Making Multi-Track Music with Audacity

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software can be expensive and sometimes this can stand in the way of musicians who want to record and mix multitrack music. But you may already have something you can use for multitrack music already installed on your system and not even know it.

Although it’s not really made for the purpose, and it’s less like a DAW and more like and old 8-track Portastudio, you can record multiple tracks on the open-source cross-platform sound editor Audacity. It’s a professional quality sound wave editor which a lot of people use because it’s free and it’s good. With it you can convert different sound formats and also record music and master it for finished professional music and sound design.

In this article we will talk about how to use Audacity as a multitrack studio and making finished tracks using all the little tricks which make it easy.

Recording or tracking your music in Audacity is easy enough. You connect a microphone to your computer and click Record on the Audacity interface. The music records into the track, and when you’re done you simply press stop.

audacity-multitrack-tracking

It’s a good idea to either use a click track or lay the drums down first to give subsequent tracks a rhythm to play to.

Making a click track is easy. Just choose “Generate -> Click Track” and input the tempo of your piece. When you render and mix the track you can mute the click track by clicking the mute button in the track’s control panel.

audacity-multitrack-click-track

To record more tracks you have to make sure that you can hear the other tracks while recording. To listen to previous tracks while recording, go to the Preferences, on “program menu -> Preferences -> Recording,” check the radio buttons for “Overdub: Play other tracks while recording new ones” in the playthrough section.

audacity-multitrack-prefs

The hardware and software playthrough may improve the synchronization if your machine has an I/O box or is fast enough to support it.

You may find that synchronization goes out of whack along the way. If you are using a hardware I/O box, the latency will be much reduced, but you can tweak it in the Preferences above reducing the latency and latency correction until it can go no lower without dropping out (For more about latency see our article about it here.)

You can also adjust the alignment of the tracks with the “Time Shift” tool – the little button next to the magnifying glass with the back and forth arrows. You can manually align tracks and improve the timing by sliding them left and right. Zoom in to improve your accuracy.

audacity-multitrack-time-shift

When you are done recording tracks, save as an AUP Project (not via an exported file). If you export you will smush the tracks into a single track and lose all your separate tracks.

Mixing in Audacity is less easy and intuitive than it is in a proper DAW program. You don’t have faders, just volume controls at the front of each track in the track control panel.

When balancing each track against each other, concentrate on just blending the tracks together without any record to overall loudness. It’s a common rookie mistake to try and mix a finished track, but that’s not how it’s done. Just try to make all the tracks sit together well in the mix.

Don’t forget to also pan the tracks around in the stereo spectrum, unless of course you are making mono music (who does that intentionally?). See how it affects your mix if you move things around left and right. It makes the mix more spacious and allows certain instruments to come through if they’re not competing directly for space with another.

audacity-multitrack-pan-fade

For each new track, just press Record and start playing. It’s a good idea to leave a little bit of time at the beginning so you can start playing along as the other tracks start. Perhaps do a countdown on one the first tracks to help you sync it.

To trim all the tracks down to the same size (because it can get a little messy), select the usable area of the track, removing any count in and messy tail bits,

audacity-multitrack-select-trim

and click the Trim button.

audacity-multitrack-trim-audio

This removes everything either side of the bit you want to keep. Do this for each track so you remove any lead ins and lead outs. Then select all and use the Time Shift tool to slide all the trimmed tracks to the beginning.

When you are finished, once again, save it first as a AUP project to save your track work. Then mix down all your separate tracks into a stereo track by exporting it as a WAV or AIFF uncompressed file with the words RAW at the end of the filename. This is to remind you this is not a mastered track (Don’t save mixes as MP3 at this stage; you want to preserve quality until after you’ve mastered the track.).

Mastering is something you do to finished tracks, and it’s a combination of art and science. There are many mastering tutorials out there, but here’s the cut down version. If you have no time and expertise and do nothing else, run the track through the compressor (Effect -> Compressor and accept the defaults.).

If the overall track is missing something, not enough bass thump or treble clarity (or what they call “sibilance” or “s” sounds), or you listen and you think the track sounds sort of gutless and you’re not sure why, here’s what you do.

Load up the track twice into a new project. The top one (muted until needed) is the original track; the lower one is the one you are going to treat. As you apply effects and tweak the sound, listen to the original (this is called A/B Listening in the trade). That way you will have an accurate idea of whether you are improving the track or making it worse.

audacity-multitrack-mastering-AB

Test your mix on both speakers and headphones. Professional sound mixers have a few different types of speakers which they can switch in and out of their system to hear how the music sounds on a variety of playback devices.

Obviously it’s impossible to say where and how people will play your music, but you can make a huge difference to the amount of places it can be played if you test speakers and headphones.

When you are finished, save it as a project to save your work, then export as WAV or AIFF uncompressed file once you have that saved.

Why would you do this if better solutions exist? Good question. Obviously it’s a little bit more difficult to get perfect results with Audacity than it would be on DAW software made for the purpose. But creatively speaking, this is a good thing. No really, if you can get results with something not entirely made for the job, you are learning more. If you can make good tracks on this you can make them on anything. And if you have no alternatives, why not give it a try anyway?

Have you had any multitrack experiences with Audacity that you would like to share? Or would you like to know more about mixing or mastering with basic tools? Let us know in the comments below.