Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review: The Book of Audacity

There are times when a book reviewer reviews a book because it’s something they have a passing interest in, or it is something they know they should be doing and want to learn more. Then there are those books that relate to something so familiar and so every day, that it’s easy to build an expectation for the title. For me, audio editing on behalf of the TWiST podcast is a nearly daily thing (at least five days a week), and Audacity is my tool of choice for doing audio editing, partly by chance but more recently by familiarity. Is there a book out there that would keep my interest on the subject?

I’m happy to say that “The Book of Audacity”, written by Carla Schroeder, and published by No-Starch Press, is just such a book. You don’t have to be a computer aficionado, but it certainly helps. You don’t have to be a musician, but it certainly helps there, too. You don’t have to be someone who enjoys a witty and sometimes mildly sarcastic writing style, but again, it certainly helps. If you are the special geek that fits all three of these categories just mentioned, then this book is a gem!

The Book of Audacity is platform agnostic, but shows a number of approaches to using it on a number of platforms (with a special section specifically focusing on Linux). Audacity is free and cross platform, and the author spends plenty of time trying to make the users feel comfortable tackling the various topics.

Many books are written to describe the process of recording and producing music, but they often devolve into an impenetrable treatise on sound theory and issues of interest to professional audio and signal processing engineers, leaving many of us everyday folks interested in recording behind. Carla is careful to not do that here. Often her tone is irreverent, humorous, and at times downright snarky, proving this isn’t your typical audio recording book, and that’s all for the better.

The Book of Audacity uses multiple projects to help the user get the most out of the program and appreciate many of the finer details the application provides. Some of the projects will have varying amounts of interest, but the chapter long focus on many of these projects allows the reader to get in-depth enough if they want to focus on that particular aspect, or skip to the next chapter if they are not.


This section gives a good overview of the program and how to get a quick understanding of many key features. It’s not an in-depth tutorial, but the first time user will feel comfortable after perusing this chapter.


Think that you will have to break the bank to create a “recording rig”? In many cases, it’s as simple as using the hardware already in your computer. If you want to get more involved, there are additional items that can be used, and I appreciate the level of personal detail Carla provides in showing the equipment that she personally likes using, including audio interfaces, microphones and digital recording devices.


This chapter may be skipped if this project isn’t relevant to you, but there’s a lot of good information in here regarding how to get external audio into your computer and then work with the audio to create master CD’s. Topics like dynamic range, recording levels, fixing pops and clicks, dealing with clipping, dealing with separate tracks, creating fade-ins and fade-outs, and mixing down and creating the final audio CD are covered.


If you have an interest in recording live music, especially if you use a modern flash based digital recording device, then this section is for you. It covers the technical details of recording a live performance, whether that be using the digital recorder to record the live room or getting a feed from the board directly. It also covers such things as how to interact with the sound crew and generally be a net positive in the experience (these are the little things that set this book apart from many other audio books, in that it covers some of the finer personal interactions, not just using an audio tool). Methods for dealing with recordings made at different times and different places are covered so that the end result sounds as consistent as possible.


This section covers taking audio from multiple audio sources and creating a compilation CD (or for those of us of an older generation, a digital “mix tape”). Using multiple audio formats, ripping from CD’s and DVD’s are covered, converting MP3s to uncompressed WAV files, and covering the details needed to get the tracks to a consistent sound level, determining track order, and creating a seamless production so that the final product can be mixed down and burned to a Red Book format CD are discussed.


DVD audio is a high end sound approach that takes advantage of the space a DVD allows to let the person doing the recording use even higher quality audio samples and audio formats (uncompressed WAV, AIFF, FLAC, etc.) This section walks the user through the process of producing an audio DVD and highlights tools that will help the process go smoothly.


So far, most of the projects have been dealing with single track (mono or stereo) sequences. This is the first section that gets into multi-track recording and covers my bread-and-butter topic, podcasting. You’ll learn how to mix multiple parts together, including using intro music, creating a duck down track for theme music and having it drop when the announcer speaks, cleaning up verbal ticks (how to deal with “ums” and "ahs” and the like), as well as exporting to a format that is high enough quality for listening purposes but minimizes the size requirements for easier downloading.


So you have gone to great lengths to produce audio for various purposes. Now what do you want to do with it/. In this chapter, the topic of getting your work out into the public space is covered. Ever wondered what it would be like to be a signed musician, Do you even want to go that route? Do you need to? Can you forge your own path? This section answers those questions as well as how to go about developing an online presence, how to get your work out to those who want to listen to it, whether or not you should use Digital Rights Management on your files (personal choice, I generally say “don’t”, but your mileage may vary), and dealing with the issues surrounding copyright and fair use.


While the section for podcasting goes into the basics of multi-track recordings, this is a deep dive into how Audacity allows for multiple channels to be recorded (and the equipment necessary if you want to do it “live”), dealing with and ordering multiple tracks, getting the levels right, using the internal mixer and equalization tools, labeling tracks to keep track of what’s happening and where, how to move various tracks around and group them together, as well as how to construct custom mix downs so that instruments are panned and ordered in the mix the way you want them to be.


If you are tired of paying for ring-tones for your cellular phone, or just want to know how to make them for the fun of it, this section is for you. It discusses creating a short recording, using dynamic range compression so that the recording can be optimized for the small speaker inside a phone, and then converted to the file format that your phone will support and allow you to upload it and use it as a ring tone. Again, it’s an example of a project that shows how Audacity can be used for a range of audio options.


One of the great advances Audacity and other audio tools provides is the ability to use effects that used to require lots of outboard gear. Signal processing allows for very basic details such as dynamic range compression and signal leveling, but also lets the user go to town with interesting effects such as reverb, digital delay, tremolo, phase shifting, distortion, etc. Using these effects effectively is more challenging than just setting an effect and applying it. Many effects on a given track will cause additive effects and knowing how to deal with them is important. It’s also possible to use the effects to create electronic drum sounds and other approaches (there’s an entire effects language called NyQuist that is covered a bit in here as well).


Ideally, we will do the best we can to get clean and focused audio recording, but sometimes the source material is not perfect or we have little control over some of the issues that arise in the recording process (live interviews, noisy rooms, sudden volume changes, etc). This section deals with the ways to handle the inevitable “clean-up” jobs we will face from time to time. Simple tasks like cutting out sections or trimming silence are covered, as well as more advanced topics like splitting audio tracks, performing noise removal (and dealing with the effects of that), how to effectively use leveling and normalization, waveform repair using the draw tool, modifying tempo and performing pitch correction, and using compression effectively are all covered here.


For those who are using Windows or a Mac, this section will probably not be relevant. For those using Linux distributions, though, there is a gold mine of information in here for maximizing your system’s abilities.


Windows also has a number of quirks and areas that can be adjusted so that the system performs smoothly and integrates that various options for sound input and output together. With the number of available devices that leverage USB 2.0, FireWire and other media formats, even laptop users with limited options for on-board configurability can branch out and experience high quality interfaces and how to tweak them for best use.


There are lots of preference options that will allow the user to tailor the experience to the things that they do best or wish to take advantage of, and this section covers all of them. This section also covers default file formats, setting up batch jobs (chains) that can be used for automating many of the routine tasks, exporting to a default file format, enabling or disabling effect, and other helpful options so that you can focus on your projects and not dealing with the system that supports it.


The last section is a reference guide to audio recording equipment, topics and terms, recording myths and explanations that will help demystify the process of audio recording and help present the truth about such ideas as “equipment burn-in” (myth, it’s not needed), the superiority of tubes over solid state (99.9% of listeners won’t be able to tell the difference), and the need for specialty cables (in most cases, nope. You want properly made cables, yes, but gold plating is not necessary).


There is truly something in here for everybody that deals with audio recording of any stripe, and Audacity can be used for both simple and all-encompassing projects. The style of the book takes into account that not everyone has the same goals, and the book is structured in a way where a complete read-through is not necessary. The basic techniques are covered multiple times in the book so that mastery can be developed but also so that the project that interests the user can be the primary focus.

Most of all, the book gets out of the way to let you work on the projects you want to work on in the way you want to work. It also strikes a balance between technical discussion and everyday reality, with a tone that is both engaging and entertaining (yes, technical books can be entertaining, too, it is possible). For those looking to go beyond the basics, and want to use Audacity as their tool of choice, The Book of Audacity would be a good title to help get the most out of that decision.

The Book of Audacity: Record, Edit, Mix, and Master with the Free Audio Editor