Audio File Formats - Explained!

While organizing your music collection, you might be awed by the variety of different audio file formats in your library. MP3 is the most famous one, but what about OGG, AIFF, MQA or DSD? In the world of audio, music producers work with a lot of different file types.

Using the right file format will have a big impact on the overall sound of the track. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re always using the best file format for the job.

In this blog, we explain the main differences between these formats and help you determine the best ones which include MP3, FLAC, WAV and more.

1. What Is an Audio File Format?

An audio file format is a file format that stores digital audio on a system like PC, mobile phone, etc. Audio information is called bit layout and is stored as bits in the file.

2. What Is Data Compression?

As we know that data takes up space in the hard drive. Similarly, digital audio format files are also in the form of 1s and 0s, therefore it takes up space in the memory depending upon the length of audio and quality. In order to reduce the size of these files, some formats use data compression techniques. Data compression comes with some drawbacks as it causes quality loss and the full waveform of the beat is not captured.

There are three major groups of audio file formats:-

A. Uncompressed Audio Formats

Uncompressed audio formats are the most premium and perfect representation of the original sound waves in audio files. If the audio files are uncompressed, they become bit-for-bit identical created by the producer in digital copies. 

These formats are created using Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) and are the same format used for CDs and DVDs. Since the files do not undergo compression, there is no loss of information. This results in a high-quality audio experience and a fairly large file size.

The main audio formats in this category include:

  • Waveform Audio File Format (WAV)

The WAV audio file format was developed in 1991 by Microsoft and IBM. WAV stands for Waveform Audio and the files in this format are also referred to as wav files, The extension is “.wav”.

WAV supports sample rates up to 192kHz and has a bit depth up to 32-bit. It is a HD format where no additional processing or encoding is applied.Most of the players, hardware and software are compatible with WAV digital files. The only downside to WAV is that the file sizes are large in comparison.

  • Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF)

AIFF stands for Audio Interchange File Format. Apple Inc developed AIFF format in 1988 for its products which was also when the first iMac was launched.

When it comes to quality of the audio, it is very similar to a WAV file. It is uncompressed and supports similar sample rates, bit depths, and number of channels. It is also a HD format and file size is large.

B. Audio Formats with Lossy Compression

The compression during which a loss of data occurs is called lossy compression. Since the priority is to get a low size of an audio file, compression is required and quality is acceptable in most use-case scenarios. 

In some cases, lossy files can be as small as 1/10th the size of the original file. However, this brings a major drawback as it can have a negative effect on the quality of your music. Once compressed, there is no way to retrieve the lost data after compressing the file.

  • MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (MP3)

The most popular lossy digital audio format – MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, or MP3 was introduced in 1993. This is a relatively older format of music which is still highly popular on digital devices. When it was released, MP3 replaced the MIDI and WAV files which were widely used at that time, and slowly made its way into the mainstream.

One of the main reasons for MP3 being so popular is its smaller file size, which achieves using a lossy data compression algorithm that gets rid of some data. This makes distribution of audio files very easy.

The highest bitrate of mp3 is 320kbps, which takes the longest time to encode but delivers the highest quality results. The lowest is 128kbps.

  • Advanced Audio Coding (AAC)

AAC offered better sound quality than MP3, and soon it became one of the popular audio formats and was also deemed to be the successor of MP3 format. It was originally developed by a team of tech companies in 1997 which included Bell, Fraunhofer, Dolby, Sony, Nokia, NTT Docomo, LG Electronics, NEC, and Panasonic.

When compared to MP3, AAC tops out with its advanced compression algorithm, which helped it stand out and make a place in the audio world against other algorithms with its better and improved sound quality.

  • OGG (Vorbis)

OGG is considered as a multimedia container that can hold different types of compression formats, with the most prominent of them being Vorbis which is why it is generally referred as OGG Vorbis.

OGG is free for commercial and non-commercial use which makes it a popular choice for those who don’t want to pay for high-end encoder software.

Spotify also uses OGG files as the default audio format and is the smallest in size.

C. Audio Formats with Lossless Compression

Lossless compression, as it is named, reduces the file size of an audio file by keeping the audio quality intact, without any loss of data. Since there is no loss of data in compression, the audio quality is not compromised and the quality remains intact. Though there is a drawback that the file sizes are not small and size issues can be of a concern.

  • Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC)

The file extension is “.flac”. FLAC is an open-source lossless digital audio format which is streamed and decoded at high speeds. FLAC is a highly popular format for HD requirements like streaming, DJ, etc.

There are 9 different levels of FLAC compression levels starting from 0 to 8. The higher the level, the higher the compression ratio but the encoding speed gets slower. On the other hand, decoding speeds are the same at all levels. FLAC is used by Amazon for their HD streaming services.

  • Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC)

As the name suggests it was developed by Apple Inc and uses lossless compression algorithms. ALAC files have the extension “.m4a”.and is a part of both Quicktime and iTunes. When compressed, they are around 60% the size of the original file. When played back, they are uncompressed and sound identical to their original source. 

The hardware support for these files is limited to mostly iOS devices. ALAC files are converted to MP3 for playback when uploaded to digital streaming platforms.

Different audio formats have their strengths and weaknesses. But all of them have their uses. For a music composer, it is very important to choose the correct audio format according to the requirements and sound intensity added. For music production, uncompressed audio with high sample rate and bit depth (generally, 24 bit / 48 kHz WAV or AIFF) is used by producers to get the best experience.

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