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Audacity is a poster child for what can be achieved with open-source software

If Muse Group's stewardship takes a wrong turn, there's always the fork button*

Updated The quality of software the FOSS community has created is nothing short of amazing.

Not only do we have a complete operating system capable of running on nearly any hardware money can buy, but we have some of the best document, photo, music, and video-editing software available on any platform.

This embarrassment of riches didn't exist the first time I installed Yellow Dog Linux on an old PowerPC-based Mac. The amazing part is that, in an age when everyone is fighting over the cost of apps and app stores, the total cost of all these amazing tools we use is … nothing.

I think that's remarkable. What's even more remarkable is that I seldom take the time to appreciate this everyday fact of open source. Most of the time I am focused on getting work done. But every now and then I open a piece of software like Darktable (its competitor ought to be embarrassed to charge the fees it does), or LibreOffice, or Kdenlive, and there's a moment where that "this is amazing" feeling comes through.

Lately I've been digging deeper into another remarkable, free, open-source app that's fast becoming one of my favourite pieces of software: Audacity.

Open-source software is technically defined by its licence, in Audacity's case the GPLv2, which is really a pretty mundane thing, or at least hardly the foundation on which to build truly great software. That's why, behind the licence, there's almost always a good story.

What is Audacity?

Audacity is a multi-track audio editor and recording software available on Linux, Windows, and macOS. That's how Audacity bills itself anyway. The truth is Audacity is a kind of labyrinth in which digital audio nerds can lose themselves.

At first glance, Audacity doesn't look like much thanks to a user interface that dates back to Windows 98. Brainchild of Dominic Mazzoni and Roger Dannenberg, both of Carnegie Mellon University, the first version of Audacity was released in 1999 (at the time the name was different).

Since then, believe it or not, Audacity has had several fairly major redesigns, but its basic user interface feels like 1999. Still, while it might look outdated, Audacity doesn't lack when it comes to features. If you can find them.

I came to Audacity about a decade ago, knowing absolutely nothing about digital audio. I stumbled on it in the Ubuntu Software Center looking for something that could take an hour-long recording and split it into shorter tracks. At the time Audacity was the only thing I could find that made this a simple if time-consuming process. It quickly became my go-to software for any kind of audio editing or trimming.

Unlike many more complex open-source audio apps (like Ardour or Qtractor), Audacity didn't assume I had spent a lifetime in a recording studio.

Both Ardour and Qtractor are great, but the learning curve is steep if you don't understand the studio recording gear metaphor used as the basis of the user interface. Audacity, on the other hand, has a UI that makes sense in relation to other applications rather than to physical mixers in a recording studio. This approachable quality, along with the astounding level of support Audacity provides, is, I think, the reason for its success.

Audacity's success is impressive too – it has been downloaded over 200 million times.

Enter Muse Group

As The Register reported earlier this year, Audacity was acquired in May by the Muse Group, which is the company behind Ultimate Guitar, MuseScore, and a few other music-related projects.

Acquired is an interesting word, especially where the GPLv2 is concerned, but it seems to amount to "we're going to help make this awesome project more awesome" – which is an interesting business decision. There may be some paid external features down the road – think cloud storage and the like, not features within the app – but for now the main plan seems to be improving Audacity.

From what I've seen over the last two months, Muse Group seems to have its heart in the right place. And if the opposite comes true, there's always GitHub's fork button. For now, though, it seems that not only is Audacity in good hands, but that it might be finally getting that design refresh it desperately needs.

Martin Keary, a former Canonical designer responsible for MuseScore, an open-source music notation software also owned by Muse Group, will oversee Audacity at Muse Group.

Despite the design experience, Keary is probably best known for his YouTube channel Tantacrul. He made a very in-depth video on Audacity back when the announcement was first made. "Just like we're doing at MuseScore," says Keary in the video, "we're planning on significantly improving the feature set and ease-of-use of Audacity, providing dedicated designers and developers to give it the attention it deserves, while keeping it free and open source."

For my part, I'm hoping Audacity's development pace will pick up a bit under this new leadership.

Audacity recently reached version 3.0, but that milestone comes eight years after the 2.0 release. There were incremental improvements and bug fixes in the point releases between those major milestones, but by almost any development standard, eight years is on the slow side.

That said, there were some very fundamental changes in the 3.0 release including a new file format called .aup3. This container file holds everything you need for a single Audacity project. It now uses SQLite3 to track all the components of your project. This has made Audacity significantly faster and, more importantly, better at automatically recovering your project should Audacity crash or close unexpectedly.

While the 3.0 release was welcome and has laid the foundations for quite a few features yet to come, Audacity is not without its quirks and limitations.

The biggest limitation is that Audacity does not support instrument VST plugins. VST plugins are virtual instruments and effects you can apply to your audio tracks. If a sound exists in the world, chances are someone has created a VST plugin to apply it to any audio track.

One of Audacity's great strengths early on was that it had a plugin architecture. In 1999 this was unusual and made (and continues to make) Audacity more flexible than other simple audio editors. But while there is a pretty robust selection of Audacity plugins, there are many more VST options out there.

Making Audacity capable of stacking non-destructive VST plugins would exponentially upgrade its power and potential by opening up a world of effects and possibilities not currently available. Another other major missing feature in Audacity is the ability to add real-time effects while recording.

Both of these features appear – based on what Keary has said, and on developer discussions on GitHub – to be on the roadmap for future Audacity releases, though when they might arrive is still anyone's guess. Also on the roadmap is, as Keary puts it in the video linked above, "a new coat of paint" for the user interface. There are a few moments in Keary's video where it appears he is working with some kind of unreleased version of Audacity, or perhaps zooming in on some design mockups.

Listening to users

While the roadmap for Audacity looks to bring some exciting features, what's perhaps more important is that Keary is "interviewing users and creating online spaces to interact with those users in an effort to determine priorities and approaches to the program's development going forward."

He also says that Audacity will publish design mockups for users to comment on before those changes are shipped. In other words, Muse Group is listening to the community.

This can be seen in one early misstep where Muse opened a GitHub issue to add telemetry to Audacity. Telemetry is a touchy subject. Developers like it because they get data about how users are using the app, but users dislike it because it's a form of tracking. In Audacity's case the telemetry would would have meant embedding Google and Yandex tracking in Audacity, which understandably outraged many.

Muse Group apologised, backed off the change, and said it will self-host a Sentry-based system for tracking crashes and checking for software updates, and drop the telemetry for now. If, like most Linux users, you install Audacity using your package manager, even these will most likely not be included.

With any luck, Audacity will soon be what we users have long loved about it – a powerful, easy-to-use audio editor, as well as a well-organised, cleanly designed user interface that shows once again how open-source software doesn't just replicate proprietary software but leads the way. ®

Updated to add on 5 July 2021

* We're aware of the update that took place over the weekend and have written a news piece on the changes.

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