Welcome to the first part of our new blog series, aptly titled More = More?. We figured that with all the crazy, seemingly over-the-top things we do here at TRPTK, some explaining what it all means and what it all does might be in order. Over the course of six items, we hope to briefly touch on some subjects that are part of the everyday high-end audio conversations. We’re calling it More = More? with a question mark because we understand a lot of people – including us at times – might wonder “Is this all really necessary? How much do I gain from these formats and techniques?” More doesn’t always mean better. It can even mean worse sometimes. But more on that later… What we’re going to do To start off, our first subject is going to be all about the different formats you can find music in. Compressed, lossless compressed, uncompressed… What does compressed even mean? After this, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into what terms mean like sample rate and bit depth, and why these terms are so important to us as a high-end music label. After that, we’re going to discuss some more esoteric formats such as DSD and MQA. Lastly, we want to briefly touch on the different multichannel surround formats, which will then lead into another blog series that dives more into this format. So, let’s jump into the subject of the day, shall we? Music formats There’s so much to choose from, these days. Even just looking on Bandcamp, who offer a pretty extensive list of formats: MP3 V0, MP3 320, FLAC, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, ALAC, WAV, AIFF. You probably recognise some if not all of them. But what do they really mean? And what sound quality do they offer? And, also not unimportant: what is the actual difference between them? So let’s just pick one to start out with. Waveform Audio File (WAV) So let’s start with the most basic format of all, WAV. WAV is really the granddaddy of audio formats, simply because it’s very straightforward in its setup in the sense that it just stores the raw sample information that’s created during recording or mastering. You see, every x times per second (on a CD, this x = 44.100) a sample is taken of the represented audio, where the amplitude of that sample is represented in an y number of bits (on a CD, this y = 16). This sample information is very simply stored chronologically, unaltered and uncompressed (we’ll get into compression a bit later, be patient). Aside from this audio, there’s only little extra data in a file like this (unlike, say, FLAC or MP3), yet the file sizes are bigger: around 635MB for a stereo WAV file of an hour long. This file size, though, in the early days of the internet, proved a bit of a problem. In a time where dial-up modems were the norm, downloading a music album in WAV would’ve taken ages! And who wants to wait that long for music? Well, at least not the guys from the Moving Picture Experts Group, who developed the MP3 format. MPEG Audio Layer III (MP3) We humans aren’t perfect, especially in our hearing. Even the best golden-eared mastering engineers in the world can’t hear everything, that’s a simple fact. How many of you can hear a dog whistle? (And no, not an actual dog whistling, but these little whistles you can call your dog with…) That’s right. But there’s more that people can’t hear properly, besides very high frequencies. Because of a phenomenon called auditory masking, where a certain tone can be rendered inaudible by another one at a lower frequency, our brains don’t get to process literally everything that’s going on audio-wise. In short: there are all sorts of things our hearing doesn’t always pick up, which is what the MP3 format makes use of. So what does the MP3 format do in terms of sound? Well, depending on the bitrate of the format (let’s say the quality level), it filters out some, or a lot, of the things that science tells us we can’t hear anyway, dropping the file size to sometimes a mere 9% of the original WAV file! This way, a one-hour music album will take up only 50 MB. Perfect, right? So let’s start converting all your precious music into MP3! Well, before you do, hold on a second. This small file size is great and all, especially if you don’t hear the difference. But what if you did? You see, depending on your ears (and your listening setup) you can actually hear these little things your MP3s just filtered out. Some people do, some people don’t. So when do you, and when do you not? Let’s find out! But first, let’s head into another compressed format (the one we really like here at TRPTK!): FLAC. Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) No, we don’t like it because it’s free, we’re not that Dutch. FLAC is an audio coding format with lossless compression, meaning that it tries to keep file sizes to a minimum while still retaining all of the audio. It uses a number of interesting tricks such as linear prediction where it predicts the next sample data and stores only the difference between the predictor and the actual sample data. It also uses something called a checksum to make sure all the original audio stays intact. All in all, FLAC is a really great format if you want to store all of your music without filling your house to the brim with hard drives everywhere. It can shave between 60 and 70 percent off of the original file size, making you able to store a full one-hour album in less than 400 MB of your precious hard disk or SSD space. It also includes options for metadata, just like the MP3 format! So what’s metadata? Metadata Metadata simply means data about the data. Without metadata, all that makes you able to recognise what you’re listening to would be to use a filename like track-artist_track-title.wav. Not a very charming solution, especially if you have thousands of albums or hundreds of thousands of tracks. At the very least, you want to be able to store information such as the album title, artist names, composers and/or arrangers, track titles, whether it’s part of a multi-disc album, etcetera. That’s exactly what the metadata of a format can take care of. Now, there’s many ways of storing said metadata, which I’m not getting into as this article is already getting a bit lengthy. But very simply put: formats such as FLAC and MP3, as opposed to WAV for example, have rich options for metadata built right in. Those precious FLAC albums you buy here at your favourite download platform? They contain all the information you’d want to know. We put in all that metadata so you don’t have to. So which format is better? There are so many different formats to choose from. We haven’t even gotten into AAC and Ogg Vorbis, for example (we might at a later point… drop us a comment below if you’d like to read about it!), but the most popular formats are probably WAV, FLAC and MP3. So which format is the best? There are people who claim they hear the differences between WAV and FLAC. Now, I’m not the one to judge, but with 10 years of experience in the field of mastering, I’ve not been able to hear the difference in any controlled test. From a technical standpoint it shouldn’t be possible either. What it could have to with, though, is the way your playback system handles these files. We might talk about more on that in a later blog post. As for the difference between MP3 and FLAC: we ourselves definitely hear the difference and pick out which is which instantly, even in double-blind experiments. But you might not, and that’s also totally okay. All of that being said, this, in my opinion at least, has most to do with your playback setup. In any setup, there’s always a bottleneck, and your bottleneck could prevent you from hearing any difference at all. So, should you care? Well, yes, if you want. I personally dislike music in the MP3 format so much I can hardly listen to it. Also, the file sizes really don’t matter these days either. You can pick up an 8TB hard drive for € 150,- these days, on which you can store more than 20.000 albums at CD quality! Some final remarks These are all just one man’s opinions, and this article is by no means a complete overview of all music formats, compression algorithms, etcetera. My goal with this is to just give you an overview of some different ways of storing music and some of the ups and downs of each of these ways. I’d love to hear what you think, so write us a comment down below! Next week, we’re diving deeper into the matter of audio resolution, explaining what all these kHz’es and such mean, and why we record at such insanely high sample rates. Stay tuned! Posted by Brendon Heinst. Brendon is the founder and senior recording & mastering engineer at TRPTK. He gained a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in audio engineering at the University of the Arts Utrecht. Brendon was involved in more than 200 recordings to date, focusing heavily on ultra-high-resolution and multichannel immersive recordings.