f you’re looking to start a podcast or record music, or if you just need a tool to assemble and convert some audio samples, it’s tough to go wrong with Audacity. A powerful, free, open-source audio editor that’s been available for years, Audacity works smoothly with up to 32-bit/384kHz audio, complete with built-in dithering. The program lets you easily import, mix, and combine audio tracks (stereo, mono, or even multitracked recording) and render the output as one. It also offers flexible editing down to the sample level as well as spectrogram and spectral views for analyzing frequency response. While you get unlimited undos and redos, Audacity’s edits are almost always destructive, so it won’t replace a proper digital audio workstation like the Editors’ Choice Avid Pro Tools. Even so, Audacity is still many people’s go-to choice for quick-and-dirty audio work, and in testing, it’s easy to see why.

You can quickly select between the available audio sources via the drop-down menu underneath the sound level meters on top. Audacity allows you to set a timer to begin recording after a small interval, in case, for example, your recording position is somewhere away from the computer itself. Audacity can also record when it hears a sound at a certain threshold; even if the recording starts early, you can simply chop the offending part off later. The meters clearly display clipping (if there is any) and are easily visible from across the room.

Recording and Effects

Audacity lets you record in either 16-bit or 24-bit audio. One of Audacity’s best qualities is that it can smoothly convert and combine any sounds you drag in, regardless of sample rate and formats. As for editing, users can cut and paste, duplicate, or delete audio, arrange multiple clips on the same track, and draw in edits right down to the sample level. The envelope tool allows you to add custom fades as well.

Audacity features a tremendous number of basic effects right out of the box. Preset EQ curves (such as AM Radio, Telephone, or 100Hz Rumble) are a click away, with a real-time preview in the dialog box; there are also simple Bass and Treble adjustments as well as high- and low-pass filters. A simple compressor, limiter, phaser, reverb, and wah-wah effects also appear among the options. Reversing audio or truncating silence takes just a single click. An Auto-Duck feature lets you add voiceovers on a podcast or radio track. Perhaps best of all, Audacity supports batch processes using chains of commands. For example, you can tune up a series of sound effects or stabs all at once without having to repeat the same tasks over and over.

Version 2.3 added some significant features, including punch-in recording, a drag-and-drop playhead, resizable volume and speed toolbars. And as always, the Audacity team continues to stomp out bugs—well over 100 since the last time we tested the app a bit more than a year ago.

Editing and Converting Audio

All edits are destructive, which is Audacity’s biggest limitation and the reason you may eventually want to step up to something else, like Apple Logic Pro X, Adobe Audition, or Ableton Live. While Audacity lets you edit audio in all kinds of ways, each edit can’t be undone or tweaked later unless you step through the Undo history and lose all the work you had done in between.

A simple, built-in mixer lets you get the relative levels and stereo position correct. You can also mute and solo individual tracks (all of these adjustments are not destructive). But while multitrack layering with Audacity is possible, a non-linear editing program like Reaper or GarageBand (with real-time effects) is better suited. A Contrast Analysis feature compares the average RMS (root-mean-square) volume between different tracks for balancing a voice over against background ambience or music effectively. For more than this, step up to Adobe Audition, especially if you need to adhere to broadcast standards for film, television, or radio.

A Solid Stereo Editor

All told, Audacity is a capable editor that gives you much of the same power you used to have to pay good money for with Sony’s Sound Forge or the (long departed) Bias Peak. Audacity won’t replace a proper digital audio workstation or other nonlinear audio editors like the Editors’ Choices Apple Logic Pro X and Avid Pro Tools, nor can it replace Propellerhead Reason when it comes to composing music with virtual instruments. However, if you want to start a new podcast or trim a batch of 100 sound effects for an indie game, Audacity should be your first stop. If your needs are light enough, Audacity could well be your last.

If you want to try Audacity for yourself head to our Installation Guide and install it on your system.