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Recording with Audacity 1.0

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Pete Thomas

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Who is this for and what do you need?

This is for anyone who wants to make recordings of their playing (or singing) along with basic backing tracks. This isn't meant to be an advanced or even complete tutorial on mixing, and I will be looking at a typical scenario:

  • Backing tracks from an audio file (e.g. Aebersold) or self generated using Band in a Box or iReal Pro.
  • A single recorded track of your saxophone playing (or other instrument/vocal). As the article is about mixing, we assume you have already recorded this. If not then you can download the tutorial tracks supplied which consist of a backing track and a saxophone track.

I will be concentrating on Audacity as the audio application as it is very popular. Loads of people use it for basic tracks to upload to Soundcloud or Youtube. It has some advantages in that it's cheap and cheerful, or rather it's free and cheerful. It also has some disadvantages but we'll try to overcome those.

You can download the example Audacity project (see link above) or use your own backing track and recording.

Much of what we look at here also applies to other audio applications. A few things may be slightly different but the general principles will apply if you are using something like Garageband or Cubase.

First an explanation of a few of the more techy words we may be using:

Glossary

Audio File

Most people already know what this is. This is how a chunk of digital audio is stored on your computer. It can either be an existing file which you import, or else one you create by recording it directly. In Audacity it is also called a clip. There are various formats such as wav, aiff, flac and mp3.

Mono and Stereo Channels
An audio file such as wav or mp3 contains either one or two channels. Most of us understand the concept of stereo or mono.

Stereo requires an audio file which has two channels as the music on the left and right (the signals) are different. This means that if we listen on a stereo pair of speakers or headphones we hear different things coming from each side, and so have an awareness of the music spread out from left to right (or right to left) in front of us. It might be obvious such as a piano on the left and a saxophone on the right or it may be a lot more subtle in that all the instruments can be close to the centre.

But the confusing thing is that although a mono signal only needs one channel, it can also be on a stereo file. However when a mono signal is a stereo file it still sounds mono because the left and right sides are identical.

When you first record or import a mono audio file in Audacity and listen on a pair of stereo speakers you will hear it coming from the middle (or the middle of your head if you have headphones on).

More: Audio Tracks - Audacity Manual

Panning
This is when you use the pan control (see below) to move a sound to the left or right in the stereo. (From the word "panorama")

Ambience/Reverberation (reverb)
This is the sound added by the room or space you are playing in. The sound of your instrument or voice reflects back off the walls, ceiling and floor. Generally speaking a small room has a short reverb, and large rooms, halls, churches have a long reverb. In a studio or live concert recording engineers will often use additional microphones further away from the music to record the room ambience. However when recording at home the actual sound of the room isn't as good sounding as a studio, hall or church, so it is usually best to to play quite close to the microphone. For this reason we add (artificial) reverb to the mix to make it sound more lively. The reverb available in Audacity is not too bad.

Compression
This is confusing as there are two types of compression, and they are not related:

  • When you change a file from a high quality (e.g. wav file) to a lower quality smaller file (mp3) we call this compressing.
  • Compression also means the process of reducing the dynamics of an audio signal.

Equalisation (EQ)
This is the process of increasing or reducing certain frequencies to change the tone of a sound. Very simply you might add more treble or bass, but it can be more complex. The two reasons to EQ a sound are:

  • To make a degraded recording sound like it should do (this is the original meaning, ie make the recording equal to the source sound.)
  • To make a recording sound different for creative reasons.

Wet and dry
These words are used to describe how much effect is added. Wet means there is a lot of effect, dry means there is very little or none.

Track Control Panel ("CP")
This is the area to the left of each track. Here you can name the track, adjust the level or pan, mute or solo the track.

Mixing
This can involve more than just "mixing" these two signals together, although the most basic aspect is to mix them in a musically satisfying ratio so the levels are balanced well. If the lead instrument is too high, then the backing can sound weak. If the backing is too high, then you may not hear the lead instrument.

This part of it is very subjective and may depend on the genre. What we will look at here are some of the things we can do to make your mix sound better, and this involves using some of the effects available in Audacity - mainly EQ, compression and (most importantly for beginners) reverb.

What you will typically have in this situation is one stereo backing track, and one mono instrument/voice track that you will be mixing in with it. You can of course have more tracks in Audacity, and what we learn here will also apply to that kind of more advanced situation.

However many tracks we have in our mix, we will then export this to a final stereo file.

Basic Mix With Room & Reverb

Apart from balancing the levels, what are we actually going to do?


We are going to look at how we can use those three main types of effect (reverb, compression and EQ).

In this part we look at how to add effects and work with them. We will use room reverb to make your saxophone fit nicely with the backing, and add some extra (longer) reverb to the saxophone as an effect or to enhance the sound.

In part 2 we will be looking at compression and EQ to either solve problems or enhance the sound.

The problem with Audacity

Sadly, although the effects in Audacity are very adequate, they can be awkward to use. The basic way to add an effect is to select the track you want to add the effect to, then go to the Effect menu, choose the effect (maybe change a setting or two if you feel adventurous) and then click OK.

The problem with this is that it is a destructive process, ie it changes the actual audio file. You can undo the process, but once you have saved your project and reopened it, then you are stuck with it.

NB: You can hear the effect before applying it, by clicking on the preview button.

With more professional Digital Audio Workstations, effects can be applied non-destructively.

The Solution

Luckily there is a workaround. In Audacity you can duplicate a track. This means you can apply the effect to the duplicate and if you change your mind, you just delete it and make another copy.

Using this process there are two methods we can use:
  1. Play both tracks at once. Because your original track is an unprocessed (dry) signal, we can vary the amount of the effect by adjusting the levels of the two tracks. (Ideal when adding reverb)
  2. Mute the Original and just use the processed track. In many cases this is more useful when using EQ and/or compression rather than reverb. Note that in this case the actual amount of effect added cannot be changed once the project is saved and reopened, you would need to start again by duplicating the original and adding the effect.
Indeed you can. If you want to experiment with different effects, you can make several duplicates of the main track, each with a different effect or effect setting. In this case you can mute or solo various tracks to compare. However once you have several duplicated and effected tracks to choose from, it is easy to get confused about which is which, so keep notes or give the tracks appropriate names.



I have a computer and Audacity, do I need special speakers or headphones or any other kit?

Yes and no. In an ideal world you would be sitting in an acoustically designed studio control room with state of the art monitor speakers. Studio monitors are not the same as high quality home speakers, which are usually designed to flatter a sound, either by adding some sparkle or some extra bass - depending on what you like. Studio monitors are designed to sound realistic so that the speakers themselves don't flatter the sound. For example if the speakers add some nice top end "sparkle" this might affect the way you do your mix.

However the best approach at home is to accept that you are not making a record. If you get to that stage you will probably be beyond Audacity and backing tracks.

Use what you have, listen to the results on different systems (e..g. your computer, your stereo, the car system, headphones etc.) and take note of any general issues. If possible hook up a second pair of speakers to your computer so you can switch between the computer and the speakers.

Adding Reverb

Also see: Reverb - Audacity Manual

With reverb we are going to use method 1 (described above) whereby we create a duplicate track that is 100% wet and mix this in with the original (unprocessed track)

I am going to suggest two types to use: 1) room and 2) longer reverb. I like to use both, but you may decide on one or the other instead.

The point of the room is to make up for the fact that you probably recorded a very dry sound, with the microphone quite close to the saxophone. If your backing track has no ambience at all, then adding some room sound to both will help to make them gel, as if you really were in the same room as the band. For this reason if you use BIAB or iReal Pro, then export the backing without the ambience those applications can add, that way you get the advantage of adding the very same room to both your saxophone and the backing and hopefully get a more realistic and live sounding result.

The longer reverb is usually only added to the saxophone. A long reverb (e.g. over about 1 second) will often make the rhythm section sound muddy or swamped with reverb. It is added as an effect mostly and can easily be overdone.

One good thing about using the short room, is that you can get a nice sound with the longer reverb without using so much. (what I call the "demo" effect)

But remember, it's all about taste. By using the duplicate tracks method you will be able to experiment.

NB: Unless your recorded/imported tracks have a couple of seconds of silence at the end, it will be necessary to add some silence to accommodate the reverb of the very last note which carries on a bit after the note.

So if you have your backing and your saxophone in Audacity, let's try it step by step:

1. Duplicate the backing:
  • First name the backing track (e.g. "BT") by clicking on the top of the track control panel (the area to the left of the clip waveform)
  • Select the track (it will get a yellow border)
  • (If necessary) extend the track to allow for final reverb. Place the cursor at the end of the audio then go to MENU: Generate > Add Silence. Choose approx 2 seconds for room, up to 5 seconds for longer reverb
  • MENU: Edit > Duplicate (or use key command)
  • Rename the duplicate (e.g. "BT Room")

2. Add Room to the duplicate backing
  • Select the duplicated track
  • MENU: Effects > Reverb
  • Click on Manage > Factory Presets> Small Bright Room
  • Click the preview button to hear what it will sound like
  • Tick box for Wet Only (this means you just hear 100% of the effect and no direct sound source)
  • Click OK


(NB: when previewing you will probably not want to have the Wet Only box ticked, but remember to tick it before applying to the duplicate track)

There is a bug in Audacity that sometimes causes the effect to be applied to more than just the selected track. Normally when applying an effect you will see the waveform get smaller. If you see this happen to other tracks then undo and start again. Of course, you can also check by listening to the other track./

If this happens, the workaround seems to be to to mute the other tracks when applying the effect.

3. Listen and choose how much room

[IMAGE_RIGHT]
[/IMAGE_RIGHT]

  • Use the solo button in the CP of each track to check that the effect has been applied correctly.
  • Use the gain control (the slider with - & + ) to reduce the backing track (e.g. by about 6dB)
  • Bring the level of the room track down all the way
  • Now add it back in bit by bit and listen to the amount of "room" being added.
  • Decide what sounds best.

Because we are adding another track, and there is a good chance the output would get overloaded and distort. We can always add some gain to all tracks later on to make sure the (mixed) output is at the optimum level.

NB: this is a good time to save your project. If you close it and reopen, you will now be able to increase or reduce the amount of room effect on the backing track.

However you won't be able to change the type of reverb you added to the duplicate track.

What if you wanted to compare it with another type, e.g. the Small Dark Room?

Easy, just make a second duplicate of the main backing track, give it a unique name so you can identify it (e.g. "BT SDR" or whatever). Mute the other room and listen to this one. Make a few more duplicates if you want but remember to name them so you know which is which.


4. Adding the same room to the saxophone track

  • After making your decision about which room you like repeat the process with the saxophone track. Don't forget to rename (e.g. Alto room) or you may get in a pickle knowing what is what

5. Adding another (longer) reverb to the saxophone

  • Make another duplicate of the original saxophone track (not the room track)
  • Give a name (e.g. Alto rev)
  • Select the track
  • MENU: Effects > Reverb
  • Manage > Factory Presets> (e.g.) Church Hall
  • Tick box for Wet Only
  • Click OK
As with the rooms, you can try different reverbs on alternative duplicate tracks to compare.

You now have a backing track with duplicate room track, along with a saxophone track with its own duplicate room and reverb tracks.

At this stage you can now do your mix:

  • Experiment with muting or soloing the different tracks to hear how they sound with and without effects.
  • Experiment with levels. Ideally you want it as loud as possible without overloading (peaking). To do this you keep an eye on the main output level. The meter at the top should show green and/or yellow, but not "go into the red."
  • A limitation of Audacity is that you cannot adjust the entire level all at once, so if you have several tracks, once you get a good balance between them, you will need to adjust the level of each up or down until the output meters show green with some yellow on the loud bits but no red peaks. (The ideal is about -1dB or -2dB)


End of part 1. You can now:
  • Duplicate a track
  • Apply an effect to the duplicate track (a destructive process, but you do still have the original track)
  • Balance the effect with the original dry track (a non-destructive process: you can play about with the balance between wet and dry)
  • Make more duplicates, each with a different effect. This is useful either to compare effects or to play both at once.
In part 2 we look at compression and EQ:

Part 2 EQ & Compression

...
 
Last edited:

Veggie Dave

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I hadn't realised Audacity modified the actual file when you added an effect. While there's a workaround, that's still a really big issue.

In fact, that means simple things like effects chains are basically impossible, so the tiniest of effect tweaks become laborious tasks.
 
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Pete Thomas

Pete Thomas

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In fact, that means simple things like effects chains are basically impossible, so the tiniest of effect tweaks become laborious tasks.
There is a feature called "chains" but it looked too complex to me (especially for this purpose).

I think we have to treat Audacity as "cheap and cheerful" and not get too ambitious.
 

Colin the Bear

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It works like an old fashioned cassette recorder but you don't have to press play and record at the same time
 

jbtsax

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Thanks Pete for that timely resource. I can't wait for part deux.
 

rhysonsax

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I have been using Audacity for this purpose for a while and would have loved to have this excellent information available to me at the start.

There are some interesting points that are different to what I have been doing up to now and I will try to follow them for my next recordings. For instance the idea of making the (duplicate) Reverb sax track "Wet Only", whereas I had been making it direct+effect and then mixing that with the direct only original.

I also haven't done anything with EQ or Compression to date, but will definitely experiment with that in the future.

I have got a couple of questions:
  1. Surely most Backing Tracks (e.g. from Aebersold, from YouTube, from Band In a Box) already have some room reverb on it. Why does the guidance suggest adding more to the BT ?
  2. Some of the BTs that I have, from various sources, are compressed files, usually in mp3 format. This can be audible as a slightly harsh sound. Are there any tips at all for making it less harsh or "nicer" or is it just too late ?
  3. My Audacity used to offer only GVerb and then later it had the dialogue as shown in Pete's guidance, including the factory presets. Just lately this seems to have disappeared from my Audacity - has anyone seen that before or can suggest how I get it back ?
Thanks Pete for all the clear information and for the download files.

Rhys
 
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Pete Thomas

Pete Thomas

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Surely most Backing Tracks (e.g. from Aebersold, from YouTube, from Band In a Box) already have some room reverb on it. Why does the guidance suggest adding more to the BT ?
Maybe, depending on whether the instruments were close miked and whether any ambience actually was added. In many cases, adding the small room will not make it sound too reverberant as it's a small room, not a full on reverb. Small room generally adds an ambience that lasts < 1 second, a full on reverb is usually > 2 seconds.

But adding the room does give you the option to "put" your own saxophone into the same space. The alternative, if it sounds too roomy when you add room to the backing, is to leave the backing as is and just add to the saxophone. If you can actually match the room sound so it sounds like the same room then that is great. However in most cases this would be tricky to do with the limited effects you have in Audacity.

It's all down to your ears, trial and error very ofetn.

Some of the BTs that I have, from various sources, are compressed files, usually in mp3 format. This can be audible as a slightly harsh sound. Are there any tips at all for making it less harsh or "nicer" or is it just too late ?
In many ways it's too late. I do find that imp3s sometimes add an annoying harshness to high frequencies such as cymbals. In this case then using some gently hi cut filter may help (this is a preset curve in Audacity)

My Audacity used to offer only GVerb and then later it had the dialogue as shown in Pete's guidance, including the factory presets. Just lately this seems to have disappeared from my Audacity - has anyone seen that before or can suggest how I get it back ?
I think gverb has disappeared. You ar supposed to be able to install 3rd party plugins but I didn't actually get this to work in Audacity (maybe an issue with the Mac version - but i didn't try very hard)
If you can install other plugins then you can probably get G Verb, but another one i really really recommend is a free one called Ambience by SmartElectronix.

See: Magnus' plugins
 

rhysonsax

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Thanks @Pete Thomas ...

I have used Kjaerhuis plugins successfully on Audacity (on PC) and their reverb presets seem fine. I wonder whether I have somehow reverted to an older version of Audacity where GVerb is all I've got.

And another thing about Audacity ....... does anyone know a straightforward way of building up a single composite track of the best bits of multiple takes into a single saxophone track, while keeping the time position of the original take from which each clip comes ? Doing with dry sax tracks would simplify the mixing process afterwards if, like me, you make lots of mistakes and want the final version to sound decent.

You are supposed to be able to paste and insert or paste over the top of what is there, but that doesn't work for me (it always inserts) and I still have to guess and fiddle about with the time position.

Rhys
 
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Pete Thomas

Pete Thomas

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You are supposed to be able to paste and insert or paste over the top of what is there, but that doesn't work for me (it always inserts) and I still have to guess and fiddle about with the time position.
This is probably getting to the edge of Audacity's meagre capabilities, but without knowing anything about the insert feature (and being "Audacitied out" after the tutorial) I can suggest a workaround.

Say you record your saxophone but don't like the bridge, just take out the bridge (or select and reduce that section to silence) and then record (drop in) the bridge on another track.

EDIT: Time to buy Logic Pro
 
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