Book Review - The Book of Audacity, by Carla Schroder
Although I've been using Audacity for a couple years now with no problems, I know there are plenty of features I have never explored, and I was eager to expand my skills. That's why I was happy to get my hands on The Book of Audacity, a book by Carla Schroder. Did this book do the job? Let's take a look in this review.
Sound editing - The old school way
Many years ago, when I worked at a radio station, I became quite adept at recording and editing audio tape. Besides the tape recorder and microphones, you needed a splicing block and an endless supply of razor blades, or a special all-in one-tape cutting/splicing unit. To edit a tape you'd have to physically cut it apart (either straight across the tape or on an angle, depending on the situation) and then tape it back together with splicing tape. It seems simple enough, but doing it right required skill, a lot of practice and a certain degree of luck. And if you messed up, good luck on fixing it! All that equipment cost a lot of money and most people never had any need to learn how to do it. Nowadays, anyone can be a sound recorder and editor, and some of the best software to do this is absolutely free—like Audacity. It didn't take me long to learn how to use Audacity, but its documentation is supplied in the form of an online wiki, a chapter by chapter online listing, or a manual that's accessible through the program, all formats I have never cared for. I prefer a good solid all-in-one standalone manual, preferably printed, but I know that's a really old-school attitude. :) NOTE: If you'd like to see how sound editing was done "old school," here's a link that might be of interest: How To Splice A Tape.
What is Audacity?
If you haven't yet heard about Audacity, it is available free of charge (open source, too) for Windows, Mac OS and Linux. It's a sound recorder, editor and mixer. You can find the software for all platforms, and read all about it, at the Audacity website. The site should detect which platform you are using and offer you the appropriate version of the program.
What can the program do? The kinds of things that once upon a time required a room full of expensive equipment, plus extensive skills. Here's a list, from the book.
You may not know what those things mean, or have any need of the specialized features, but you can get started recording and playing back in no time at all, with just a microphone and Audacity. The microphone built into a laptop computer or webcam, or an inexpensive microphone or headset, should be good enough to get you started. And if the recording you make doesn't go right the first time, Audacity makes it extremely easy to start over again. No more tapes to cut up and throw away. :)
Taking it step by step
The Book of Audacity takes the best possible approach to learning how to use the program. Beginning with the very basics of making a recording, editing, and playback, the author walks the reader through introductory projects, emphasizing a hands-on approach to each feature. I really liked this, because, like a lot of people, I do best when I can read the directions and then try things out to see how they work. The first chapter is called Audacity from Start to Finish, and it delivers just that. Work through this chapter and you'll have the basics and the confidence to go on to more technically involved projects. Many technical books can be read in pretty much any order, but I'd recommend reading The Book of Audacity straight through, because the skills you learn in one chapter will make the skills you learn later easier to acquire and understand. First, the author walks you through setting up your equipment. You may have seen our tutorial on the Sound Recorder, or the first tutorial on speech recognition, and if so, this will be familiar territory. Follow the directions and you'll be good to go. There's a Quick Start section at the beginning of the book that should have nearly everyone up and running with their first recording in no time. Everything is explained and illustrated and the author clearly knows how to write for beginners, with just one quibble. She uses technical terms common to sound recording without explaining them. There is an extensive glossary at the end of the book, which takes care of this, but some readers may not notice this right away. The Quick Start section is only five pages long, but the author crammed a wealth of useful information into it. And then she goes on to build on that foundation.
Beyond the basics
Once the reader is familiar with how Audacity works, it's time to move on to a more detailed introduction to the program in a section called, appropriately, Audacity in detail. There is an extensive illustration and explanation of all the buttons and controls you'll see on the Audacity screen. To me, this was one of the best parts of the book, because even after making recordings with Audacity for a couple of years I still didn't know what some of those things did.
I liked the explanation of how Audacity keeps your data safe. Reading that section should be very reassuring to everyone—it's almost impossible to mess a project up beyond recovery. There aren't many other programs that can make this claim. One of the most amazing things about this book is that within the span of only 30 pages, the author gives the reader a complete Audacity education. Not just an "ABC" primer, or the bare minimum, but a walk-through of what one can do with Audacity, and how to do it. Of course, not everything is explained in full detail, but that's what the rest of the book is for. Once you've read those first 30 pages, you can go on to explore any aspect of the process that interests you in much more detail (something I would definitely recommend). This section begins with the reassuring fact that Audacity "supports almost unlimited undo, so it is safe to experiment." Since experimentation is one of the best ways to learn how to use new software, knowing in advance that if you mess up you can go back with one click should be very welcome news. And then, away you go. Here's a look at the topics that are covered in those 30 pages.
It seems like an awful lot to cram into a small space, but the author clearly knows what she's talking about and how to get the most out of every sentence, and just about any reader should understand how Audacity works after reading this section.
Most of the rest of the book is devoted to exploring aspects of sound recording and mixing in greater detail, and Section 2 is somewhat off-putting. Section 2 is called Building a Good Digital Sound Studio on the Cheap. For many people, a "digital sound studio" can consist of a sound card, a microphone, and a copy of Audacity. Unfortunately, the author doesn't explain this. She does serious recording, so she has a lot of audio equipment, which she describes in detail (with photos). That may intimidate some newcomers or people who don't intend to record bands or other live performances. However, I think the explanation of the various kinds of connectors should be of interest to just about everyone. I have an audiophile and a broadcast engineer and a walking encyclopedia of connectors and cables and connections in my house (aka my husband) but not everyone is so fortunate. :)
It's also good to know about the different kinds of microphones and sound cards, even if those technical details don't really enter into the simplest "sound studio" setup. The Book of Audacity was published in 2011, and in one respect it really shows its age. The author insists that Windows XP is the best! I do hope she's changed her mind since then. I have found Audacity to work far, far better on Windows 7 and Windows 8 than it ever did on Windows XP. Plus, Windows XP will soon be phased out by Microsoft. The author is also of the opinion that one needs a high powered computer and a huge amount of storage space. Perhaps this was true in the Windows XP era. Not so today, unless you plan to create and save a LOT of material. I wouldn't use a minimalist computer, but I certainly don't have computers with huge processors and petabytes of storage and I've gotten along with Audacity just fine. However, once the reader gets past that chapter, there is plenty of great information to be found. The rest of the book is devoted to the kinds of projects many people will want to tackle, and walks the reader through each kind of project step by step with plenty of illustrations. Here's what is covered:
The Book of Audacity lists the preparations the reader will need to make for each kind of recording, the settings the author recommends, and the complete procedure from beginning to end (including such things as how to clean an LP with a Diskwasher brush and how to clean vintage 78rpm records without damaging them). I don't think anyone can go wrong with any of these specialized projects if they pay attention and take advantage of that "unlimited Undo" feature as often as necessary.
The Book of Audacity is an excellent instruction guide and reference to software that's easy enough for beginners but sophisticated enough for serious use. Having detailed instructions for each kind of project should give anyone confidence. And the first part of the book is an all in one Audacity tutorial all by itself. It's not often that you get that good an education in a small space. The book does show its age (Windows has definitely moved on) but that does not diminish the quality of the information.
Not everyone wants or needs to make sound recordings, but there are enough creative ways to use Audacity to make it appealing for a lot of people. I used it to transfer my mother's favorite record (never released in digital format) to a CD, to convert some really old cassettes of my children's voices when they were tiny into digital format, and to record lines for a podcast audio drama. I don't have a high end setup or anything more in the way of equipment than a microphone, a good but not spectacular sound card, and a USB turntable. The Book of Audacity is a great book for anyone that wants to learn how to make full use of Audacity. I'm hoping the author will come out with a new revised edition to keep up with the changes in Windows and Audacity since this book was published, but even as it is, it's worth getting.