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In ages past there were magnetic tapes which provided the listener and professional engineer with means of storing audio, not yet in its digital incarnation. Though such obsolete means still exist, and are perhaps used for the ability to give a certain ‘warmth’ to sound, digital audio has now largely replaced them.
Digital audio can be stored as a wide range of formats, ranging from high-quality WAV encoding, to various compressed formats such as MP3 or real-time streaming formats such as RealAudio media. All of these prove useful depending on your purpose; to find out about each format would provide the audiophile with greater flexibility and more purpose when choosing which one to use.
Continue reading if you have little understanding of each format, and have often wondered the differences and uses of each.
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Uncompressed Audio Formats
Digital audio can be stored as uncompressed formats, which means lossless quality or the exact quality as the ripped audio (from CD for instance). Since the audio on your CD is in CDA format it will need to be converted to another format, which occurs as your rip it.
A WAV file is the commonly used format for Windows, or its native format, and is capable of storing audio at very high quality, albeit very large sizes. If you are mastering audio, or recording music onto CD this format is preferable over others.
AIFF is mainly used to transmit samples, as it has the ability to store loop point data and the note a sample is recorded at. This allows you to use the AIFF format in software or hardware samplers, and play the samples at different pitches without loss (or time - stretching it manually).
These format types are not suitable for portable storage devices due to their large file size.
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Digital audio can be stored as compressed files, which indicates some loss but greater scope for storing in portable devices. There is a variety of compressed formats available and, although still differing in encoding method, the preference is up to the user or dependent upon device-compatibility.
The MP3 is the most common of compressed formats, compatible with most devices and easy to store on your PC. MP3s offer some flexibility with regards to size versus quality, as small as ‘phone quality’ to as large as ‘studio quality’ MP3s (256kbps.) This format is also used to send demos of your music to producers over the internet, or generally to promote your own production work.
RealAudio is the proprietary format used by Real Networks and its primary scope is to stream radio transmission or generally to broadcast live audio feeds. The quality isn’t great but it is also used if you’ve set up a home internet radio station and wish to broadcast your playlist to the world.
WMA is an alternative to MP3, however it does not offer as much flexibility in terms of quality when encoding. The file sizes tend to be somewhat smaller and it is still used, it remains simply a matter of preference.
These are the main types of storage. There are many other types, particularly regarding compressed formats, such as lossless or lossy formats, and I would recommend this excellent guide provided by Informit.com.