In today’s market of music, it seems the file format of the MP3 has finally won out over the WAV file format. Music buyers can purchase their music digitally online and download it to their phone or music player within seconds. More and more popular music producers are rendering their instrumental beats and stems to mp3’s for use in studio sessions and licensing. Even the audio in the digital videos we watch on sites like Youtube and Netflix are streamed as an mp3. But why has this happened, who is to blame, and most importantly, why should we stop using the mp3 and resort back to wav.
To answer these questions, we must first understand the definition of what exactly an mp3 and wav file is, and what the differences are between them. So grab your nuts and pucker those cheeks, this is about to get more complicated than Keanu Reeves sexuality.
To understand what the definition of an mp3 and wav file exactly is, we will resort to the mighty all knowing Wikipedia. Thanks guys!
So according to Wikipedia…..
The MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, more commonly referred to as MP3, is an encoding format for digital audio which uses a form of lossy data compression. It is a common audio format for consumer audio streaming or storage, as well as a de facto standard of digital audio compression for the transfer and playback of music on most digital audio players.
The MP3 is an audio-specific format that was designed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) as part of its MPEG-1 standard and later extended in MPEG-2 standard. The use in MP3 of a lossy compression algorithm is designed to greatly reduce the amount of data required to represent the audio recording and still sound like a faithful reproduction of the original uncompressed audio for most listeners. An MP3 file that is created using the setting of 128 kbit/s will result in a file that is about 1/11 the size of the CD file created from the original audio source. An MP3 file can also be constructed at higher or lower bit rates, with higher or lower resulting quality.
The compression works by reducing accuracy of certain parts of sound that are considered beyond the auditory resolution ability of most people. This method is commonly referred to as perceptual coding. It uses psychoacoustic models to discard or reduce precision of components less audible to human hearing and then records the remaining information in an efficient manner.
So like, wow! It pretty much means that the MP3 is an audio file format developed for people who are too auditorially stupid to hear that it sounds bad. And trust me, there are people out there who think MP3 sounds better, and some of them claim to be audio engineers. Oh no!
Now that we have that ingrained in our skulls, lets see what good ol’ Wikipedia has to say about WAV files.
Waveform Audio File Format (WAVE, or commonly known as WAV due to its filename extension) is a Microsoft and IBM audio file format standard for storing an audio bitstream on PCs. It is an application of the Resource Interchange File Format (RIFF) bitstream format method for storing data in ‘chunks’, and thus is also close to the 8SVX and the AIFF format used on Amiga and Macintosh computers, respectively. It is the main format used on Windows systems for raw and typically uncompressed audio. The usual bitsream encoding is the linear pulse-code modulation (LPCM) format.
Both WAVs and AIFFs are compatible with Windows, Macintosh, and Linux based operating systems. The format takes into account some difference of the Intel CPU such as little-endian byte order. The RIFF format acts as a ‘wrapper’ for various audio compression codecs.
Though a WAV file can hold compressed audio, the most common WAV format contains uncompressed audio in the linear pulse code modulation (LPCM) format. The standard audio file format for CDs, for example, is LPCM-encoded, containing two channels of 44,100 samples per second, 16 bits per sample. Since LPCM uses an uncompressed storage method which keeps all the samples of an audio track, professional users or audio experts may use the WAV format for maximum audio quality.
GET THAT! MAXIMUM AUDIO QUALITY!
So now that we have come to the understanding of what exactly an MP3 and WAV file are, let us return to the all important life seeking questions I proposed earlier in this diatribe.
So how did the MP3 format become the dominant format used in the music industry if it isn’t as good of quality as a WAV file? This question can be answered by pointing out that more people buy their music digitally now than physically. Physically meaning CD, Cassette, Vinyl. Since most online music retailers sell music only as MP3’s, people are then predominately purchasing only MP3’s as a result. A few retailers give the option of buying WAV files, but not many. (It should also be pointed out that Itunes sells music on their IStore in an AAC file format, which is another crappy audio file format unworthy of even the deaf.)
So now that the MP3 has taken over the retail music market, people have begun to think of it as a proper file format to use in the studio in their sessions because it’s the only format they know exists. Whether recording vocals to an MP3 instrumental, mixing music containing MP3 music stems, or printing final mixes as MP3’s, we see it here at Studio 11 more and more each day. What these people don’t understand is by using the MP3 format in the studio session, they are lessening the overall fidelity of their final music master.
The way to improve the fidelity is to use WAV files for your instrumentals, musical stems and final masters. If you are a vocalist who licenses or purchases instrumental music from a producer to record to, make sure you are only licensing or purchasing WAV files. Sure they may cost a little more than the MP3, but the quality of your final product coming out of the studio will dramatically increase. If you are a producer who makes his or her own beats, render your music stems down to 16 Bit 44.1kHz audio stems, or better yet 24 Bit 44.1khz stems. If you are an engineer or an aspiring engineer, always render your final stereo mixes down to a 16 or 24 Bit WAV file.
So who do we blame for this whole MP3 fiasco. I myself put blame squarely on the digital music retailers online for not selling a WAV file option or charging too much for the WAV file. Shame on you guys. Every retailer that sells music digitally should also include a standard WAV file option of 16 Bit 44.1kHz. If it’s a space issue on the retail servers, then they should just sell WAV files at a reduced price and drop the MP3 format altogether.
And we should also blame ourselves for purchasing music that is of inferior sound quality. I can not exclude myself from this category, as I am guilty of occasionally buying mp3’s for my music collection too when I am strapped for cash. However, I will declare from this point forward that I will only purchase wav files from now for my music collection. Music was made to be heard, and listening via a WAV file gives the listener the best chance to hear the music for what it is.