Practicum: Audacity for Digital History Projects

Audio set-up

We have officially made it halfway through the semester! Last week’s proposal pitches highlighted our wide-ranging research interests. I was impressed to see some of the proposals included tools that had been introduced in previous practicums. There were a few proposals that plan on using audio and/or video elements so I am very eager to discuss an open-source audio software called Audacity.

Audacity is an audio editing program that is completely free and available to download on Windows, Mac, and Linux. This program does not have as many advanced features as other audio editing software since it is an open-source program. However, the features that are included are comparable and often exceed competitive software such as Adobe Audition. I was first introduced to Audacity while working in the Innovative Media department (The Workshop) at VCU Libraries. One of my job responsibilities was training students, staff, and faculty on how to operate the equipment and software in the audio studio, video studio, and makerspace. Most library patrons preferred using Audacity because it was much easier to produce high-quality projects in less time. Also, the program imports and exports audio files such as MP3 and WAV.

You can download the software onto your computer by visiting www.audacityteam.org

Audio recordings can be used on numerous types of digital history projects including oral history projects, field recordings, and podcasts. The results of an audio project are reliant on the audio quality, so it is important to select a high-quality microphone prior to recording any project. You can borrow microphones and other audiovisual equipment for research projects by visiting the lower level of Bender Library. The full list of AV equipment can be found here .

Note: It is very difficult, if not impossible to edit grainy audio recordings.

As mentioned previously, Audacity can import and export some of the most common audio types such as MP3 and WAV. If you plan to record your audio project using an iPhone, iPad, or other Apple device then you will need to download additional plugins since the file type associated with Apple devices is M4A.  Here’s a link to a quick tutorial on how to import M4A files. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDbUtcoeW10


Once you have uploaded your audio recordings then you can begin editing multiple audio files. If you are planning on recording a podcast, then using multiple audio files is a very common practice. The next time you listen to your favorite podcast, pay close attention to any music, or sounds that you hear other than the speaker(s). These sounds are usually much lower than the speaker. The intentional decision of adding background music or sound effects adds the illusion of depth. I learned about this technique when working with Virginia-based public radio producer, Kelley Libby on an NPR story. You can listen to the interview here. Kelley used a combination of field recording and studio recording to create this piece on the research that I had conducted at James Madison’s Montpelier.

https://www.npr.org/2017/03/28/521804754/a-woman-reconnects-with-her-ancestors-slave-past-at-james-madison-s-estate

While there can be more artistic control with podcasts that is not always the case with oral history projects. Many oral history projects are associated with academic or cultural institutions. In the assigned reading for this week’s class, Dr. Doug Boyd of the University of Kentucky noted the benefits of partnering with an archival institution when publishing an oral history project.

The University of Kentucky’s library has an extensive oral history collection which has interviews dating back to 1973. I have spent time exploring UK Libraries various databases including the Lonnie B. Nunn Center for Oral History collection.  During a trip to Kentucky in 2017, I met one of the oldest living relatives in my family named Alfonso Vance. Alfonso Vance served in World War II, and he was the oldest living nephew of my great grandmother. I spent an hour with Alfonso and his wife Juanita discussing various topics from his childhood in Henderson, Kentucky to his experiences of residing in Germany with his wife during the war. While I can still vividly recall the shared stories, they were not recorded. I had planned to return to Kentucky and bring my recording equipment the following summer, but it turned out that my first meeting with Alfonso Vance was also my last meeting because he passed away the following year.

When I revisited the UK Libraries website, I came across oral histories from 1980s of other natives of Henderson, Kentucky. The structure of these oral histories is very straightforward without any background audio or sound effects. UK Libraries has been able to preserve these audio files over the past few decades even though technology has drastically changed. Academic institutions are much better equipped to preserve recordings over time rather than individuals holding onto personal recordings.

I strongly encourage you to use Audacity for your digital history project, if you plan to create a podcast or oral history project. If you are using a computer or laptop with a built-in microphone, then you can record directly into the program. Otherwise, you will need to plug in an external audio device(s). Audacity allows you to easily switch between multiple external audio devices by clicking the drop-down menu next to the microphone icon (towards the top of the screen underneath the stop button). This is helpful for projects where each individual speaking has a separate microphone. You can see in the image above that there are two audio tracks listed. Audacity has the option of lowering or increasing the sound levels on each track until you achieve the ideal sound. Also, you can split and rearrange tracks easily with just a few clicks. I will provide a demonstration of how to use Audacity in class so if there any questions, please list them in the comments section.

9 Replies to “Practicum: Audacity for Digital History Projects”

  1. Michelle! This is such an awesome resource and I can’t wait to see a demonstration tonight during class. I’m sure our peers who plan on recording podcasts for their projects will find this tool extremely helpful. One question I have would be, is there is any time restrictions when recording audio? Like, does it only allow you to record or create recordings within a certain number of minutes or hours? Thanks!

    1. Hi Katie! I really appreciate your comment and question. Audacity allows you to edit large audio files. However, audio recordings with longer durations will require more disk space. I reviewed the program’s manual and it states that “recordings may not exceed 2^31 samples in length (which is for example just over 13.5 hours at 44,100 Hz sample rate).”

      Source: https://manual.audacityteam.org/man/recording_length.html#:~:text=Long%20recordings,at%2044%2C100%20Hz%20sample%20rate).

  2. Hi Michelle!

    Overall, I really enjoyed reading your post on the resource known as Audacity. I thought that you laid out the software in a way that made it easy to understand and would allow someone like me who has no experience with this software to use it. Though I am unsure if I will end up using this software as I am conducting a online exhibit I think that it is important to known about for other classes. Another thing that I really liked about your post is that you included extra information in regards to things like file importation on other devices, AV equipment lists, etc. Those extra things will be quite helpful for those who need assistance in fully understanding how Audacity can work for their project. In addition, I like how you included your personal stories and work experience as this makes it easier to understand why the software is important and how it can be used in our lives. One question that I would have is are any of the additional software pieces that may need to be downloaded if you convert files or something free or not? I would also ask if you knew how much time could be saved by this software as opposed to some of the other software you mentioned? Other than that great post and I look forward to seeing in class how this can be used.

    1. Hi Bryce! I really appreciate your positive feedback on my post. If you decide to implement any audio elements into your online exhibition, please let me know. I would love to provide any additional resources to you. Also, you posed some great questions that I can expand on during the practicum. The additional plug ins that are required for some files types are free. Audacity is used by many professionals in the field so it’s very impressive that the program has remained free for this long. The program is great for digital history projects that rely on limited audio effects since using numerous audio effects can cause delays with exporting the final audio recording. Adobe Audition for example, has an extensive collection of royalty-free audio sound effects. However, adding sound effects will increase the size of the audio file. Large audio files take much longer to export and upload onto the web which is why many prefer the simplicity of Audacity.

  3. Michelle this was such an engaging and informative post, well done! For academic recordings, such as oral history projects, do you believe there is a benefit to adding in background noise or music? Does it serve a purpose (such as keeping the listener engaged)? Or is it purely aesthetic?

    1. Hi Evelyn! Thank you for sharing such thoughtful remarks. The majority of the oral history projects that I have come across in the academic setting did not include background sounds nor music. I noticed that the use of sound effects/ background music are utilized more frequently in non-academic settings. However, the guidelines for oral history projects vary between academic and cultural institutions. There’s a great example of an oral history project that was conducted by AU professor, Dr. Gregg Ivers. I will provide the link below.
      Link: https://www.julianbondoralhistoryproject.org/

  4. Michelle – This was so helpful. I’ve been working with audacity for my project, and I have certainly utilized this post. The program is much better to navigate when you have help, especially when you’re learning. I’m curious – in your experience, what could the program do to become more user-friendly? What additional resources does the program share for those trying to learn the site? It’s been an uphill battle learning all the ins and outs of this program, and I look forward to the continuation of learning how to better utilize this program software. Thanks for the help this semester!

  5. Hi Michelle. You did a great job of explaining how audacity worked. Personally, I have worked with adobe sound editing software before and while you can do more with this software, it is expensive and NOT user-friendly. I thought that your explanation of how audacity worked indicated that even someone with no background in audio editing could use audacity to produce a high-quality sound file. Thanks for the demo!

    1. Hi Sara! Thank you for the positive feedback throughout the semester. I am always seeking out open-source software over high-cost software and tools for academic and personal projects. You brought up a great point about how the results of using Adobe editing software such as Adobe Audition can be counterproductive for users who do not have a background in audio editing. In my digital history project, I was able to use Audacity to convert a video file into a shorter audio file then export the sound clip as a high quality audio file in less than 5 minutes.

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