Want to delve into digital audio types? Explore the various formats and their explanations to understand the differences and make informed choices.
Discover the different types of digital audio: uncompressed, lossless, and lossy. Uncompressed files provide exceptional sound quality but come with large sizes. Lossless formats offer the same quality with reduced file sizes. Lossy compression sacrifices some fidelity for smaller files. Learn which formats suit your needs for professional production, archiving, streaming, or portability. Choose wisely for optimal audio experiences.
Types of digital audio
When you are presented with a choice of which type of digital audio you should choose, you should think about the main idea of your project and its end goal. If you don’t have enough free space on the hard drive and you are focused on audio streaming, then uncompressed and probably lossless audio types are not for you. If you need to edit, mix, and master so that your listener would be able to hear the slightest nuances of the instruments and vocals, then you shouldn’t set lossy as your end goal.
It’s highly unlikely that if we talk about professional music production, one will choose to save the result in lossy. Most likely, music producers would choose between lossless or uncompressed audio formats. Depending on the initial goal of the project, meaning should the audio be streamed or sent further to be mastered in the album, audio should be saved as AAC or WAV. Lossless audio formats are most commonly chosen for archiving because they save the original audio as it is without any reduction in quality.
Also, many listeners and audiophiles value superior sound quality more than big file sizes, so they would prefer to get audio in lossless or uncompressed audio types. Lossless audio is most commonly used in situations when it’s needed to play the audio back and forth on high-quality audio systems.
Uncompressed audio is characterized by an exact reproduction of the original sound that you were recording and has stored sound signals that were converted into digital audio. Basically, you get immensely good sound quality and an enormous file size. The reason why uncompressed audio files are not that favored by many music producers around the world is, as we mentioned earlier, their size.
When you hold a CD or DVD, you probably have no idea that the audio information which is recorded there is in PCM audio format. PCM files consist of the digital depiction of raw analog audio signals and are not compressed at all. Two basic characteristics of PCM are bit depth, which displays the number of bits of information in each sample, and sample rate, which shows the size of the waves’ amplitude in time.
WAV files are favored by lots of sound engineers and music producers because WAV files store all the necessary information to work with. WAV files have been on the market since 1991.
AIFF format was designed by Apple for usage on Macs, and as WAV, this format consists of original data, but it is much harder to edit when it’s needed.
The reason why people tend to like lossless files more than lossy is that lossless audio files preserve the original audio quality despite having the file size lesser by half or even more. So you shouldn’t worry that the audio would lack any information in the low or high end. Everything remains exactly as it was.
FLAC has been on the market since 2001 and remains a widely used format for those who prefer lossless compression. With a much lesser size than any uncompressed file, you get the same great quality. FLAC files are compatible with many platforms, streaming services, and software. FLAC files are compressed for 60% without any damage to the sound quality.
ALAC is favored by Apple products and was brought into existence in 2004. In 2011, ALAC files were made open-source to developers all over the world by Apple. Though, ALAC files are nowhere near FLAC files in terms of compression.
Lossy compressed files are made by audio compression when unnoticeable parts of audio are cut out. Sometimes those unnoticeable parts of audio may consist of very important information, for example, those instruments or details of the human voice that may sit in the low or high end. So lossy compressed files don’t provide you with 100% audio fidelity. Though, you get files that are much smaller in size that are way faster to transfer, upload, and download. But if you mix the track professionally and then save it as lossy compressed files, it would be almost impossible to differentiate between lossy and lossless files.
MP3 files have been known to the music world since 1993 and still are the most widely used lossy compressed files. Anything that is way over the limit of what the human ear can hear is cut into MP3 files. As well as giving you the smallest audio size possible, MP3 lowers the quality of hard-to-hear sounds.
AAC is considered to be one of the best lossy compressed audio file formats as it requires only 1MB of space per minute of streaming, so the total size of the track can be around 3MB. For such services as Apple Music and YouTube, AAC files are the most favorable because you get good audio quality for a very small file.
WMA was born in 1999 to make better some issues that MP3 files had. WMA files have much better sound quality than MP3 files after being compressed. Nowadays, WMA files are used only on Windows devices, and no other services support it.
Luckily, the majority of the streaming platforms support lossy audio files, specifically MP3. So if you need to stream audio, you can convert your recording into MP3 and enjoy a smooth stream that uses less amount of data. Another situation when you should be in favor of lossy rather than other types of digital audio is when you need to store tracks on a portable device with limited space. Finally, if, for some reason, you need the file to be as small as possible, ignoring the reduction of audio quality, you should choose the lossy file format.