using audio files as play-alongs with Audacity

If you’re a student of mine, you’ve probably heard of the great benefits of practicing really short passages, very slowly, and repeating them a great number of times in order to get into the zone, completely internalizing the music (to the point where you almost feel that someone else is playing it and you are just relaxing and observing – a whole lot more about this in Kenny Werner’s classic book Effortless Mastery).

You can of course practice this way alone at your instrument, with or without a metronome for rhythmic support. Playing to a track can also be a fun and effective way of achieving this, provided it is short enough, focused on a specific passage you have difficulties with, set to an adequate (most likely slow) tempo, and looped (repeated indefinitely).

While I make a point in my lessons of detecting specific difficulties you may have and preparing appropriate, loopable audio files for you to practice with, Audacity is a great little piece of software that will enable you to set a tempo you are comfortable with and play the file back as many times as needed, at the same pace and with no interruptions.

So before you delve into that blissful state of non-doing in music, let’s take a closer look at these few simple, technical steps that will get you started in no time:

  1. downloading Audacity;
  2. opening an audio file with Audacity;
  3. setting the track’s tempo to your practicing needs;
  4. looping the audio file for playback.

1. Audacity is available for Windows, Mac OS X / macOS, and GNU/Linux from the Download page on audacityteam.org.

2. To load a specific audio file in Audacity, just drag it into the empty blue/grey area (a white “+” sign in a green circle will appear as you hover over that region). A warning will then pop up prompting you to choose an import method. You can select “Make a copy of the files before editing (safer)” so that if you make changes and save them, the original file will remain available as well.

3. Select the whole audio file (on Mac, hit cmd + A) and go to Effect > Change Tempo…. The “Change Tempo” box appears providing you with three alternatives: Percent Change, Beats per minute (good if you know the original bpm of the track, which you can also figure out using http://a.bestmetronome.com/), or Length (seconds). Don’t forget to tick the box in front of “Use high quality stretching (slow)” for better results.

4. Finally, choose Transport > Play > Loop Play (or hit shift + space) to launch the play-along.

As Kenny Werner reminds us: don’t forget to stop playing when you feel you’re loosing focus and concentration. Take your hands off/put down your instrument, take a deep breath, get back into the space, and try again!

Enjoy and see you online at your next lesson 😉


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