Choosing The Right File Formats For Your Music Library

Last updated 27 March, 2018


Music file formats
Music files come in all shapes and sizes, so it pays to decide upfront which file formats and quality you’re going to use, and be sure as to why.

In 5 Reasons To Organise Your Music Properly we explained the importance of having a music system, and in How To Get Started Organising Your Music we covered the basics of getting going. So now we can delve into all the considerations you should make in order to make this a success. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “new” collector, the approach taken to starting a new music collection can be applied to existing libraries; you just choose to start at a different point in the journey.

The three components of a well organised library

So, to create an organised library of any items you need three components:

  1. The objects themselves; in our case the individual music tracks or files
  2. A consistent classification system; the way you describe and label these tracks
  3. The right tools and workflow to manage and access your library (we’re talking about the software and apps you use to get your tracks from download to deck-load…)

We’ll give an overview of the first component in this article and cover the others later. So what’s so important about the music files themselves?

Music files and formats

Digital music has come a long way since the early days of services such as Napster, once feared by the music industry as a grave threat to music and physical media. Since those dark times less than 14 years ago the ability to have your music stored and played on your home computer has developed into the reality of accessing to your music from multiple computers or smartphones that could be on the other side of the world.

Thankfully less and less common nowadays, the online peer to peer trading of often low quality music files damaged ears and DJ sets alongside the livings of the artists involved.

CDs have finally been overtaken by downloads as the most popular music media. Vinyl records have seen a small resurgence in recent years since their sales were decimated, primarily down to a small but thriving market of collectors and aficionados, but trying to find DJ-friendly dance music in this format is becoming increasingly difficult. So why does any of this matter if you’re a digital DJ? The answer is that even if you’re only dealing with digital files, those digital files came from somewhere – and knowing where they came from and how good that source is could have a great impact on your music library and DJing.

Think back to when you started collecting music. Maybe it was five years ago, maybe ten. At that time the focus for digital music for many was on getting as many tracks as you could in the hard drive space you had available on your computer or portable music player. People were converting their music from the relatively high quality source of CD into something that was “good enough” to listen to, just to save megabytes of space. How many times have you heard people tell you to only use a certain bit rate MP3 file (eg “nothing less than 192”, “preferably 256”, or “ideally 320kbps”).

This in itself was a minefield but then you had the added complications of digital rights management (DRM), alternative file formats such as Microsoft’s WMA that gained favour due to the computer systems people use to convert their music, and of course the various dodgy download sites that provided low-quality files because internet speeds simply didn’t allow for larger file sizes.

The thing to take from this is that we are no longer in that era and neither should our music libaries be. If you look at your library you might find a mixture of file formats and file qualities. It’s easy to do a quick check as most software such as iTunes allow you to view the sample and bitrates of your files which you can then sort on, although don’t ever trust bitrates on illegally obtained files.

(We’re not going to explore the finer details of file formats and audio quality here – you can find out more by reading What Every DJ Needs To Know About Music File Formats – but the principle is that you should use the best files you can and try to keep that quality consistent – and trust your ears.

Rubbish in, rubbish out

As DJs, the quality of our mixes depends on the quality of each track or sample we use. If they vary widely in audio quality and level this will have a detrimental affect on our mixes, particularly when playing out on a decent loud PA. In addition, having consistent file formats makes it easier to use the right tools in the same way for your entire library.

For example, the tagging structure of MP3s differs from M4A files. Imagine how cumbersome it must be to perform certain actions just on MP3 files, and other actions on M4A, or FLAC files before you can start to use them in your DJ software. Whilst it’s true that most of the software and hardware we use is able to cope with different formats, the more variations of formats you utilise the more chance there is of something going wrong at some stage of your workflow.

AAC Apple
The information stored against a file will vary, depending on the file format. So it pays to think through these variables first, so you don’t get caught out because one of your chosen formats doesn’t support a field that matters to you (say the custom ‘key’ field).

Here’s my personal path through all of this: A few months ago I faced the challenge of rebuilding my music library, not because I lost my music files but because my two year old laptop hard disk drive was running seriously low on space. I could have simply installed a new HDD and copied everything across just the way it was but with a collection of over 15,000 tracks I thought it was time for a major overhaul. Although much of my music had been converted from CDs, my digital files were, until recent years, sourced from all over the place.

I decided that I wanted to get the best possible audio from my existing collection and standardise the various file formats and levels of quality that had crept in. After a lot of research, not only did I install a much larger hard drive but I decided to rebuild my library from scratch, reconvert my backed up CD rips from WAV to Apple Lossless and start the lengthy process of classifying and tagging my entire collection.

Now I only have three file formats in my library, never purchase MP3 files and my priority is to use the lossless or higher quality M4A formats as much as possible. Many top DJs are also realising the benefits of using lossless files now that disc space is no longer an issue (check out the Lossless DJ website for more). In a few years time there will be no reason to use lossy compressed file formats such MP3 at all, so it’s my view that if you’re serious about developing as a DJ there’s certainly no harm in organising your library so that you start to use file formats that are going to last you for the next five to ten years years.

Next time:

In the next article we will look at how to classify your music files, and offer up some and quick tips and tricks for speeding this process up.

• André is a UK-based part-time mobile DJ with over 15 years’ experience.

Check out the other parts in this series:

Have you got any stories about trying to wrestle your music collection into order? What decisions have you taken regarding file formats, and why? Please share your thoughts and views in the comments.

Mixing For Mobile & Wedding DJs