Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Getting Started with Audacity 1.3

OK, some of you will notice that I do not do many product specific reviews when it comes to my book choices. That’s because I don’t want to limit suggestions to a particular technology or have something I recommend only be relevant to a handful of people. For that reason, I tend to pick broad topics that any tester can use and can get in and take advantage of.

Still, there are times when I decide there’s something that really deserves its own spot and mention, especially when I find I’m using it all the time. There’s no question that, since I started producing TWiST, one program has become a constant friend and helper to me, and that’s Audacity. Since starting with the podcast, and up until now, I've decided to standardize on it and use it for all production aspects (I also like the fact that it’s completely open source and, well, free :) ).

Bethany Hiitola’s book “Getting Started with Audacity 1.3” is exactly that, it’s an introductory book, but it’s an introductory book that will help you easily understand how to do many things in Audacity ranging from simple to fairly complex. For this purpose, and quite conveniently, the book is formatted with one primary project… producing a podcast (see where I’m going with this, huh :)? ).

Chapter 1. Audacity and the World of Audio Editing

This chapter goes into explaining what the Audacity project is, and some specifics related to the most current version as to the book's printing (1.3 in April of 2010). Several common audio editing terms are covered and do not require a background in audio engineering or studio production to comprehend. The concept of an Audacity Project is explained, and also an understanding of the gear that is helpful to producing a podcast. You could go way overboard here, but really, a decent microphone and a pair of headphones attached to your built in sound card will do very well. If you decide to get really serious, a dedicated multi-input interface like a Roland U-30 would be awesome.

Chapter 2. The Basics: Setting Up a Project

This chapter helps the user understand how projects are set up and some of the common tasks and buttons/tools that will be used regularly.

Chapter 3. Ready and Action! Creating a Voice Track and Recording

Since this book is geared towards podcasting, it's no surprise that most of the coverage is aimed at recording voices, specifically using Skype as the medium to record interviews. The techniques described can also be used for in-person interviews.

Chapter 4. Making It Sound Better: Editing Your Podcast

The raw recording may have items that you want to modify, and that modification may be more than just cutting out a section. When editing an interview, there are some key tricks to making the edit sound as natural as possible (and sometimes even with the best editing, there are obvious jumps. Going in and understanding how to smooth those transitions out, as well as using the envelope tool for controlling volume within a track or the time shift tool to move audio around, will help the user make the most of the tracks that they modify.

Chapter 5. Advanced Editing: Fixing the Glitches and Removing the Noise

In most cases, the editing required will be minimal, but at times, to either fix problems or add a little excitement to the mix, you may want to play with some of the effects that are included. While there are a number of effects that will add all sorts of interesting sounds (like phaser and tremolo if you want to make it sound like a late 50's sci-fi radio serial :) ), many of the effects are actually simple tools that will allow you to even out the sound, or repair waveforms that were damaged or find "dropped" sections and allow the user to repair them (use this with care, as the resulting fix may be more unnatural than the original flaw). This section also shows how to set a noise floor and remove things like unwanted steady background noise (like tape hiss).

Chapter 6. Saving Projects and Exporting Podcasts

Each project, due to its tracking all edits and changes, can be very large collections of files. Usually, though, the final product is a (comparatively, small MP3 file or some other format. Understanding the export capability and how to manipulate the values (specifically for bit rate compression) can make a world of difference in the sound quality of the projects created.

Chapter 7. Beyond the Basics: Editing for Even Better Sound

There are a number of ways to edit the sound that go beyond simply cutting the waveform file and adding effects. It's possible to modify harsh sounds and soften them (sibilance), or shift the time in tracks and combine tracks together.

Chapter 8. Importing and Adding Background Music

It's easy to import audio into Audacity projects. want to have a background bed that plays at the beginning (or plays throughout the podcast)? Just import it and assign it to a track. This section explains how to set up the "auto-duck" tool, where background audio can be raised and lowered. You can also import audio directly from analog inputs, too, such as cassettes, vinyl records, CD's, etc. (though the easier way to get audio from a CD is just to rip it to MP3 or WAV and import it directly).

Chapter 9. Giving Your Audio Some Depth: Applying Effects

There are a lot of effects that can be used in audacity. As previously mentioned, some of them are really obvious when used (echo, reverb, delay, phaser, tremolo) and can add a lot of excitement to the sound of the waveforms. There are also a number of less obvious effects that can also be used for enhancing audio, such as amplification, leveling, normalizing, noise cancellation, compression and limiting, etc.). Many of the effects use the audio industry programming standard called NyQuist. NyQuist chains can be created to make your own processing procedures.

Chapter 10. Making Audacity Even Better With Plug-Ins and Libraries

Audacity is an open source tool, and as such, many of the enhancements for the application can be added as plug-ins to the application. Many of the effects are available as plug-ins and can be applied and used. Users can also create their own chains of commands using NyQuist and store these as a library (which you can share with others, too :) ).

The book ends with two appendices; an explanation of the toolbar, menu & keyboard shortcuts and a Glossary of commonly used terms.

Bottom Line:

This may be a bit of a specialty item, and if you are not interested in doing audio editing, then I can understand that this may be a little limited in its scope, but if you do find yourself making audio instructions, or decide you may want to get into podcasting yourself, and if you decide that Audacity is a tool you'd like to use, then "Getting Started with Audacity 1.3" will help make sense of it all in a format that's easy to follow and builds naturally.
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