Recording With Audacity Or Not

A quick guide to using this popular program correctly, and knowing when (and why) to use something better instead.

Recording With Audacity Or Not
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Nobody likes Audacity. Audacity (audacity.sf.net) is a free sound recorder, with a long track record among guitarists and amateur producers as a terrible program. Here on UG, you're immediately told never to use Audacity, ever. But is the problem really that Audacity's bad, or just misunderstood? (Spoiler: It's the second one.)

What Audacity isn't for

Not all programs that record sound are supposed to be used the same way. When you're producing audio professionally (or trying to make people think you do), you're expected to use a DAW (digital audio workstation), like Reaper, Pro Tools or Cubase. (Reaper gets recommended a lot on the UG forums, but just in case it hasn't been recommended to you specifically, do check it out. It's a great starting DAW.) A DAW has features like grid snaps (which make editing more precise), sequencing (which lets you use virtual instruments like Superior Drummer or NI Kontakt), and advanced routing, but the most important thing a good DAW has that Audacity doesn't, is non-destructive, real-time effect support. Let me explain: In a DAW, effects can be added to a track and tweaked in real time, or while the audio plays. This is super important for equalization. Equalization (or "EQing" if you don't wear a pocket protector and a bow tie) is an effect that lets you control the different frequency bands in a given track, and it's probably 90% of the reason your garage band's mix sounds terrible. EQing is kind of a big deal, but to do it well, you have to hear the results in real time, and this goes for all the other effects that get used a lot in production (compression, delay, dubstep wobbling) too. Audacity lets you edit audio that you record, but the editing is destructive. You can undo a certain number of effects, but once you save the project and close it, that undo history is gone, and any changes you make are permanent. It's like a mixing board: once the knobs are set, and you record something through it, you can't un-mix the audio. And those effects can't be edited in real time, which means that EQing turns into a cycle of frantically hitting the Preview button and changing one knob at a time. And worse, you're stuck at the effects screen until you're SURE you've got it right, which means you can't do anything else. If you expect to get a good mix from whatever you're recording, then you're best off using something more full-featured than Audacity. It's just not geared towards audio production, professional or even amateur.

What Audacity is for

Your computer probably has a program for recording sound, unless you're on some weird custom OS or your grandma's hand-me-down 386. It's easy enough to use; plug in whatever mics/instruments you need (or use the built-in mic your computer definitely has because come on, it's 2013), hit Record, and rock out with your rooster out. You end up with a WAV/AIFF/MP3/whatever format Macs use (vinyl, probably) of your glorious shower routine, which you can then post all over the Internet for people with low self-esteem to laugh at. Audacity is the upgraded version of that. Audacity has that big red Record button, and the recording process is the same if you just want to use it like your other sound recorder. Load it up, plug in, hit Record, and immediately get stage fright. (You're in your own bedroom, you know, there's really no excuse. Your teddy bear thinks you're doing a great job.) But after that, Audacity lets you do so much more. If you want to, say, layer guitar tracks for a harmonized melody, you can just record another track. You can adjust the volume and panning of each track (i.e., Mixing 101). If you don't have a metronome, you can lay down a click track (basically a series of metronome clicks) to play over. You can do basic trimming, fading (which is super easy), and normalization (which makes your track loud enough for people to actually hear, hint hint nudge nudge). Hell, if you really wanted, you could even record scratch tracks in Audacity (with a click track), then drag them into a proper DAW and do some real mixing. Audacity is actually really useful for tracking simple (really simple) demos, and nabbing ideas as you come up with them. Especially if you have a mic'ed amp or DI box (say, a Pod), you shouldn't be ashamed to open up Audacity once in a while, as long as you know what it is, and isn't, capable of. Besides, it wishes you would call more often.

36 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    chaoticfables
    Yes, it is best to have a proper DAW like REAPER and Cubase. But that's no reason to say that Audacity is only limited to low quality recordings
    SFosterS
    I use Audacity too, I am far from professional and really don't mind it's limitations. Does what I need it to, just making songs and covers for fun on my own using a 4 track then importing them into Audacity just to get it to CD or iTunes *shrug*
    Cavalcade
    Fair enough. It's not like you can never, ever use Audacity at any point in production, or else Andy Sneap's team of highly trained llama-ninjas will hunt you down.
    xasq
    Audacity has done its job well for the psychedelic brutal abortioncore-whatever that i have recorded with a couple of friends. But probably because the music is too bad to notice the quality.
    jinsu2301
    the thing is: Reaper can do everything that Audacity can, and so much more, and it's not-really-but-kinda-for-free. so, for a musician, there's really no reason why to not get in touch with a good sequenzer/daw from the very beginning. Don't get me wrong, Audacity isn't horrible (i use it on my linux laptop for simple ideas and riff recording) but I prefer a real DAW whenever I am able to choose.
    godisasniper
    I made the jump to Reaper a couple of months ago from Audacity and it's excellent. I still use Audacity for certain situations, but Reapear kicks its butt most of the time.
    57lpjr
    I do all of my recordings on Audacity. soundcloud.com/jteetzel
    Darth Crow
    I like to use Audacity for recording my ideas on guitar for sending them to other band members or just so I don't forget them. It's quite a nice program, it can mostly do anything I need at home.
    rolandroi
    It's fun to record ourselves. Cuz i think that's one of those few ways we can appreciate how good we are in playing instruments.
    Shirate
    I use Audacity to record on my laptop when using my desktop would be inconvenient. I track, and then edit later in Pro Tools.
    Cavalcade
    I can't imagine why people are downvoting you; that's one of the things Audacity's made for.
    van jammin
    I use Audacity just to record quick ideas, and send them to my bassist for him to figure out something for. I don't think I'd use it for any serious recording. For 'free' software, I would give it 2 thumbs up.
    IIC420
    All I know is I have always used DAWs. There was too much to them and it got annoying recording music. I tried Audacity last night. Immediately after I installed it, I was recording good clips with no prob. I love this program. I will use this from now on, until I need something it doesn't offer. I just record electric and acoustics with a mic and this works great for me, and I can multitrack with no prob
    MaXiMuse
    I use ProTools, Ableton Live and am starting with Cubase now and I started with Audacity. It's free so there are no real cons actually, because it only adds something to you. It's good for learning the basics of recording and mixing and has something okay-features like generating noises and sinuses. For starting I really think: why not?
    Cavalcade
    I have enough trouble keeping the sinuses I already have clean, especially in the winter; why would I want more of them?
    ollie36528
    Incidentally, in contrast to what other's have said with regards to recording within a DAW and finding it easier, I've always found it much easier to record in Audacity and then (after editing and adding effects) export the file and import it into my main DAW that has all the synths, beats and everything else that IT handles which Audacity can't.
    ollie36528
    The only people who tend to have a problem with Audacity are those that are 'professionally-minded' AND are in the business predominantly to get their label's shit sold and collect their paycheck at the end of the month. For people who genuinely love to fiddle around with soundbites, are in it for the MUSIC and because they are MUSICIANS/ARTISTS, Audacity is brilliant (in itself) and is an amazing program considering it is completely free and powered by the fans of the software who know about coding and are musicians. I've always considered musicians who hate Audacity to simply be too lazy for it. In Audacity the tools are provided for you and YOU must do the work. I personally have deep love for getting in there, fiddling around and create new sounds from samples and soundbites. But then I'm also a synthesist, a sampler and an industrialist at heart with a respect for the pioneers of electronic music and a love of their way of doing things. In short, if you have the passion and the patience to do things the slow and old-fashioned way then with Audacity you will find an amazing little program. If not, then perhaps you need to go with something that is technically more advanced and can do the bulk of the work for you. Don't get me wrong, if that works for you as a musician and you're content with that then it's all good and well, but don't bash a perfectly good program, A: simply because it's smaller and less 'technically' advanced and B: because you've never given it a chance and written it off based on biased descriptions designed to get the more expensive gear and software sold.
    link no1
    I use Audacity quite a bit. I usually use it for when I am practicing. I will import the drum tracks from Guitar Pro and record all guitar parts and continuously listen back to check for mistakes in my playing and correct them. There are just some mistakes you won't hear unless you're listening to a recording. I have managed to get some good sounding 'demos' done with it before but it does take a while and is pretty annoying. I wouldn't put what I record using audacity online anyway though, personal use only. For actual band related things I do use better software, I can never remember what the studio I go to uses though -.-
    deathroman13
    How do you record your guitar playing on Audacity? I use that program for years but never recorded anything. How do the cables run?
    snakes625
    You can make audacity sound professional and beautiful, it does take a shit tone of editing, and it does have a good amount of effects, but this is coming from a guy who doesnt care for auto tune and pulling fake shit and basically lying with sound, i had more problems with the sound board than with the program, its pretty easy, and worth using, its free and you get the absolutely full license. I personally love it.
    floyd616
    For those of you looking for a good DAW, LMMS is pretty much the Audacity of DAWs. Do a quick search for it on sourceforge.com. I first discovered it a couple years ago and it has been my go-to DAW ever since.
    davidspicer2011
    Although i'm new to audacity i luv it! I've been shopping around for a daw and reaper seemed to tick all the boxes so i've installed that, but not used it yet. Also i got ableton live free when i bought my audio interface but i gotta be honest when i looked at it my brain nearly exploded! and i guess all these more pro type suites will be the same.I think i'm getting some great results from audacity and i'm getting better at using it, it's become my mate (that sounds weird) and i look forward to the next session! At the end of the day if you're a song writer or musician you want to get your stuff down and recorded not spend hours or days trying to figure out why that light's flashing at you? and the damn thing won't work! All hail the audacity!
    kviehdor
    technically speaking, couldn't all Audacity's flaws just be compensated for by exporting the raw tracks to a separate file first, then creating a completely new project and importing the files to work on? It's a pain in the ass, but I don't see how Audacity can't do what the others do with just a little experience and insurance steps, so to speak.
    Lapdawgs
    Record from an old Tascam 2488. Dump to a computer. Fiddle with the mix an editing on audacity..can keep changing the mix till you are satisfied by going back to the original wav tracks. Simple and cheap home recordings.
    SlashHammett
    Wierd thing is, Audacity seems to preserve the original sound quality so much better than a couple of other DAW's i've been using. I've got an AXE FX II going direct via USB and when recording into Ableton Live 8 the sound quality seems very compressed and inferior, where as in Audacity it sounds pretty much just as I heard it while recording... Very strange. Also been trying out PreSonus Studio One but that seems to alter th sound quality somewhat as well, absolute nightmare...
    MattyPS
    I like how you wrote the article . Btw, I do use Audacity along with my POD X3.
    Leather Sleeves
    Lack of real-time effects does suck but it's a great program for what it is. Plus it's great for live recordings.
    SHartsell
    Basically Audacity is for really quick ideas/demos Everything else is if you actually know how to mix master and track properly lol
    aerosmithfan95
    I have it and I recorded some rough "test" demos so I can get the hang of it. I think it's a pretty good program for an "amateur" recorder like myself. The only think is that I haven't tried to record anything on it in the last few months, so I think I'll get back to it asap.
    leroy.knopfler
    I will always record first in Audacity because their latency correction allows for perfectly tracked songs (use the tutorial to set it up properly). I've never had luck with ASIO and buffers and all that crap. I wouldn't record on my computer without it. Once done, I export tracks to other DAWs. I also like Audacity's simplicity in capturing tracks.
    Rocker3438
    Anybody ever have the quality of the track fluctuate? When I use my laptop mic it does it as well as a plug-in mic. My old desktop handled Audacity very well so it makes me wonder what the problem is. This change in quality has greatly discouraged my use of the program. Any suggestions?
    Jehannum
    I like Audacity. I've used it on all 80 of my songs. Non-destructive editing? Duplicate the track before applying effects. On the advice of other UG members, I've used Reaper. I've used Pro Tools. I would have no problem paying for a better DAW. But neither of these is better. They just have more features I don't want. With Reaper I thought: I'll pay for this when I have used it to make a recording. That day never came. I just found it annoying. The ONLY thing I can't do satisfactorily in Audacity is EQ in real time. The solution: get the sound you want before you damn well record it. For the rare occasions where I need emergency EQing I export to a wave editor. I love how basic Audacity is; how old-school it looks. I does exactly what I want: record and manipulate the sounds I make. I've become better at making them sound good along the way. Do they sound professional? No. I use a children's karaoke mike resting on a blanket in front of my amplifier playing over a drum track made on Guitar Pro 6. Do they sound how I want them to sound? Yes.
    henrihell
    I once had audacity... I never got anything done with... I once tried to record a guitar over a bass track I've done. And that bastard program wouldn't allow me to record on track two. It just kept on destructively recording on the bass track... Also, if I had any levels of some volume somewhere over minimum level it got loud and distorted everywhere...