Digital audio files are the raw material of music production.

From streaming platforms to sample packs, all the audio you work with has to be stored somewhere in a file.

But there are many types of audio format that are used in different situations.

How do you know which audio file type to use and how to get the best results?

In this article I’ll explain everything you need to know about audio file formats and how to choose the right one for the job.

Let’s get started.

What are audio file formats?

Audio file formats are digital standards for storing audio information.

The raw data in a stream of audio from the analog-to-digital converter in your audio interface is encoded using a technique called PCM or pulse code modulation.

PCM audio needs to be organized into a file so you can work with it, or play it back in a system.

Different audio file formats use different containers and varying methods of data compression to organize the PCM stream.

Depending on which you choose, each format represents the same information in different storage sizes or quality levels.

In addition to that, some audio file formats carry metadata that supplies information about the file or its content.

Lossless vs. lossy audio files

There are two main types of audio file—lossless file formats, and lossy file formats.

There are two main types of audio file—lossless file formats, and lossy file formats.

The difference between the two has to do with data compression.

Data compression means making the files take up less space on a hard drive. It’s not the same as the dynamic range compression used in music production.

Some methods of data compression make the file smaller but still preserve 100% of the information in the raw audio stream. These are known as lossless compressed formats.

Other compression types work by eliminating data in the audio that doesn’t make a big impact on the sound. Some information is thrown away using this method, so these are known as lossy compressed formats.

Uncompressed audio formats

There are other audio file formats where no data compression is used. These are called uncompressed audio formats.

These file types act as a container for raw audio data without reducing its size or quality in any way.

These are the largest files to work with, but they provide the highest level of detail in the audio information.

Uncompressed audio files are the type most often used for recording and mixing music in a DAW.

Even so, uncompressed audio files also come in different quality levels. These are based on the accuracy and precision with which the analog audio signal was converted to digital.

The higher the sample rate and bit depth used, the more information is captured in the conversion process.

Bit depth represents the precision of the AD/DA converter for measuring amplitude, or the volume level of the signal.

You can think of it like the number of tickmarks on a ruler—the more closely spaced they are, the less often the measurement will fall in between the two marks.

Sample rate means the number of times the measurement is taken in a second. Higher sample rate means more individual measurements made.

Uncompressed audio files are the type most often used for recording and mixing music in a DAW.

Here is a list of common quality levels for uncompressed audio:

uncompressed audio formats comparison

Audio bitrate

Lossy compressed audio files can be encoded at different quality levels.

The quality of this file format is determined by the bitrate, or the amount of data encoded per second.

At lower bitrate settings, the compressed files will be much smaller, but may sound worse.

In the past, this was necessary since storage media had limited capacity and networks couldn’t easily transmit large files.

But storage and bandwidth aren’t so much of a concern in today’s digital world.

That’s why a larger file with higher bitrate is almost always the best choice when you need to use a lossy format.

A high quality standard for MP3 compression is 320 kbps. At these settings it’s very difficult to distinguish compressed audio from uncompressed in casual listening tests.

The 6 most common audio file formats

There are many different file formats out there, but not all of them are widely used.

In fact, there are only a handful that you’ll commonly see in the wild. Here are the main ones to know:

MP3

MP3s are the most common file type for general listening.

The use of MP3s exploded during the file sharing revolution of the early 2000s. The reason why has to do with the sound quality they were able to achieve in such a small package.

MP3s were the first audio file format that made music easy to send back and forth across the internet in listenable audio quality.

They were also easy to encode from tracks on a CD, which led to the proliferation of illegal music downloads.

MP3 files are still very common today and some digital download stores like Bandcamp sell them as their primary format.

AAC

AAC is a lossy compressed format designed by Apple for the iTunes store. It was intended as an alternative to MP3 that could help more songs fit onto iPod music players.

If you ever bought music on the iTunes store, or used iTunes to rip CDs to your library, you might have some AAC files lying around.

Ogg Vorbis

Ogg Vorbis is an open source alternative to lossy compressed formats like MP3. It’s notable for being the file type used for audio material on Wikipedia.

Despite its widespread use, MP3 is a proprietary format. In response, the open source community created Ogg Vorbis as an alternative that’s free and editable.

FLAC

FLAC is an open source lossless compressed file format. It was one of the first lossless compressed formats to gain popularity.

FLAC files make listening to lossless audio possible on devices with limited storage. The benefits of lossless audio as a listening medium are often debated by audiophiles, but see for yourself if you prefer them!

WAV/AIFF

These are the most commonly used file types for working with lossless uncompressed audio.

Since there is no change to the amount of information included, both file types have similar performance.

WAV was created for use on PC, while AIFF was developed by Apple for the Mackintosh. Both formats are compatible on either platform.

For music production, use uncompressed audio with high sample rate and bit depth (24 bit / 48 kHz WAV or AIFF)

How to choose an audio file format

With the background info out of the way, here are the simple guidelines for choosing an audio file format:

  • For music production, use uncompressed audio with high sample rate and bit depth (24 bit / 48 kHz WAV or AIFF)
  • For general listening, choose a high bitrate compressed format (320 kbps MP3, AAC or similar)
  • For critical listening, choose a lossless compressed format (FLAC)

LANDR Mastering file formats

LANDR Mastering offers downloads in four different quality tiers—LO-MP3, Hi-MP3, WAV and HD WAV.


Here’s a breakdown of each one:

LANDR mastering file formats

Hot tip: No process in music production can add audio quality back if it didn’t exist already. To get the highest quality file from LANDR Mastering, you need to start with a high resolution file. We recommend setting your DAW sessions to at least 24 bit / 44.1 kHz, or higher if possible.

File system

Audio file formats are a technical detail in digital audio that may not seem important.

But choosing the right one can make a difference to your final product.

If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great starting for understanding audio file formats.

Audio LANDR