Music File Formats: What are they and how do they differ?

Posted on 12th August 2019

As a DJ or music producer, music file formats will soon become something that - like it or not – you should know plenty about. A solid grounding in how music file formats can be used and how they differ is imperative for DJs and producers looking to switch between software, incorporate sampling into their mixes, burn tracks to CDs, move cuepoints and beatgrids across different devices, and much more. So here is a comprehensive guide outlining ten of the most commonly used file formats in music and explaining how they differ from one another.


WAV

The Waveform Audio file format (WAV) was developed by Microsoft in 1991 and, as a result, is the standard music file format operated by Windows devices.

WAV files can be coded as either uncompressed or compressed, but are most commonly formatted as the former. It is a lossless audio format, meaning it is an exact replication of the original data it stores. They are useful files for audio editing or archiving as they can take up a significant amount of space. WAV files are commonly used by DJs, with some professionals claiming to only use WAV and accrediting its high quality.

However, a big weakness of the WAV file format is its inability to store metadata, so you will have to keep a meticulously organised library and know your cuepoints inside-out if you are using WAV files.


MP3

The MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, or far easier to remember MP3 file format, was created in 1993 by the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) and has undeniably become one of the most popular and widely used music file formats in the world.

MP3 is a compressed and lossy audio format, meaning some information is discarded from the file and the encoded data is not identical to the original. This gives users the ability to transfer MP3 files faster and using less space, but the downside is a reduction in quality compares with lossless file formats. The bitrate of an MP3 file can reach a maximum of 320kbps with a sampling range covering 16 kHz to 48 kHz, making it a prime choice for DJs. MP3 is readable by the majority of audio playback devices in the world, making it one of the more accessible, reliable, and intuitive music file formats around. Some DJs will refuse to work with MP3, claiming their quality is inferior when compared with lossless formats, but others endorse the use of MP3 due to its ability to store metadata and their convenient size.


M3U

An M3U file is not technically an audio file within itself, but an MP3 URL. M3U files essentially direct devices towards audio files so that the native media players can access them for playback. They are text-based files commonly associated with video files.


PCM

The Pulse-Code Modulation file is a digital representation of analogue signals. It is an uncompressed and lossless audio format and serves as a standard file format for CDs and DVDs. PCM files work by converting waveforms into digital bits, they do this by sampling analogue sounds and recording them at certain intervals or pulses. This means PCM files have a sampling rate and bit depth, where sampling rate refers to how often a sound sample is made and bit depth is the number of bits used to represent each sample.


AIFF

The Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) can be considered the Apple equivalent of Microsoft’s WAV file.

It is a lossless audio format and can be either compressed or uncompressed, however, they are not as universally playable across non Mac devices compared with WAV files. The vast majority of AIFF files are uncompressed in PCM format, and so the AIFF can be considered a capsule for the PCM encoding that makes it better suited to Apple systems. Nonetheless, many Windows devices are able to operate using AIFF file formats. There is a compressed version of AIFF files under the title AIFF-C as well as an Apple Loops version that is used by GarageBand and Logic software.


AAC

Advanced Audio Coding files (AAC) are descendants of MP3.

AAC files generally have better audio quality than MP3. This is derived from more advanced and technical compression algorithms that cover bitrates ranging from 8kbps to a maximum 320kbps and sampling frequencies in the range of 8 kHz to 96 kHz. AAC files deliver similar or superior sound quality to MP3 whilst also taking up less storage, making it a popular file format amongst DJs. AAC audio compression is not as commonplace as MP3 but is the go-to audio compression method adopted by YouTube, iTunes, Android, iOS, and many other games consoles.


OGG (Vorbis)

OGG is not an abbreviation for anything. This file format is not particularly popular or widely used and can be best described as a multimedia container for compression formats, but it is principally used to hold Vorbis files.

In order to understand OGG, one must know about Vorbis. Vorbis files produce a smaller file size for equivalent or superior audio quality when compared with myriad lossy compression formats. Since OGG file formats are seldom supported natively by many devices, they are most frequently used by certain proponents of open source software (OSS) whereby individuals have the ability to study, change, and distribute the source code of a particular software.


WMA

Windows Media Audio files (WMA) where first created by Microsoft in 1999 as a competitor to MP3.

They are a lossy and compressed file format with some advantages in quality when compared with MP3 files, yet the compression technique of WMA is similar to that of AAC and OGG files.

As WMA files are heavily associated with Microsoft, not many devices aside from Windows support this format. Nonetheless, WMA files remain a popular choice for non-Apple based DJs looking for a superior audio quality when compared to MP3. However, due to their proprietary nature, they are rarely useable on mobile devices such as smartphones.


FLAC

The Free Lossless Audio Codec file (FLAC) is a royalty-free licensing and open format, meaning it does not impose upon intellectual property constraints.

It is both compressed and lossless with quality expanding up to 32-bit/96 kHz. FLAC is able to compress file sizes by up to 50% more than the original data without compromising audio quality, making it very ideal for digital archiving. FLAC is increasingly popular amongst a small number of DJs due to its ability to deliver high quality uncompressed audio at considerably smaller file sizes.

However, they are not compatible with iTunes which can be a deal-breaker for some.


ALAC

Apple Lossless Audio Codec files (ALAC) were developed in 2004 as an Apple file format, later becoming open-source and royalty-free in 2011.

It is both compressed and lossless. Unlike FLAC, both iTunes and iOS provide native support for ALAC files, which makes it appealing to Apple users despite its less efficient compression when compared with FLAC.

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