Editing audio for the web: a beginner's guide

You only need to look at the iTunes top 100 podcast chart to see how print media are embracing the possibilities of audio. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Guardian Unlimited or a New Scientist, or have a megabucks studio and a team of experts to get basic audio ready for the web.

Audacity is a cheap (ie free) and cheerful piece of audio editing software that”ll work on Windows, Macs and apparently Linux. All you need is a computer with a sound card… and some audio to edit.

We took a six-minute clip of the Press Gazette editor narrating a piece on the Telegraph’s newsroom hub (blogs.pressgazette/editor) to show some of the key features in Audacity. The piece was recorded in a small room with walls made of paper: as a result the levels were all over the place.

Once you’ve downloaded and opened Audacity, go to File > Open and find the audio file you need to edit. Audacity can handle mp3, wav and aiff files (rough translation: this is a good thing). However, it’s not great with Windows Media Files (WMA), so it’s worth checking beforehand what your sound recorder uses.

What you’ll see on the screen is a graphical representation of your sound file – it’s effectively a big blue graph. The x-axis represents the time, and the y-axis the volume. So the peaks are the points where the sound is loudest, and the graph is flat when no sound is present.

To begin with, the sound file we were working on was far too quiet (see figure 1, below).

Ideally, this is a problem we should have addressed at source, but as it was too late to re-record the audio, a quick fix is to amplify everything. To do this, highlight the whole waveform (control A) and go to Effect > Amplify. The “new peak amplitude”

box should not be any higher than 0dB and the “allow clipping” is unticked. This defines how much your sound will be amplified by: too loud and it’ll be distorted and full of clicks.

The problem with amplifying a quiet piece of audio is that you amplify everything – and that includes the background noise. Playing around with Effect > Noise Removal should help strip out some of the unnecessary bits and make the voice as audible as possible.

Once the audio has been amplified, it should be clear from looking at the graph where sentences begin and end ( fig 2). To zoom in or out on a particular bit, highlight it and press control 1 (zoom in) or control 3 (zoom out). The space bar acts as a start/stop button for listening to the audio.

Now let’s do some editing. Say, for example, your narrator fluffed a line and recorded a second take straight afterwards. Find the rogue line, highlight it and hit control X to cut it. Listen back to the track and see how smooth the cut is. If it’s obvious, undo the cut (control Z) and move the beginning and end marks on your selection accordingly (see fig 3).

Save the project as you go along. Audacity saves its work as “aup” project files, but these can’t be listened to in any program other than Audacity. So to unleash your inaugural audio editing experiment on to the web, you’ll need to export it as an mp3 (File > Export as mp3).

Web audio needs to be quite small to download quickly – if your track is just speech, a bitrate of 48 or 64kbps should be fine.

Robin Hamman, manager of the BBC’s Blogs Project, had some practical advice on how to implement successful online community strategies for editors at the University of Central Lancashire’s Journalism Leaders’ Forum.

He advised against community strategies that depend on building features , such as online messageboards and calling for submissions of user-generated content. Features like these become more expensive and incur greater legal risks as they grow, he said.

A better approach, Hamman said, was to teach and encourage existing social media tools such as blogs and photo-sharing sites and then to monitor and link to them. Hamman’s classification of blogs into three types explains “why most of them are crap”.

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