So you’re putting your music online. You’re going to make it available to people, and now you have to make a decision about what file format you’re going to use, what encoding rate, and what sort of file size you’re going to subject your customer’s bandwidth to.
There are two answers to this question. The first is the ‘it depends’ answer. You can do a whole lot of calculations about your own bandwidth and budget, expected download popularity, server space, etc. You can make allowances for all the different online retailers and the file types they use.
The second answer is really simple and it applies when you’re selling your music from your site. It doesn’t depend. And while I’m buying myself another argument here – I’m going to say that right now, I reckon this is the best answer for online music file types.
It has to be mp3
I understand the arguments in favour of Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Monkeys Audio, AAC and, of course, full WAV files. I’ve done the comparison listening tests, and yes – they all do sound better than mp3. And it doesn’t matter that they do.
Mp3 files win on two fronts: file size and interoperability. They are significantly smaller than WAV and FLAC files, and they can be played on any computer-mediated music playback system you care to mention. They can be moved from machine to machine and they just work. They are convenient.
They don’t win on sound quality, but in the trade off between convenience and quality, they’re down the heavy end of the see-saw.
What size mp3?
In my mind, there’s no question: 320kbps. You’re already dealing with something that’s a mere fraction of the audio data. No need to cut any further corners. What’s more, in most listening situations, most people can’t tell the difference between an mp3 at 320kbps and a CD.
We’re talking headphones on the bus, living room with the windows open, kitchen benchtop player – that sort of thing.
I may be getting into that age bracket where my top end hearing starts to desert me, but I’m pretty good up to around 17-18k, and I’m a former sound engineer and record producer with jazz leanings – and I struggle to tell the difference in anything much less than studio referencing monitors.
Make the individual tracks available by all means, but use ZIP files to gather the music together with the artwork and liner notes, and let people download everything they need with one click. People don’t want to have to click a dozen times and then assemble the album themselves.
And for god’s sake – make sure your mp3s are tagged properly. Track names, track numbers, artist name, album name, embedded artwork – correct capitalisation. Don’t make work for your customers.
Not only but also
Having said that 320k mp3 is the way forward, let me just say that you can earn extra brownie points by allowing your customers to choose other, more audiophile-friendly formats.
I recently purchased the new David Byrne & Brian Eno collaboration, and was impressed to note that not only did it come as a zip file with 320k mp3s, a PDF booklet and all the artwork you could eat – it was also available as FLAC files.
They had a nice little disclaimer. Something along the lines of: FLAC files are for advanced users, and they require extra software, but they sound really good. It was a good idea, and a tip of the hat to the few users who are ahead of the curve on the fidelity front. For me, though, it’s 320k mp3s all the way.
I’d be really keen to hear your take on it though…