When you start out wanting to make music at home and you look at lists of essential equipment, one item that is now marked under ‘essential’ in modern music production is a digital audio workstation or DAW for short.
These pieces of computer software are where you will build your audio creations. The problem is many of them cost a lot of money. Luckily there are now loads of pieces of free audio production software available, one of which is Audacity. But is Audacity a DAW?
By strict definition, Audacity is a DAW (digital audio workstation) as it is audio software capable of recording, editing and producing audio files. However, due to its basic features, it is better described as a simple audio editor, lacking the functionality of more advanced DAW software.
In this article we will explain why this is the case and why Audacity can’t be compared side by side with other more advanced DAW software available. We will explain what Audacity can do well and where it has limitations for music production.
What is Audacity?
Audacity is a piece of audio software that is free, open-source and available cross-platform (Windows and Mac).
It was created way back in 1999 by Dominic Mazzoni and Roger Dannenberg at Carnegie Mellon University and since then has been downloaded hundreds of millions of times across the world.
Audacity was actually my first experience of audio production software when I started recording music over 15 years ago and so I do have a soft spot for it. Many of the basics of audio production can be learned within it and it can be a good stepping stone for those just starting out.
What Can Audacity Do? – Audacity’s Basic Functions
Because audacity is open-source this has allowed it’s functionality to increase greatly in the past 20 years since it was first created.
Recording and playing back sounds
The main function of any DAW is the ability to record and playback audio files. Audacity does this very well with the ability to record using your laptop’s built-in microphone or by connecting external microphones and instruments either directly or via an audio interface.
You can record in mono or stereo and you can monitor your recording live too. Input bars on screen will show you that an audio signal is being picked up and will allow you to keep an eye on levels to make sure you aren’t too loud or quiet before pressing record.
You can record multiple tracks alongside one another, an essential function to allow you to create music.
You can add in a rhythm track which acts as a metronome for you to play along to and keep in time. You can pick the tempo, the beats per measure, and even change the beat sound.
In more recent versions Audacity has added some really handy features for recording such as ‘punch and roll’. This essentially allows you to mark a point where recording will re-start so you don’t have to re-record an entire track and it will splice the two tracks together.
Importing Existing Audio
You aren’t limited to recording your own original audio. Audacity will allow you to import existing audio in many formats including, WAV, MP3 and AIFF.
So you can record alongside existing music or add additional elements you may have recorded previously on another device or piece of software.
Audacity doesn’t just allow you to record audio (any basic phone memo app can do that!) but it also allows you to do some editing too. This is what makes it a ‘workstation’.
When you’ve recorded an audio track it will appear as a visible audio waveform on the screen as shown in the image below.
This visualisation is extremely handy, you can see where there are moments of silence and you can see where there are quieter and louder sections.
Once you have this you can start editing. Functions in Audacity start with very basic cutting, copying, pasting and deleting, allowing you to take out unwanted sections or move them around. You also have the ability to zoom in and pan around on the waveform and get a more detailed look.
As you start to get more advanced in your audio editing, Audacity provides tools to help. A good example is the ‘amplitude envelope’ which allows you to control a track’s volume more smoothly over time.
Built-in Digital Effects and Plug-ins.
Audacity comes with loads of built in digital effects to help you manipulate your audio further.
To name a few, this includes noise reduction, which works quite well to reduce unwanted background noise on your tracks. There is even a vocal isolation tool which can be used to try and remove existing vocals from a track (i.e for creating a karaoke track).
Built-in effects include echo, phaser, reverb, compression many of which are tools saved for more advanced music producers.
All these built-in effects allow you to really create pretty decent audio files and songs and you can find almost everything you need when starting out in Audacity.
Ability to Use External Plugins and Virtual Instruments
You aren’t just limited to the internal effects or plugins either. You can also add in extra ones from external sources.
You may have heard of VSTs or Virtual Studio Technologies. They are now a massive part of modern music production, from virtual effects to full virtual instruments.
These will help take your productions to the next level from the basic effects included with the software.
Audacity should support any 32 bit VST plugin. It will not however support more advanced VSTi (virtual instrument) technology and so this is where we start to get onto what Audacity cant do.
What can’t Audacity do compared to other DAWs? – Audacity Limitations
So you now know that Audacity can do a lot. It has the basic functionality to record audio and may be enough for what you need. But it can’t do everything, otherwise nobody would ever pay for the more expensive DAWs and everyone would use Audacity and save their money!
There are many differences between Audacity and the other paid DAWs but here are a few of the main limitations of Audacity as a DAW.
You Can’t Apply Effects In Real Time
In other DAWs you can add effects to your incoming audio prior to recording (so you can hear things like reverb in your headphones live) and you can also adjust effects whilst playing back a track.
In Audacity, you have to highlight the track you want to change and then ‘apply’ the effect. This is fine if you are doing very basic stuff and just adding a bit of echo or something. But when you start getting serious about audio production you are going to want to tweak things constantly, adjust settings minutely to get the right sound and balance between different tracks.
So although Audacity has the functions and you can ‘preview’ effects before applying, it is not the same as adding them and reviewing in real time. Trust me, this will soon drive you crazy!
Limited MIDI Functionality
MIDI is a hugely important tool in modern music production. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and is a digital language that was originally designed to allow different keyboards and synths to communicate with one another. It is now a standard way of working with audio in a computer.
MIDI is a digital language (a series of 1s and 0s) that can be used to control audio. Software or hardware which is capable of understanding MIDI can translate this series of 1s and 0s into an audio signal that we can understand as music.
A MIDI note contains information such as the key of the note, the length of the note and even how hard it is played (velocity).
Most paid DAWs are capable of understanding and translating MIDI and this allows the use of MIDI keyboards and controllers to input sounds that can be made to sound like anything from a piano to a flute.
Audacity however does not have the ability to record or write MIDI files. It also doesn’t allow you to connect a MIDI keyboard or controller and whilst it is possible to import MIDI files it is not possible to edit them.
So you can do some very basic things with MIDI in Audacity. If you have a MIDI file from elsewhere and you want to add it alongside some audio tracks in Audacity, that is possible but you can not edit it at all once it is in there.
If you want to learn more about MIDI and why it is so important, check out this article on the basics of MIDI.
No support for VSTi
Whilst Audacity can support some basic VSTs as mentioned above. It can’t support more advanced VSTi software.
VSTis go a step beyond simple VST effects and are full on virtual instruments. These can be virtual synthesisers and can even be virtual versions of real instruments like guitars and pianos which are built up using samples of real instruments.
VSTis are common in virtually all modern music. Mainly due to their comparative cheaper cost compared to real instruments. But also due to the ease in recording them. You don’t need to worry about micing up a guitar amp or getting the right room acoustics for recording your violin.
Is Audacity The Best Option For You?
I’m hoping that the above pros and cons have provided some clarity on whether Audacity is the right DAW for you.
I wouldn’t say it is a case of whether you are a beginner or advanced, or even if it is a matter of budget (many advanced DAWs have free versions to get started on) but a matter of what functionality you require.
For Basic Audio Production Such As Podcasting
If you simply want to record basic audio, for a podcast for example then Audacity is a great option. Audacity can definitely be used for podcasting, in fact, it is recommended as you don’t need all the advanced functionality of many other pieces of software.
In an advanced DAW you are likely to get confused with all the additional features and effects that really aren’t needed. Audacity will allow you to record good quality audio and edit is easily even adding some basic effects or doing things like noise reduction. You are better investing money in a good microphone and audio interface to improve audio quality rather than an expensive DAW in that situation.
For Music Production
Although I said at the start that my first experience of audio production was in Audacity I wouldn’t recommend that as an approach.
Even though it taught me the basics and a lot of the layout is very similar to other DAWs. It is much better to choose a DAW early and start getting familiar with it from the start. You are only going to get frustrated with the clunkiness of Audacity and you will have to spend a lot of time figuring out how to do stuff once you finally move to another DAW later on. Better to make the move now!
Most of the big DAW software companies have free or lite versions that will allow you to get started without breaking the bank. Ableton Live Lite for example will give you access to most of the functionality of the full version but will limit you on things like track numbers.
Obviously, that isn’t ideal but it is a great way to see if you like the software before buying it.
The Best Cheap DAW Alternatives
With many of the most popular DAWs such as Ableton and Logic setting you back hundreds of dollars. It is understandable why you may be considering Audacity.
But fear not, there are now plenty of alternatives available. Here are some cheaper alternative DAWs to consider.
When it comes to free DAWs Garageband wins hands down. The only catch is that it is only available on Apple devices.
For free, Garageband will give you pretty much all the functionality of the paid DAWs. You can build full songs with multiple tracks and add effects either through the built-in options or via external VSTs.
Garageband also comes with a range of built in virtual instruments which actually sound pretty good.
A great place to start if you own a Mac and don’t want to splash out any money.
Reaper has a bit of a cult fanbase as it is a DAW that packs in most of the features of some of the more expensive competitors for a fraction of the price.
You can get started on Reaper for just $60 and you only have to upgrade if you want to publish material commercially, in which case you will need a commercial licence (currently $225).
With DAW software it is hard to compare side by side as often it is what you get used to that you find best. But Reaper has a lot of features and it must have a big fanbase for a reason.
There is a free trial you can get to test it out before you buy. But even if you spend the $60 the risk is low and you will get a lot more functionality than Audacity and a full DAW that is tailored towards music production specifically.
Audacity will always have a place in my heart because it was my first introduction to the world of audio production. However, since then I have come to appreciate the power and advantages of other DAW software.
When deciding whether Audacity is right for you ask yourself what you need from it.
If you simply want to record some ideas or do a podcast then it is a great option, it is free and you won’ get overwhelmed by features and settings you don’t need.
But if you want to build up to serious music production then you will soon get frustrated. You are much better taking the plunge early to a more advanced DAW and learning it thoroughly from the start.