Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Using Audacity (a free digital audio editor) as a Practice Trainer

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.

Screen shot of a demo a student is 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.

Phono to Mini Plug

Right angle Mini to 1/4\

1/4\1/4\

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 CD VT-1 Tascam MP VT-1

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:

http://audacity.sourceforge.net/help/faq?s=editing&i=remove-vocals

http://www.audacityteam.org/wiki/index.php?title=Vocal_Removal#Center_Pan_Remover_.28Vocal_Remover.29

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.

Downloading Audacity

To begin, you need to install Audacity. Download Audacity here:

http://audacity.sourceforge.net/download/

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:

http://audacity.sourceforge.net/help/faq?s=install&item=lame-mp3

I’ve included a link to a video tutorial to assist you in installing Audacity:

Audacity Tutorial

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”.

Screen shot of Audacity - Finding Change Tempo on the drop down menu


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.

Screen shot of Audacity - Change tempo menu.

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.


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10 Comments

  1. How To Practise

    Hi, thanks for the tip. I have long advocated the use of recording as a practice aid. I don’t really know why I’ve never taken the next logical step and added a DAW to this process? It’s obvious now that you’ve said it. I’m a user of Cakewalk Sonar myself but will definitely check out Audacity as I like the price 🙂

  2. brittany

    Glad that the article was of help. The wonderful thing about the pricepoint is the ability to get all of your students into the game. This really increases your ability to file share with them. I have found my workload somewhat reduced because the computer can quickly make MP3s from files and I can email those. That has saved on CD burning and the cost of CDRs. It has also been a time saver in generating practice materials.

  3. Charlie

    Hi
    Ive been using VanBusco for slow down mode..It has worked fine when Im hooked up to the internet…Im not sure if if will work off line…
    Im guessing that Audacity works even when the computer is off line.
    I have some songs that are saved as midis (I think)
    Does Audacity work with midis as well as MP3s…Basicly I would like to be able to practice in places other than the one spot that I have internet hook up.
    Happy Holidays
    Charlie

  4. Lisa Hansen

    HELP! I have all my components hooked up correctly, but I don’t get any play back or even that something is recording. When you are recording shouldn’t you be able to see the recording line waver? I’m so stumped. I don’t record anything and I don’t hear anything. I’m really digitally challenged and need some help. Thanks for anyone that can help me!

  5. Brittany

    Lisa – Go to the Edit toolbar, and then select Preferences from the drop down menu. Select Audio I/P from the table at the left, (if it doesn’t open automatically to that page – it usually does). Make sure that the devices selected for “playback” and “recording” are correct. On my laptops and home computers, Audacity usually defaults to a different device than what I want to use when it is first installed. (I prefer it to use my M-Audio FireWire Solo and not the on board sound card the computer came with). Make sure the desired devices are selected for both playback and recording. Make sure a mic is hooked up, then do a test recording. The meters should move.

    Charlie – I don’t believe Audacity works with MIDI. Sonar would be a better app for that. You can check on Audacity’s website for more info. http://audacity.sourceforge.net/help/faq

    Brittany

  6. steve

    Hi,
    It doesn’t matter which direction I move the slider , the tempo always increases. Help
    Thanks
    p.s. I’m using 1.2.6

  7. Stewart Dean

    I’m looking to work on improvisation. Does anyone make a simple, cheap ($200 or less) looping practice machine that you can:
    = play to and recorder a melody
    = then, playing out of its own speaker, loop that melody so you can practice improv against the melody.
    I see plenty of device that require a computer AND/OR a prerecorded CD or mp3 tack AND/OR some sort of amp and preaker setup.

    I’m looking for something the size of a cassette recorder (remember those) that has everything together: recording/looping/playing back through an internal mike.

    I have a clanky awkward setup that does this: an old Dr.Boss Mr. Sample and a pignose speaker, but it’s somewhat bulky and heavy to just throw in a day pack along with my instrument and practice during my lunch break.

  8. Brittany

    Hey Steve,

    I can’t offer any suggestions for a small dedicated looper other than to switch to a Boss Rc-2, which might be smaller than the Mr. Sample. You would still be bringing the Pignose with you to luch though.

    Another option is to get Band In a Box, and put the chord changes to the song you want to work on in Band in a Box. That program will loop the chords for you with a full backing track. I usually use that program to work on soloing. But it also means you have to bring your laptop to lunch with you.

    Let me know if you find something in a small “all n one” box type device…I’d be curious to know about it.

    Good luck,

    Brittany

  9. Brittany

    Hey Stewart…

    It’s not under $200, but it looks like the Tascam DR-1 would do recording and looping in a small package. I didn’t see the specs mention anything about speakers, so you might still need to bring those along. Street price is $299.

    Hope this helps.

  10. baccarat games

    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.Audacity has also been evolving into a valuable practice and self improvement tool for the students of my studio.Audacity is rapidly taking the place of my Tascam Practice Trainer.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.so i think so great tips and its very useful and helpful for us.thanks for this informative blog.i appreciate to your efforts.

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