How to Make Vocal Audio Sound Better in Audacity

Audacity is a free, open source solution that is widely used in the podcasting world for its versatility and power. It is the closest thing in the open source world to Adobe Audition, a leading audio editing tool used by podcasters and broadcasters around the world to capture, edit, and render audio files.

Just because Audacity is free doesn’t mean it can’t greatly improve the way your audio sounds. Vocals especially can often appear raw, riddled with background noise, and in need of some enhancement to create that radio sound so many podcasters try to achieve.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the tools that can help take your raw audio and turn it into something a bit more professional sounding without taking hours of your time to do it. While there are dozens of tools available, and plenty of different solutions out there, these are some of my personal favorite features. This solution may not work for everyone, though it is a good starting off point for a beginner.

Noise Removal

Noise removal is a process in which background noise is taken out of the audio file, leaving you with the audio you actually want to capture. It can be especially useful in situations where your microphone doesn’t have a steep dropoff, making it more sensitive to things such as your air conditioner, computer fans, or breathing going on around you.

The process of removing noise from your track is pretty simple. You’ll need to start by recording 5-10 seconds of audio before you begin speaking, allowing Audacity to capture just the ambient sounds of the room that you’d like to have removed from the track. Once that time has passed, just continue recording as you normally would.

When you’re finished, click and drag your mouse cursor over the empty space in your track created at the beginning of recording. Select just the area where you aren’t speaking. Next, go to Effect > Noise Removal… and click the Capture Noise Profile button. This will allow the program to capture that audio segment as a noise profile, letting it know what needs to be removed from the rest of the clip.

Once that is done, click and drag your cursor over the entire audio track, highlighting the content you want to filter. From there, go back to Effect > Noise Removal… and select OK. You can fine-tune the reduction process in this window first, though I recommend seeing what the program comes up with first. I’ve only had to tweak these settings once, and that was during a recording in a loud public area.

Compressor

Just about any radio studio in the world has a compressor in the audio chain. A compressor can take bland audio and enhance it in a number of ways to make it sound punchier and more rich. It brings vocals out and brings that full dynamic radio sound many podcasters are after.

Audacity’s compressor is pretty impressive, and does a great job of enhancing audio. You can access this feature by highlighting the track (or space in the track) you wish to enhance and navigating to Effect > Compressor in the top menu.

You may want to adjust the noise floor and threshold until you come up with something that sounds great to you. This can further separate your audio from your background as it brings up sounds that cross the noise floor.

A lot of folks hit the amplifier first in an attempt to bring up volume, but a compressor may be all you need to turn flat or somewhat low audio into something a bit more full-bodied. Every setup is different, though this is worth trying first.

Hard Limiter, Normalize, and Amplify

No one likes overdriven audio, and occasionally you may need to utilize a hard limiter to avoid peaks that bring distortion and other qualities that can ruin an otherwise perfectly good recording. There are several more advanced ways of going about doing this, though the hard limiter will essentially give your audio track a haircut to avoid peaks.

This option can be a double-edged sword. If your audio is extremely hot, that haircut can make it sound terrible. You might be better off running the normalize to bring those peaks down before throwing a hard limiter on audio that crosses that threshold by any obvious degree.

Amplify is another way to drive audio up or down, though it can introduce its own problems such as amplifying or reducing important audio to the point where your other audio effects don’t accurately enhance the sound.

Normalize can cause problems when multiple tracks have an intentional variance in volume. Bringing the peaks of each track to the same level can cause similar sounds to blend and ruin any room effect you might be going for in your recording.

Generate Silence

Generating silence can make it easy to remove breathing from your audio. I hate hearing breathing during an audio podcast, and I’ve tried everything from music beds to silence removal to get rid of it. No tool has quite done the job quite as well for me as Generate Silence.

All you need to do is highlight just the area in which you pause to take a breath and select Generate > Silence. A window will pop up with a start and end time for the silence. Your highlighted area should fill this in correctly so all you need to do is hit OK. This will replace that section of the track with silence.

Keep in mind that this will only work if you have nothing going on in the background. It’s an eerie nothing in the middle of background hiss and vocals otherwise, so use this feature sparingly.

Final Thoughts

There is an ongoing and long-standing debate between audiophiles and professionals as to what effect chain and/or order makes audio sound the best. Better is always relative, even in the world of audio production.

Here is a look at an audio track before and after a little processing using the above tools.

Before
After

Bottom line, you should try different settings and effect orders out to see what gives you the sound you want. For me, I usually hit audio with noise reduction, compressor, and normalize in that order.

So, what about you? What are your favorite Audacity effects, and how do you use them?

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.

  • Sragan5

    I love Audacity. Have used it for years. But I have to admit that I’ve only used the “safe” effects. And they’ve worked for me pretty well. Your article is excellent in that you explain plain and simply how to improve a basic audio file into a sound that you want to listen to over and over by using the more unique effects like compressor. And the difference in the “before” and “after” voice file you created is really amazing! Good job!

  • lumpy694

    Great post and, in my opinion, great information.  I am going to be sure to share it with the people I coach and teach.

    Regarding the ongoing debate, I have recently engaged in just such with an audio engineer who has 6 Emmys and a few gold albums to his credit.  We did not agree on all points but we totally agree on one very important thing. There are many ways and orders to achieve great audio. Listen to your final product on many systems, ear buds, speakers head phones, etc… Listen to it in a very critical manner.  That is the proof in the pudding so to speak.  Do not close the Audacity project until you are happy with your export. That way you can undo the edits and do things in another order if need be.  Once you close the project you have lost that option.  The other option is to save it as a different project after each step but that can eat up hard drive space very quickly.

    I would like to mention two additional things and suggest another plug-in (or effect since that is what they are called in the menu).
    In terms of order, as a general rule, one is told to apply compression first.  However, based on much personal experience a good exception, as you state, is to apply noise removal first. It is not always the best way though.  I suggest experimenting and trying it both ways but keep the compression early in the process regardless.Regarding compressors, I would suggest you all look at and try the “Chris Compressor” you can find it over at The Audacity to Podcast. (http://theaudacitytopodcast.com/chriss-dynamic-compressor-plugin-for-audacity/)  Sadly, the plugin developer is no longer with us and there will be likely be no further development on it. Not to brag but just to set up my statement and endorsement, I have been doing audio work since patch cord Moogs and 1 inch tape.  I am actually in IMDb for audio engineering.  That said, the compressor I just mentioned is the best I have ever used in the digital age. And, technically, it is more than just a compressor it also has a noise gate which allows you to, provided you know the level of your noise, skip the noise removal and do both at once.  If you set it right and your breath sounds are not too heavy, it can actually kill those as well.To actually find your noise gate level, use your cursor to highlight a section of what should be silence, then use the loop feature in Audacity.  Either hit the play button while holding the shift key or hit shift and the space bar.  Your audio will now play back in a loop.  Look at your playback volume and note the max level of the audio… that would be your setting for “Floor” in the effect I just mentioned.  If you don’t get what you want, raise the “Noise gate falloff”.  While it may take a few attempts, once you have your noise level, provided your environment stays the same, you can use the same settings each time.My second suggestion would be to, especially if the show was recorded live, also use the “truncate silence” effect.  It will remove those dead spaces that so often occur. It is especially helpful if one has VOIP latency issues with the recording. Be wise with it though for it can also make the conversation sound rushed.
    Sorry for the long comment but this is a great topic and many can learn much from what you have said.  I just think the Chis Compressor is a good addition to it.

  • Stacy Pharis

    Using the silence to remove the ‘And Uhhhh’ lines we do a lot helps make your Podcast sound more pro! 

    Great stuff Matt

  • http://www.facebook.com/seanimitchell Sean Mitchell

    What mic are you using? I’m using a logitec USB headset and it sounds no where near as clear. :/ Shopping around for different mics and software solutions today. Thanks man.