Musicians Guide To Audio Bitrates & Audio Formats
Audio bitrate is usually the basic way to determine the sound quality of an audio file. However, this is not always the case. There are more things to consider such as the audio format (compressed or uncompressed) sample rate and bit depth.
There are four essential factors that determine the audio quality:
- Audio Format (.WAV, .AIFF, .FLAC, .ALAC, .MP3, etc.)
- Sample Rate (kHz)
- Bit Depth (bits)
- Audio Bitrate in (kbps)
It is essential to understand the meaning of the above, before you start recording, producing, DJing, or distributing music.
Types of Audio Formats
Sound is made out of vibrations and audio files capture those waves. There are three different types of audio files (Uncompressed, Lossless, Compressed).
- Uncompressed – Large audio files but contains all the information and have the highest bitrate. The main uncompressed audio format is PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) and it is stored as WAV on Windows and AIFF on Mac OS.
- Compressed Lossless – Compressed files but no information gets lost. The most popular lossless audio formats are FLAC, ALAC, and WMA.
- Compressed / Lossy – The smallest and with the least amount of information. Compressed files might lose some information, but not essential parts that get noticed. MP3 and AAC are the most widely-used formats.
You can easily convert uncompressed files into new audio formats at any time. But it is not possible the other way around. Always keep the uncompressed files in storage for future use.
Audio formats explained
- WAV (Waveform Audio File) – The most popular uncompressed audio format for recording, mixing, and mastering. Offer great sound quality but you sacrifice storage and metadata support.
- AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) – Apple’s alternative to WAV with better metadata support. It is supported by both Mac and Windows but it is not ideal for editing and mixing as it doesn’t hold time codes.
- FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) – High-quality sound but with half the size of WAV files and able to store metadata. It is able to recreate sample rates up to 192kHz and 32-bit depth.
- ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) – Apple’s alternative to FLAC. Since iTunes and Apple systems do not support FLAC formats, ALAC is the best alternative to keep your files on iOS devices.
- WMA (Windows Media Audio) – Not a widely used format but it allows you to uncompress files and bring them back to their original state without losing in quality.
- MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer III) – The most popular compressed audio format offers a small file size but not the best sound. It is still no1 choice for many, but with the increase in hard drive capacity and internet speed, better audio formats will take over.
- AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) – It is Apple’s alternative to MP3 but it sounds better. That is because AAC offers wider sample rates. 8-96kHz of AAC while MP3 offers 16-48kHz.
There are more but less popular audio formats such as Ogg Vorbis and DSD (Direct Stream Digital).
What is the best audio format?
There are so many audio formats for a reason. Musicians, record labels, DJs, and online distributors, all have different needs. There isn’t one audio format to consider as the best. You must choose the one that fills your expectations on fidelity, metadata support, and space storage. What you should really be asking is “what is the right audio format for me?”.
What is the right audio format?
For choosing the right audio format, you will have to consider three factors. Sound Quality, Metadata Support, and File Size. If you cannot sacrifice high fidelity, lossless files are for you. If you are planning to save thousands of songs, then compressed files are unavoidable.
WAV VS AIF
The WAV is definitely a more recognizable format than Apple’s alternative. Both audio formats read PCM data and you cannot tell them apart somehow. With AIFF format however you have more options to store information about your audio file.
FLAC VS ALAC
The main difference between FLAC and ALAC is that the first one is for Windows users and the second for iOS devices. ALAC is also able to reproduce a maximum sample rate up to 384kHz, while FLAC is up to 192 kHz.
FLAC VS MP3
If you want to get the best sound quality from your audio file, then FLAC is definitely the option to go. If on the other hand, you want to store a lot of files without a significant sound shortage then 320 kbps MP3 files are the best alternative.
What is the best audio format for DJs, producers, audiophiles, and distributors?
- DJs: MP3 or AAC compressed lossy files. As a DJ you must have a wide range of music genres and large libraries. Having thousands of songs saved on your laptop, PC or hard drive will take a lot of storage. A 5-minute lossless audio file has an approximate size of 40MB. Compared to the 5MB that will be an MP3 or AAC file is a big win in the long run.
- Music Producers / Composers: WAV and AIF Uncompressed files. Working with uncompressed lossless audio files is one-way for audio engineers and music producers.
- Audiophiles: FLAC, ALAC, WMA Compressed Lossless files. If you have good audio equipment you should probably go for lossless audio files to combine sound quality and space-saving.
- Distributors: WAV, AIF Uncompressed files or FLAC ALAC, WMA Lossless files. You will probably have to work with most audio formats that are available right now. Each online platform such as Spotify, Beatport, or iTunes supports different formats. Ideally, take the uncompressed versions from the music producers or sound engineers and convert them to any format necessary.
Sample Rate & Bit Depth
If you have some experience in music you have probably heard of sample rate and bit depth. You have definitely seen it on many recording and audio devices, such as audio interfaces and studio microphones, but maybe you don’t know exactly what they mean.
Sample Rate is the number of times an audio sample is captured per second. Bit Rate is the number of bits in each of these audio samples. For example, the standard digital audio sampling rate is 44,1 kHz, and bit depth at 16 bits. This means that the audio is sampled 44.100 times per second and data on each sample are 16 bits.
Just like an image has a high resolution, an audio file has the sample rate and bit depth to establish its quality. The bigger the sample rate and/or bit depth is, the larger and better is the audio file.
Knowing the sample rate and bit depth we can figure out the bitrate of your audio. More below.
Even tho the human ear can hear a frequency range at about 20kHz, it is essential to record music at more than double. The most common sample rates are 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 96kHz, and 192kHz. Less common audio sampling frequencies are 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz.
- 44.1 kHz is the standard sample rate that offers high-quality audio. It is also used for audio CDs.
- 48 kHz is not much better than 44.1kHz but it will probably become the next standard as it is used by the majority of music producers and home recording studios.
- 96 kHz are the hi-res audio files that sound engineers love to work with.
- 192 kHz is not a very common sample rate to record as it will take a huge amount of storage for a tiny if any improvement on the sound.
- 16 bit audio can record 65,536 possible levels. This is the basic but over-dated bit depth to record music.
- 24 bit audio can capture 16,777,216 values. From here starts the high-resolution audio files.
- 32 bit float can capture 4,294,967,296 possible values. It is not commonly used but there are many audio recorders, audio interfaces, and music production software such as Ableton Live offering 32-bit recording.
16 bit vs 24 bit
Since most audio hardware and software equipment support 24-bit or/and 32-bit float recording, it won’t warm using it. The additional 8 bit will ensure high-fidelity sound that professional musicians and audiophiles love to use. You will sacrifice a few MegaBytes more storage but it’s worth the result.
How important are the sample rate and bit depth?
Getting the best possible digital version of your analog sound will depend on the sample rate and bit depth you are recording. By increasing the sample rate and bit depth, there will be stored more samples, and therefore more detailed sound.
Sample Rate & Bit Depth File Size Comparison
Higher sample rate and bit depth will surely provide a better environment for sound engineers to work with. However, it will also increase the total size of your file significantly.
You can see by the table below that if you are planning to record at 192kHz and 32-bit float you will need a powerful PC and a lot of storage. Three songs lasting 4 minutes each will take up to 1GB of your computer’s memory. While the same files with a 48kHz sample rate and 16-bit depth will take nearly 10 times less storage space.
What is high-resolution audio?
A lossless file that is capable to reproduce the full range of sounds from the recording is considered high-resolution audio. In other words, anything better than CD quality (44,1 kHz sample rate and 16-bit bit depth). The 192kHz / 32bit resolution is considered high-fidelity and so is the 48kHz / 24bit. Only lossless files (FLAC ALAC, WMA, WAV, and AIFF) can manage high-res audio.
Where to listen and download high-res music?
The most popular online music stores such as Google Play, Apple Music, Spotify, and Beatport offer their music at 128, 256, or 360 kbps. If you are an audiophile then it’s only logical to look for high-resolution audio to listen to or stream music.
HD Tracks, 7Digital, and Tidal Masters are high-resolution music platforms that provide lossless audio files such as FLAC, ALAC, WAV, and AIFF. You can also choose the sample rate and bit depth, which in most cases can go up to 192kHz / 24-bit.
What is Audio Bitrate?
Bitrate is the term we use to describe the amount of data that is stored in an audio file. A higher audio bitrate means more data is being stored and therefore better audio quality.
For example, a 320 Kbps bitrate means that there are 320 kilobits transmitted for every second of audio. An 128 Kbps file stores 128 kilobits per second, therefore less data, size, and sound quality.
What is the best audio bitrate?
You shouldn’t be looking for the best audio bitrate, but for the right audio bitrate. If you are recording music in the studio then it is important to work with the highest possible audio bitrate. If you want to live stream your DJ sets, you want an audio format with a smaller bitrate. In that case, 320 kbps audio bitrate is recommended. Some online streaming platforms can go only up to 160 kbps.
Only professional audio equipment and sound systems can handle a wide frequency response that can accommodate 1,1411 Kbps (CD bitrate) or more. If users are listening to your music on low-quality speakers or headphones, they won’t be getting the high resolution audio you have been distributing. That’s why you need to use good studio quality headphones and listen to your music properly.
How to calculate the audio bitrate?
SAMPLE RATE (kHz) * BIT DEPTH (bits) * 2 = AUDIO BITRATE (kbps)
For example: The sample rate and bit depth of an audio CD are 44,1kHz and 16 bits. Multiple these two, and then double it for stereo. 44.100 x 16 x 2 = 1,411,200 bits per second or 1,411 kbps.
What is the best audio bitrate for DJs, producers, and audiophiles?
- DJs: 320 kbps bitrate is ideal for event and club DJs. For Live-streaming, 128 kbps files are sufficient.
- Music Producers / Composers: When you are making music it’s always good to record with the higher sample rate, and bit depth possible. This will depend on your audio interface, and recording software (DAW). Ideally, record at a 48kHz rate and 24 bits or more.
- Audiophiles: The best audio bitrate is the one that your audio equipment can handle.
- Distributors: Every online music platform has its own standards for audio settings. Consult the preferences and share music with the best audio bitrate allowed by each platform.
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