Dominic Mazzoni is the creator and lead developer of the Audacity Audio Editor, one of the most downloaded open source projects on the internet…with over one million downloads per month. Dominic attended the Claremont Colleges and currently works for Google.
Dominic talks with ValueWiki about Audacity, wikis, and the future of open source…
Jon: Dominic, thank you for talking with ValueWiki! First off, how did you get started on Audacity? Where did you get the idea?
Dominic: I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University and I was trying to learn more about techniques for computers to understand and analyze music. One of my dreams has been to someday write software
that can automatically transcribe music – listen to a recording and write out sheet music. Anyway, in order to explore these algorithms I needed audio editing software to modify to help me visualize things. Most of the existing software I found wasn’t open-source, which meant that I couldn’t learn how it worked or modify it, and the small amount of open-source software only worked on one operating system, for example only Windows or only Linux. I wanted something that everyone could use. So, I started writing my own audio editor. I never expected it to get as popular as it is today.
Jon: Was Audacity always open-source? When did SourceForge come into the picture?
Dominic: When I started Audacity I was a college student, and in academia most people share their source code because it’s a great way for other
people to learn to become better software developers. Plus, I had
benefitted greatly from other open-source software and learned much
of what I know today by studying how it works. So I always wanted
Audacity to be open-source. Audacity was released under the General
Public License about nine months after I started working on it.
Sourceforge had only been around for a few months at that time, in
the spring of 2000, but it seemed like a great deal: they were
offering a free website and lots of free developer tools for any open
Jon: In your unbiased opinion…How does Audacity compare to Garageband and other Audio editing software?
Dominic: Garageband is a great tool for creating original voice and music recordings. It’s extremely elegant and slick, I totally love their interface and I love using it. Two problems: one is that it’s only for Mac, and second that it’s extremely limited. If all you want to do is record yourself singing and playing the guitar, or you want to record a podcast, then assuming you already have a Mac, Garage Band may be all you need. But Garage Band is not a general-purpose audio
editor by any means, and it is a terrible tool for copying an LP or cassette to your computer and cleaning it up to burn to a CD, for example.
I will freely admit that Garage Band is superior to Audacity at the things that Garage Band does best. But it’s not a great comparison because Audacity does so much more.
A more direct comparison is Adobe Audition, formerly Cool Edit. Audacity and Audition have similar feature sets and similar goals. Audition is in many ways more mature and polished than Audacity, but it most definitely has a lot of quirks. Audacity has three main advantages: one, it works on all major computer platforms instead of just Windows, two, it’s free, and three, most people find Audacity easier to use.
Profesional audio engineers most commonly use Pro Tools. Pro Tools is far more powerful than Audacity ever will be, and it’s hard to compare them directly because Pro Tools is a complete solution for creating and producing music, not just an editing tool. But the great thing about Audacity is that because it’s free, you don’t have to pick and choose. I’ve heard from dozens of professional audio engineers who use Pro Tools, Logic Audio, Audition, and lots of other expensive commercial tools – but they also use Audacity as one of their tools, because Audacity just happens to do one thing they need really well.
Audacity is still the only audio editor that runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux.
Jon: I’m curious about the numbers. How many developers have worked on Audacity? Can you estimate the total number of downloads? Total number of countries?
Dominic: Most of Audacity has been written by about 8-9 developers over the last 8 years, but several dozen people have contributed code. We also have several other members of the Audacity team who aren’t
software developers, but they help out in other ways, for example writing documentation, answering user emails, translating Audacity into other languages, and beta testing.
There have been over 22 million downloads directly from our website, and the current rate is over a million downloads per month. That doesn’t count the millions of copies of Audacity that are legally
distributed from other websites or included free in promotional CD-ROMs from magazines like PC World.
Matt Brubeck deserves the credit for making it possible to translate Audacity into other languages. The great thing about open-source software is that anyone can do the translation – someone who speaks a
foreign language can just download a file of the phrases to translate and email us the results, and bingo, Audacity is suddenly available to millions of people who speak that language. Audacity has been
translated into over 30 languages so far.
Dominic: The wiki was started by the Audacity developers; we love wikis and it seemed like a great easy way to hold all of the extra information that didn’t exactly belong in the documentation or elsewhere on our
website. It’s been enormously successful. One of the things I love about it is that people don’t just help by adding content, they help by organizing existing content. I come back after not seeing it for a few weeks to find that people have organized sections into new categories and in general made everything easier to read, and I love it.
In fact, we love wikis so much that we’re writing the next version of the Audacity user guide using wiki software. It’s not open to the general public for quality control reasons, but having it on a wiki makes it easy for anyone in the developer community to quickly make changes with almost no effort. We then intend to use software to convert the text of the wiki to HTML and PDF for everyone else to view.
Jon: What do you see in the future for Audacity?
Dominic: I hope to see more commercial involvement with Audacity, which I think will help with its maturity. We’ve had a few companies sponsor the development of certain features that they needed in Audacity, and
if this trend continues I’d like to see one or more developers working on Audacity full time, rather than now where most of us work on Audacity in our spare time, and only occasionally for pay.
Jon: How do you see the future of opensource? Do you feel that support for opensource is growing or shrinking on the internet? Any predictions?
Dominic: Open source is huge and it’s growing. When Audacity was released in 2000, most people had never used open source software and no business based on open source software had ever made a profit. Today almost everyone has used open source software such as Firefox, OpenOffice, or BitTorrent, possibly without even knowing it. And more than 60% of websites on the Internet use open source software to run their site, including ValueWiki!
Jon: I just noticed, you’re one of the few people I know who is notable enough to have a Wikipedia article! Have you checked it out? Out of curiosity, are you a Wikipedian?
Dominic: It’s kind of fun that someone found me notable enough to add a Wikipedia article about me, albeit a short one. I do occasionally edit Wikipedia myself, on a wide range of topics including programming languages, music theory, and accessibility.
Jon: Thank you for taking time to chat with ValueWiki. Best of luck on Audacity!
Dominic: Thanks, Jon!