Editing wants to be FREE! An audio editing solution for Mac, Windows and
by Jeff Towne
There are lots
of references on this site to ProTools and Adobe Audition and
Nuendo and other sophisticated digital audio editing programs, but what
do you do if you need to do some editing on a budget, or want to run lean-and-mean
on a laptop, or are working in Linux? The audacious program Audacity
might be worth a look. It has a few significant drawbacks, but has the benefits
of being free, continually updated and improved, and will run on just about
any operating system.
Here at Transom,
we’ve dedicated significant space to tutorials about ProTools Free, because
it is an amazingly capable free program and offered an easy entry point to
world of digital audio workstations if you had the right computer. But ProTools
Free only runs on Mac OS9, and Windows 98 or Me (and not too reliably on either
of those Windows platforms.) Now, in 2004, if you’ve bought a new computer
it surely came with Mac OSX or Windows XP, neither of which can run ProTools
Or even if you’re running an older computer, you may have banged-up against
some limitations of the free program. So, we’ve recommended upgrading
to the digidesign M-Box, an audio interface that’s sold with a more
capable version of ProTools. The $450 price is still quite a bargain for
an audio interface
with good mic pre-amps and an editing and mixing program with plug-ins, but
even that expense is an impediment to some, and the fact that the M-Box must
connected to use the program is a turn-off to many. And ProTools LE takes a
pretty fast computer and lots of RAM to run well under OSX or Windows XP.
run pretty efficiently under Windows 98, ME, 2000, & XP, Mac OS9 and X,
Linux, and Unix. Go to their website at:
Download the program, documentation and plug-ins. There are links to users
groups, FAQs, tutorials, and one can submit requests for features and fixes.
There are a few shortcomings that make the program problematic for serious
production, but used with some care, Audacity can be a convenient tool for
simple editing or even
multi track mixing. The biggest problem is the current lack of any kind of
metering. There are no indicators of record levels, track levels or final
This is one of the most requested feature enhancements, so there’s some
hope that this will be added in a future release, but for now, it will take
some extra vigilance to ensure proper level strength and to avoid distortion.
Before you start
a new project, go to your computer’s sound control panel and make sure
the desired input device, (whether it’s you computer’s built-in
mic input, a sound card, or an external audio interface) is selected as the
input source. Then boot Audacity and within preferences, set the preferred
specs for your session. The audio I/O tab allows you to set up the
device(s) you are recording from and playing to, and the default number of
will be created when you click the record button. The Quality tab allows
you to set the sample rate and bit depth of the project. Audacity can handle
different sample rates and bit depths within a project, but these will be converted
in real-time to the default session settings when needed. Although normally
16-bit is a sufficient bit-depth for radio productions, and you will save a
good deal of disc space and processing power if you use that depth, Audacity
sometimes creates grungy-sounding sound files when recording at 16 bit. I’d
start with 16 bit, but if you have that problem, setting up your session to
at 32-bit float might solve it. The session can be dithered to 16 bit for burning
to CD at the mix phase. Set that in the file format tab as the default
export format. Make a new project, and check the lower left corner for the
rate, you can change it there if you need to.
To record a new
file, you don’t even need to create a new track, just hit the red record
circle in the transport panel, and a new track will be created. You can adjust
the record level with the slider next to the little microphone icon in the
top right corner, but ideally you should leave that slider fully up and adjust
level of your input device to prevent clipping at the inputs of your sound
card or interface. If you have sound files already in your computer that you’d
like to add to your session, select “import audio” from the project
menu. You can import several types of audio files, including MP3s. They will
automatically import to new tracks. You can name the track from the drop down
menu next to the X in the top left of the track. Be careful, clicking the
deletes the track from the project.
tools are similar to many other programs. The control toolbar is fairly
standard with the expected tape machine-style transport buttons. Pressing
the spacebar will start and stop play, and shift-spacebar (or typing L)
will loop-play a selected region.
tool allows you to click and drag over a range of audio in order to act
on that section. Moving the cursor over the edges of the highlighted region
allows grabbing and extending the length. Pressing Z moves the
selection edges to zero-crossings, which reduces the likelihood of clicks
tool allows you to write volume envelopes, effectively automating a
mix, much like the breakpoint volume automation in ProTools and other programs.
Click on the envelope tool, then click on a point along the track to create
a node, then click again to make another node and drag the node up or down
to adjust the level. Dragging a node up and off the track will delete it.
This technique can add a small amount of gain to the track as well as reducing
it. Making only one node and dragging it up or down is a fast way to adjust
the gain of the entire clip.
For overall gain changes to be applied to the entire track, use the “amplify” or “normalize”
commands from the effect menu, or adjust the volume slider at the left of the
track display. That slider sets the level for the track, but does not write
automation for levels as the project plays, you need the envelope tool for that.
Similarly, the pan control, located below the track volume slider on mono tracks,
adjusts the track’s overall left-right placement, but does not write automation.
tool acts like the pencil tool in most audio programs, when zoomed down to the
waveform level you can re-draw waveform data to eliminate clicks or other distortions.
The zoom tool
is pretty obvious, click on it and then drag over a range of a track or tracks
to zoom to that level. The magnifying-glass icons on the right hand side of
the top of the track window can be used to zoom in or out in steps, to zoom
to the selection, or to zoom out to see the entire project at once. If your
mouse has a scroll wheel you can use that to zoom as well.
The Time Shift
tool acts like the grabber in ProTools, use it to slide audio clips left and
right in the timeline. Clips cannot be dragged from track to track, but a clip
can be cut or copied and pasted into another track. If you wish to move an entire
track, use the “move track up” or “move track down” command
in the drop down menu at the left of each track.
mode will change functions depending on where on the track the cursor is
Cut, Copy and Paste functions work as expected, and
follow keyboard shortcut conventions as well. The trim to selection
command is very handy, highlight the audio you want to save, click the icon
with the wave inside the brackets and you’ll delete everything except
the selected region. The converse is accomplished by clicking the silence
selection icon, it mutes the selected audio, but without moving any
other audio regions, leaving a silent space, like hitting “mute”
for that time range. All other edits will close up the gap, like working
in “shuffle” or “ripple” mode in other editors. There
is no “slip mode” so if you wish to eliminate sound without shuffling
the adjacent audio together, use “silence selection.”
The bad news
is that the time shift tool works on all elements of a track, so there’s
no easy way to have a series of short clips in one track and slide them independently
along the timeline. You can cut and paste, or “split” audio out to
new tracks and slide those elements around, which solves the problem, but that
can quickly add up to lots of tracks and make for an impractically busy track
view if you have an involved or long project. You can make each track any height
you’d like (grab the vertical edges of the track and drag) so once a clip
is edited, the track can be reduced in size to get more tracks in view.
like to separate a region and move it to another track, use the “split”
command under the edit menu. Select the audio you’d like to move, and
select “split.” Audacity will make a new track with the selected
audio in it at its original time.
to work is to record or import your narration or actualities into the
first track, then go through the track, and when you find audio that you
might use, select it and use the “split” command which will
drop that section out to a new track. Name that track so you can recall
what that clip is. Repeat until you have all your potential clips in separate
tracks. You can then go in and fine-tune your edits on each clip, and
then drag them around in time to put them in order. You can then delete
the original track by clicking the X in the upper left corner of the track,
because it only has the audio you didn’t use.
Editing is pretty
straightforward: highlight audio you don’t want with the selector tool
and press delete. Audacity will shuffle the audio to close the gap. Use the
silence selection tool (mute) if you’d like to remove audio
without making changes to the timeline. You can always undo your edits, but
they don’t remain adjustable after you save, there are no edit marks that
you can tweak later, you’d need to step backward undoing all your subsequent
edits if you change your mind. So listen carefully and be sure you’re
happy with your cuts before you move on. Audacity
saves relatively small “.aud” project files with all the editing
data, so you can do multiple save-as steps to store different versions of
to retain flexibility without duplicating all the large sound files
will show you a list of your actions, and by clicking on the various entries,
the edits will revert to that stage of the edit, you can then discard all
after that point by clicking the discard button. The history list is
cleared whenever you save, as in most programs, you cannot undo after a save.
Audacity has been known to crash, so it’s a tricky balance to decide when to
save, when to save an alternate version, or whether to retain your undo buffer.
Edits are “destructive”
in the sense that they are not always editable, but deletions and volume envelopes
and effects to not overwrite the original sound files Audacity projects
quickly, as small “.aud” instruction files. When you want to save
the audio as a new file, suitable for burning to CD or importing into another
project, or FTPing to another location, you must export the project
to a .wav or other such file. This will take some time, depending on the size
your project, and will write new audio data. You can export elements of a project
by highlighting them and choosing export selected from the file menu.
have your elements edited and on different tracks, you can slide them around
with the time shift tool, and adjust their relative volumes with the volume
slider at the left of the track window, or with the “amplify”
command under the “effects” menu if one consistent level is sufficient.
If you need to fade a track up and down, such as ducking music under a voice,
use the envelope tool and click on the waveform to make nodes, then drag
the nodes up and down to create a volume envelope. These volume adjustments
remain adjustable, just grab a node and move it up or down, or drag it completely
off the track to delete it altogether.
You can adjust
tracks’ left-to-right positions by using the pan slider at the left of the track
window. Panning can not be automated at this time.
There are several
helpful plug-ins, including a basic compressor, EQ, filters and normalizing.
There are many others that should be used with caution, a few of them can
some pretty weird results. I’ve found the “Noise Removal” effect
to be pretty ineffective, creating weird artifacts that overwhelmed any noise
But even some of the crazier effects might be helpful in certain circumstances.
The implementation of RTAS plug-ins in ProTools is a good deal more flexible,
Audacity’s effects need to be applied in non-real-time, one at a time, and
once applied there’s no going back short of stepping backward with “undo.”
Once you have
a mix of your elements (listen carefully and/or use the metering trick described
in the sidebar to make sure your combined levels are healthy but not clipping)
you can export your project (under the “file” menu) as a .wav file,
or as an MP3, or as Ogg Vorbis, another kind of compressed file. Simply saving
your project won’t make a final mixed file, you need to export the project
to get a coherent file you can burn to CD or FTP.
If you select
all your tracks and choose “quick mix” from the Project menu (analogous
to a “bounce” in ProTools, but faster) Audacity will combine all
your tracks a single file, mono if you only have mono files, stereo if the
contains stereo files. Sadly the quick mix ignores panning of mono files and
simply creates a mono file. Quick mix simplifies your project down to one
two tracks, but you still need to “export as” to use the mixed audio
outside of Audacity.
As with any computer
program, using keyboard shortcuts will speed up your work. There’s a list
of the default shortcuts here:
And you can even
create your own custom shortcuts, as described here:
So, do you spend
the money on a ProTools LE system or use Audacity and buy a nicer microphone?
Producer Michael Fitzhugh had these perspectives:
~ Michael Fitzhugh
The program has
its quirks and impracticalities, but the price is right (free!), so it can
be a good simple way to do some editing. Programs such as ProTools, Adobe
(formerly CoolEdit), Nuendo and others offer increased functionality and ease
of use, but each of them are more expensive and more difficult to learn.
you are doing a complex production with lots of actualities and clips, Audacity
might be impractical, but if you just need to do some simple editing, and
of a few tracks, it might be just the right program. And with its constant
upgrade schedule, it may become significantly better as time goes by. And
to think that the developers might actually listen to you if you have suggestions.
Basics ~ Barrett Golding