Posted on May 19, 2010
Book review: Getting Started with Audacity 1.3
For multimedia reporting, I use only a few software applications in teaching: Audacity, Photoshop, Soundslides, and Windows Movie Maker or iMovie. These are entry level, and mostly free. (The reason we teach Photoshop instead of a free app is because Photoshop is the industry standard in journalism. Soundslides is not free, but it’s priced under $100.)
There are better tools than Audacity for audio editing, but Audacity has the advantage of being free, stable, and truly cross-operating system. It looks and works the same (mostly) on Windows, Mac and Linux. (Note: If your students tell you Audacity crashes a lot, tell them to STOP editing on the NETWORK. In classroom labs, the Desktop is on the network, and the network can’t handle all that large-file reading and writing that an audio editing program does. Put the files and the project on the hard drive instead.)
So first, I’m a big fan of Audacity. Second, I have several years experience with it, and I’m very comfortable using it for all my basic audio editing tasks. Third, I have taught a couple hundred or more students and journalists how to use it, so I’m familiar with how beginners view the software.
A couple of months ago, Packt Publishing sent me a free copy of this book and invited me to review it (no other compensation was made or promised):
Getting Started with Audacity 1.3
Packt Publishing, Birmingham, U.K.
2010; 203 pp.; $39.99 U.S. list price
So now I’ve read the book (skimming some parts). Like a lot of how-to software books, this one makes me wonder whether the author had a clear idea of her audience. Mostly it seems to be aimed at absolute beginners, particularly those who would like to try podcasting. (It is definitely not tailored for journalism students or reporters.)
However, I think there are a number of spots in the text where beginners would be left scratching their heads and saying, “Huh?”
Not for newbies
Chapter 1 is a combination of simple and unnecessary. I scanned along until I saw a heading that said: “Give it a try!” Following instructions to record my own voice, I had an audio file in less than a minute. That was good. On the other hand, I think many users who are new to audio would be flummoxed by the instructions to “connect a microphone to the USB or input port” if their computer did not have a built-in microphone.
Then there’s an explanation of the six selection tools in Audacity. Considering that I have never needed to use more than three of these tools in the years I have been using and teaching Audacity, this seems unnecessary at this early stage. The author was wise to invite us to try out recording right off the bat; why not invite us to edit straightaway as well?
Later the author tells us to open the Amplify panel (page 16). This panel is — to put it mildly — less than intuitive for average people who have no experience with audio editing (it’s explained in more detail on page 66). To add to the confusion, she tells us to try out the Zoom tool now. Chapter 1 continues on with a tour of various toolbars, leaving the audio project unsaved until page 19 and the beginner with few points of reference.
In Chapter 6, exporting MP3 and other file formats are (finally!) covered. The author walks us through downloading and installing the LAME encoder, which is necessary before Audacity can export MP3 files. However, she glosses over one step that totally confuses a lot of new users — the final step to installing LAME, which occurs the first time you export an MP3. True, this final step is mentioned (on page 91), but the process is not clearly explained where a beginner really needs it (page 92). The final step is mentioned again on page 100, but only in regard to the Mac OS (the way it works in Windows is left out).
After describing the options available for MP3s in the 1.3 version, the author instructs us to “set the Quality rate to 224 kbps,” with no explanation why.
Chapter 6 concludes with some tips for distributing a podcast, which also are not detailed enough for a beginner. Instructions for listing your podcast at iTunes are fairly good, but I think most newbies would get lost at the part about the RSS feed.
Furthering your Audacity skills
Chapter 5 covers the use of filters, getting into capabilities I never or rarely use. First we learn where to download free plug-ins for Audacity and how to install them. This is odd, because plug-ins and libraries are covered in Chapter 10, and much of the information is redundant. The filters that are actually covered in Chapter 5 are the ones that come with Audacity (no downloads required).
Removing noise from a track is covered clearly. The author gives a good explanation of how to even out the volume (when, for example, an interview subject has sometimes turned away from the mic), and she explains how normalizing is different from using the Dynamic Range Compressor. Other effects including pitch, speed and tempo are also covered. (Much of this information is repeated in Chapter 9, which explains everything on the Effects menu.)
Splitting tracks, duplicating segments of a track, and use of the Time Shift tool are covered in Chapter 7. Many of the more useful editing techniques (beyond the basics) are explained here.
Multitrack editing is covered in greater detail in Chapter 8, mainly in the context of adding music to a podcast. The advice to burn songs purchased on iTunes to a CD and then re-import them (page 139) adds unnecessary work to the process; I always convert files without even moving them from my iTunes library. What’s even more unusual is that the author does not cover use of the Envelope tool but instead instructs us to use the Amplify effect to reduce music volume while narration or other speech is on another track.
The list of shortcuts (Appendix A) is useful. The glossary is short (four pages) but quite helpful for beginners.
I have to mention that at almost $40 for about 200 pages, this book strikes me as a bit overpriced. I also think it’s not suitable for use as a required text in journalism classes, because (a) it’s not sufficiently mindful of beginner errors and anxieties, and (b) it’s more focused on making a “show” (a podcast) than on editing interviews and stories for journalism.
However, if you’ve used Audacity a little and would like to have a single-source text (as opposed to searching the Web for various tutorials) for learning more about its features and abilities — including plug-ins and effects — then you might be the perfect audience for this book.
(See other posts about Audacity here on this blog.)