Making music has never been easier! With the advent of home recording technology, the accessibility of top-notch audio software, and the performance of even entry level gear becoming better and better, making records is as simple as starting up a laptop.
On top of that, digital distribution through online retailers is accessible to everyone. You can sell your music across all major platforms, as well as from your own music website (commission-free!) as soon as your album is finished.
Bandzoogle supports MP3, WAV, and FLAC audio files with our music feature. This post will help to explain the differences between these formats, and why you may want to use one format over another.
MP3 - Right for me?
The MP3 audio file format is one of the most popular formats of audio files out there, and for a lot of really good reasons. MP3 offers small file sizes, portability across just about every device on the planet, and great audio quality.
MP3 also supports ID3 tags within your audio files - so when your visitors download tracks and add them to a media player, all the information they need to manage these files in their player is immediately available to them. This includes album and track names, if that file is part of an album, and even can provide album artwork.
To make a file smaller, the MP3 format will subject your tracks to a type of ‘compression.’ While you can apply more less compression to an MP3 file, ultimately the compression you add will have an effect on the overall audio playback quality.
In a nutshell, the MP3 format gives your file data a bit of a ‘haircut’ - to make the file smaller, MP3s remove information from within the file itself.
This compression type is called ‘lossy’, because once the information is removed and discarded, it can’t be put back; it changes the file forever. MP3 format shrinks your file by removing frequency data - usually data that most listeners wouldn’t notice was gone.
So while you get much smaller files than non-compressed formats, the more compression you apply to your MP3, the more you’ll lose some of the audio fidelity of that file. If there’s a lot of compression, that can change how the file sounds to the listener.
Fortunately MP3 does let you adjust the amount of compression you can apply to a file - mp3 compression is based on the file ‘bitrate’ (how much data is sampled per second of the recording). So the higher the bit rate (the more recorded information you keep when you make your MP3 file) the better the quality of the final file.
You can squeeze down to 96kbps (Kilobytes per second) but generally that sounds terrible - most MP3 audio sounds quality at around 192kbps (that’s average for most mp3s you buy or download). But if you want, you can lightly compress up to 320kbps and that’s getting fairly close to an uncompressed version of the same file sound wise, with still a significant reduction in overall file size.
PROS: Almost every media player and device supports the format, it includes ID3 data, and lets you adjust the compression bitrate for better quality or faster downloading / streaming.
CONS: Audio quality of the file will be affected (relative to the bit rate) to make the file smaller.
IDEAL FOR: Just about any music maker, except for extreme audiophiles. It’s definitely a great choice if you’re selling your music online!
WAV - An ocean of clarity
The WAV audio file format offers what’s called a ‘lossless codec’ for your music. In other words, no compression is applied to the audio, you can pretty much provide ‘as recorded’ quality to your customers with this file.
This means superior audio fidelity and detail, which means it’s great for use in professional applications, making WAV format a great choice for your files, especially when you’re looking to provide the finest quality sound to your customers.
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).
So keep in mind that while the audio quality is excellent, because they’re not compressed, WAV files are a much larger size than the other formats. That means not only longer upload times for you when adding tracks, but much longer download times for your customers, especially if they’re on a very slow connection.
Another trade off with using WAV is tagging - specifically the lack of. WAV format does not support any tagging like ID3 - so when adding your music to their media players, finding and managing those files in their music app of choice can be a lot more difficult for your customers.
PROS: No sacrifices in audio quality, as good sound and fidelity as you can get for your downloads.
CONS: Larger file size means longer download times; no ‘meta’ tagging.
IDEAL FOR: Selling beats, licensing music to film and TV, selling samples, sending stems for mixing, catering to serious audiophiles. If that’s what you do, then WAV is the perfect choice for you!
FLAC - What the FLAC?
While not as popular as the MP3 format, FLAC is becoming more common as a format for listeners and artists, as it can provide the quality of audio that WAV provides, with some of the portability of MP3s.
FLAC stands for ‘Free Lossless Audio Codec’ and, like MP3, it’s a compression utility - however, unlike MP3s ‘lossy’ compression, where information is permanently removed from the audio file to make it smaller, FLAC uses ‘lossless’ compression algorithms designed specifically for audio, that don’t permanently alter the file to reduce its size.
How FLAC makes this happen is pretty technical, but the best comparison is to imagine audio files like a tent you need to get ready for a camping trip. It’s really inconvenient to carry your tent to a campsite when it’s fully assembled (thanks but no thanks WAV), and you don’t want to cut holes in your tent to make it smaller (not good when it rains MP3).
FLAC uses a process of rolling the tent up for you, putting it in a small bag, then unrolling the tent to it’s full size, hole free, when you get to the campsite.
Compared in size to the other two formats we talked about, FLAC sits somewhere in the middle. How small you can get a FLAC file depends on the software / encoder you use to make them, but generally you can expect FLACs Codec to reduce an uncompressed audio file to about half its original size.
So often not as small as MP3, this format can still render a very significant size reduction of a file. Even better, it won’t affect the audio quality, making FLAC an amazing way to deliver the best quality sound with much less download strain on your customers - and to sweeten the deal, like MP3, FLAC also supports meta tagging!
With so much going for it, FLAC sounds like the way to go, so why doesn’t everyone use this magical format? Well, that’s the problem - while FLAC is an open source algorithm, not all audio players support it.
Apple iTunes / Music for example won’t play FLAC files (they have their own lossless audio compression called ALAC) - meaning your customers would need to be using a player that supports this format.
While some players that support FLAC like VLC Player are fairly common (even for Mac users), you can wind up putting off customers who don’t want to download their files, and then download a player or app that supports their newly purchased music if they don’t happen to have one on their device.
PROS: WAV quality audio in the body of a large MP3 file; meta tagging for audio files.
CONS: Lossless audio compression isn’t supported well across all media players, devices and platforms.
IDEAL FOR: Artists and bands who don’t mind providing an alternative format, to make sure their listeners get the absolute best aural experience while not waiting for hours to download it. It may not be for everyone, but that’s why it’s so great!
Going one louder
So, why do we all hear that ‘WAV is better than MP3’ argument? Well, it can be in a lot of cases!
WAV offers the highest quality reproduction of the source. So, it’s definitely a superior format for use with more professional applications. Certainly MP3s are great for general listening and getting your music into the ears of your fans, but it’s not so great for recording, using in films, and for mixing - for that, WAV is definitely where it’s at.
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 to. This would offer up a few things:
The file can be converted into an MP3 or FLAC later in a mixdown, and coming from the source 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 a more flexible overall format in recording
But what’s in it for me?
There is a lot to take in, but one question remains: what format should you use for your website's tracks?
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 lot of different applications. It works in any DAW, it’s universal, and it’s as good as things get.
But if you’re selling music to your fans, sharing your demo, or sending to radio stations/ streaming services, MP3 or FLAC is probably your best bet.
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