Description and Uses

Audacity is a free, but incredibly powerful audio editing program. It allows you to easily record your voice from a connected microphone, add in sound effects and music, and save your final recording as an MP3. In the classroom, it is a great way to allow students to create easy podcasts (think radio broadcasts for your iPod). It is also a great first step towards creating a video with complex sound (involving narration, sound effects, and music).

You can download Audacity from

If you're on a computer for which you do not have the privileges to install a program, you can still use Audacity by downloading the portable version from

Learning the Basics

Audacity is an incredible piece of software because it is so simple to use. At its most basic, you can simply record your voice like you would with a tape recorder, and save the resulting file. While it has incredible features that can accomplish professional results, much of the interface is designed for ease of use, with the sophisticated tools tucked away. Most people can learn the basics in just a few minutes, and produce great sound files right away.

Basic Tools

The basic toolbar in Audacity is made up of buttons that should be common to any teacher that ever used a tape deck or CD player. It contains the basic pause, play, stop, skip, and record buttons often found on recording hardware. These buttons perform the same functions in Audacity that you would expect them to perform. The play button will play your project from the current position, pause will pause you in the current position, stop will stop the playback and reset it to the beginning, the skip buttons will let you jump forward or backward, and the record button begins recording sound from your microphone.

At the most basic, you can have students hit the record button, record a brief narration, and hit stop. They can then play back that recording to listen to what they have recorded. This is the same function as a basic tape recorder, and it's just as easy to use.

Audio Tracks

Each time the student records their voice, it will record as a separate audio track - it won't record over the first one - so students don't need to worry about accidentally deleting their first take when they record their second. If they want to take a few takes and keep the best one, they can keep all of the takes, and only delete the ones they don't want at the end.

Audacity_-_audio_track.pngIn order to keep each take from playing over one another, you can mute individual tracks using the mute button, located next to the track. If you click on the title of the audio track, you give it a name (ex. Take 1, Take 2, etc.). This can also be useful for longer recordings where you might want to break up the recording into individual sections.

Although it's a more advanced feature, you might find the "-" "+" slider to be useful. In more complex projects where students are combining their voice with music and/or sound effects, it can be important to adjust the gain. This slider allows you to adjust the gain of that individual track to make it louder (+) or quieter (-). If you find your voice getting overpowered by the background music - adjust the voice track up a little, and adjust the music track down a little, to find that perfect level that you were going for.

Editing Tools

As you begin to work with multiple tracks and want to adjust cues and timing for sound effects, narration, and music, you'll need to get into the basic editing tools.

The Selection Tool

Audacity_-_tool_tips.pngThe tool tips on the right hand side adjust what your mouse clicks do. By default, you are on the selection tool (top left, the one that looks like a capital "i"). This tool allows you to select parts of an audio track for editing. It is the tool you'll use more than any other. With a section selected, you can use the same keyboard short cuts you do with text - you can copy (Ctrl-C), cut (Ctrl-X), paste (Ctrl-V) and delete (Del). You can also modify the selection in a ton of ways using filters in the "Effects" menu.

Audacity_-_quick_tools.pngThe most common things you might do to a selection are separated off on the right with quick buttons to get the job done even faster. You have (from left to right): Cut, Copy, Paste, Trim (silences everything outside of the selection), and Silence (silences the selection leaving everything outside the selection unchanged). You then have Undo and Redo buttons, the Synch-Lock button (addressed later), and a series of zoom tools (Zoom In, Zoom Out, Zoom to Selection, Zoom to Project).

The Time Shift Tool

The time shift tool is the one is the one that looks like a pair of left-right arrows. The function of this tool tip is incredibly basic. It allows you to shift audio tracks to different places in the project with a simple click and drag. This can be incredibly useful when you want to position a particular sound effect, or move a narration track to coincide with a fade in the music.

The Envelope Tool

Audacity_-_tool_tips2.pngThe envelope tool (two white arrows pushing down on a blue line) is a way to introduce volume adjustments directly into the waveform by the click of a mouse. Left clicking on the wave form with the tool on will put small white dots on the track - I call these white dots "pinch points".

A waveform adjusted with the envelope tool.

To adjust the volume of the area between two pinch points, just click on the white dot, hold and move your mouse cursor up (louder) or down (quieter). Using this tool you can adjust that section where a person's voice gets a little to low, or too high, or fade background music while someone is speaking, bringing it back up again after the narration track finishes.

It's a very useful tool, but might be beyond the scope of simple editing. It's probably best to introduce this on later projects, once students have a good sense of how to use the basics of the program.