Best free audio software

These days, PC audio enthusiasts can benefit from a development community offering free alternatives that often rival the more established com-mercial offerings. However, sifting through them in an effort to stay current can be time-consuming, so this month we’re looking at the best free tools for common tasks, including file conversion, audio editing, and multi-track recording/sequencing.

File conversion

There may be times when you’ll need to convert an audio file from one format to another. Awave Audio 9 is arguably the leader for this task, but if you don’t want to fork out $US49.95 (AU$69.71), you can turn to the free dBpowerAMP Music Converter (dMC) www.dbpoweramp.com) instead. Not limited to file conversion, dMC can also be used for recording audio, ripping CDs and normalising the volume of audio files, thanks to a wide range of available add-ons.

dMC’s own Web site www.dbpoweramp.com/codec-central.htm provides a comprehensive selection of audio codecs, allowing dBpowerAMP to support formats such as MP3, RA (Real Audio), WMA (Windows Media Audio), OGG (Vorbis), AAC (Advanced Audio Codec — as used in iPods), Monkeys Audio (a lossless codec), and many more. They are provided as self-extracting installer files, whereas codecs for CDA (audio CDs), MP3 and WAV are included by default.

To begin the file conversion process, start dBpowerAMP Music Converter, select the files you want to convert, and click Open. As shown here, a drop-down list at the top allows you to select the conversion format you’re after. Just select the folder in which to save the end results, click Convert and you’re done. It’s that easy.

Converting with Winamp

It’s worth noting that Winamp (http://www.winamp.com) is also a great file converter. Just about any audio file it supports can be converted to a WAV file, including MIDI, which can be extremely useful for audio CD creation. In Winamp, create a playlist of the files you want to convert before pressing <Ctrl>-K for preferences. Under the plug-ins category on the left, choose Output, then on the right-side, double-click NullSoft Disk Writer plugin. Select where you want to save the WAV files before clicking OK and then Close. Click on Play in Winamp and, instead of playing back your tracks, it’ll convert them. This process shouldn’t take too long, and will usually finish in less time than it would normally take to play the selected tracks from start to finish. To return Winamp to standard playback mode when you’re done, press <Ctrl&gt-K and go to PlugIn-Output again so you can select waveOUT output.

Multi-track recording

If you’re going to make music with your computer then you’ll need software that allows you to record multiple audio tracks for sequencing and mixing your ideas into fleshed-out songs.

The problem is that such software has traditionally cost well into the hundreds of dollars, which is something that Apple addressed when it included GarageBand, a multi-track recording product, into the iLife ’04 package that comes bundled with all new Macs. For PC users, a free alternative includes Pro Tools FREE (it supports only Windows 95/98 and is available at www.digidesign.com); one of the cheapest beginner options is $100 Tracktion (www.rawmaterialsoftware.com).

There’s a new freeware product on the scene called KRISTAL Audio Engine (www.kreatives.org/kristal), which has a great interface that’s reminiscent of Cubase SX. Click here for a screen shot. Still in development, it currently offers 16 audio tracks, three-band EQ and two VST effects per channel, plus three master VST effects. It comes with its own effects and supports WAV, AIFF, FLAC (another lossless codec), and OGG audio formats. VSTi support for plug-in instruments (see the March 2004 print issue, page 118) is expected in future versions, along with more tracks and effects. This kind of program offers a vast array of features, so we’ll be taking a closer look at using KRISTAL Audio Engine in the months to come. In the meantime, pressing <F1> in the program will bring up some excellent HTML-based support documentation.

Audio editing

Audio or wave editing software allows you to perform a variety of tasks such as record-ing Internet radio, vinyl and tapes, using noise reduction to clean up your recordings, editing sections and applying effects. Loads of free and shareware editors are available, and one of the best is the free Audacity audio editing and multi-track application (http://audacity.sourceforge.net). It supports WAV, AIFF, MP3 and OGG audio files and all flavours of Windows, in addition to Linux/UNIX and Mac OS 9/X. We’ve looked at it in the past and these articles can now also be found by searching PC World online.

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