Audacity is a powerful open-source app for recording and editing audio for macOS, Windows and Linux – and best of all it’s free! Whether you’re looking to record a podcast, mix music, or master audio, you can’t go wrong with the free audio editor Audacity… as long as you know how to use it well! The software is quite different from other audio application, so there’s a bit of a learning curve, but don’t fret! Let us guide you through all the features of this popular audio editor in our Audacity tutorial.
Audacity has been around for ages, but it takes some time to get used to working with it – especially if you have worked with another DAW before. Don’t think of it as a DAW, more like an audio editor. It’s great at audio recording and editing, but midi and effect processing is very limited. This still makes it excellent tool for podcasts, simple musical projects and mastering, but not so great if you heavily rely on Midi and effect plugins.
Destructive vs Non Destructive Editing
The main difference is that editing in Audacity needs a different approach than what you may be used to. Audacity is a destructive editor – and this will affect your workflow. If you cut something out in Ableton for example, it shows you the selection you cut out, but it didn’t actually cut the recording file. You simply work with “pointers” so the project knows what to do with the original audio file. You can still the selection points later and get back to the original audio source. In Audacity each edit you make it printed to audio immediatley, so there’s no way back at a later stage.
The same applies to working with plugins. In modern DAWs the effect will only be applied to the audio when you render the file. Before that, you can turn them on and off, change settings, etc as many times as you like. Audacity is different. The waveforms you see actually represent the audio and once you make a change, there’s no easy way to go back. While Audacity may not be the best choice for certain projects large multitrack music, it’s more than enough for basic recording of music tracks, editing stereo mixes, podcasts, etc.
Project Setup and Interface
What would an Audacity tutorial be without looking at the basic layout of the program. To get the most out of the program, it’s worth spending some time setting up the preferences and organizing your projects. Once you understand the layout of the app and how to access the various tools, commands and keyboard shortcuts you will appreciate the inherent simplicity of Audacity.
Let’s look at the most important preferences first. In the devices section you choose the audio interface you are using and you can define input and output sources independently, as well as setting mono or stereo as default recording channel. The Latency Buffer Length is defaulting to 100 ms and works for most scenarios – but if you use Audacity for live recording or overdubs, you might want to adjust this to lower settings though.
In the Recording section, you want to turn on “Play other tracks while recording” to enable overdub functionality. Jumping to Quality, it’s best to set it the Bit Resolution to 32 bit float for the best audio quality. Once you export your track, you can still choose differently to industry standards 24bit or 16bit. The sample rate setting is fine at either 44100 or 48000. Anything above this gives you slightly better audio quality, but takes up a lot more disk space so tread carefully.
Under Tracks > Tracks Behaviour, you should enable dragging selection edges, which lets you fine-tune your selections by dragging the edges and makes it a breeze to work with the program.
Under Import / Export, it’s best to engage “Project file and individual audio files separately all in one folder”. This saves all of your audio files within a project folder. No more accidentally moving things and running into playback problems at a later date. I highly recommend setting this setting to on.
The Audacity Interface
Now that we have all the basic settings locked in, we can get started on the project and familiarise ourselves with the program.
At the top left you find the standard transport controls. Play and Stop can also be toggled by the spacebar. If you want to pause simply hit P. To the right you have your tools – we’ll look into these in a little bit. Next you have the level meters visible so you can adjust incoming audio levels and check that you are not clipping.
Below these you have the most common editing commands like copy, paste, delete, trim, silence, zoom. These are great to have instant access to in a pinch, but once you learn the keyboard shortcuts for them, you really don’t need them anymore.
Then you see the main work area with the track lanes. This is where you will see your audio waveforms and is the place where you can do all your edits. On the left of each track lane you can set level, pan, mute, solo, etc. You also have a little pop up menu gives you more options for better organisation.
Back to the tools now. You use these for selecting, editing and moving around audio in the track lanes. Learning keyboard shortcuts will multiply your productivity here easily. You can zoom in with CMD+1, zoom out with CMD+3 and go back to your default zoom level by pressing CMD+2. Other shortcuts like Cut, Copy, Paste, Undo, Redo, etc follow your operating standards. There’s six main tools you can use:
The Selection Tool lets you mark positions in your audio file. Click to mark a specific point or click and drag to select region. Shift click work also with this tool.
The Envelope Tool is for working with audio levels in your file. In other DAWs this is often referred to as volume automation.
You can use the Draw Tool to actually redraw the waveform – a great and intuitive tool to get rid of clicks and pops for example.
The Zoom Tool lets you keep focus while zooming in. Repeated clicks will zoom directly into the point of interest. Use shift-click to zoom out again.
The Time Tool simply lets you move previously cut out audio clips around.
The Multi Tool combines several of the above tools into one and hides functionality behind key combinations. It’s great for Pro users of Audacity, but can be a bit fiddly if you haven’t worked in Audacity for long, so let’s skip this one for now.
Last but not least, if you are looking for something that’s not instantly accessible from the interface, you can always go through the menu which offers more options for your editing workflow. Special mentions here are the ability to join two audio clips from the “Edit” menu, the Mixer Board which is like a DAW mixer view from the View menu and of course the all the effects from the Effect menu!
Audacity Tutorial on Recording
To record audio into Audacity, you first need to select the input. For your voice you can select the built-in mic of your computer if the sound quality is appropriate for your project. You need to a track from the menu Tracks and in the case of voice you would probably select a mono track. Other sources, like digitising vinyl or cassette would require stereo. Don’t forget to check the input signal level “Click to start monitoring”. The incoming level should be between -12 and -6db to get the best audio quality. Use the input mic slider to set the recording level.
That’s it already. Now hit record to capture the audio and press stop when you finished recording. You see a nice waveform and your first recording in this Audacity tutorial is done!
While recording music like this is actually not that much different to other DAWs, you will find Audacity pretty limited quickly. If you need things like multitrack recording and midi connectivity, you are better off picking another DAW. One thing that annoys me with the program is that there’s no proper bar/beat measure for example, so have to do this visually and it makes editing more complicated than in other programs.
One major downsides, as just mentioned, is a missing snap to beat function, which often makes editing a pain. One workaround is to create a one-bar click/metronome audio clip and repeat it over the length of the project. This way your selections will snap to the one-bar click edges of the metronome giving you something similar to it. You can go to Generate > Rhythm Track to create this quite easily.
I already mentioned the Mixer Board which you can open from the View menu. It’s a great, simple tool to get the mix just right. There’s no plugins / inserts here, so it’s not as convenient as other DAWs, but sometimes you want simplicity to get the job done quickly. If you are concerned about getting the levels or pan right, then the Mixer Board will be all you need.
Audacity has a solid line up of built-in effects, but can also use third party plugins you already have. Remember though! The effect is applied destructively, so you can’t tweak settings during a recording session. When you add it to the track, you print it on the track immediately. While it seems arcane compared to todays DAWs, it was the standard way of recording back in the days. If the Beatles recorded classic albums this way, is it really so unusable for your creations?
How about Mastering?
One thing where Audacity compare well to DAWs is mastering – the final stage of audio process. It has most of the processors used, combined with editing tools. It exports to variety of audio formats.
When you are done recording and arranging your audio tracks, you can easily bounce down everything to a final stereo file via the File > Export option. Simply reimport the file into Audacity after the bounce is done and apply some final touches to it. Mastering can be super simple, if you already mixed the song properly before. For a more involved mastering job you can apply EQ, compressor, limiters, etc to shape the sound of the final polished render.
We’re not mastering engineers and are not getting into the intricacies of mastering in this Audacity tutorial. It’s a huge topic to learn, so if you want quick results we suggest getting a copy of Izotope Ozone. Its mastering assistant will master the track based on a few bits on information you need to provide.
Download Audacity Tutorial
This is the end of our little Audacity tutorial. You should now be familiar with it for recording and editing audio and finding your way around the interface. The program can’t compete with a full fledged modern DAW like Ableton, FL Studio, Studio One or Logic. But for anyone one a minimal budget, Audacity is a surprisingly powerful tool when working with audio. Download the latest version from https://www.audacityteam.org.