Audacity – A Quick Start Guide

(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)

Audacity is a very powerful and very complex program and is capable of doing many things with audio. To a new user, it may at first seem a little complicated, maybe even daunting. But that’s only because you’re not familiar with the program yet. You probably felt the same the first time you tried to use Microsoft Word (I know I did)!

But just as Microsoft Word is completely familiar to us now and a breeze to use, so is Audacity. All you need to do is get over that initial learning curve and familiarise yourself with how it works. So here’s a very quick start guide to help get you on your way.

Opening an audio file in Audacity
Opening an audio file in Audacity is the same as opening a file in any program. Go to the menus at the top left of the program and select File > Open. Just bear in mind that Audacity primarily deals with WAV files so won’t open file types like WMA etc. If you want to use a WMA files you need to convert it to WAV format before opening it in Audacity.

There are loads of free audio converters that will convert your WMA file to WAV, just google it and you’ll see dozens. Look out for one called Switch which is particularly good.

Connecting A Microphone To Audacity
If you want to record vocals using Audacity, first you need to connect a microphone to your computer. The quality of the microphone you use is obviously very important, but so too is the type of connector (jack-plug) on your microphone:

(1) Microphones with small minijack can plug in to the Mic In port on your computers sound-card

(2) USB Microphones plug in to…erm…ehh…the USB port (a bit obvious that one)!

(3) For stage microphones with standard 1/4 inch jack-plugs, I highly recommend an adapter like the iMic from Griffen – it’s basically a 1/4 inch jack to USB connector. If you are a singer, you probably already own a good quality stage microphone you use at gigs so it makes sense to use that microphone in conjunction with the iMic adapter.

If you don’t have a microphone, you could use your computers built in microphone if it has one, but remember, these are only designed for speech so don’t expect good quality results.

Saving your work in Audacity
Audacity works a little bit different from normal programs when it comes to saving a file. Most computer programs require you to go to File and select Save (or Save as..). Audacity is an audio editor so it works a little bit different from this. Using the Save command in the Audacity File menu actually saves your entire project rather than the finished sound file (File > Save Project).

Being able to save a project is a fantastic facility to have. It means you can go back to your song at any time and continue recording or make more edits to it. You could spend days, weeks or months recording your album if you want (some people even spend years working on an album)! The good thing is that the ability to save your projects allows you to work at your own pace.

Exporting a file is different. When you export a file, it means all the project files are consolidated in to one final file and saved as a completely new file. So, when you have finally finished working on your song (i.e you have completed your project and you’re happy with the way it sounds), then you EXPORT it.

The exported file becomes your “finished product” and is the file you will then use to “burn” your song to a CD or upload to the Web etc.

So, just to recap…—> Save Project, saves a project that you are still working on —> Export creates a new file of the finished song.

It’s very important that you fully understand the difference between saving and exporting before you go any further with Audacity.

Remember that your project file only exists as a bunch of digital data inside Audacity and is unique to Audacity so can’t be recognised by other programs like mp3 players or a CD writers etc. Your song doesn’t become the finished article until you export it. If you’re still not sure, read the above paragraph over and over again until you do!

If you don’t get this distinction right you’ll only waste your time.

Here’s a tip. I always save and keep my project files, even after I’ve finished a song and exported it. This is because you never know when you may want to go back and remix or re-do something. Also, if you ever lose your exported file or it becomes corrupt, this way you can load in your original project file and export it again as a new file.

Editing Audio
Editing audio is not as difficult as you may think. Audacity uses pretty much the same basic keyboard controls you would use in Microsoft Word.

Delete – To delete a part of your recording, click, hold and drag to select the section. Then hit the Delete key on your keyboard (this won’t work though unless Audacity is stopped – pausing it won’t work). If you make a mistake don’t worry. Hit Ctrl+Z on your keyboard to undo it and restore it back to the way it was.

Cut & Paste – To cut and paste or copy and paste a section of audio, select it as above. Use Ctrl+X (to cut) or Ctrl+C (to copy). Place your cursor at the point you want to paste it in and hit Ctrl+V. Simple. Just be careful if you’re copying and pasting pieces of audio when you’re running more than one track. Cutting and moving audio on one audio track will change the length of the audio on that track so you risk losing any sync it had with the other tracks in your project – you have been warned!

The good thing about copying and pasting though is that once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to sing the chorus of a song just one time and then copy and paste it throughout the whole song.

Duplicate – One of my favourite features of Audacity! To duplicate a full track or a segment of audio in a track, hit Ctr+D on your keyboard. This will duplicate the selected segment of the track and copy it in to a brand new stand-alone track, leaving your original track unchanged. You can use the Time Shift Tool to drag your new audio clip into position in its track.

Adjusting volume – Select the whole track or segment of audio you want to adjust (click and drag to highlight it). Use the envelope tool to adjust the volume.

Noise reduction – Another of my favourite tools. You may find that when you record your vocal, it also picks up some unwanted background noise (like the hum of your computers power supply or the whirring of the fan etc). You may also hear a bit of hiss on your recording. This is caused by your sound card – generally the cheaper the sound card, the worse the background hiss and noise. To clean up unwanted noise:

  1. Select a section of the audio that is silent except for the noise you want to filter out (usually the first couple of seconds works best).
  2. Go to Effect > Noise Removal and click on the Get Noise button.
  3. Select all of the audio you want to filter.
  4. Go to the Effect > Noise Removal again, but this time click on the Remove Noise button.

If you make a mistake or don’t get the results you want, use Ctrl+Z to undo it (or select Edit > Undo from the file menu).

Remember, pretty much nothing works in the Audacity menus if you have your project paused…Audacity needs to be stopped (the big red stop button) before most of the file functions become available.

Exporting the completed file – When you’ve completed your recording or editing, you’ll probably want to export it as an mp3 file. At the time of writing this article, Audacity doesn’t have a default MP3 export function, so you’ll need to download the LAME MP3 encoder (update – it does now).

To export your work as an mp3 first select each of the tracks by using shift (on your keyboard) + left-click (on your mouse) until all the tracks are highlighted. Then go to the Project menu and select Quick Mix.

On the Edit > Preferences make sure the Quality tab is is set to 44100 Hz (Audacity should do this at default). On the File Formats tab (next to the Quality tab) set the MP3 bit-rate to 128. You can set it higher than 128 if you want, but whatever you do don’t set it any less or you’ll get poor quality audio results.

When you’re finished, click OK in the Preferences dialog box. Go to File and Export As MP3.

You can leave the ID3 tags blank or fill them in with your own information if you want.

You now have an MP3 file ready for uploading to the Web or if you prefer you can burn it on to a CD.