2017 Donald R. Snow - This page was last updated 2017-07-07.
These Freeware Corner notes are published in TAGGology, our Utah Valley Technology and Genealogy Group (UVTAGG) monthly newsletter.  They are also posted on my Freeware Corner Notes page on  where the links are active and there may be corrections and additions and other related notes and articles.


Old recordings, e.g. phonograph records and tape recordings, are in analog format and making further analog copies results in degradation each time; it's like xeroxes of a xerox.  If the analog recordings are digitized first, that is made into digital files on a computer, exact copies can be made without degradation.  Hence, it makes sense to digitize analog recordings and archive high-quality versions and then make copies from those for other purposes.  High-quality audio takes up more computer storage space than low-quality audio, but computer chips are very inexpensive now.  After archiving a high-quality version, you can make low-quality copies, e.g. mp3, for distribution or to post on FamilySearch, for example.  These will be smaller in size, but will be lower in sound quality.  You can make low-quality copies of high-quality files, but not the other way around, so archive good high-quality audio.  

Other reasons to digitize analog recordings are to edit them, e.g. cut out parts or drop out pops and clicks, or rearrange the parts in a different order.  Also, once the recording is digitized you can make all the copies you want very inexpensively and give or email them to your family or post them on FamilySearch Memories, for example.  And with copies in various places, preservation is better.


To digitize analog recordings, e.g. reel-to-reel or cassette tapes or phonograph records, use a connecting wire from the playback device output, the earphone jack of the tape recorder, for example, to the mike jack or line input on your computer.  With a connecting cable you get a better quality result since there is no background noise such as a telephone or doorbell ringing.  Desktop computers usually have the sound jacks in the back on the computer sound card.  These are color-coded: orange = mike in, green = speakers out, blue = line in.  Laptops frequently have jacks for microphone and earphones or a single jack for both.  If there is only a single jack, it will be a three-contact jack such as on a smartphone.  Some computers also allow USB input for sound, but you may need to buy an adapter for this.  These are not expensive and have jacks on one side for the mike and earphones and a USB jack on the other side to go into the computer.  If your playback device has an earphone jack, use that to connect to the mike jack on your computer.  But, if you have to go from a speaker or line output on your playback device into a mike jack on your computer, you may need an attenuating cable to decrease the signal strength.  These are not expensive and may be needed.  You will probably have to experiment to get the playback device (cassette tape recorder) connected to your computer so you get it to work.  For me that has been the hardest part of digitizing anything.  There are instructions in the AUDACITY Manual and FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) that you may need to help get your equipment set up.  If you want to something, there are playback devices (tape recorders and phonographs) that have USB plugs to go directly to a USB port on your computer.  I bought a cassette playback device like that for about $30.


AUDACITY is an open source, and hence free, computer program for audio recording and editing.  You can download it from
.  There is a manual and video tutorials at .  The manual is also included in version 2.1.3 (Jul 2017).  To get to it in the program go to  Help > Manual.  The Manual can also be downloaded from .  Audacity has a good Tour Guide in  Help > Manual  that will give you an overall picture of what it will do.  The program has many features and hence, a steep learning curve to learn to do everything, but the basics are fairly easy to learn and use.  AUDACITY records mono or stereo from microphones, from the Internet, or from a line in from a device such as a tape recorder or phonograph.  It has a monitor that shows the input volume so you can set it so it doesn't clip the loudest peaks or you get distortion.  It has start and stop record and playback buttons like a tape recorder and also has a timer that you can set to stop after a given time.  Once you have the digital recording you can edit it to delete parts, shorten it, fade parts in or out, change volume, copy, splice in sections, etc.  As it records you see the wave form of the track, or tracks if it's stereo, so you can see how loud it is, where the blank spots are, etc.  As part of the editing process you can add a label track parallel to the sound track(s) with marks where each section starts and the name.  Then, when you export the final version, there is an option to split the long file into shorter files, each piece with the name you gave it in the label track.  This really helps when digitizing a long analog recording such as a phonograph record with several songs, a journal with different dates, or a tape with several parts.  The digitized files can be exported in various formats, e.g. wav or mp3, and you can include metadata about the files to include details.  


Once you have the connection working, you need to set the volume before you start the recording.  There is a monitor to do this by clicking the microphone icon (top center) > Start Monitoring.  Now, if you are using a microphone test the volume to get it set right.  If you are using a playback device, start it and set the volume correctly.  The volume should be set so the sound bars go almost all the way to the right.  If they go past the right end, you get clipping and distortion and the volume is too loud.  To be able to hear a playback device as you are recording click Transport > Software Play Through.  If using a microphone, don't use the Software Play Through or you will get feedback.  When everything is set the way you want, rewind the playback device to the start, press the Record button on AUDACITY (solid red circle at top), then start the playback device.  There will be some blank space recorded at the start, but that can be edited out later.  If you start the playback device first, you may miss some of the file.  Watch the recording to make sure it is not overdriving the system, that is clipping the peaks where the sound is too loud.  When the analog recording is finished, click the Stop button on AUDACITY (the yellow square button).  In the main window you see the wave form of the entire sound file.  To play it back, click the Skip to Start button (next to the Stop button), then click the Play button (the right-pointing triangle button).  You will see the vertical line moving to the right as it plays the recording.  You may need to turn the playback volume up on AUDACITY, if you had it turned down.  You can stop and start the recording anywhere.  If it is a long recording, the + and - signs (near top right) expand and contract the wave window so you see the file more stretched out or more compressed.  This allows you to find the exact parts you want to edit.  The time is shown down to the fraction of a second along the wave regardless of how you expand or contract the window.


The words across the top of AUDACITY are File, Edit, View, Transport, Tracks, Generate, Effect, Analyze, and Help.  Notice that the first letter of each is underlined.  This means that, besides clicking on that word, you can open that menu by holding down the ALT key and pressing that letter.  That is a standard Windows keyboard shortcut.  Most of the editing capabilities are under Edit and Effect and some have icons at the top of AUDACITY without opening the menus.  For example, if you want to delete a section of the file, click at the left end of the part to delete, move the mouse to the right end, hold down the SHIFT key, and press A.  This is a standard Windows shortcut to highlight everything between where the mouse cursor was.  To delete that section click Edit > Delete or on the Scissors icon (top center).  To fade out that section click Effect > Fade Out.  To blank out that section, but not change the length of the file, click the "blank" icon (top center), the one with the waves before, then flat, then waves again.  In the Effect menu there are many other things you can do with a section.


AUDACITY keeps track of everything you do to a sound file and you can Undo every step all the way back to where you started, as long as you have the project saved.  To save the project click on File > Save Project As and give it a name and tell it where to save it.  This allows you to return anytime and re-edit or go back any number of steps, etc.  This is not the same as exporting the audio file and AUDACITY saved projects can't be opened with other programs.


When you are done editing the file, to export it click on File > Export Audio and select the format you want to export it in, e.g. wav or mp3.  I usually save the archive copies as wav files since that is a high-quality format that many programs can play, but there are several other high-quality formats available in AUDACITY also.  As you save the file, a screen comes up for you to enter the metadata of where the file came from, the date, who and what it is, etc.  I don't usually fill this out, since I put the details in the file name, so it is searchable.  After you have exported a good archive copy, you can also export an mp3 version, if desired.  If you save the project, you can always go back any time later and re-edit or re-export it in different formats.  You can also open any audio file in AUDACITY to work with it and save it in different formats.


This is just the start of using AUDACITY and other articles will discuss other parts of it.  For old tape recordings it is wise to digitize them as soon as possible since tapes deteriorate.  Phonograph records don't deteriorate, but degrade each time they are played.  You may be able to find tape recorders and phonograph players at thrift stores and you can buy new ones that have USB connections to simplify connecting them to your computer.  There are many uses of audio in family history and other articles will discuss more later.