Getting started with Audacity

9 min read

What is Audacity?

With the evolution of the Internet there has been a huge boom in personal websites, blogs, photo and music sharing sites, and things called podcasts. Podcasts are simple recordings of interviews, personal recollections, or entire skits, including entire entertainment “acts” that include background music and sound effects. What this change in the Internet culture has offered to the everyday person is the ability to jump into the world of audio recording. Audacity was created with this very basic need in mind.

Audacity is a simple audio editor and recorder. It can record live audio, help to convert tapes and records into digital recordings, and edit and mix a number of sound files together. What this means for you, is that you can use it to:

  • Create audiocasts or podcasts that can be uploaded to the Web and shared with others. Podcasts can be interviews with interesting people, simple narrations, or cute snippets of your children talking.
  • Record live events such as lectures and presentations. Of course, you need to have a laptop to bring along with you.
  • Move your old records and cassettes into the digital age and convert them to an MP3 digital audio file. With additional equipment (a cassette or record player with a line-out plug and cable), you can connect this equipment to your computer and use Audacity to make versions of your music that you can play on a digital music player like an iPod.
  • Edit most digital audio files, such as podcasts, to add in music, delete segments, remove unwanted noise, add in some audio effects. Audacity lets you work with audio files to make them better.
  • Record audio from YouTube. Have you ever wanted only the audio portion of a YouTube video? Well, now you can play the video directly from YouTube, but “strip” only the audio portion out for your own use.
  • Create a ringtone for your cell phone. Audacity lets you convert between audio formats. It supports Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV, and AIFF formats, and can convert between them.

It’s also a great tool if you want to e-mail someone a simple audio message. Just plug in your headset, hit record, and start talking. You can have a personalized voice message that can be sent through e-mail!

Will it work for me?

Audacity was developed by a group of volunteers under the GNU General Public License (GPL), and is open source, or free software. This not only means that it does not cost anything to download, but also that you can use the program, create items with it, and freely distribute these items, modify the program itself, and share your work with others.

You can download Audacity for:

  • Mac OS X
  • Microsoft Windows
  • GNU/Linux
  • Other operating systems

Let’s briefly go over how to download and install Audacity.

Windows and Mac OS

The installation process for both of these operating systems is similar:

  1. Go to the official Audacity website at and download the appropriate version of the software for your computer.
  2. Once the installation package has been downloaded to your computer, double-click on it to start the installation.

    For Mac computers, a DMG file is downloaded. All you need to do is uncompress that file, and drag-and-drop the Audacity package to the Application folder. For any Windows device, an EXE file is downloaded. Double-click on that file to perform the installation.

  3. Find the Audacity icon (shown in the next image) in the Application or Programs folder, to open the program.

    Getting Started with Audacity


You can use Audacity with GNU/Linux operating systems (and other similar operating systems), but you should download the correct installation package for it. Currently, there are a number of distributions available for the following types of systems:

You can download the installation packages for these and others from the Audacity Linux or Unix web page, at

In this article, the screenshots are specific to the Mac OS X software. However, don’t be concerned if this is not your computer operating system of choice. The software itself is very similar between operating systems, and any notable differences between the Audacity software screens for different operating systems, are noted, so you know what to look for.

In the interest of saving you some time, there are some things that Audacity can’t do in comparison to more specialized audio editing software. Audacity:

  • Can’t play or record files in the MIDI audio file format.
  • Doesn’t natively play or export audio in propriety or restricted file audio formats, such as WMA or AAC. Additional plug-ins must be installed to do this.
  • Has less plug-ins and effects than a specialized Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
  • Can’t apply sound effects in realtime. This means that you have to record the track and then apply sound effects to the track.
  • Isn’t a specialized audio editing software package, so there are some limitations on multi-track editing and mixing features.

Moving up to Audacity 1.3

Audacity 1.3 offers a lot more than its predecessor, 1.2. It has some new features, which include faster equalization and noise removal tools, a new “mixer board” view with per-track volume meters, and a fullscreen view, and in addition, some basic audio information (mute, solo, gain, and track height) is now saved when you save a project.

Common audio editing terms used in Audacity

As with any new tool, there is often some terminology that comes along with understanding how it works. For Audacity, there are audio recording and editing terms that will come in handy when learning how to use the software. Some basic terms are:

  • Project—when you open Audacity, you will open or create a new project. This includes all of the files, timing, and information on how you combined and edited different pieces of audio into your file or project. This term isn’t specific to audio editing, but to software that combines pieces of different files into a single file in order to create a final output.
  • Clip—is a short segment of audio. It can be combined with others to make an audio track.
  • Track—one continuous audio element.
  • Library—a collection of audio files or tracks. These can be grouped according to the content of the audio files (like a music library) or just by the location of where they are stored.
  • Effect—there are two types of effects: generator and processing. Generator effects artificially create sounds using your audio track (or add it in). Processing effects work with the existing audio and edit or change it for a desired result.
  • Noise—is sound of any kind, especially unintelligible or dissonant sound, that interferes with the main audio that you want heard in a track. Or simply put, it is any sound that you don’t want in the audio track.
  • Bit or Sample Rates—the number of computer bits that are conveyed or processed per unit of time. This is normally expressed in kilobits per second (kbps). A higher bit or sample rate means that your track was recorded in better quality.
  • Export—the process of saving the audio in another format other than the format of the program that you created it in, usually so that you can play it or use it on another device or computer program. Typically, for audio, you will export files in a WAV or MP3 format.
  • WAV, AIFF, MP3—these are all audio file types. This means that when you export an audio track from Audacity, it can be any of these formats, or you can simply do a Save As, to save it in the Audacity format of AUP. However, then only Audacity will be able to open the AUP file to listen to its contents.

As we start using Audacity and create a project, more terms will be added and explained as we move through each step. We’ll be sure to call out any new terms so you can add them to your memory banks.

Opening Audacity

No matter what operating system you use on your computer, all you need to do is find the Audacity program and open it, just as you would with any other software on your computer. The Audacity main window opens with an empty project window. This will look something like the next screenshot:

Getting Started with Audacity

Don’t be overwhelmed by this screen. Sure, there are a lot of icons and terms that might not be familiar, but we’re going to review each element and how it is used. And as we begin our own sample recording session, we’ll again review the icons and their use.

There are three main areas on this screen, as discussed in the following sections.

Audio controls and editing toolbars

The top portion, which includes audio controls and the many editing toolbars. These are the buttons and tools that you will use to edit and manipulate your recorded audio tracks.

Project View

The middle portion of the screen is the project view. This area will look very different when a project is open, as the timeline won’t be empty. In this case it will show a digital representation of the audio that you recorded, along with some more settings that you can adjust.

Selection Toolbar

Just below the project view is the settings tool bar, which displays the frequency and bit rate information, and more timeline information, which we will cover as we start working on our sample project. But let’s first discuss the main menu, and each of the toolbars on the screen.

Using the main menu

The main menu bar contains basic functionality for Audacity. You can open and save projects, add or hide toolbars in the main window, set preferences, as well as open the program Help file. This menu bar gives access to the entire program, even if you don’t have all of the toolbars viewable.

Getting Started with Audacity

The main menu appears a bit differently when using different operating systems. When using Audacity on the Windows or Linux operating systems, the main menu is seen on top of the program window. With the Macintosh operating system, it is along the top bar of the computer screen.

When we begin our sample project, you’ll see the most common uses of this main menu—for opening and saving Audacity project files.


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