What Every DJ Needs To Know About Music File Formats

audio-formatsWith news this week that Apple wants to make “24-bit” files available through iTunes, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the music formats that are out there and look at what they mean for digital DJs.

As a digital DJ, it pays to know your audio formats: Not only should you be aware of the different audio formats that exist, so you recognise them when you come across them, but also you should know when the use of each of the formats is appropriate and when it is to be avoided. Let’s look a little closer…

Lossless vs lossy audio

This is the first distinction to make. Lossy audio is easily the most common of the types, basically because the ubiquitous MP3 is “lossy”. This means that the audio you play has got bits missing from it, due to having been altered to make the file smaller. The algorithms that lossy formats use try and remove parts of the music where it doesn’t matter so much – but the smaller the file is compressed to with these formats, the more trashed it becomes.

Lossless, meanwhile, is audio recorded without any musical data removed. These files come in two types – compressed and uncompressed. Compressed lossless audio has had inaudible changes made to reduce file size – they’re typically not as small as lossy files, but the changes are enough to make a big difference to size nonetheless. Uncompressed lossless files are simply straight recordings of the original, with nothing done to them. The trade-off with these is that they take up much more room and are also harder to move around because of their size.

(By the way, there’s a distinction to be drawn between “containers” and “formats”, as anyone who’s ever dabble with .avi video files and codecs can tell you! With audio, you don’t really need to know about this but if you’re interested, there a lot of dry depth on this Wikipedia page).

Let’s take each in turn…

1. Lossy formats

MP3
The MP3 is easily the most widespread of the lossy formats. Some DJs refuse to use MP3s at all, saying even the best of them sound bad compared to lossless audio. Others are happy to, enjoying the convenience of their size, the fact that they have great metadata (album art, file information etc), and the fact that they’re easily the most popular format.

MP3s at 320kbps are generally accepted as pretty indistinguishable from CD sound quality, 256kbps isn’t far off. Personally, depending on the source material, I occasionally play at 192kbps, but never any lower. When you’re ripping CDs you can specify the bitrate (more below), and you can buy 320kbps MP3s from web stores too.

AAC
AAC, or Advanced Audio Coding, is a relative of MP3 – only newer, and supposedly better. It is the native lossy format of Apple’s iTunes, iPod, iPad etc. It usually has the file extension .m4a, and you’ll see it if you buy from the iTunes store, for instance.

Because AAC does better at lower bitrates than MP3, to my ears 256kbps AAC files sound as good as 320kbps MP3s, so that’s a good rule of thumb if you want to use AAC files. DJ software supports them, but there’s no good reason to use them if you can avoid it; they’re never going to win the battle with MP3 and it’s just one extra format to have in your collection.

Others
Basically WMA and OGG. Microsoft’s proprietary Windows Media Player format (WMA) often has compatibility issues with players. If for some reason you’re using Windows Media Player to organise your music, you can tell it to use MP3 instead, which is what I recommend you do. You may also come across OGG (or OGG Vorbis), but this is very uncommon for audio files.

2. Lossless formats

WAVE
Taking the .wav extension, this is the most widely accepted – indeed, pretty universal – lossless, uncompressed format. Results are excellent and some DJs swear by only using .wav files. These files don’t usually have any room for metadata though, and although a version of WAVE exists called Broadcast Wave (BWF) that allows metadata to be added, to my knowledge this isn’t picked up by any DJ software. Thus if you decide you can’t live with 320kbps MP3s and want to use WAVE files exclusively, you’re going to have to be very organised with your music to survive without metadata.

AIFF
Basically Apple’s WAVE (.wav is actually a Microsoft format). Same losslessness, same professional-quality sound and the same limitations. Be aware that they’re not as universally playable as WAVE files once you get away from Macs.

FLAC
Unlike the two formats above, FLAC files are compressed, usually to about half the size of the equivalent WAV. With no loss at all in quality from the original and the ability to add cover art and metadata, plus support from most DJ software, FLAC files are popular with a minority of DJs, but they aren’t compatible with iTunes without some hacking.

Apple Lossless
This works natively with all Apple hardware and software, but support is patchy in DJ software. (It has the .m4a extension like AAC).

DJ best practice

If you’re a modern DJ, getting music from your own rips, the internet, downloads, friends who dabble in production, your own re-edits etc, you’ll probably end up with any number of audio formats. It’s worth your while to try and simplify things. We recommend sticking to MP3s at 320kbps for performance, and WAVs for when you’re working on music – creating music, re-editing etc. (This is especially important when working with Ableton Live, for instance, as it can’t use MP3s at all.)

iTunes selecting file formats

Changing the default ripping file format in iTunes (click to enlarge).

That way, you have the same type of metadata going on with your performance files, you can throw sets together and put them on your iPod or MP3 player to learn your tunes, you can easily shuffle, order and make playlists with them in iTunes, and so on. Also, programs like Platinum Notes, Mixed in Key and MP3Gain, all of which you may choose to use at some point, will all give you the most predictable results if you give them all your music in the same file format to work with – otherwise you may find songs being skipped, metadata not being written correctly and so on.

If you use iTunes to organise your music library (and we strongly suggest that you do), you can set it up to prefer 320kbps MP3s (go to Preferences > General > Import Settings, then select “Import Using” and set it to “MP3 Encoder”, and under “Setting”, choose “Custom” and select “320kbps”), then it will do all your rips to 320kbps MP.

You can right-click on any file or files in iTunes and choose “Create MP3 version” to make a 320kbps MP3 of the song/s, but be aware that this works best with WAVEs or other high-quality audio – no point re-encoding MP3s at 128, 160, 192 or 256 kbps as 320kbps and expecting them to sound great, as you can’t return musical information that’s already been removed from them. Best just to leave them as they are.

However, there is an argument for converting (or “transcoding”) 256kbps AACs as 320kbps MP3s if you’re having issues with your DJ software / Mixed in Key etc and metadata, and just to keep things tidy. My advice is, as ever, to use your ears and compare versions – listening carefully on very good headphones will give you some impression of what your transcoded MP3s will sound like when you roll up at a club.

So what about 24-bit then?
We still haven’t answered the question you might have asked on readingour opening sentence, on the word from Apple at wanting to offer “24-bit” files via iTunes. 24-bit refers to the resolution of the digital file. Digital music is basically a load of 1s and 0s, and 24-bit means every time a slice of the tune is sampled, it is represented with 24 1s and 0s, as against 16-bit, which is… well, you guessed. More 1s and 0s = better sound quality.

It only comes into play with uncompressed, lossless audio (WAVE and AIFF), which when ripping or recording, you can choose to do so at 16 or 24-bit resolution. Most studios work in 24-bit, and then when the music is released to the world, it is reduced to 16-bit (which is CD quality). Apple is saying it would be good to release 24-bit to the world – which being on an Apple platform, would probably be 24-bit AIFF files.

(You may also hear “sampling frequency” mentioned – it’s out of the scope of this article to explain these, but 44.1kHz is standard, 96kHz the next-most mentioned. CDs are 16-bit, 44.1kHz, for example).

Who knows if it would catch on? It’s a long way in the future, that’s for sure, but with cheaper hard drives and faster networks, why not? For now though, 320kbps MP3 is going to remain the dominant format for day-to-day high quality DJ performance use, with WAVE files preferred by producers/Ableton DJs – and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

What format or formats do you prefer? What experiences do you have with using less common formats with DJ software? Can you hear the difference between good MP3s and WAVEs? Let us know in the comments.

Comments

  1. My main gripe is protected ACC files from Itunes. Traktor will not play them so I have to burn a CD and re-enter it in the playlist.

    I prefer 24 bit 96K but anything that plays and sounds good will get a spin. I think mp3′s are too convenient for them not to remain the preferred choice for the consumer and DJ alike.

    • Phil Morse says:

      “Anything that plays and sounds good” – There’s the common sense part – use your ears! Just because an MP3 is 320kbps, it may still sound rubbish…

    • If you select the protected ACC-files in iTunes and go to ‘advanced’ and ‘make mp3′ (or similar, I have it in Dutch) you don’t need to burn a cd. Just delete the ACC-files and you’re done.

      Make sure the mp3 import settings are the same as the ACC-files from the Store: 256kbps.

      • Will Marshall says:

        No! You shouldn’t do that…

        Concerting AAC files to MP3 will run the lossy MP3 encoder over the already-lossy AAC file. This means over twice the quality degradation, because of the way the lossless algorithms interact.

        This is called “transcoding”, and it’s fine between lossless formats, but terrible for lossy formats.

        A 320kbps MP3 that was encoded from a 320kbps AAC file will be much lower quality than the AAC.

      • Don’t waste your money on blank CD’s. Even if you burn AAC’s to a CD and then rip them as mp3′s – iTunes will use the same converter tool to convert them to mp3.

        Use the conversion tool on iTunes. I believe they use the latest version of LAME. (as of 2013 it’s 3.99

        If you’re not sure, download fre:ac Audio Converter to convert iTunes’ AAC files with DRM into CBR 320 mp3′s.

    • Dj Fidel Cashflow says:

      Bro, that sounds very, very tedious. Now i saw another comment saying you can change them to MP3′s but their are other ways also to make them any number of formates. Their are a multitude of programs that convert your music for you so that you don’t have a DDR lock on your Itunes AAC files. I use Audio Hijack Pro but many prefer Sound Studio, which is also great. Hope I helped, happy DJing.

    • Ritchy-Fingaz says:

      I had this problem with traktor, downloaded quicktime, now as if by magic, traktor accepts & plays them!

  2. Everything eventually catches on when the systems can handle it.

    I used 192 kbps for a very long time, even when other DJs jumped to 320. My main reason is I didn’t want to risk my computer straining on the bigger files. Now I felt my laptops can handle it, so I only do 320 now.

    With 24-bit, I’ll see people instantly jump on it…usually audiophiles. When Traktor or Serato can’t handle it, they’ll complain. When it’s added, but the laptop can’t handle it, they’ll run out and buy a new top-of-the-line Macbook.

    When other DJs don’t jump on instantly they give them hell.

    Life goes on.

    In a few years everyone will be on it…because everything surrounding 24-bit will have caught up.

    • Will Marshall says:

      Any laptop made in the last 5 years should be able to trivially run multiple streams of audio.

      Incidentally, decoding 320kbps MP3 uses slightly fewer CPU cycles than decoding 192kbps MP3. WAV is even more efficient: almost no decoding needs to be done at all.

      If you’ve got an old computer and are concerned about performance, make sure you use the highest-possible quality files to reduce the decoding overhead on your CPU

      Given that Ableton, Traktor, etc all use 32-bit floating-point engines internally, decoding 24bit WAV will not be noticeably slower than decoding 16bit WAV, so there’ll be no need for anyone to upgrade their laptop :)

  3. This was extremely helpful! You guys make everything so easy to understand!

    Right now my library is a mess but I just purchased beaTunes, and then working on getting everything to 320kpbs mp3s.

    I do have a couple, probably obvious questions:

    1. “also you can right-click on any file or files in iTunes and choose “Create MP3 version” to make a 320kbps MP3 of the song/s.”
    So will I be able to do this with an MP3 that is currently at, lets say, 193kbps? For some reason I thought it was only possible to make a music file take up less memory and once it is at the point and cannot uncompress(proper term?)it.

    2. Is there a program that will convert all my files to MP3 320kbps automatically?

    • Phil Morse says:

      Yes you can do it, but as you correctly suspect it’s pointless – 192kbps is more lossy than 320kbps so you can never put back what was lost when the original 192kbps MP3 was made – thus you’re best off leaving MP3s at the bitrate they’re at. This method is good for converting WAVE files and other formats, though, just so you can have all your music in one format.

      • So, I’ve been getting my music from iTunes, and I’m pretty sure they’re 192kbps, so is there a way to redownload my tunes in 320 Kbps format? Instead of pointlessly converting them to 320 as is?

  4. Great article….for beginners. Ableton can’t use mp3s? mp3 support is there since version 5……

    • Phil Morse says:

      Yes, maybe I was unclear there. Ableton converts formats to WAVE although it can indeed import MP3s, you’re not actually working with the actual MP3 files.

      • Now it’s correct Phil :)

      • Will Marshall says:

        That’s true, but other DJ software does much the same thing (WAV is just a container around a standard audio bitstream that’s fed to a DAC).

        The difference is, Ableton does the conversion and stores the output it on the HDD, whereas Traktor and Serato save it to memory.

  5. Another factor is price. In the US, getting the latest in trance from overseas is kind of difficult. None of the music stores in my area, even the independently owned owned ones, carry an extensive collection of singles and unmixed compilations.

    Sure, I can order single CD’s from each Label’s store, but I have to factor in shipping and wait times as well.

    So I’m down to two options: Beatport and Itunes. I have looked at other stores, but in reality I would like to get all of my music from the least amount of sources possible.

    Beatport carries uncompressed waves and MP3′s, but their prices are harsh. Recent releases cap at $2.49. Itunes has switched their entire library to DRM (digital rights management) free AAC’s encoded at 256, which cap at $1.29, most of the times most songs I want are $.99.

    Now if 256 AAC = 320 MP3 roughly in terms of sound quality, I know where I’m putting my money. I’m no apple fan, but as long as they continue to offer reasonable prices for good quality tunes that I would otherwise have a hard time tracking down and importing, I will continue to buy from them.

    Since this is a site that seems primarily geared towards enthusiasts looking to get into the DJ’ing scene, I think cost is a relevant point to add to the discussion as well when speaking of the various file formats.

    BTW, love this site and keep up the great work Phil. I stumbled on this site about 2 months ago, and loved the wealth of information here. I decided to try my hand at mixing using a demo version of Traktor and needless to say I was hooked. About 6 years ago, I came so close to getting some turntables and a mixer to start out, and I am so glad I waited. Digital is here, and here to stay.

  6. Some hardcore audiophiles told me I’m crazy, but I was never able to hear a difference between a 320 Kbps MP3 and a FLAC, straight ripped from the CD.
    But when I rip a CD, I convert it to a FLAC anyway. I mean, I have enough space on my harddrive, my software (VDJ 7 for Mac) can handle it without any problems, so why not? When I buy tracks I usually go for the 320 MP3 of course, mostly because I’m a cheapskate and don’t wanna pay the extra money for a wav or FLAC, but even here, when Beatport or Juno give out something for free, I go always for those two higher quality formats.

    • Will Marshall says:

      Most people can’t tell the difference, even studio engineers in studio settings. There have been lots of double-blind tests of this over the years.

      It does make sense to stick with lossless, as it means you can repeatedly transcode as required: but the audio quality difference is pretty negligible.

  7. At Beatport, WAV file will generally cost $1 more than its mp3 version and it wont have cover art and all the other information. However, when you play it, you will be able to tell the difference. Traktor supports WAV and my new collection is all .WAV.. I highly recommend it.

  8. I really wish you’d scratch that bit about transcoding all your mp3s to 320 kbps, because it’s really terrible advice. Since transcoding to a lossy format always results in data loss (even if you’re going to a higher bitrate), it makes the audio sound even worse, while at the same time increasing the file size. From then on, since it’s technically encoded at 320, it’ll always be read as such despite sounding like the 128 file it is. There’s no way to tell by listening if it was original a low quality format, or rather if it’s just mixed/mastered poorly, and only close inspection with a high quality spectrum analyzer give a clue as to what you’re dealing with. Factor in music sharing both online and between DJs, and you end up with mp3s that appear to be acceptable 320s being played on large sound systems and destroying ear canals because they’re actually 96 kbps.

    • Phil Morse says:

      I agree, although software such as Platinum Notes can still improve on compressed input files, outputting 320kbps MP3s that sound better than the originals even though, as you say, the 320kbps bit means nothing, especially if the program started with a 192kbps MP3, for instance. The most important thing is to use common sense, and your ears – I am going back to edit the article now to say as much.

  9. Very good beginner article.
    Although this is rarely an issue you should’ve pointed on the additional strain decoding lossy or losless compressed formats put on your CPU.
    I think I’ll do an article on this testing out MP3 at 192 and 320, FLAC and WAVE in different settings.

    btw. I prefer FLAC because of the smaller filesize and OGG-metatags

  10. I prefer to buy lossless formats whenever possible.

    I’ve recently started transcoding my WAV files to AIFF, because AIFF files can store meta data (cover art, track title, artist, year etc). WAV cannot.

    This is particularly handy if you use your tracks on more than one system; I usually use Traktor but sometimes take a USB stick to play on a friend’s Serato setup – if I take AIFF files all my track info shows up in Serato.

  11. This is interesting info and i feel a little more indepth than i had hoped.The thing is, i have around 1000 songs roughly that i dj with on my itunes – traktor and to be honest they are all jumbled up, some mp3 320, some mp3 196 & some AAC. Is it a major issue if i just leave them as they are and just start getting 320 mp3 from now on, they seem fine to me when i dj and i have to sometimes raise the gain to get the same sound one side with a 320 to the other which may be a 196.But it would actually cost me a fortune if i deleted all my 196 files just to upgrade a little in sound quality to 320.PB

    • Phil Morse says:

      It’s good to have all your music inn the same format, but not essential. Don’t worry too much about it. It’s only if you start to see strange things happen when you want to batch process it in MP3Gain, or Mixed in Key, or your metadata doesn’t work in your DJ program properly, or your iTunes smart playlists don’t recognise files… etc. Until there’s an issue, I’d continue to buy 320kbps MP3s and not worry too much about the music you’ve already got.

  12. I find it easiest to distinguish between MP3 and lossless formats in club environments. The bass is severely lacking with MPEG and the tops are harsh. On a high end system i.e. Function One / Turbosound the difference is night and day. On systems with less fidelity it is easier to get away with. I appreciate that 99% of DJs are not playing on such systems, but having had the opportunity myself believe me you can tell. If you are playing styles of music that are bass orientated (most club music) on any system go lossless it’s worth it.

    A little tip, this online store charge the same price for lossless as Mp3 http://www.digital-tunes.net/

    Last week I saw Oneman (502 Records, Rinse.fm) in Berlin, he was using Serato (probably with lossless files) The bass was definitely adequate. When the local DJs came on afterwards playing vinyl the amount, power and quality of the bass increased for sure. This was on a system with serious subs.

    • I definitely can hear the difference in my bedroom, with my hi-fi system, the better the soundsystem the more noticiable it is.

      That said I still play 320 mp3s cause they doesn’t sound bad at all and I’m not able to pay that extra buck for a lossless file which I consider a steal.

      • There is a lack of what I call “depth” on any system for sure. Good studio monitors will reveal it no problem. But you have to know what you are listening for. Dare I say it the average listener / consumer does not notice.

        I agree with you that lossless handling fees are a joke. Which is why I recommended the web store above ;-)

  13. Does it have any benefits convert a mp3 file into a .wav file? Do you get better quality if you convert this already compressed file to uncompressed? Thank you.

  14. Just a slight clarification regarding 24bit: More 1s and 0s mean, more accuracy to represent the wave. Like saying, more resolution – imagine a comparison between 2 pictures, one taken at vga resolution and another taken at 10Mpx. And so, better representation of the ‘natural’ sound – which is virtually saying more sound quality.

    By the way i’m switching my library to apple lossless since it still lets me use itunes as library manager. Traktor does handle it, while it is 16bit.

    And for the difference, it always depends on the system you play it, and the ears that listen, however, the larger the soundsystem is, the easier to notice the difference.

    I’d say save yourself time, choose lossles anytime you can. Personally i’ve choosen to re-download lossy files i already had payed for, in lossless format. I’m sorry, but i’m not paying again, neither paying an extra buck for having it at proper quality. It’s like having the vinyl and ripping it to wav. Or having the cd and converting it. I bought thousands of tracks in emusic, legally for about 25cents. Now it’s 50 cents per track, but i consider that’s a fair price for owning the ‘license’ to play something, and ensuring the artist gets their part. I’ve heard itunes is getting near to 70% of what you pay for a track. That’s way too much for just being the distributor… I don’t want to imagine what can it be in beatport.

    I like to read apple’s getting into 24bit files, but sadly they’ll probably use it as an excuse to raise prices. It’s not fair in my opinion.

    Bandcamp is a good example of how digital shopping plattforms should evolve.

  15. Hi Phil,

    What about the VBR settings on i-tunes?

    What settings will you advise for it?

    Then there is an option that says “Filter Frequencies below 10Hz”, what do you reckon?

    Great stuff you are doing here.

    • Phil Morse says:

      You can’t hear below 20Hz, and I’d leave VBR switched off – there’s no need for that extra bit of compression – why do more to your audio for no real reason?

      • Sure, the human ear can’t hear sounds below 20Hz, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play an important role in songs. You may not hear it, but in a club or show you can most definitely feel it.

        • Phil Morse says:

          You have to weigh this possibility up against whether lowest frequencies are rounded off by the PA, the MP3s, the mixer, the sound card, and whether they’ll cause weird things to happen to autogain circuitry in DJ software too.

  16. Belgian Jungle Sound says:

    I find it more than a little ironic that itunes offers 256 kbps aac files when i can get 320 kbps pirated versions of those files on the internet (not that i do pirate apart from in special circumstances where i think the artist can survive just fine without my money).

    • Phil Morse says:

      We’ve already established that 256kbps AAC is as high quality as 320kbps MP3, it’s just that Apple prefers to use its own format. Plainly the most popular format is also going to be the one that gets pirated the most, which of course is MP3. Where’s the irony?

  17. Hi guys,
    i really need some help with this if anyone can help me pleeeese.
    Ok…I have a brand new laptop (windows 7) and i have transferred all my songs &playlists to its DESKTOP via drag and drop from my external hard drive, i use traktor pro and i locate my playlist in traktor through itunes intergration.
    The problem i have is if i move these files on my desktop,when i try and play them again on itunes it tells me “Itunes cannot locate this file”
    it seems that they play through Itunes but they are not stored there although i also drag & dropped them in itunes from my desktop.
    Can someone please tell me how to permanently get them onto itunes fro my desktop and the best process for transferring from external hard drive – to itunes for future reference.Thank you!!!

    • I think the problem you haves is because you transfer those playlists from another computer, the songs in the playlists are saved in a location that doesn’t exists in your new computer, only in the old one, because its a different address in your hard drive

      • Ok, going back to my first post, i have figured out how to di this, it should help fellow dj’s out there because i’m sure i’m not the only one who had thisd problem.
        Ok …
        my songs were transferred to my new laptop via drag and drop from my external hard drive, i done it this way because i wanted to transfer one playlist at a time to keep it organised.
        I then drag and dropped them drom my desktop to itunes.
        (this only plays the files through itunes, i does not mean they are imported onto intunes)..
        To do this – in your itunes you go to…
        File – Library – Organise library – and click on consolidate files.
        This basically imports ALL music files on your computer that you play through intunes – into itunes.
        Peace!

        • Phil Morse says:

          Some people don’t like doing this, but I actually think letting iTunes organise your collection is indeed a smart move. It’s easy enough to back up your iTunes music too when it’s all in one place.

        • Yea i prefer itunes through traktor.
          Personal preferences i guess.
          And yea thats spot on what you said, EASY TO BACK UP FILES FROM IT. :)

  18. Hello Phil,

    You see I’m an audiophile and 99% of the music I play is wav format, but my concern is i have a gig this weekend, and i have this bomb track in 128kbps so do you think it will sound crappy in the club’s loudspeakers? should I totally avoid playing it? or it won’t matter if i play it once, and then go back to wav tracks.

    The track has the same loudness levels as the other tracks, It sounds clear on DJ headphones but there are certain points where it will distort a little bit.

    So what do you recommend?

    • Phil Morse says:

      IF it were me? I’d run it through Platinum Notes and play the bugger! It’s only one tune after all and if it’s that good, will you be able to resist anyway?

    • Club sound systems make everything sound a bit muddy. They might have some of the most expensive speakers in the world, they aren’t built for precision, they’re built for loudness and to last. If it’s just 1 song, I say play it. I’ve done it and I’m pretty sure no one will notice.

  19. Question:

    As you might know mp3′s are at a sampling rate of 44.1 khz.
    I got a NI Audio 2 sound card which gives me the option of a 44.1 or 96 khz playback. I’d like to know which one will give me a better sound quality if anyone knows about the topic. Thank you

    • DonConti says:

      If your file format is of a poor quality it doesn’t matter what setting you give your card: it cannot fill-in the missing sound!

  20. I want to create my own music track n make remix with my style on original song. How can i do that? Any music editing easy s/w available? I am begineer with this. I don’t know how to use reason,logic, Abelton, FL studio, Floop etc. Pls reply me n suggest me wht shd I do & hw can i start production.

    • I know it may seem intense, but if you want to make a track that sounds professional enough to play in a club, you should learn how to use either Ableton or Logic.. http://www.sonicacademy.com does provide some great tutorials on different programs and different genres… although its not a free website, you could also check youtube and other sites for “ableton tutorials”..

  21. There was one thing that wasn’t very clear to me. I use a mix of vinyl and traktor with either MP3 or AAC.

    I usually buy the music on iTunes since it’s cheaper and then convert it to 320kbps MP3.

    I convert them to MP3 mostly because there are a lot of times I have to use an external hard drive to play on traktor in someone else’s computer.
    Question:

    What is the best thing to do when buying or converting?
    As far as I understood it seems better to buy directly a 320kbps MP3 instead of converting it from AAC.

    If I decide to continue buying on iTunes because of their prices, what bit rate should I use when converting the AAC files? should I continue with 320kbps or should I use 256kbps (same as AAC) ?

  22. Since you are saying 256kbps AAC is pretty much the same as 320kbps MP3 wouldnt that mean that 320kbps AAC is better sound quality than 320kbps MP3? So if you are looking for the better sound quality then you should go for 320kbps AAC over 320kbps MP3? or is 320kbps MP3 still better than 320kbps AAC?

    • I’m not even sure 320kbps AACs are out there, but I defy you to hear the difference between a 256kbps AAC and a WAV – I can’t.

      • They do in fact have 320kbps AACs, if you go to the import setting on iTunes there is an option for 320kbps ACC. That being said, I am looking for the best possible quality for my songs to play at clubs without going Lossless because having all my songs lossless will take up too much space on my laptop. So would you say 320kbps AAC would be a better choice than 320kbps MP3 for me? or do u think 320kbps MP3 would still be better?

        Also I can hear the difference between a 256kbps AAC and a WAV as I compared the same song, one bought from iTunes and the other from Beatport and I can tell you that WAV does sound better.

      • That’s brilliant Ben, well it looks like 320kbps AACs may be for you. I suspect they’d sound better in theory, as 256kbps AACs are widely recognized to be the same as 320kbps MP3s, so it stands to reason. As I say, doesn’t matter a jot to me as I simply can’t hear any difference at all at that level and I know from experience nether can my punters :)

      • Ok then, looks like its going to be 320kbps AAC for me. Thanks a bunch for your help and input and have a nice day!

  23. I know nothing about this subject so I would love if you guys could tell me why djs don’t use FLAC? Metadata is so important, isn’t messy working with wave? FLAC works so well on Traktor, is easier to get on internet. I don’t have Ableton Live so is FLAC appropriate for editing?

  24. Okay, here’s a question for you. I have many many older music files that have, over the years, been ripped at 192kbps to 256kbps MP3s. I purchased Platinum Notes and began the daunting task of converting these older files to 320kbps MP3s. Side-by-side comparison of the original 192kbps file and the new 320kbps file, through high quality headphones and studio quality monitors results in:
    1. Louder volume.
    2. Crisp/sharp highs.
    3. Dry/punchy bottoms.
    4. Vocals & environment appear to have a slight echo.
    Are my ears playing tricks on me? I realize once a file has been ripped at 192kbps @ 44.1Khz, you can’t add to what was taken out. Where’s the big difference coming from?

  25. Great article Phil! The information is extremely relevant to digital DJs.

    What do you think of iTunes Match? I have a lot of tracks that are 192kbps MP3s that I want in a higher quality. As as I understand it, this service will replace any track in your collection (up to 25,000 appx 120GBs) that matches a track in the iTunes store with 256 AACs. If that’s the case I could “upgrade” my 192 MP3s to 256 AACs right?

    Assuming this is true, I could then “transcode” my newly upgraded 256 AACs to, 320 MP3s so my collection is in one format. This leads me to my 2nd question:

    How much do you actually lose when “transcoding” 256 AACs to 320 MP3s? Is the resulting file going to sound like a 192 MP3 or worse (or does it depend)? I can deal with a transcoding loss in audio quality IF the *actual* sound quality of my “upgraded” tracks are still better/higher than the 192 MP3s I started with.

    If transcoding 256 AACs is gonna result in a file that sounds like a 192 MP3 (regardless of the 320 mp3 tag) or worse, than I’ll just skip it and deal with a mixed AAC/MP3 collection (I should still have the higher audio quality).

    Please advise…

  26. Subfugitive says:

    Thanks for a solid roundup of the digital music file situation. But I’m curious: How does this all play out with regards to recording mixes?

    The majority of my music collection is 320kbps MP3s. When I make a mix (using Virtual DJ 7 Pro), it can be recorded either as a WAV or some bitrate variant of MP3. I might do some post-processing in Audacity to smooth out levels, etc., and then I output the mix as a 256kbps MP3 (I use a lower bitrate on the final mix file for easier posting to the web).

    So, I guess my question is: How much degradation in sound quality occurs going from individual 320kbps MP3 tracks -> WAV mix file -> 256kbps MP3 ‘processed’ mix file? And does it make a difference? Is there a better process for creating a web-friendly DJ mix?

    Thanks

    • Good point. No degradation occurs when you record to WAV. Obviously a little more occurs when you mix down to the web. TBH it doesn’t matter massively, but if you were really concerned you could mix WAVs or FLACs rather than MP3s so the first time the mix becomes an MP3 is the 256kbps stage.

  27. ‘Compressed lossless audio has had inaudible changes made to reduce file size’

    The file is compressed, not changed. With compressed lossless files, they can be converted back to an uncompressed lossless file. If they were changed, you wouldn’t be able to do that.

    Its lossless because NOTHING is lost. It’s like a zip file. When you compress, nothing is inherently changed. Or alternatively, like crushing a can. All of the material is still there, and theoretically, you could un-crush the can back to its original shape.

  28. Hello there. Thanks for the great post. I think I understood you well until I read following comments :P which left me pretty confused :( I am an upcoming DJ and I’d like to organize my music library in itunes. I have about 4000 songs with
    AAC 32 kbps to 320 kbps
    MPEG 32 kbps to 320 kbps
    AIFF 1411kbps
    I’m looking into making compilations of audio CDs by burning it in itunes. So I was wondering if i can convert everything into 320 kbps MP3? If you could give me any better advise otherwise would be great.
    Thank you so much. It’ll mean a lot to me and others with similar query.
    Cheers
    x

    • You cannot convert from a lower number to a higher number, or rather, you can but they won’t sound any better.

      • its crazy that when i tried converting the lower to higher number by right clicking and chose create MP3 version, the new file came with 320kbps :O i was so excited for a while lols… if it wont sound any better then i think i’ll just leave as is it. Cheers for the quick reply and of course the knowledge :)

  29. If you are really interested in giving your audience a quality sonic experience using any lossy format is bad professional practise.
    Computer hardware and DJ hardware can easily handle larger files so there is no argument for saving space on hard drives.
    Getting the highest quality components at each stage of reproduction is doing your job properly. Starting with mp3 is MIckey Mouse stuff.
    I work with a Funktion One sound system in my studio and have worked with Tony Andrew it’s designer.
    Hearing rubbish mp3 quality mixes through a decent sound system will make you realise what you and your audience a truly missing, please stop using mp3 files.

  30. i have a bunch of m4a files from itunes, could i transcode them to wav and they sound good enough for clubs?

    • There would be no benefit in doing that, and they’ll sound god enough anyway just as they are. You can’t convert a lossy format (m4a) to a lossless format (wav) and expect any improvement in sound quality.

  31. thanks a lot for this article. It’s great :) learned a lot.

  32. Come on guys is it that much of a difference resource wise using 192/ 320 vs wav? I mean the price of TB’s of space now is at a all time low.

    This is the way I look at it :-

    Q. Does it bother me using 192 / 320 bit-rate?

    A. Yes, stop using them then and use WAV.

    Q. I am worried about sound quality having tracks of all different bit-rates in my collection.

    A. If you have any worries at all, or you are slightly unhappy then change it!

    It’s my personal opinion that you should always use the best quality material you have access too, weather thats 192 or WAV or HD Audio.

    If you are happy and your followers are happy what needs changing? Just make sure your mixes are always spot on and your seen to be pushing the boundaries and trying new things.

    Another thing, if you have a track you love and want to badly put in a mix but the quality is a bit lacking listen up. If you can’t get the levels right pre mix / live set and you can’t get a better quality copy THEN DITCH IT!! You will only end up regretting it, but if the crowd didn’t hear the loss in quality then I got away with it NO you know, you heard it. Always be critical of yourself it will keep you at the top of your game.

    Regards

    Dan

  33. I’m new to Digital Djing but finding problems with Traktor or Virtual DJ being able to read music files with m4p file names. Many of these are songs I purchased on iTunes. the program says unknown file format. Is there an easy (or perhaps not so easy way) to rename these filenames so the program will be able to use them?

    • Ghostfacedninja says:

      The key to using AAC (.m4p) files in Traktor is to ensure quicktime is installed and up to date. Otherwise it will not read them.

    • The .m4p extension most likely means those are DRM-protected iTunes files. Try converting them through iTunes to plain .m4a or .mp3 if you can.

  34. DonConti says:

    Technology will only improve, and if you collect a bunch of thin and tinny sounding mp3s, they will only sound worse 5-15 yrs down the line! That is why I only buy WAV files online, or rip CDs into AIFs.

    Better yet, if you are recording vinyl onto a digital format, do yourself a favor: record it into 24bit/96khz. The size of the files will be huge, BUT, on a good sound system YOU WILL hear the difference – don’t regret having lost the original recording in the future, like I have!

  35. miguel castro says:

    Thanks guys for the helpful information on this article, thanks always to Phil for his courses, I really recommend it.

  36. So if CDs are 16-bit, 44.1kHz, it wouldn’t make sense to rip at a higher bit rate (24-bit), correct? It would seem to me there would be no difference in sound quality if you did rip in 24-bit and you would be wasting space. Am I wrong on this?
    Thanks

    • Éanna D says:

      That is indeed the case. I think it should be explained that bit depth while yes, it does have more bits which means more resolution, it does not equate to higher sound quality by any means. Bit depth is only responsible for the dynamic range of audio. 24 bit audio has its uses in recording and mixing for example, giving more headroom above the noise floor, but is usually dithered to 16 bit afterwards for cd anyway. 16 bit audio is enough to capture the most dynamic of music, even classical orchestras. Apple pushing 24 bit audio to me seems like some kind of gimmick, its completely unnecessary for playback and especially these days where so much music has been loudness compressed to all hell anyway.

  37. Dominick Detore says:

    1411 kbps AIFF files fine?

  38. FLACs will be the new standard. I listen to almost all my music in FLAC and you can find a lot of EDM and electronic releases in FLAC by searching. I have Disclosure’s album Settle and For Lack of a Better Name from Deadmau5 in FLAC plus a whole grip of Ministry of Sound releases. I notice a huge difference but I have audiophile equipment so really the only way to notice the difference is to pump out your music through a hifi DAC to your speakers and then the crowd would definitely be immersed in sound.

    • Who will win the race in lossless audio formats? It’s something like Betamax or VHS, Blue-ray or HD DVD? I think time will tell.

      FLAC is by far the most popular, and It is great if you are using software, but hardware is another story.

      With iTunes integration to many popular DJ software and music management like Rekordbox or Engine, maybe ALAC will step foward, I don’t know, I think It’s up to Pioneer (LOL).

      But there’s a chance that things will be the same, with AIFF and WAV ruling the world and hardware manufacturers improving their support over bigger hard drives.

      I think we just have to wait and see.

  39. Can you hear the difference between a WAV and an MP3? Hell yes!

    Is there huge gap between them? Not for me.

    Can you tell wich is wich? In order to appreciate the differences I need to hear both versions, if not, I do belive it’s quite impossible.

    In fact the sound could be totally different if you hear the same song from two different pressings, as an example a compilation album and the original studio album.

    Safest bet, play WAV or even better use AIFF wich can store TAGS.

    But, wait a minute, PCM files eat a lot of space and are not as easy to get as for example AAC files from the iTunes store. And by the way, I like AAC files at 256 over 320 MP3, they are smaller and can be played with software like Traktor and Serato, and off course with the latest Pioneer CDJs.

    Is the future lossless? There is no doubt in my mind, but for now lossy is just fine.

  40. Right, that’s what I figured. But is there a way to download the files at 320kpbs directly from iTunes if I, lets say, deleted the files I have now, and re downloaded them at a higher bit rate from the cloud?

  41. Hi phil, I have left you a lengthily email but for the forum can you suggest a simple way of importing CDs and purchasing mp3s in tunes, I am a beginner Dj and its all getting way to confusing but a lot of my library is sounding bad after buying new pioneer monitors. Can I improve theses tracks by re-importing or do i Start from scratch and import in a different way. What is the rule of thumb for the future

    Cheers

  42. Phil,

    Sorry I forgot to say that I would like to know your suggestion on the bit rate/mp3/wav etc.. Be gentle…. it’s all very conflicting going by earlier posts!

  43. Phil

    Thanks for your reply had you any thoughts on me deleting my entire library on iTunes as some are 192 256 etc and re-importing my whole dj collection again and with the new settings of 320kb mp3, will i notice or at least get the highest quality, every song is backed up on DVDs for mass storage if I was to re-import woud I get the 320kb import result or do I have to do every track from there original source I.e C.D compilation or internet purchase mp3 download. Proper confused I just want my library sounding the best possible so I can illuminate the bad recordings from the high quality recordings.
    Please help I trust your knowledge.

  44. You know how great you are but I wanted to add my coddles to the pile. Awesome article I appreciate your work.

    I charge a lot to play therefore I want to provide the very best product that I can. I currently use a 4TB hard drive for content so space is not an issue. I would love it if my DJ pool music providers had 24bit 96khz files in a FLAC compression format or better. I would pay extra for this service. The louder you play music the more apparent the imperfections such as compromised MP3 become.

    Most customers don’t consciously notice good or bad quality audio but they feel it. They get into the song more and fall deeper into the emotion of the song when the sound quality is great. This customer will then say “Man that DJ was great I want to hire him for my wedding or tell my friends about him.” Investing in Great sound every step throughout the chain means great returns for your business and happy customers.

  45. Ive just come across this issue after figuring out wav cant tag (<<digital noob). After some research i found flac can tag correctly, which is important for me as i like my collection to be neat and tidy.

    However after converting some wav to flac, and redownloading some purchased files as flac i notice i cannot change the star rating. Everything else changes correctly.

    Is this normal? The rating issue i use is pretty important the way i use it in Traktor.

    Cheers all

  46. pedrogawdin@yahoo.com says:

    i know a software called idealshare videogo which can easily compress and convert wav, aiff, au, flac, mp3, ape and etc

Leave a Comment