Downloadable Music File Basics for Home Recordings

By Jeff Strong

You’ve probably heard about MP3s or maybe AAC. These are a great option for home recordings. You’ve also probably experienced firsthand the immediacy that these types of files offer. You go to a website and choose a song to download.

After only a few minutes, you have a copy on your hard drive that you can listen to anytime. You can even put that song on a CD or portable player and take it with you.

With all this convenience and immediacy comes a downside: That digital-file song doesn’t sound as good as one that was mastered to a CD. For most people, this is a small price to pay for the ability to download a song.

After all, most people play their music on less-than-stellar stereos (iPods come to mind). If you’re one of the lucky few with a stellar (or more-than-stellar) stereo system, you’ll hear the difference, which may prompt the following question: “Why doesn’t a song in MP3 or AAC format sound as good as one mastered to a CD?” The answer: lossy data compression.

Lossy compression is a process that shrinks the file size of your music so that it takes up less hard drive space. Data compression is a necessary evil in this process. A regular CD music file can take up 30MB to 40MB (about 10MB per minute).

That same song can take up only 3MB to 4MB in MP3 or AAC format. This is important because, if you’re going to do any promoting of your music on the Internet, a 30MB to 40MB file is way too big to download or to stream on the web (even for people with broadband Internet connections).

Although compression causes your digital download file to lose fidelity as well as megabyte, this loss of quality is an advantage. Because your MP3 or AAC doesn’t sound as good as your mastered CD, you give listeners just a taste of your music. By giving people this taste, along with the opportunity to purchase a CD, you help them to decide whether they want to buy the high-quality version.

Other file compression formats being used, such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Coding) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), have improved the sound quality of MP3 and are being used by some delivery systems, such as AAC on iTunes, so you may find that encoding your music into one of the other file types works better for you.

Some encoding software can encode into these file types as well as MP3. You may want to try one of these on your music to see what you think works best — just make sure whatever file format you choose can be played by the people you want to hear your music.