Audio File Formats: How To Choose

How to choose the right file type..

Digital audio files are the raw material of music production. From streaming platforms to sample packs, all the audio you work with has to be stored somewhere in a file. But many types of audio formats are used in different situations.

Audio File Formats How To

DI boxes contain a transformer that electrically isolates the source from its destination. That’s why DI boxes are frequently used to address signal issues like ground loops.

What are audio file formats?

Audio file formats are digital standards for storing audio information. The raw data in a stream of audio from the analog-to-digital converter in your audio interface is encoded using a technique called PCM or pulse code modulation.

PCM audio needs to be organized into a file so you can work with it, or play it back in a system. Different audio file formats use different containers and varying methods of data compression to organize the PCM stream.

Depending on which you choose, each format represents the same information in different storage sizes or quality levels. In addition to that, some audio file formats carry metadata that supplies information about the file or its content.

Lossless vs. lossy audio files

The difference between the two has to do with data compression. Data compression means making the files take up less space on a hard drive. It’s not the same as the dynamic range compression used in music production.

Some methods of data compression make the file smaller but still preserve 100% of the information in the raw audio stream. These are known as lossless compressed formats. Other compression types work by eliminating data in the audio that doesn’t make a big impact on the sound. Some information is thrown away using this method, so these are known as lossy compressed formats.

Audio File Formats How To-2

Uncompressed audio formats

There are other audio file formats where no data compression is used. These are called uncompressed audio formats. These file types act as a container for raw audio data without reducing its size or quality in any way.

These are the largest files to work with, but they provide the highest level of detail in the audio information. Uncompressed audio files are the type most often used for recording and mixing music in a DAW. Even so, uncompressed audio files also come in different quality levels.

These are based on the accuracy and precision with which the analog audio signal was converted to digital. The higher the sample rate and bit depth used, the more information is captured in the conversion process. Bit depth represents the precision of the AD/DA converter for measuring amplitude, or the volume level of the signal.

You can think of it like the number of tick marks on a ruler—the more closely spaced they are, the less often the measurement will fall in between the two marks. Sample rate means the number of times the measurement is taken in a second. Higher sample rate means more individual measurements made.