Audio file formats might not be the most exciting aspect of music and sound production, but understanding them is incredibly important. Otherwise, you risk making a frustrating and potentially costly mistake that affects the recording you worked so hard to create.
In this guide, we’re going to demystify lossless and uncompressed audio formats so that you can save your files with confidence.
Uncompressed vs. Lossless Audio Formats
An uncompressed audio format is created when no compression algorithm or codec has been utilized to compress the audio within a file. In simplest terms, an uncompressed audio file is an exact reproduction of the original. So, while there’s no decrease in original sound quality, this extra-large audio file format requires significant storage space.
A lossless audio format has been compressed for improved efficiency and practicality. Even so, sound quality should not be negatively impacted.
On the far end of the spectrum are lossy tracks. This audio format is significantly smaller, making it easy to download and store. However, the compression process requires that some audio information be discarded, so a certain amount of quality can be lost.
Uncompressed File Formats: WAV and AIFF
The two most popular uncompressed audio file formats are WAV and AIFF, based on Pulse Code Modulation (PCM). These two file formats use very similar technology, but their approach to data storage differs slightly. Both WAV and AIFF can store high-resolution or CD-quality audio.
- WAV was originally developed by Microsoft/IBM and is used in Windows-based platforms. It is also the standard format for CDs.
- AIFF was created by Apple. Although this format isn’t as widely used, it has improved metadata capabilities (so you can include song titles, album artwork, and other details).
The main drawback to these uncompressed formats is that they take up much space on your hard drive, averaging about 10MB per minute in audio length.
Lossless Audio Formats: ALAC, FLAC, and WMA
The FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is compressed to about half the size of an equivalent uncompressed AIFF or WAV without any decrease in sound quality. Additionally, FLAC files can offer even better resolution than CD quality.
ALAC (Apple Lossless) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) are two other lossless audio file formats. They are slightly less compact than the FLAC, so keep that in mind.
Lossy Audio Formats: AAC and MP3
Most of us are very familiar with MP3s since they are frequently used for music storage on portable players, tablets, and smartphones. They are extremely convenient and require minimal storage space, but there is a significant loss of original audio data. This loss equals a decrease in sound quality, which can be affected even more depending on the bit rate used to record the MP3.
AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is Apple’s version of a lossy audio file format. It’s compressed similarly to an MP3 but provides improved efficiency and an overall higher sound quality. AAC is used for YouTube streaming and Apple Music streaming.
What is the Best Audio File Format?
Ultimately, choosing the right audio format comes down to your needs. You’ll need to balance sound quality, storage space, and compatibility to select a suitable file format.
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