Rhythm Creation - Music Production and Sound Reocording

There are many different types of audio files which you can use to encode your music and sounds. But which one is right for each job. This guide lists the most popular audio file types in use today and when you as a musician should use them and when you shouldn’t.

Waveform Audio (.wav)
A very common and one of the oldest formats of digital sound storage which was created by Microsoft and IBM. It is also one the most simplest to use. Most Wav files are uncompressed which means that they are Large in storage size (aprox. 10Mb for 1 minute of audio), so they tend to be used only when space or data transfer speeds are not an issue. They keep all the original sound data intact just the way it was recorded. The most popular Wav encoding format is called pulse-code modulation (PCM) format which is used as the standard for CDs. Audio on CDs are two channels (Stereo) of 44,100 samples per second with each sample point using 16 bits of data. I use this format for my samples as all music software will support it and I know that no audio data is lost through compression.

When should you use Wav files - Use it for the samples you're going to use in your music. Use it when you don’t want to lose any audio quality such as passing recordings to other musicians to work on. It’s also good for your main audio backup of you music should you ever have to encode into another format or write a CD.

When shouldn’t you use Wav files - When transferring files over the internet to others or any situation where file size is an issue. They are far too big in size.

FLAC (.flac)
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and as the name suggests compresses your sounds without losing any of the sound quality. Files can be reduced by around half the data size whilst still keeping all of the audio that a WAV file would keep. Because FLAC is free it means that makers of hardware software can incorporate the encoder/decoder without paying a license fee.

A Pair of Headphones - Image from Stock Xchng (www.sxc.hu) User:Wazina When should you use FLAC files - When you want to store files and save some space but don’t want to lose any of the quality. Today many musicians find they can work with other musicians around the world via the internet quickly by sending files back and forth and sending your files in FLAC can save time uploading and downloading as slow connection speed without losing that all important audio quality, just make sure that the software you are using supports it.

When shouldn’t you use FLAC files - When you want people to be able to download your music as fast as possible. File sizes are still big compared to other lossy compression formats.

MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (.mp3)
Unless you have been living on the moon these last 10 years you will have definitely heard of this format. It changed the music industry forever when it became a popular file format with internet users and made headlines in the media. It was created by Philips, Fraunhofer Society, CCETT, and IRT as a format which was small in data storage space (approx. a tenth of the size of a Wav file depending on the encoding bit rate). It does this by removing the data which human hearing cannot hear and it does this with varying degress of success depending on the bit rate chosen and the encoder used. Mp3s encoded in bit rates of 128kbit/s sound worse but take up a tiny amount of space where as mp3s recorded at say 320kbit/s sound better but take up more space. The person encoding can choose the bit rate the encode at depending on whether they are going for better sound or better compression.

Windows Media Audio (.wma)
The format was created by Microsoft to compete with Mp3. There are different codecs for doing different types of compression, which are for voice, music, a high resolution and a lossless compression format. Microsoft claims that WMA sounds better than Mp3 even at lower bit rates although this is debatable. Personally I would stick with Mp3 over this format as people are used to seeing Mp3 and some older Mp3 players may not support WMA.

Ogg Vorbis (.ogg, .oga)
Ogg Vorbis is yet another lossy compression format and this one is my personal favourite. Why? because it is FREE and I believe it is the best sounding especially at lower bitrates. It was produced by Xiph.org Foundation when licensing fees for encoders and decoders of mp3 files was introduced. I believe that you will see this file format more and more as many hardware and software media players, computer games, music composition software have added the codec due to the ability to add it for free with no license fee. This cuts down on software production costs for things like software where no other codecs for sound will be needed. Another reason why this is my favourite lossy codec is because I really believe that music sounds better in this format at the same bit rate when encoding from a lossless source, try it yourself and see.

When should you use Mp3, WMA and Ogg Vorbis files - Use them when you want to distribute your music via the internet as listeners will be able to download the files fast. You’ve just got to make your choice between the formats. Mp3 files are supported by many players and are seen as the industry standard for lossy audio compared to the other two and more people know them. WMA is also good but you may find there are people without the codec such as Linux Users and some Mp3 Players. Where as Ogg Vorbis is in the public domain, free (and so should be supported by us musicians more) but unfortunately it hasn’t got the support of some hardware manufacturers.

When shouldn’t you use Mp3, WMA and Ogg Vorbis files - Don’t use these if sound quality is important to you such as your recordings, your sample collection or for backups of music you created.

RealAudio (.ra, .ram)
RealAudio is another compression format and works very well for streaming data and is used by many on-line radio stations. A lot of complaints about RealAudio is that the codecs used for playing don’t come with operating systems and they have to download RealPlayer. (Although there is an alternative to called Real Alternative which you can find on the internet which just installs the codec). To be honest with this file format unless you are streaming data I wouldn’t use it as a way to distribute your music unless you're offering it as an alternative. The person listening may just not even bother to listen if they have to download the software.

When should you use RealAudio files - When you want to stream music such as on-line radio or even small tester clips before visitors download in a bigger sized format. Offer another format too such as WMA or Mp3 because of people not having the codec.

When shouldn’t you use RealAudio files - When you want to have enjoyable sound quality.

Musical Instrument Digital Interface (.midi, .mid)
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and contains no audio sound at all (A mistake that many people make more often than some people think). MIDI files just contain note data which tells your sound card or other MIDI device which notes to play on which instrument from a bank of usually 128 sound stored inside your MIDI device. It also contains lots of MIDI information about each note such a volume, length. You should see MIDI as a digital manuscript rather than a recording.

When should you use MIDI files - When you want to store or send data relating to the notes played on a device or piece of software that supports MIDI information.

When shouldn’t you use MIDI files - When you want to distribute actual audio that has been recorded.

Others Worth A Mention
Sun Audio (.au) - developed by Sun Microsystems for use on UNIX (a operating system)
Audio Interchange File (.aif, .aifc or .aiff.) - Basically this file type is WAV files for the Mac

Choosing a suitable file type can be tricky for people who aren’t accustomed to them and so hopefully this short guide will help you get the most from them and choose the right one in the right situation. One thing to mention is that there is no point in going from one lossy audio file type to another, such as Mp3 to Ogg Vorbis as once you have lost the audio data through compression you can’t get it back and the file quality will actually be worse due to the differing techniques in removing data. When encoding to a lossy format always encode from a lossless format such as Wav, FLAC or CD. If you want to keep the best audio quality possible use lossless.

Article written by Edward Cufaude for Rhythm Creation.

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