The first time some curious audiophile opens up a digital audio workstation (DAW) they’re often stunned by the options for exporting their recordings. MP3, FLAC, AAC, not to mention a few varieties of MPEG – the list of options goes on and on, and even some experienced audio editors aren’t familiar with all of them.
Which format is right for a project? Knowing the right format for each scenario is crucial to getting the most out of your sound. Stipulating that there may often be several workable alternatives, here’s a short guide to the best formats for different projects.
If you’re putting out a podcast, you want to reach as many people as possible, including casual listeners who find you via web search or word of mouth. That means you want to go general with the audio format – and that means MP3.
MP3 is a terrible audio format for many reasons, but it has two distinct advantages for podcasts: It’s very compressible, meaning you can offer your podcast at very small file sizes, and it’s supported almost universally. In short, anyone can play back MP3 files on their devices, even if their computers are old or they’re still making that first-gen iPod work.
YouTube can seem a bit opaque or mysterious to newcomers, offering them with vague complaints about the video and audio codecs they’ve chosen to use. YouTube does offer plenty of documentation detailing how to prepare your videos, but it’s also a very accommodating service, accepting all kinds of poorly-exported video trying its best to make it look good. That doesn’t mean you should just accept that and move on, however.
For YouTube Videos, the AAC audio format is generally preferred. YouTube likes a lossy codec because it’s serving up billions of videos every month and wants to conserve bandwidth, but AAC is a better format for lossy compression than MP3, yielding higher-quality audio at lower file sizes. Thus, setting the bitrate north of 192kbps is definitely preferred.
If your DAW is capable of it, the AC3 (Dolby Digital Audio) is the best format for a DVD project. It supports surround sound as well as stereo sound – but the raw audio has to be set up with six separate channels ahead of time to get surround sound. Forcing stereo into surround sound will not work well.
Whatever you do, don’t use an uncompressed format like WAV or AIFF – it sounds great, but you won’t squeeze your project onto a DVD if you export using an uncompressed format.
If you’re creating a physical CD to sell or distribute your music, export in WAV, an uncompressed audio format that yields great sound quality but extremely large files. Almost every CD burner or CD manufacturer can take WAV files.
If you’re going to distro them on your own, the MP3 format is best for the same reasons it’s good for podcasts – everyone will be able to download them because they’re relatively small, and everyone will be able to play them because the format’s universal.
– Video Caddy