Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Web 2.0 Tools for Audio Editing – How Audacious!

After reading over the dozens of Web 2.0 tools in this week’s assigned text and lecture, I honed in right away on Audacity.  Here’s why…

My most rewarding experience as a teacher using technology involved digital audio editing.  I was the technical director for the theatre program at the high school where I taught.  My job, among other things, involved editing sound effects and music for theatre productions. I managed to finagle access to a iMac for my classroom, and the thing about the iMac that really tripped my trigger was the suite of software known collectively as iLife.  And in particular, two software programs within iLife: iMovie and GarageBand.

GarageBand was a multi-tracking audio recorder that resides in your computer. In addition to allowing you to layer sound upon sound, it also had musical instrument loops that you could cut and paste and manipulate to create original music. As a musician and sound production guy, I preferred to capture real audio with a microphone and layer it on, like I did with my old 2-track reel-to-reel tape deck.  But my students had other plans.  They all wanted to be Tupac Shakur.

Soon, I had students coming to me on lunch break and during my planning period…whenever they could find me…to get access to GarageBand and create their hip-hop beats and to record their def rhymes over the top of it all. Most of them were not even students I had in class, and quite a few of them were at-risk students who had never found anything at school that interested them.  But they were interested in this, so I gave up a lot of my prep time working with them.

Which brings us back to Audacity.  Audacity is a computer-resident multi-tracking audio program that is very similar to programs like Cakewalk, ProTools, and GarageBand. Unlike those, however, Audacity is free.  And if you are working with poor kids in a poor school district, free is important. But free isn’t much help if it doesn’t do the job, so I decided to run Audacity through it’s paces.

Anyone familiar with other audio editing software will feel at home with Audacity.  It lets you create multiple stereo or mono tracks upon which to record.  The visual bars of recorded material can be stretched and smooshed around to suit you. Sound clips can be recorded via built-in microphones on the computer (most laptops have them) or with microphones that plug into input jacks on the computer.  Sound from vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and online MP3s can be imported to an Audacity project as well. The original iMacs required another device, an analog-to-digital converter, to do this.  Another impressive feature of Audacity is that it accepts all sorts of different digital formats (MP3, AIFF, WAV, etc.) and will also output your project in many different formats.  So, you can burn a CD of your work to play in another computer, or you can download it to your personal data device (cell phone, iPod) or you can make CDs that will play on a CD player.  You can even export your project in a working format so other collaborators could add their bit of genius to the mix.  Imagine making an original song and sending it as an email attachment to a classroom in Western Africa, where another class could add rhythm tracks or background vocals!

Some of the whistles and bells are powerful and sophisticated. You can change the tempo of a track (or a whole project) without changing the pitch. That means if you want to make an up-tempo vocal out of a slow one, it doesn’t have to sound like the Chipmunks.  Likewise, you could slow down a soprano diva’s track and not turn her into a baritone.  Audacity also has looping capabilities, so you can take a short piece of sound and have it play over and over again. There are mixing board-type effects, so you can adjust volume, EQ, and reverb, as well as bass boost, wah-wah, and the all important noise reduction filter. Experimentation is encouraged because there is always the “back” feature that lets you return to a previous version. All in all, it is an amazing piece of software engineering that holds its own against programs costing hundreds of dollars. 

Classroom uses would be almost limitless. Students with computers and internet access at home could work on projects at school and at home.  Even those with limited access to technology at home could record sounds or interviews on cassette recorders or inexpensive MP3 devices, bring those back to school and mix and edit those recordings on Audacity to produce quality NPR-like news pieces.  Collaboration with classes in other cities or countries would open all sorts of creative doors. Many classrooms use Audacity to create podcasts, and Audacity audio mixes could be imported to other Web 2.0 projects: blogs, videos, presentations and the like. 

We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of my reel-to-reel tape deck.


  1. Wow! Love these ideas! I haven't used Audacity to this degree, but am excited to hear about it's amazing abilities.

  2. You have wonderful ideas! I've heard of Audacity a little before this class but never really explored it. Could you use this to have students record their voices to a story they wrote and add some sound effects? Or is it more geared to just making music?

  3. You could absolutely do that, Jennifer.