The Great Sample Rate Debate

The Great Sample Rate Debate

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Hey Everyone!

It’s been a good week writing Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record. At the moment I’m deep into the Mechanics chapter, but today, I’d like to share with you a section from The Basics chapter.

Sample Rate and Bit Depth

This is the shit that will make your eyes roll into your skull. It’s exceedingly technical in nature, and practically speaking, it’s not something to spend much time thinking about.

We all know that a CD (going 40 years strong!) reproduces at a sample rate of 44.1 kHz and 16 bits. But what does that mean exactly?

The sample rate describes the number of samples in a second. In the case of a CD that’s 44,100 samples every second. And yes, I realize CDs are becoming less common, (I don’t even have a CD player anymore), but they are still the format of choice for many independent Artists and bands in the US, and for a very good reason. They can be sold. Besides, the only delivery format that is of a higher sample rate than CDs is . . . I joke! There isn’t one. But you wouldn’t know that by reading engineering forums. If you read those, you’ll come away believing we all listen to records at 96 kHz or higher.

By definition, the top frequency response of your recordings is equal to half the sample rate. In the case of a CD that would be just above 22 kHz, which is 2 kHz outside the human range of hearing. There are some that feel this is insufficient and suggest that the frequencies that extend all the way up to 48 kHz improve the fidelity of the sound. Which is certainly possible. It’s also irrelevant when it comes to making a Killer Record.

Another argument for employing a higher sample rate like 96 kHz is that the converters introduce less distortion, which is a dubious argument given the levels of distortion we’re talking about here.

Then, of course, there’s the bit depth, which describes the resolution of the capture and which determines the dynamic range available. A CD is 16 bits, but for the past 20 years, we all record at 24 bits, mostly because that’s what the DAW comes set at, but also because it allows us to record at lower levels.

Why would we want to record at lower levels?

Well, for starters, the moment you go above 0dBFS (Decibels Relative to Full Scale) in digital you’re clipping, which, if you don’t know, is rather nasty distortion. Which means we have a ceiling. And I realize there are times that some of you Industrial Artists out there might like to use the sound of clipping as an effect, but there are plugins that will do that for you far more effectively and with considerably more control. Your converters are best used to record and reproduce audio.

While it’s very easy to record something too hot, it’s actually quite difficult to record something so low that it’s unusable. Oh, you can do it if you’re really super stoned, but so long as you keep the lower parts of your audio generally above the -18 mark as you record, you’re not going to have any problems. And if you have a super dynamic part, then record it at a lower level. I just mixed a track in which the breakdown drops in level to just below -24 dBFS. On the whole mix! If the Internet ever found this out it might explode.

Let’s just examine this for a moment. At 16 bits you have a maximum dynamic range from ceiling to noise floor of 96 decibels (dB). At 24 bits you have a maximum dynamic range of 144 dB. That might not mean a whole lot until you consider that every 6 dB of level is equal to about double the volume. So 144 dB is well beyond an enormous dynamic range. It’s certainly far more range than you’ll ever need. I mean, hasn’t loudness been the goal for the past two decades? We have to worry about dynamic range, why? Unless you’re recording classical music, and even if you are, your dynamic range is never, ever going to be an issue. I mean, not even close.

Here’s the thing. The reason everyone freaks out about recording too low is because you start to lose bits below -18. And somehow along the way, losing bits became worse than clipping. It’s not. It’s okay if your lowest parts are below -18 if that’s how you need to record it in order to avoid clipping. And you don’t need to always be up in the yellow of your meters either. The goal is not to get as close to 0 as possible. The goal is to record a magical take that isn’t completely fucked because you kept clipping. As a result, many engineers will put an analog compressor ahead of the input to the DAW to protect against overs. We’ll discuss compressors in depth later.

You’re not going to find many people arguing over optimum bit depth. Unless you’re on some sort of legacy system from the nineties, you’re operating at 24 bit these days. And if you’re operating at 16 bit that most certainly won’t negatively affect your results, even if most engineers will snort at the thought of it. Every hit record going back at least 30+ years has been released as a CD in 44.1/16 format. How many Killer Records does that make? And these days consumers listen to MP3s. You’re going to worry about sample rate and bit depth?

As I say, the bit depth is hardly a point of contention. It’s the sample rates that produce the heated debates online, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The consumer still listens to MP3s, which are atrocious when compared to CD. They hear MP3s on Spotify. They hear them on YouTube. They hear them on Pandora. They hear them from their iTunes collection. So, why on earth would anyone be worried about the sample rate? Because you want to be able to deliver a higher fidelity master in the future? Your record is a snapshot in time, and if somehow it’s a hit record, it will be recorded again hundreds if not thousands of times. It’s the song that will stand the test of time not the recording. Stop worrying about your sample rate. Get a hit first. Then you really won’t care about sample rate, because your first big hit was at 48 kHz, so why the fuck should you switch now?

You see what I’m saying?

Now, there are a great many engineers, including many personal friends of mine, who swear that a sample rate of 96 kHz makes their life easier because they feel the plugins are optimized for it, and that’s probably true. And some engineers are convinced that if you record at a higher rate, it will dumb down to MP3 more betterer. But if your computer is long in the tooth, or if you’re light on RAM, or if you have limited storage, or even slow Internet speeds, then I can promise you, working at 96 kHz is not going to make your life easier. You may not even be able to operate efficiently at that sample rate, and if you can, your track counts could be limited.

Yet another argument for higher sample rates is that time stretching and tuning are more forgiving. I’m sorry but if you need to alter your timings so much that you’re getting obvious artifacts at a sample rate of 48 kHz, then you should probably keep recording the part until it’s close enough for stretching tolerances. Some call this practice. This is a Musician’s Survival Guide, which means you need to think like a musician, and as a musician, you should record a part until it’s great because it actually takes less time, it’s more fun, and it’s what makes you a better musician.

Time stretching and tuning are amazing tools. But there is nothing particularly musical about perfect tuning or timing. With MIDI you have some control over feel because you can adjust velocity and note duration along with timing. It’ll take forever, but it can be done. Not so with a recording. And if you’re a musician and you plan to perform your record in front of an audience, then it seems worthwhile to invest the time working out the part until you can play it with some feel.

As far as I’m concerned, you should use time stretching and tuning with impunity if that’s what’s required for the production. But it doesn’t make much sense to learn how to play your record after you’ve already recorded it. And it makes even less sense to record at 96 kHz purely as some kind of permission to play poorly. I would rather record a part for an hour until I can perform it, than to spend an hour moving bits of audio. Wouldn’t you?

Just to be clear, although it may appear otherwise, this is not an argument for working at lower sample rates. There are legitimate reasons to choose to operate at 96 kHz, including the ones I’ve already mentioned along with reduced latency. The latency alone could make it worthwhile to record at a higher rate. My point is if you need to record at a lower sample rate, there’s no reason to feel as though you’ve somehow compromised your recording. You really haven’t.

Here’s the bottom line on sample rates, and this is really the crux of my argument right here: No matter what you read online, I can promise you that your sample rate will have absolutely nothing to do with your record’s success or lack thereof.

No one will ever listen to your record and wonder what sample rate you used. You will never, ever, hear a fan, or even a detractor mention anything about the sound, or the bit rate, or the noise floor, or the sample rate of your record. Those decisions will have no bearing on whether people share your song. They will have no bearing on whether people react to your song, or like it, stream it, or buy it for that matter. The only people who will care about the sample rate and the bit depth are engineers, and they will argue ad nauseamon the Internet as if it matters. It may matter to them. We don’t make records for them.

The funny thing is, audiophiles–who only listen to sound–go gaga over my Ben Harper mixes. If they only knew that I mixed those records exclusively on the bookshelf monitors of the day. With some of the systems that those numbskulls use, they would have to be able to hear all sorts of shit that I never heard while mixing those records. There is such a thing as too much fidelity, and too much clarity, and I never give a fuck about anyone who puts sound above the music.

I produce my records at 48 kHz. Not only is it the standard for video broadcast, it doesn’t overtax my system or storage. Most importantly, it will never, ever, ever prevent me from making a Killer Record.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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The Great Sample Rate Debate

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Showing 18 comments
  • bobo65

    The reason for using a 96k sample rate is less distortion from filters and not extended high frequency response. This includes any filters that are part of digital signal processing. I agree that at least 48k is a good idea and I also question anything above 96k being more than just marketing hype.

    • Eric Sarafin

      That may be the new argument. It’s not the old argument. Distortion is always way overblown when it comes to audio gear. Distortion is your friend.

      • bobo65

        It’s the original argument but there’s tons of misinformation spread across the internet. There’s also good and bad distortion.

        • Eric Sarafin

          Good and bad are subjective terms and therefore irrelevant in regards to the underlying distortion. The fact of the matter is that the large preponderance of consumers will hear the record either as an MP3 or as a CD. Therefore, worrying about sample rate is a crock when it comes to a musician making their record.

          • bobo65

            I’ve found, much to my surprise, that 44.1 MP3s can sound more engaging and rhythmic when the recording was produced at 96k. than the 44.1×16 bit files they were made from. This is especially true when heard in live rooms. Also, we don’t produce records for “consumers.” We produce them for the reviewers, agents, promoters and broadcasters who can advance the artist’s career.

          • Eric Sarafin

            And you waste your time.

            If the song is great and the performance compelling, there will be a reaction at any sample rate.

            I think you missed this part of the excerpt:

            “The only people who will care about the sample rate and the bit depth are engineers and they will argue ad nauseam on the internet as if it matters. It may matter to them. We don’t make records for them.”

          • Eric Sarafin

            Bob Ohlsson. I’m sorry Bob. I didn’t realize it was you. I guess I’m surprised by your position on this.

            Of course I understand the benefit of engineering. But only from the perspective of an engineer. I’m very much arguing from the position of the musician who must engineer for herself at this point, and as we both know, that’s fraught with problems. When musicians start to think like engineers, then everything else suffers. Better to let the engineering suffer.

            At the end of the day, when we operate in an engineering role, we notice all sorts of differences that could offer a slight improvement. But for a musician, it’s not worth thinking along those lines, because the bigger improvement comes from what they do musically.

            That’s my point.

  • medway808

    Great article. Do you deliver at 48k or convert down for the final premaster?

    • Eric Sarafin

      I can’t think of a reason why I’d convert it from 48K for a premaster.

      • medway808

        As an ME most material comes in at 44 still. But I’ve seen commercial mp3s at 48 so wondering if I should step up to that rate.

        And sorry I phrased my question wrong what I meant was is the final master still at 48?

        • Eric Sarafin

          Until CDs are no longer the currency of touring Artists, all of my records will be mastered for CD.

  • MJ

    So, in watching “Sound City” Neil Young got on and made this claim that the original method and algorhthms of digital audio capture were ‘flawed’, is there any veracity to this? I understand well enough about the digital aspects, but has legions of followers making that claim, I am curious if anyone has quantifiably compared the formats to debunk or confirm?

    • Eric Sarafin

      There’s absolutely veracity to that. The question is will there be any traction to that? The answer has been a definitive no.

      Sorry. Missed this comment by accident.

  • otek

    While I totally agree that there are way more important issues than sample rate when recording and producing artists and bands, I do like to set myself up with the best possible conditions for getting a sound I enjoy. If I and the artist enjoy what we hear in the studio, we are all inspired. If I can get closer to that by recording at 96K, I will record at 96K. If the sound we are getting right there when we record that killer vocal take or guitar part pleases me and the artist, then that’s all that matters, not what happens down the road when the audio is compressed and broadcasted or streamed. Having said this, I have found that on some occasions, working at 96K does cause problems, but for the general purpose of recording live instruments, I do prefer it.

    • Eric Sarafin

      Otek! How are you buddy!

      I don’t disagree at all. You should use whatever sample rate makes your life easier. But if you accidentally recorded the most amazing take ever at 44.1, you wouldn’t re-record it. Why? Because you know that performance is way more important than the sample rate, and you’d be crazy to abandon something that makes you feel great for something as silly as the sample rate.

      What makes life easier, that’s always a worthwhile consideration. But for many musicians, 96k is a tough sample rate to operate at. For others not at all. All I’m saying is, a musician doesn’t have to feel bad about working at lower sample rates, it’s not going to prevent you from a reaction.

      Enjoy, Mixerman

  • Brian Dobson

    This is all interesting stuff. I will state that I am just a consumer of music and have no input whatsoever into the creation or production of music. That being said I consume tons of music and am completely baffled as to why all digital music is not made available at 24 bit. I know most of the casual consumers will argue that there is no difference whatsoever between 16/44 but to me and my friends(who are also large consumers of music) we have all agreed that 24 bit is greater than 16 bit and for me the sweet spot is 24/96. So why cant I get all my music in 24 bit? I love to procure new music but in today’s world of streaming I have decided that I wont purchase anything that isnt 24 bit as the quality I get from Tidal and what I get from 16/44 sound the same to me. You guys sound like the people making the decisions on how to produce so am wondering why isnt every 24 bit?

    • Mixerman

      Why can’t you get all your music at 24bit? Because you are one of very few consumers who care. I’m not even sure why you would buy music at this point. Just stream it.

      98% of people can’t hear the difference between a 24/96 master and an MP3. And if you’re blasting it from your phone through the air to a bluetooth speaker, you’ve just further degraded the audio. And if you’re using a consumer playback system you’re using atrocious converters, which also degrade the audio.

      Nobody cares because it doesn’t matter to them. People just like the music.

      • Brian Dobson

        Wow, thanks for responding. I hear what you are saying and I agree….however, as long as there are digital music retailers sites like hdtracks/7digital/qobuz/prostudiomasters I still dont get why the 24 bit version isnt the standard…..there is so much free software to take 24 bit down to 16 or mp3 that it makes sense in my brain that we should start from there.
        I was first introduced to hires digital by my fellow Canadian Mr. Neil Young when I supported his shortlived Pono kickstarter. I remember as part of his promo that he was talking to Jim James from My MOrning Jacket and he was saying that his record label told him to record in 16 bit as there was no difference and the human ear could not tell the difference…..however Old Neil convinced him that this was not the case. If I am remembering correctly they then stated that to produce @ 24 bit would be more expensive and so that has always been my assumption i.e. to record something in 24 bit it must be more expensive. But now artists are not just making 16 bit versions they are also doing Vinyl releases as well so that’s when I started to question what the hell is really going on and hence my quest to understand.
        ps. prior to my first post I was not aware of your credentials… the risk of sounding fanboyish(hard to do approaching 60 years of age but whatever)….I am a fan.
        pps. please please release Jukebox Sparrows in 24bit or direct me to where I can purchase it….one of my all time faves.

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