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As a hobbyist musician, I often pour longingly over the equipment and instruments that I just cannot justify purchasing. Music can be an expensive hobby, and it's not just that '68 Les Paul that takes a bite out of your wallet. If you are at all interested in recording or sharing your music, or even cleaning up old cassette recordings and putting them into your CD library, mixing boards and sound processing equipment can rack up the bill pretty quickly too. But with the advent of more powerful computers, most of these functions can be had right on your desktop... for a price. Recording and processing software can range from one hundred to one THOUSAND dollars, and more. What's a poor boy to do?
Then along comes one of the best hidden tools in the audiophile's toolkit... Audacity, an Open Source audio and recording software. This is a robust, mature platform which can handle most any sound or music task for you, with surprisingly professional results! Lend me your ear, and I'll cover some of the rich feature set that this project brings to the table.
Audacity has the ability to record from microphone, line input, or other external sources. You can attach a guitar, MIDI keyboard, or most any other input device for capture. And of course, no recording software would be complete without the ability to dub over existing tracks, allowing you to create multitrack recordings. Combined with the ability to monitor and adjust volume levels at all stages (prerecording, recording and post-production,) this gives you a versatility that is sufficient for most recording and tracking tasks. Another interesting feature of Audacity is it's ability to automatically convert and mix tracks that are recorded at different sample rates and formats, (such as combining a WAV file with an Ogg Vorbis track ) saving you the effort of having to resample a track to use it with your masterpiece. (You should hear my reinterpretation of Old McDonald!) Audacity also comes with an array of built-in effects, and the ability to add many more with VST and LADSPA plug-ins. Add this to the recording and multitrack, multi-channel features of the software, and you have a powerful and versatile workstation, well suited for even the demanding needs of a professional musician or recording and sound tech!
Don't despair, this software isn't just the recording artist's best friend. For all of you audiophiles out there, Audacity has your back as well. The automatic noise reduction / removal will allow you to get rid of hiss, static, and other background noise. In conjunction with EQ adjustment, Bass Boost and other filtering methods, this provides an easy yet powerful way to take those old records out of the closet, and revitalize them for use in an MP3 player or to burn to CD. Want to speed it up, or change the pitch? No problem! You can alter either without changing the other. Or to put it another way, you can bring that recording up to your singing range WITHOUT making it sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. The best part of all of these features is that Audacity is FAST. It can edit and process very large files very quickly, meaning you can spend your time LISTENING to your music instead of editing it. And all of this is handled in a very simple interface, making the learning curve relatively short (unlimited Undo... BEST feature EVER.) In addition, the online documentation and tutorials are well-written and easy to follow, and there are a large number of YouTube tutorials devoted to specific tasks and aspects of Audacity. Want to remove the lyrics from your favorite Britney Spears song for Saturday Night Home Karaoke? No problem (well, aside from the musical choice...)
One of my personal passions is Open Source software, and that is easily one of the best aspects of Audacity. Released under the GNU General Public License (or GPL,) the software is not just “free” as in free beer. The license allows and, in fact, STIPULATES that the source code be freely available, and can be altered and improved as you see fit, so long as the alterations are in turn freely available. In addition, Audacity is fully cross-platform, available to Mac, Windows and Linux users alike. Now, many people don't see the benefit or logic in this type of license, and in fact it seems counter-productive... “If it's not MAKING money, how can it be any good? And how can people afford to keep working on it?” Well, if you ask Mozilla, developers of the wildly popular AND Open-Source browser FireFox, I'm sure they have a better answer than I do. However, my opinion has always been that giving free license for the best software engineers in the world to play with a product that interests them will ultimately ALWAYS lead to a better product. After all, if you make chairs for a living, you'll do your job for eight hours and go home. But if you're making a chair for your WIFE to sit in, I GUARANTEE you will make it the best chair you can possibly make it. Doing something for love will always produce a better result than doing it for money.
A side benefit of this is the inclusion of Nyquist, a Lisp-like programming language built right into Audacity. This language, written by Roger B. Dannenberg, was intended as a complete language system for audio synthesis and analysis. In the context of Audacity, however, it's main benefit is the ability to write your own sound processing effects. This can be done as simply as writing a plain text file, as Nyquist plugins don't require compilation. More information, and a complete development system for more complex plugins, can be found at the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Music Project. Suffice to say that, for those with the time and skill, or desire to learn, the software ITSELF offers the opportunity, and ability, to grow beyond it's design, and adapt itself to your PARTICULAR needs.
I hope I've been able to pique the interest of a few aspiring recording artists (or at least have not bored everyone ELSE to tears!) It's hard enough to catch a break in the music industry, and with the advent of electronic media as a delivery mechanism, it's more important than ever to digitally capture and share that unique and professional sound that might just catapult you to stardom and fame. For myself, just the ability to experience the sweet strains of Enya, mixed with a little bit of Disturbed, is hours of entertainment all by itself! Happy Recording!