Whenever you start a session in your DAW you’ll have to decide on the sample rate and bit depth.

Both are important choices that will affect the quality of the audio tracks you capture when you record sound with your interface and work with audio in your DAW.

But if you’re just getting started with music production, these concepts might seem hard to grasp.

Even so, there’s nothing complicated about sample rate and bit depth once you understand what they are and how they impact your work.

In this article I’ll go through everything you need to know to get the right sample rate and bit depth right every time.

What is sample rate?

Sample rate, or sampling rate is the number of digital snapshots taken per second in an audio file by an analog-to-digital-converter like the one in your audio interface.

If that sounds complicated, I’ll break it down to basics.

An analog signal like one that comes from a microphone or instrument is a continuous waveform. It takes the form of a changing electrical voltage that represents the sound wave itself.

To store it as a digital file your ADC takes thousands of individual measurements of the signal—enough to perfectly reconstruct it when it’s time to play it back.

Sampling rate is the exact number of measurements taken in one second. It’s measured in Hertz so it can be expressed as a frequency.

Sample rate, or sampling rate is the number of digital snapshots taken per second in an audio file by an analog-to-digital-converter like the one in your audio interface.

Here are some common sample rates used in audio production you might have seen before:

common sample rate and bit depth settings

What is bit depth?

Bit depth is the precision of the measurements taken with each snapshot.

Think of the analog signal from a microphone coming into an audio interface. The analog-to-digital converter has to measure it 48,000 times if your sample rate is set to 48 kHz.

The bit depth defines the number of tick marks on the ruler used to measure the level of the incoming signal.

The more places to mark the level, the more precise the number will be!

Bit depth is the precision of the measurements taken with each snapshot.

These days the most common bit depth options you’ll see are 16 and 24 bit recording. 32 bit options are also available in some situations, but I’ll get to that in the next section.

How do you set sample rate and bit depth?

In general, the higher you set the sample rate and bit depth, the greater the quality of audio information.

Today’s DAWs and audio interfaces mainly offer settings for CD quality and above. Since there aren’t many restrictions on storage or processing these days, there’s no reason not to use a high quality file type.

Even so, super high sample rates like 96 kHz or greater increase the size of your audio files a lot. Despite the extra size, you may not hear a big difference in audio quality.

24 bit, 48 kHz is a good balance between quality and file size, so that’s what I recommend for most producers.

But, if working at a higher sample rate sounds better to you and your music production computer can handle it—go for it!

Hot tip: 32 bit audio is an option in some DAWs, including Ableton Live. The majority of audio interfaces can only record 24 bit files, so this option mostly applies to audio created from virtual instruments inside the DAW itself. You may find using 32 bit audio improves your results, so feel free to use it—but it’s not strictly necessary!

What happens when you change sample rate or bit depth?

Changing the sample rate and bit depth of your audio material has some consequences you should try to avoid.

In fact, once you’ve chosen a sample rate and bit depth it’s best not to change it all!

It’s best to maintain your high quality file type although through production until the end of the mastering process.

That’s why getting it right at the start is so important. But if you’ve been following along so far, you won’t have much to worry about at 24 bit / 48 kHz.

Still, changing file types in either direction creates some issues—here’s what I mean:

Downsampling

When done properly, there’s nothing wrong with downsampling, but it’s better to keep the full resolution of your production format until it’s time to deliver finished files.

Moving from a high sample rate to a low sample rate is called downsampling

Some information will have to be removed from the file for it to fit in the smaller format. Once that gets thrown away, it’s gone forever—that’s why it’s best to avoid downsampling until the last step.

Despite that, downsampling might be necessary to get to the final format needed for your release. This often happens when a release comes out on CD, which requires 16 bit 44.1 kHz audio.

When done properly, there’s nothing wrong with downsampling, but it’s better to keep the full resolution of your production format until it’s time to deliver finished files.

Hot tip: LANDR Mastering manages downsampling for different release formats automatically.

Upsampling

Upsampling means moving from a lower sample rate to a higher sample rate. Unfortunately, there’s no way to add back information that wasn’t there in the first place. Upsampling won’t result in a higher quality file.

There are some digital processes that can make it possible to represent audio information at a higher sample rate, but there’s little benefit to doing it.

In fact, don’t bother upsampling your audio files unless absolutely necessary.

Sample and hold

Sample rate and bit depth are basic qualities of digital audio.

What might seem like a simple preference in your project settings is actually a fundamental quality of the files you work with.

That’s why it’s important to understand how it works and impacts your sound.

If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great start on sample rate and bit depth.

Audio LANDR