Quality Audio and Why it’s Important

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There is some debate amongst music experts, audiophiles, musicians, and average music consumers when it comes to what quality audio is “good enough.” To the average listener, a low-quality mp3 vs. a high-quality mp3 will only sound different when played back to back, they won’t notice it in their daily lives. To an audiophile, anything below 320 kbps simply won’t do, it hurts their ears. But what’s the difference really?

There are two different types of audio files, lossless and lossy. Lossless files are the files used in master tracks – they retain all of the original audio data. The most common examples of these are WAVs, AIFFs, and FLACs. These files contain all of the audio information, and are therefore are much larger files. Lossy audio files are compressed versions of tracks that have some of the audio data removed. The most common type you see is the Mp3. It may be confusing at first… How do we listen to Mp3s if it’s missing data? Well, usually the difference in quality does not take too much away from the song. That is, until you play it on high-end speakers.

Low audio quality will become obvious when played at clubs or festivals that have big fancy speakers. The sound will be more distorted and not be as strong. It also becomes a problem when you start to use it in your tracks, especially when you play with the tempo. Once you start changing the tempo, since there is less data to work with, there will be much more noise and distortion and it will sound less like the original track.

People still want to use mp3s over the lossless files, but that hardly makes sense, right? Why would you want lower quality when you can have the best? Well, there is a reason: storage space. Mp3s take up significantly less space, which makes them easier to transfer and makes it so you can fit more songs onto your iPod. Speaking of iPods, you’ll notice that iTunes does not offer lossless file formats. There are other services online that offer lossless file formats for an increased rate. You can find those at Beatport, Boomkat, and Junodownload.

When you want to release your music, you will have to lower the audio quality before you send it around. This is simply for the sake of convenience for your friends, fans, retail music stores, etc. Not everyone has the time or space to download huge lossless files. However, there are issues when you convert to a lower quality. These problems are solved through dithering. Dithering is inserting low-level noise as you convert from higher audio quality to lower. It reduces the effect of quantization error, which is the misrepresentation of the sound waves that results from decreasing bitrate. Quantization error makes the audio sound distorted and terrible, so dithering is an important step when you convert your audio to lower bit-rates.

With storage space becoming cheaper, and audio equipment progressing, there is greater need for lossless audio files and high quality mp3s. Ideally, when making music, your system should be set to 24bit and no lower than 44.1 kHz (though 48 kHz is even better if your machines can handle it). You don’t want to realize your tracks have bad audio when you’re on stage and can’t figure out why it doesn’t sound how it did at home!

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Source: A DJ’s Guide to Audio Files and Bitrates by Dan White @DJtechtools.com

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