windows, OS X and Linux users can play, too.  It’s got great plug-ins and amazing effects right out of the box.

Perhaps most importantly, though, while more advanced apps like Adobe’s Soundbooth or Apple’s GarageBand get the job done, they’re designed for more experienced users and for more involved projects.  Audacity can help you understand simpler concepts of audio editing that can be transferred to those more powerful programs.

Hop on over to the Audacity download page, and be sure to choose the 1.3 series, as that’s the most compatible with the latest OS releases.  If you use Linux, you can just grab it from your repository.  We’ll leave the extra add-ons for another day.

User Interface

There’s a lot of options in the main window, but it breaks down pretty simply.  Let’s take a look.

audacity-labeled

  1. Audio controls: The standard controls – pause, play, stop, skip backward, skip forward, and record – for the project as a whole.
  2. Toolbar: In order, from top-left to bottom-right: Selection, Envelope, Draw, Zoom, Time Shift, and Multi-Tool Mode.
  3. Level meters: The left one is for output, and the right is for input.  Clicking on the the input meter will actively monitor audio levels, and right clicking will give you options to change the refresh rate.
  4. Level sliders: Change the volume level for both output and input, and the drop-down menu to the immediate right is to select an input.
  5. Shortcut bar: Shortcuts to quick actions – such as cut, paste, insert silence, etc – and for zooming.
  6. Audio tracks: The top of this area has the timeline, and any audio tracks will appear here.  More on that in a bit.
  7. Selection tools: Here, you can choose where to start selection by time, and then choose to put in an end time, or a length of selection.

There’s a lot here, but we’ll go into more depth in future articles in this series.

Recording a Track

Let’s get a track recorded to illustrate some basic editing.  Audacity uses Windows audio defaults for recording and playback with few exceptions, so go down to your system tray, right-click your volume control, and go to “Recording Devices”.

02-recording devices

Make sure your microphone is set to be the default device.  Then, in Audacity, just click the “Record” button up top.  It’s the one that has a small red circle in the center.

You’ll see something like this appear:

audio track - whole

Audio Tracks

Let’s take a closer look at the audio track and it’s associated stuff.

audio track - tight-labeled

  1. Timeline:  Here you can see the lengths of your audio tracks.
  2. Audio Track Properties:  The pertinent audio properties can be found here and changed.  Tracks can also be removed by clicking on the tiny “X” in the upper-right corner.  Volume and balance can be adjusted by moving the sliders.
  3. Scrubber:  This green arrow usually has a line running down the screen as well.  It appears when you hit “Play” and marks the location of the waveform that is currently output through your speakers.
  4. Left Channel Audio Waveform
  5. Right Channel Audio Waveform

As you can see, there’s a wealth of information displayed here.  Any added tracks will stack vertically in this portion of the screen so you can see the information from all of them.

Saving Your Project

When you’ve made some edits but you’re not quite done with your project, you can save it for later.  Go to File > Save Project As…

save-project-as

You’ll see a warning pop up, reminding you that this just for use with Audacity itself.  Following that, you’ll get a normal save prompt.  That’s it!

save-project-as-warning

Exporting Audio

If you want to get your audio track, with all of its layers and effects, into a single finished file, you’re going to want to export it.  Go to File > Export…

export

You’ll see a different save dialog pop up.

export-dialog

After giving it a name, you can change the type of audio file you’d like to encode it as.  There are more than a few options.

export-type

After you choose your type, you can click on the “Options…” button to change things like the bitrate.  I left mine as a “WAV” file for now.  You may need additional codecs to be able to use other options, but that’s something we’ll cover in a future article.


As you can see, we’re just touching on the basics of using Audacity, but rest assured, we’ve got some interesting articles coming up soon.  We’ll cover the tools you’ll use, filters, effects, and even some extra fun stuff, so stay tuned!

Yatri Trivedi is a monk-like geek. When he's not overdosing on meditation and geek news of all kinds, he's hacking and tweaking something, often while mumbling in 4 or 5 other languages.

  • Published 01/3/11

Comments (30)

  1. Ryan

    I tried to record my radio show using audacity and it crashed after I finished recording, losing all my work. So audacity I know longer like you =/

  2. Hatryst

    When i saw this article, i said (loudly, in my mind), “AWESOME” !!
    I mean, that’s something regarding my extreme interest ;)

    All right, so here’s a request. Please let us know about audio formats as well. What is WAV, what is MP3, and which one to be preferred. There’s a lot of information available on the web, but the HTG way of describing it is the best of all…!

  3. YatriTrivedi

    @Ryan: The version of audacity we’re using is beta, so some stability issues can be found. Depending on the length of the recording and your system specs, the issue may not happen again. Sorry, it’s not perfect, but it’s free and powerful! ^_^. For what it’s worth, Adobe’s Soundbooth is just as flaky… At least in my experience.

    @Hatryst: Yup, I’ll be covering audio formats sooseparate upcoming article. Thanks!

  4. Crimson33

    Wow, you couldn’t get the timing better. I just started considering to use Audacity to replace my aging Cool Edit Pro (I liked it better than Audition for some reason). What other programs can you recommend to me? I’ve heard of Wave and Cubase, but I would really appreciate some comments.

  5. John

    I love Audacity! I’ve been using it for quite a few years for quick and dirty mixing jobs. I liked the layout of the older versions better though.

  6. PKB

    I use Audacity to capture analog tracks from cassette, clean up sound quality, and then export to wav of mp3. Thanks for this article. One question: could you please show demonstrate how to copy a single (mono) track to a second (stereo) track if possible? Thanks – PKB

  7. Dave Hall

    We’ve used Audacity for several months now at WPRK and it’s served us well.
    wprkdj.org http://asp2.rollins.edu/wprk/

  8. Duckbrain

    @Crimson33 I remember Cool Edit; I had gotten a trail version from a library book that I would install install on my computer every time I reinstalled Windows before we had the internet at our house.

    I have been using Audacity for a little while, but have done nothing more then clip audio in it so far. I am excited to learn more.

  9. Dave Hall

    There are several tutorials on YouTube that helped me quickly get up to speed with Audacity

  10. christina

    great tutorial , I’ve started using Audacity a couple of days ago, and apart from having to download an additional encoder to export files as mp3, everything went well. great software, and very nice tutorial.

  11. kevindall

    Tried Audacity when it first came out but found a couple of things not to my liking. Even though I only use progs. like this for basic recording and editing, I found it restrictive and a bit slow. But that was several versions/updates ago so will read your series and then try it out again, especially as it should be fully compatible with today’s OSs. In the meantime I shall continue with Cool Edit Pro which even now only (my only quibble) occasionally requires reinstalling with the newer Windows versions. I guess it was programmed for W98, but is it strange that it’s been quoted here in 2 previous comments? Not at all. It is still a no.1 prog. -smooth, with great noise reduction tools- and certainly does it for me. I did recently notice a new prog. called ‘Cool Record Edit Pro’ (might it be the name gives it away as a rip off?) and downloaded the trial. It has some eye-candy stuff, but doesn’t do the job like the original. I’m afraid the Adobe progs. (the successors of Cool Edit, I believe) are out of my price range for what I need. Anyone got anything to say about the latest version of Goldwave? I found the original too cluttered and so went for Cool Edit instead. That said, I am really looking forward to the rest of your series on Audacity. Thanks.

  12. steele

    hey everyone!
    I love HTG a lot read all your articles but this one is great! I Look forward to reading the rest of this exciting addition. I would also like to know if the future of audio editing will get even easier for us users. Thanks again!

    Steele!

  13. JayMo

    I’m glad your doing a serious on this. I’ve been wanting to get into the audio editing game. Thanks!

  14. Frank D

    @PKB

    I use Audacity to capture analog tracks from cassette, clean up sound quality, and then export to wav of mp3. Thanks for this article. One question: could you please show demonstrate how to copy a single (mono) track to a second (stereo) track if possible? Thanks – PKB

    1. On the Edit menu, click on Duplicate to make a second track below the first.

    2. On the upper track, in the area at the left, click on the down-pointing arrowhead, and on the menu that appears click on Make Stereo Track.

    If you’d like to make mono sound like a good approximation of stereo say so and I’ll post the procedure here.

  15. Tyler

    I love Audacity. Strange what happened to Ryan.. I’ve recorded 50minutes at once in Audacity without any problems on my laptop (1.8Ghz Single core, 1GB RAM).

  16. Todd

    @Ryan: even though it crashed, you may find that your recorded audio is still there. Find out what temp folder Audacity is using, and see if there are a bunch of files in there. If so, there are tutorials out there that show how to recover this data and save it as an audio file.

    Audacity likely did more to protect your data than you realize, so your displeasure with it is unwarranted. You should give it another try and learn more about it before dismissing it. It’s a very good program.

  17. Ushindi

    This sounds exactly like what I need. I have some 160 minute audio tracks on my HD I’ve wanted to break down to 80 minutes – that way I could put them on CDs and take them with me in my car. So far it appears that’s what Audacity can do, right?

  18. Grant

    If you used to use Cool Edit, the interface is very similar (the pro version was a bit different.) I bought a copy of Cool Edit, and it was the last application that kept me with a Windows partition. After Adobe bought them out, and ensured that there would never be any new patches or versions, and I found Audactiy, I deleted Windows completely.

    The only thing I really don’t like is that it uses its own format for saving, so you need to export for any normal use. It makes sense a little bit, with the ability to do non-destructive editing, but a stack of WAV files, and an XML file to tell it which parts to use (like Kino does) would maybe be easier to deal with.

    File formats:
    WAV – generally uncompressed, every sample is there at full resolution. The file is as good as your soundcard can make it.
    FLAC – Half the size of WAV, still all of the data, fewer devices support it.
    MP3 – 1/10 the size of WAV at a compression level with pretty good quality, but still some loss. The most widely supported format by portable music players.
    OGG (Vorbis) – Better sounding at the same size as MP3 (less warble, less high frequency roll off) but supported by fewer players, partly because of less popularity, and partly because it requires a larger window in the DSP.

    I generally store CD’s in big boxes in my basement, and make everything available around the house in OGG/Vorbis, but my DAP supports Vornis, which was the reason I got that one. I am an audio freak, and Q8 Vorbis (about 110 Kbps) is good enough for me.

  19. Rick McKnight

    Audacity is a treat

  20. j

    please include a section on how to cut tracks length and also loop a section of a song please?

  21. Matthew Guay

    After getting through a marathon recording session last week, Audacity’s coming up as my most used app in my Win7 start menu. It’s great stuff for free. I actually used it to record from my Casio keyboard directly to my netbook with a headphone-to-mic-jack cable, then synced to my desktop via Dropbox and dumped into Adobe Premiere Elements for the video (Live Movie Maker is so much easier to use, but doesn’t let you mix audio as good. I need to learn Premiere better; hmm, maybe I should write some guides on it!). Now if only I had a better mic for vocals… ;)

    Great intro to Audacity … keep up the great work!

  22. pinguino1

    Wow! talking about timing. I’m starting a proyect and this norning I was looking for a lost copy of Sound Forge that I don’t even know if it works with Windows 7 and you just come out with Audacity today!! Thanks HTG you are my google for technology

  23. beer.geek.chick

    I use Audacity on a regular basis and find it a great tool–especially since it’s FREE! That said: I still consider myself a beginning user and look forward to your subsequent articles.

  24. GForce

    ill have to try this, it looks cool, i love reading HTG and finding new things to try. keep up the good work

  25. JJ

    The reason I started to post is that the first time I ran Audacity, the icon bounced in the dock for a while and then a second, identical icon came up, bounced a while, closed, and then promptly reopened and did the same thing. That went on for what seemed like a good ten minutes. I actually deleted an earlier version I had previously installed because it did that, and I thought it was caught in some kind of endless loop and was never going to start. When I began writing this comment it was still constantly restarting and bouncing but this time I let it run and it FINALLY stopped and the interface came up. I don’t know if this is expected behavior on a Mac (running 10.5.8 Leopard) but if it is, they ought to warn people so you don’t think the software is defective and blow it away, like I did some time back. In any case I’ve never seen a piece of software take so long to load!

  26. Linda

    I have been using Audacity to record my old LP’s to my computer. All is going well except for on problem. How do I record the WAV files to an audio CD? The MP3 files burn OK but I would like to save the uncompressed files to play in any CD player. None of my burning programs seem to like the WAV files.

  27. Dave

    I have been involved in some CPR classes. The rescuer is taught to do 100 chest compressions per minute. Two songs that are often mentioned to approximate this beat are Stayin’ Alive and Another One Bites the Dust (choose whichever one is appropriate!). Mostly just for fun I figured out the exact beats per minute in each song, then loaded each up in Audacity and, using Effects, Change Tempo, made each exactly 100 beats per minute!

  28. Grant Prudlow

    @Dave – “Another One Bites the Dust”? Nice, that’s exactly the kind of confidence I want my rescuer to have. ;)

    @How-To Geek – Can you guys do a tutorial on the various filters? I have no idea what most of them do!

  29. Nordy

    Just what I was looking for and cannot wait for the next lesson. Great site keep up the good work

  30. Jen

    I had exactly the same thing happen to me yesterday as Ryan did, which is a total nightmare after plus 70 mins running time! but apparently, there are files created in the background that can be saved. I just have to find out where they are! The second time around, I did the recording, then paused the track instead of stopping it. That worked:)

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