Audacity is a software package used for digital audio editing. It works in Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and other operating systems. It is also absolutely free, which is fantastic for musicians or students on ANY budget.
I originally encouraged students to download this program so they can write and record their original songs and create band demos. Several students are also considering careers in live sound and recording, so for them this is an easy, inexpensive springboard into computer based recording. Audacity has been used by my students for multi-track recording, converting cassettes to CD or MP3, and for creating small, portable recording systems for live recording.
An unintended benefit is that Audacity has also been evolving into a valuable practice and self improvement tool for the students of my studio.
There are three easy ways to use Audacity to enhance your practice time:
1) Recording practices
2) Slowing down the tempo of a song without changing pitch
3) Looping difficult sections for focused practice
Recording Practice Time
Over the years, I have encouraged students to regularly record and then listen to their practices with a critical ear. This way they could receive immediate feedback after they practiced, which generally causes students to progress faster. However, this process usually required a cassette or digital recorder, which parents may or may not have around the house. Now Audacity has taken the place of the cassette or recorder, at a much reduced cost. Good recorders can run $60 to $125 (or more). To use Audacity, usually keyboardists, guitarists, or bassists just buy a ¼” male to mini male audio cable or a ¼” female to mini male adaptor.
Various types of audio adaptors. Left to right, top row: 1/4“ female to mini male stereo adaptor and a ¼” female plug to a right angle mini male stereo plug. Bottom row: ¼” female to mini male mono adaptor and a ¼” stereo male to mini stereo male cable.
The student can connect their instrument to the computer’s sound card microphone input (which is more than sufficient for recording practice sessions). Other musicians (like cellists and double bassists for example) may have to purchase a microphone, but even a cheap mic with an adapter will only run $25-$35. Students can record their practices and then listen to playback for areas that need improvement. Practices can be stored on the computer, to gauge improvement over time. Files are also easily exported to MP3 for listening on an iPod.
Audacity is also helpful in coaching students for performances. Open up Audacity, hook up a mic in a central location, and record the practice. Export the practice as MP3 files, and one can email a copy to all the students involved so they can evaluate their performance at practice.
Slowing a song down without changing pitch
Audacity is rapidly taking the place of my Tascam Practice Trainer. I own both the CD VT-1 (vocal trainer) and the CD BT-1 (bass trainer). The VT-1 stays in my home studio, and the other one travels with me to teaching studios around the area.
Tascam Practice Trainers: from top to bottom, the Tascam CD VT-2 and the Tascam MP VT-1
Audacity can slow down a song you are practicing without changing the pitch, just like the Tascam practice trainer. The song will still retain a good level of audio quality during playback. The student can adjust the tempo up or down to whatever speed they require for their own practice or transcription needs. Additionally, the altered track can be easily saved as an MP3 and sent to others via email.
Apparently there are some new plug-ins for Audacity that remove vocals from tracks as well, but I haven’t tested any of them at the time of this writing. Find out more at these links:
Looping difficult sections for focused practice
One student emailed me recently to report that he was “looping” difficult sections of songs using Audacity. This helps him focus his practice time on difficult passages of songs. He could also slow down the practice track while he was learning it. Over time, as he improved, he could increase the tempo until he was playing the difficult section at normal speed. To create the loop, he would import an MP3 of the song into Audacity. Then he would highlight the difficult section, and copy it to his clipboard. Then he would open a new file, and repeatedly paste that section, over and over again. He could repeat the section for as long as he liked, depending on how many times he pasted it. Using “Change Tempo” he could slow down the section, and then slowly bring it up to normal tempo as his skill improved.
To begin, you need to install Audacity. Download Audacity here:
Audacity 1.2 is the stable version. The Beta version has a few new features but it may crash more. Since I hate losing time and work to a crashed program, I recommend that most users should use the stable version.
You will also need the LAME MP3 Encoder:
I’ve included a link to a video tutorial to assist you in installing Audacity:
Step by step instructions for changing a song’s tempo without changing pitch:
To slow down a track, simply select the MP3 of the song you want to work with. Right click the mouse and then select “Open With”. Choose Audacity from the list of programs.
After Audacity opens, and loads the song, use the Edit tool bar to “Select All”.
Once the whole track is highlighted, go to the “Effects” tool bar and select “Change Tempo”.
A new box will pop up with the controls for “Change Tempo”. Slide the controller to the left of the center point to slow the track down. Slide the controller to the right of the center point, and the track will play faster than normal tempo. Use the Preview button to hear what the MP3 will sound like after you apply the changes you are making.
Lastly, you can export the track as an MP3, so it can be played on a computer or an iPod. Select “Export” from the File toolbar.
Select MP3 as your file format.
I usually rename the song file with the song title followed by “practice version” and then the rate of change from normal. For example I would rename it “Don’t Stand So Close to Me practice version at -19 percent”. This way, I remember exactly what changes were made to the file. It is also easy to chart a student’s progress as he moves from practicing with the -19 percent version to the -8 percent version of the song. The students will really push themselves to be able to play at faster tempos once their progress becomes measurable in this way.
I hope you find this tip helpful for transcription and practice, and that your students can explore enhancing their practice experiences with this program.