The music recorded in the studio is distributed in several different digital files. The most common formats are MP3 and WAV. Each format has its own advantage as well as its appropriate use.
But first, let us look into the major categories of digital files.
When we’re talking about digital audio, a file is going to fall into one of three categories:
Compressed Audio (Lossless)
Compressed Audio (Lossy)
Uncompressed audio is raw data with no missing or altered information. It’s large in size and takes up a lot of hard drive space, requiring upwards of 10MB per minute. Uncompressed audio formats are used for large-scale theatrical and television broadcasts, and for storing or archiving an audio.
Major formats in this category include: WAV, AIFF
Compressed Audio (Lossless)
The original recording is made smaller by the use of algorithms that can intelligently shrink the file size.
The recording maintains audio accuracy and uses up less space.
Major formats in this category include: FLAC, ALAC, WMA
Compressed Audio (Lossy)
The original recording is compressed to make the file smaller in size and therefore some data is discarded.
These formats are used mainly by streaming services.
The small size makes it possible to download easily and store on portable devices
Let’s take a look at the major lossy compression formats: MP3, AAC, OGG
Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) or MPEG4
Apple's alternative to MP3.
Lossy compressed file but sounds better.
Used for iTunes downloads and Apple Music streaming.
Sometimes called by its full name, Ogg Vorbis.
Lossy compressed file, open-source alternative to MP3 and AAC
The file format used (at 320kbps) in Spotify streaming.
Moving Picture Experts Group
Most Popular & Widely supported
Lossy Compressed file
Removes part of an audio track that can’t be easily heard by the human ear
A lossless incarnation of Windows Media Audio, but no longer well-supported by smartphones or tablets.
This lossless compressed file
Takes up about half the space of WAV, and stores metadata.
It's royalty-free and is considered the preferred format for downloading and storing hi-res albums.
It’s not supported by Apple (so not compatible with iTunes).
The standard format in which all CDs are encoded.
Great sound quality
It's uncompressed, meaning huge file sizes.
It has poor metadata support (that is, album artwork, artist, and song title information).
Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF)
Apple's alternative to WAV, with better metadata support.
It is uncompressed (so big file sizes), but not hugely popular.
Which Format is right for you?
It is important to first understand what bitrate is, before figuring out which format fits best.
The quality of an audio file is determined by its bitrate. Bitrate generally means better audio quality.
The bitrate refers to how much data is processed per second. That’s what the 320 and 192 mean on MP3 files.
Uncompressed WAVs and AIFF files are normally 1411kbps. A bigger bitrate means more data per second. More data per second means better sound.
WAVs are at the top of the pyramid. A WAV gives you sound that is clean compared to other compressed formats.
If you’re sharing demos with a label, pitching to a publisher, or sending music to a media outlet like a blog, you need a mastered WAV.
A WAV ensures that your best possible sound is representing you.
WAVs can be converted to all other formats later on as well. So a WAV has you covered for all your formatting needs later on.
The only downside to WAVs is the large file sizes. They eat up a lot of hard drive space.
However, most sharing platforms require WAVs for music distribution. For example iTunes and Amazon
The 320kbps MP3 is the most common file type. And there’s a reason why. The 320 MP3 gives you the best of both worlds.
They’re compressed for manageable file size. But they also give you a nice, rich sound for playback.
If you’re streaming online, chances are it's 320. For example, everything streamed in high quality on Spotify is 320kbps.
The 320MP3 is great for sharing your best possible sound while saving valuable hard drive space and time.
A 192kbps MP3 is your workhorse. They’re quick MP3s when you need something fast and easy to share.
They’re great for transferring a lot of files at once.
The lower bitrate causes more degradation than a 320kbps lossy MP3, but the difference is often hard to tell.
192MP3 is a perfect utility for musicians in need of fast and efficient sharing or streaming of their music.
Every format has its uses. Choosing the right format is all about context.
So think about what sound you’re sharing and where you’re sharing it. Does the format fit?
Audio mastering to WAV is the best bet for all your sharing needs. Once you have a mastered WAV, converting it to every other format is easy.
This is a lot to take in, but one question remains: what format should you use for your tracks?
Simply put, if you’re selling samples, licensing, or sending your items 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 the industry for a lot of different applications.
But if you’re selling music to your fans, sharing your demo, or sending it to radio stations/ streaming services, MP3 or FLAC is probably your best bet.
Formats are important in the age of streaming. So choose wisely and format smart