What Makes Audio and Music Files So Big?

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

Yes, but without the right tools to capture, process, and send the sound, no one will ever know. The same goes for any audio file: even with the right tools, it’s nearly impossible to capture, process, and send a sound with 100 percent accuracy. And even with the right tools, certain choices you make can sacrifice sound quality.

Sound has been an invaluable part of film and TV for decades, and three Academy Awards – Best Sound, Original Score, and Original Song – mark the talent of the best sound mixers and song writers. These honors are well-deserved; working with audio can be complex and getting it to fit the visuals just right is an important part of any project.

Part of the complexity of working with big music and audio files is just that: the file size. Audio files are made up of different file types than visuals and other elements, each of which means something different for your particular project.

Changes in Audio Data Capture and Distribution

Sound is transferred via waves, and increasingly complex technology has been employed to capture those waves most accurately. We can see this represented visually in the change in everyday music players: from grooved records to CDS to MP3s. Each of these is trying to convey the same thing: what a captured sound wave sounded like originally.

Related Reading: How Big are Movie Files in 2022?

How Big are Music Files?

Music files for standard, everyday listeners are typically between 96 kbps and 160 kbps on streaming platforms like Spotify. But the highest quality MP3 can be 256 kbps to 320 kbps, and CDs are even better, at 1411 kbps.

These sizes are for final products; in studios and editing rooms, raw file sizes are much larger. For example, a single, uncompressed, standard-length song can be as large as 42MB. Compare that to a high quality MP3 at “only” 10MB. When you extrapolate that to a full audio score, dialogue between multiple actors, and special effects sounds, the file size only grows.

What Makes Music and Audio Files So Big?

Audio files contain a lot of information. Each file needs to communicate various things, including voice, music, and even white noise. Every drumbeat, footstep, and tearjerker instrumental contributes to the size of an audio file.

The five major that impact both audio quality and audio file size include:

  1. Sample Rate: Measured in Hertz, this is a frequency that represents the number of “snapshots” per second taken from a sound. That’s right, when you listen to a song, you’re not hearing exactly what was recorded in a studio. Instead, the song is made up of snapshots of the sound (think the frame rate for video files). Faster frequencies are more detailed, but also result in larger audio or music files.
  2. Bitrate: How much sound data is recorded in each sample, and then transferred into audio. Again, a higher bitrate means better audio quality – and a larger file size.
  3. Compression: Lossless and lossy compression are the two types of audio compression, and these impact audio file sizes the most. In the same vein as non-audio file types, compressing audio files can make them easier to work with and send, but along with the reduction in size, you’ll often encounter a reduction in quality. Notes tech writer Joel Lee, “Generally, you should go with lossless compression when you want to store a nearly perfect copy of the source material and lossy compression when the imperfect copy is good enough for day-to-day usage.” The less compression used, the better playback you’ll get.
  4. File Format: Audio files come in a variety of types, each of which provides different performance specs that influence the file size. File formats include:
    • AIFF/AIF – Audio Interchange File Format, used for storing sound data on Apple PCs and devices
    • RF64 – For multichannel sound in broadcasting and audio archiving
    • W64 – Wave64, supported on Sony editing programs
    • WAV – Waveform Audio File Format, for storing audio bitstream on PCs, particularly Windows
    • WMA – Windows Media Audio
  5. Channels: Audio files are played through channels. The most common are mono (one) and stereo (two), but the number of channels can grow to include all recorded waveforms in an audio file. For instance, MP3 files are typically stereo, with a left and right channel. Each channel adds more data to a file size, with mono typically being the smallest, stereo being roughly twice as large, and so on.

Each of these factors can be toyed with to create a larger or smaller file, but reducing file sizes early in a project – whether by using a lower bitrate, lossy compression, a small number of channels, or a lossy file format – can impact the eventual audio quality, not to mention how much leeway and spare material you have to work with.

Music and Audio File Formats

There are a variety of audio file formats, and for good reason. Different audio types cater to different listeners. Casual consumers likely use MP3, AAC, or Ogg Vorbis files. Thanks to lossy compression, these file types are smaller and allow streaming services and CD distributors to pack more music into a smaller storage space. But sometimes you need better audio quality, which is where lossless or even uncompressed files come in.

Audio quality also plays into file sizes. Higher quality microphones allow users to capture audio that most closely represents the actual sound wave, but these high-quality tools also produce larger data samples.

Lossy Compression

Lossy compression cuts the slack to reduce files sizes. This can include redundant sounds, overlapping noises, or sounds at frequencies outside of most human’s hearing range. It also saves space by using a smaller bitrate (the data recorded when converting analog sounds to digital). Lossy file types include MP3, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis.

Lossless Compression

Lossless compression keeps more of the original audio data by more efficiently storing redundant data. These file types, including FLAC and ALAC, cater to audiophiles, however, sounds at the higher and lower range of the register still may not be audible to most listeners.

Uncompressed Files

Uncompressed files are the raw data: these include nearly all the original information recorded and are used by sound editors and music producers as a starting point to shape the audio’s final form. File types include WAV and AIFF, which are compatible across a vast range of devices.

Other File Types

To get around the problem of large audio files without losing data quality, file types like MIDI have been introduced. Rather than containing the actual audio data, a MIDI file contains instructions that explain what sound to build. This also helps keep the file sizes smaller. Think IKEA: rather than picking up a fully-formed sofa or kitchen table that may not fit in your car, you can instead put the pieces that make up your final furniture item right into your trunk with room to spare. But if MIDI files aren’t right for you, and you need to send quality audio files as seamlessly as possible, a large file transfer solution like FileCatalyst may be a better solution.

Telling the Story with Sound: Dialogue and Special Effects

When it comes to film, TV, and radio, there are three main branches of sound: dialogue, music, and special effects. These three elements combined tell the story, but each audio type introduces new files to the mix.

Each layer of sound – effects, music, dialogue – helps create an immersive story, but only if they’re layered well. Having access to the best cuts gives editors more to work with as they build the soundscape and layer audio to produce the content.

Sound pioneer Dolby has added to the storytelling conversation in a big way with Dolby Atmos, one of today’s premier spatial sound technologies for movie production sound editing. This system allows sound engineers to map sounds to specific locations to give viewers—whether in the movie studio, a commercial theater, or a home theater—an atmospheric experience. This is the software that makes it sound like a helicopter is moving over your theater chair during that chase scene.

Accelerate Your Audio and Music File Transfers

Wherever you are in your content production, you need to ensure that sending and receiving big music and audio files is simple. Using a fast file transfer solution that can move big files across huge distances with ease is the best way to streamline and simplify your production workflow.

FileCatalyst, an accelerated file transfer solution, helps exchange large volumes of data with efficient file delivery. Whether your studios are located on opposite coasts, your deadlines are tight, or you’re trying to send data in the gigabytes, FileCatalyst can help.

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