Monday, October 14, 2013


Once upon a time I owned a reel-to-reel tape deck, and I loved to fiddle around with making my own re-edits and mixes of songs I liked and thought should be arranged a little differently than how they were on the LP or CD. Later, I was lucky enough to volunteer at a non-commercial radio station which had a couple of lavish recording studios with soundboards, effect generators, and--of course--reel-to-reel decks. I used to bring vinyl 12" singles into the studio, and using the instrumental or dub version from the flip side of the single, I'd fashion elaborate reworks of my favorite tunes. After mixing these onto a RTR tape for storage, I'd transfer the song to a cassette and BOOM!, my personalized party mixes were mobile.

Still later in life I got into computer games and wasted a lot of time with them. A friend of mine at a local bookstore told me I should put all that computer time into mixing music using software, just like I'd done before with magnetic tape. I was skeptical enough (and sufficiently caught up in games like, say, Sim City) to accept his loaner of a mixing program and then forget it for a few years. However, once I got around to playing with the program I was hooked. Now, I rarely indulge in a computer game, and instead have become a mixing freak like never before. One day here at the library I was assisting a patron in our computer lab when I realized that every one of our public computers features music mixing software (the program is called Audacity) every bit as good as the program my friend had loaned me long ago, yet very few people seemed to know of it. We've offered a few classes in using Audacity over the past couple of years, but not many folks attended them, so it seems to me some promotion is in order here.

What the heck is Audacity?

Created by students at Carnegie Mellon University back in 1999, Audacity is, in their words, "a free, open source digital audio editor," which basically means it's free (duh) and useful in manipulating sound files. Audacity is a multi-track audio editor, so if you have a song split into a group of audio files (with, for example, one file for each instrument or voice), you can make changes to one track without altering any of the others. The software's been available on the internet for a long time and is currently up to version 2.0.4 (PCPL has 2.0.0). The program is highly intuitive and its interface can be presented in over 50 different languages.

What is Audacity good for?

Audacity allows audio processing (meaning conversion, editing, altering, etc.) of all sorts of sound files, including podcasts. Some music file formats are easier to work with than others, .mp3 and .wma being particularly clunky in Audacity, but high quality audio file formats like .wav and .aiff files are relatively easy to work with in the program. One of the most obvious uses of Audacity is the creation of your own mix tape, as the program will allow you to beat-match different songs, blending them together into a seamless whole (although this does take some practice).

Where the software really comes into its own is with its versatility in allowing subtle changes to a particular song file. Audacity has a lot of sound effects loaded into the program, ranging from simple changes to the song's EQ (i.e., more or less bass or treble) to more advanced effects like phase shifting. You can edit your sound files in Audacity using fairly intuitive cut/copy/paste functions, and it is possible to adjust the tempo and pitch of the audio file (see graphic to the right). With these features one could, for example, lengthen an instrumental passage or the concluding chorus/vamp section of a song by looping the section you like, up a lazy groove's tempo a bit (while keeping the lead vocalist on key), or cut out some annoying introduction or cheesy 1980s sax solo (for example). I've done things like slow a fast techno song down to reggae speed, and then overdub a recording of a poet reading her own work onto the resulting techno/reggae music bed.

Audacity also offers noise reduction and/or removal, which means you can take a digital file version of, say, an old cassette recording and remove some of the hiss from that recording and make a new, pristine, audio file (again, this takes practice). You can even use Audacity to split a lengthy original audio file (such as the entire side of an LP recorded digitally as an audio file) into several discreet, individual tracks which could then be burnt onto a CD. If you are a musician, Audacity offers a free and easy way to create professional-sounding final takes of your songs and master them into any number of digital audio file formats which you could distribute as you see fit. Audacity offers a "karaoke" feature, which allows you to suppress the vocal in a song and create an instrumental version over which you and/or your friends could sing the tune. Finally, you could use Audacity to create a truly personalized ringtone for your phone.

What do I need to use Audacity?
First of all you'll need a library card (or guest pass) to get onto our computers, but each and every machine at PCPL has Audacity already loaded onto it. You can start Audacity by clicking on the start menu--see graphics to the left and below--and then selecting "All Programs," which brings up an alphabetically organized list of programs installed on our PCs. Audacity's start icon is near the top of the list.
You will also need a pair of headphones or earbuds (we sell the latter at all our branches for a buck), and a USB flash drive would help (although you could email an audio file of whatever you mix to your own email account and get access to it later that way). There's also a big FAQ section available online if you want help.
Get a flash drive, put some music on it, come on down to the library and have the audacity to get creative!

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