One thing that any modern producer has to be pretty well conversant with these days is the concept of data compression, audio quality, and the ‘bitrate’. From mp3′s to WAVs and AIFFs, we use a range of formats and settings every day, from writing tunes, to sampling, home listening and DJ’ing. So let’s take a closer look at what you should be using, and when!
The highest quality file that’s currently in wide-ranging use is the 24-bit WAV or AIF file. (WAVs and AIFs are basically the same, just storing the same data in subtly different ways – neither one is better than the other). For anything involving bouncing down some kind of final mix – for instance a pre-master file if your track has been signed, then use a 24-bit format. Similarly, if you’re bouncing stems for someone to remix, or to take them to another studio to mix down, you should be using 24-bit here too. It gives as much dynamic range as you could need, and although 16-bit would probably be ok, on anything where subtle and fine detail is required – for instance a delicate reverb tail – you can sometimes hear a touch of noise or aliasing if you really crank it. Nothing major, then, but multiplied over 20 or 30 channels it could become audible in the final mix. So it’s worth avoiding if you can, especially since hard disk space isn’t an issue these days.
Speaking of storage space, since it’s so cheap these days it’s worth archiving tracks as WAV/AIF if at all possible. These formats are lossless, so as hard disks continue to get bigger over the next few years we won’t need to worry about any compromise between size and fidelity. 16-bit is generally fine, since this is CD quality, and if you’re DJing out then this is what to aim for. 320Kbps is still something of a standard however, especially if buying from an online shop, and ultimately it works in the club. Although there are differences in quality between a 320k mp3 and a WAV file, unless you’re playing on a real top-end system these will not be too audible in a club environment – once the file has been through a beat-up club mixer, a couple of limiters and a speaker stack that was installed in 1997, you’d struggle to tell the difference. But since blank CDs cost next to nothing, and USB storage devices (and of course the hard disks in Serato or Traktor setups) are huge and cheap now, you should be aiming for WAV where possible.
So what of lower-quality files? Do they have any place in modern audio? Well, they certainly can do. As we frequently advocate here, some lo-fi sounds can really add character to a production – it’s no coincidence that most DAWs now ship with a bit-reduction plugin that can make your pristine 24-bit audio sound like it came through a tin can. So to this end, don’t worry about using 8-bit samples in your tunes, or even 128k mp3 files, so long as you know what you’re using them for. A low quality sample will be just the ticket for gritty, hissy weirdness, but not for crisp top-end sparkle. Most a-cappella sites only offer files in something like 128 or 192k mp3 format, but don’t let this put you off – if you just need them for a few vocal shots here and there, then as long as they’re not too noisy you can get away with 128k files. Even if you’re taking the full vocal for a cheeky edit or bootleg (not particularly legal, we should point out here), a 192k mp3 will do the job. Obviously it won’t sound as good as a proper studio recording, but you’ll be able to hack it into shape enough for a vinyl pressing and some radio play.
At lower qualities still, we have online use. It’s pretty common now to put tracks up on Soundcloud with 96k mp3 bitrates, largely to stop people ripping them. This is a sensible approach, but it’s often worth labelling the track as such, to make sure people don’t think the low quality sound is due to your production! Youtube is another site where low quality sound is common, and with the deluge of ‘Youtube mp3 rippers’ out there, this makes sense too. But if you’re sample hunting, again, anything is fair game. If you want to grab a sample off a Youtube film, just get in there. For anything large, it might sound fairly ropey, but for short snippets and sound effects it’s a goldmine.
Of course, there are plenty of other formats and qualities out there that you may come across, but these are the essentials for DJs, producers and enthusiasts to use on a daily basis. So check your file settings, make sure you’re using the right format at the right time, and you should be well on track!
Categories: Tech Talk