Monday, August 22, 2016

Audacity for dummies (by a dummy), part 1: The very, very basics

Do you suck at editing audio? Me too, man! It's like we're soulmates or something!

Successful voice acting is a package deal that involves more than just the alluring "voice acting" part, so unfortunately, the little leeches known as "marketing" and "editing" (among other things) stick to the bottom of that fish's belly until they're symbiotic and therefore crucial to survival. To send in auditions (and sometimes work) from home, we at least need to know how to record our voices, clean them up a bit, and then send them on their merry ways to whoever needs them.

There are all kinds of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations - basically, programs you record into and/or edit audio on) you can use to that end, but I want to focus on one of the most popular choices, Audacity. I use it because it's free, and I'm a big cheapo who orders off the dollar menu everywhere he goes. If you're looking for the most professional, inclusive software for a big project...well, first of all, don't do that if you still don't know how to edit, and secondly, Audacity may not have everything you'll want or need. Audacity, however, works well for the common voice actor auditioning or, in some cases, working from home.

It's difficult to just jump in and start editing, though, because there are almost literally like a billion features just in Audacity (the "simplistic" end of the DAW spectrum), and to paraphrase myself elsewhere on the internet, finding yourself having to competently edit a bunch of audio when you don't know how can feel like being stranded on the bridge of the Enterprise during a Borg attack.

This article is part 1 of a series where I share what I've learned about using Audacity. That said, I am not an audio engineer. I haven't been using Audacity for years, I am not a tech guru, and if you ask me about the finer points of Audacity, all I will likely do is send you a sheepish shrug. What I can do with Audacity, though, is submit clean, effective auditions and produce audiobooks up to a professional standard. I ain't a wizard, but I can do that much, and I want to take a moment to break down this complex program so other people can jump in easier.

What we'll cover today:

- Downloading Audacity and finding its tutorial
- The very, very basics of how to record yourself
- Choosing your microphone, speakers, and channel setting (mono or stereo)
- Cutting, copying, pasting, and time-shifting (not quite as cool as it sounds)


Go here and follow the written directions to start downloading Audacity. Don't click on any banners that are big, colorful, or say stuff like "DOWNLOAD NOW!!" The Audacity team doesn't share their software like that. More than likely all you'd be clicking on is something that wants to infect your computer. I won't walk you through the entire process, but let me know if you have trouble downloading it or opening it once downloaded. (If you've already downloaded it, then obviously skip this step, silly.)

Audacity has its own official tutorial that you can start reading here. It's far more in-depth than what you're going to find in this series, so consider these articles more of a hands-on experience for the basics.

Audacity's precise layout tends to change depending on how up-to-date your version of it is and what kind of computer you're using it on (i.e. PC or Mac). However, the one constant seems to be the big icons near the top-left corner looking like the stuff you'd find on a TV remote. Surprise surprise, they do mostly the same thing. To start recording your beautiful voice (assuming Audacity has recognized a working microphone), hit the big red circle to Record. When you're done recording, hit the big brown square to Stop. If you merely want to pause for a bit before recording some more, hit the two parallel lines to Pause. If you want to move your cursor to the far left or far right of your current track (more on "tracks" in a bit), hit the left or right arrows with the lines on the flat side. If you want to listen to what you've just recorded, hit the big green arrow to Play.

Wherever you click on your "track" (the rectangle in the main portion of the screen containing the squiggly line representing your sound waves), a vertical line will appear. This represents how far into your recording you'll start listening, among other things. It's a cursor in line form.

Somewhere just below the lineup of the icons I mentioned earlier should be a volume icon and microphone icon alongside drop-down text. The volume icon lets you choose where your sound is going to come out of (in other words, what speakers). The microphone lets you choose what microphone you're going to record into. If you're using something like a laptop with a built-in mic, it'll probably be set to that automatically. If you want or need to plug a different microphone in, do so before opening Audacity; for whatever reason, plugging in a different microphone while Audacity is already up won't show the new mic in the drop-down box (at least for me). If need be, exit out of Audacity, plug your mic in, then open it back up and select it from the drop-down box.

Using your microphone of choice, hit Record and say something - anything - "I am Hibbles McJibbles, the flying purple people eater." Then hit Pause to briefly stop recording. Ruminate on the implications of what you've said, then hit Record again and say, "I mean I eat purple people." Then hit Stop to cease recording altogether. Hit Play to listen to your moving speech in its entirety. When it's done, click between the end of the first sentence and the beginning of the second, then hit Play again to just listen to your clarification. Hit Skip to Start to move the cursor back to the start of the track. Hit Play again if you're still intoxicated by your one-liner.

Congratulations, you can now record and playback your own audio. We'll do more with this in a bit.

What you just recorded on was one "track." You can think of these tracks sort of like railroad tracks, with your audio being the train that runs along them. The moment you started recording, you created one track. Generally, if you hit Record again, Audacity will automatically start recording on a separate track, starting from wherever your line cursor was last. If your cursor was at the beginning of your first track, your second track will start recording there. If you hit Stop and then play them back, both tracks would play at the same time. We'll mess with that in a bit.

If you want to create a separate track without a "train" (recording) yet, click on "Tracks" near the top-left corner of the screen, then hover over "Add new" and select "Audio track" when it appears. We'll use that in a moment, too.

Copying lets you take a selected portion of your audio and clone it, ready to be dropped into a new location. Pasting lets you actually drop it in a new location. Cutting is just a fancy word for "deleting." Anything you have highlighted with the "Selection Tool" (Audacity's default "tool" and the one you'll be using most - more on that later) will be deleted upon cutting.

No, this does not mean you are the hero of a 90s action movie. It's actually a little more mundane.

Directly to the right of the basic toolbar (Play, Pause, Stop, Record, etc.) should be six icons clumped together. The one in the bottom center - the double-ended arrow - is your Time Shift tool. Right now, you have the Selection Tool, which lets you highlight parts of your audio to be interacted with. The Time Shift tool can take whatever is selected and move the whole thing around.

Click on "Tracks," then hover over "Add new" and select "Audio track." A new, empty track should appear below the one containing your spiel about eating purple people. Click and drag your "Selection Tool" (cursor) across the entirety of Track 1; near the top right of the screen, to the right of the icon of the scissors, should be an icon of two nearly-identical pages, one lower than the other; click on that to Copy. (You can also, on Windows computers, just press C while holding Control, but we'll get more into shortcuts later.) Click on the bottom track and use Skip to Start to make sure you're at the beginning, then click on the icon of the paper and clipboard directly to the right of the one you Copied with to Paste (or just press Ctrl + V - again, on Windows). Now you have two spiels about eating purple people.

If you press Play, you'll probably just hear what sounds like a much louder version of yourself, due to both tracks playing at once. You can click "Mute" on one of the audio tracks if you don't want one version distracting you. For now, click on the Time Shift tool, then click on Track 2 and drag it just slightly to the right. Hit Play. If both tracks are unmuted, you just gave yourself a cool angel voice.

But let's cut the "I mean I eat purple people" from Track 2. Use your Selection Tool again to highlight the second sentence on Track 2, then click on the scissors icon to the left of the Copy icon (or just hit Delete). That sentence will be deleted, and you will have only half of a cool angel voice.

What's the difference between mono and stereo? I really don't know for certain.

What I do know is that voice actors generally record in mono, because we're only using one instrument - our voice - and therefore don't need the depth that stereo brings. Beyond that, recording in mono takes up less data space than stereo. To the right of your output (the speakers you're using) and input (the microphone you're recording with) boxes is one that should say either Mono or Stereo. You can use this to switch between mono and stereo, but generally, stick with mono if you're just doing voice overs and not, say, recording a symphony.

If you're so enamored with your work today that you feel you must save it, you can click on "File" in the very top-left corner, then click on "Save Project." Enter in your corresponding information, save as usual, and you're done.

However, there's a teensy tiny bit more to that picture. Without leaping through a bunch of technical hurdles (hurdles I am not fully cognizant of), you can only open the Audacity files you've saved if they're in one specific location. They will be sent there by default, so wherever they're sent to by default, you generally want to keep them there. Trying to separate and organize them often results in a bunch of files that won't open when you want them, so as cluttered as your Audacity folder can get (and it can get very, very cluttered as a voice actor), you should probably just leave all the save files where they are.


Slow down, cowboy. Exporting your files so you can actually share them with people, rather than just editing and listening to them forlornly, can have a few snags in it, and it's best saved for next time. It's not really hard, but it will require its own discussion, and I think we're at the end of our talk here today.

- How to record and listen to audio
- What tracks are and how to make new ones
- How to copy, paste, cut, and time shift
- How to save and view your recorded audio
- How to make cool angel voices

- How to import audio
- How to export audio (including MP3s - especially those)
- Keyboard shortcuts to make using Audacity quicker and easier
- How you can bring it all together to make a (fairly raw) project

If you already knew all this stuff and you've been tapping your toes this whole time, I apologize. As advertised, this article went over the very basics of using Audacity. We'll get into techniques and pointers down the road. If you've never used Audacity before, I hope this can at least get your toes wet so you're a little more comfortable with it. In the meantime, play around with recording and the basics of copying, pasting, cutting, and time shifting.

More than likely, this Audacity series will be a somewhat drawn out affair - one a month so far, in addition to an article of a different nature, an interview, and a Let's Learn Accents. Subscribe so you can be the first to know when all three of them hit, and the next installment in getting acquainted with Audacity. See you then, right?

What's all this "Let's Learn Accents" and "interviews" hullabaloo? They're awesome series coming to this blog soon, so read this to learn more. Go ahead and check out the rest of the blog, too, while you're at it. What if I told you you're guaranteed to enjoy yourself? (...I didn't say you WOULD. I just said, "What if?")


  1. Can you include some labeled pictures? I think it would make your instructions easier to follow

    1. I'll try to do that next time, though I'll confess I'm not entirely fluent with taking pictures in my computer. Thanks for the feedback.

    2. Usually when I want a picture of my screen, I just use the PrtSc button and paste it into MS Paint. I can then edit and save it as a .jpg or .png image.