Making music has never been easier! With the advents of home recording technology, the accessibility of top-notch plugins, and the performance of even entry level gear becoming better and better each year, making records is as simple as starting up your laptop.
On top of that, digital distribution through online retailers is accessible to everyone. You can sell your music across all major platforms and right from your Bandzoogle site (commission-free!) as soon as your album is finished.
When selling your music digitally, you can sell it in a variety of formats. This post will demystify that process and explain the different formats and their uses.
MP3- Right for Me?
Cheesy rhymes aside, MP3 is one of the most popular formats of audio files on the market, and not without it’s merits. MP3 offers excellent compression, small file sizes, and great quality.
At different bitrates like 128kbps and up to 320kbps, MP3 offers the best of everything. It’s small, so it’s easy to share, it’s high quality so it sounds great, and it’s playable by nearly any device. If you’re selling your music online, this is a great format to choose due to it’s accessibility, quick upload/download times, and sound quality.
WAV - An Ocean of Clarity
With file formats like MP3, your song is subject to compression. WAV offers what’s called a ‘lossless codec’ for your music. With superior quality, detail, and use for professional applications, WAV can be a great choice for your files.
The difference between MP3 and WAV is that when you save the file, it’s not compressed. It’s an exact replication of the source signal (minus any dithering, of course). If you’re selling beats, licensing music to film and TV, selling samples, sending stems for mixing, or cater to audiophiles, WAV is the perfect choice for you!
Compression - Fresh Squeezed OJ
Now, in terms of audio file formats, compression isn’t like a compressor. In mixing, compression is used for leveling volume and taming transients. In the format world, compression is more like giving the file a haircut.
With the Nyquist Theorem we are set with sample rates and sample frequencies. With formats like MP3, some of the ‘other’ information (super high frequencies, 24 to 16 bit dithering, and sample rates) are chopped down to reproduce the signal in a smaller file size.
So, let’s say you recorded at 24 bits with a sample rate of 48000Hz; when you save to an MP3, you’re changing down to 16 bits at 44100Hz (which is the CD/audio standard). This means that some of the extra detail of the file/song is lost, but not really in a noticeable way as the Nyquist Frequency is still (slightly over) twice that of the highest frequency of the source signal component (20kHz).
(Note: 20kHz is the maximum in this case as that’s where most microphones used for recording top out. While some extend above this, for the sake of this article we’ll call it good.)
In simpler terms, human hearing goes from (approximately) 20hZ to 20kHz, and the sample rate of the MP3 file is 44.1kHZ. So, this means there really isn’t a discernable difference between WAV and MP3 to your average listener. Without a good listening environment, a trained ear, and a good listening setup, you’d never know.
Of course, this is all subject to the dithering algorithm, but that’s another post for another day.
Going One Louder
So, why do we all hear that ‘WAV is better than MP3’ argument? Well, because it is. But, not in all cases!
WAV offers the highest quality reproduction of the source. So, it’s definitely a superior and more usable format for professional applications. If you’ve ever sampled an MP3 file and noticed that your mix sounds weird, you’ll understand what I mean. While MP3 is great for listening, it’s not so great for sampling, using in films, and for mixing.
With WAV, you can render/save a copy of your song as it was recorded. Meaning, you can sell an exact 24 bit 96kHz file if you really wanted too. This would offer up a few things:
The file can be changed into an MP3 in a mixdown, and handles that conversion better
The file can be used in a film and saved to the MP4 (or other format) file of the clip
It offers more dynamic range and headroom for mixing
It’s cleaner, and excellent for sampling
With a higher bitrate, it’s more flexible overall
Bits and Pieces
So, before we settle the greatest debate of our time, what are bits?
Bitrate is like a flight of stairs. In the analog world, a sine wave is (nearly) perfectly smooth. In the digital realm, if you zoom in on that same sine wave really, really, really, far, you’ll see ‘steps’ to the sine wave. The more ‘steps’ it has, the higher the bit rate.
For old video games, you’re listening to 8 bit audio (like chiptune music). With the crazy advancement of our computers, we can now use 24 bit audio which is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much perfect.
So, the more bits you have, the more accurately the file is reproducing the source. That said, not all devices can play a 24 bit audio file. While that might change within the coming years, 16 bit remains king, as it’s accessible, sounds good, and doesn’t have a massive drop in quality.
But what’s in it for me?
I’m sure this is a lot to take in, and there’s a lot more too all of this, but one question remains: what format should you use?
Simply put, if you’re selling samples, licensing, or sending your stems to be mixed/remixed, WAV is the way to go. It’s a professional quality file in a full resolution format that’s used across all facets of the industry for a million different applications. It works in any DAW, it’s universal, and it’s as good as things get!
If you’re selling music to your fans, sharing your demo, or sending to radio stations/streaming services, MP3 is your best bet!
As with all things in music though, the choice is yours, and it sometime comes down to the all too familiar answer of ‘it depends’.
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