Choose the right format for your favourite tunes

JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

In 1997 a company called Nullsoft released a program called Winamp. Winamp became a popular music program to play CDs and audio files on Windows PCs. Perhaps you remember it? Sadly it received its final update last week and will be killed off forever in December, by parent company AOL.

This little piece of news brought to mind something I haven’t spoken about before and that we take for granted. Music!

With so many music players and services on the market, it would be foolish to go into detail about any particular one. They all have something in common though. The music files we have all come to rely upon. If you buy music online and download the tracks from services like Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, these will be in MP3 format. Perfect for playing on MP3 players, smart phones and tablets.

If you have purchased a CD and you have configured your software correctly, the simple act of placing a CD into your computer can begin the process of ripping the CD. Ripping basically means copying all of the tracks and track information to your computer. Creating a backup like this can save the pain of having to re-purchase your favourite albums in the event of the original disc getting damaged.

When you rip a CD, you have a choice of file format. MP3s are probably the most widely used format, as they allow you to compress your files to save space. They can also be played on most devices. The level of compression affects the music quality as well as the file size. Taking Windows Media Player as an example, when viewing the Rip options for MP3s, you’ll see a slider which measures the compression ratio in Kbps (KiloBits Per Second). The higher the number, the better the quality of sound. However, it will take up more space. Handily, the software also gives you an idea of the total size for ripping an entire CD.

If you want to maintain the original quality of sound of the CD, then you will want to choose a lossless file format instead. WAV (Waveform Audio File Format) is one such format. Be aware that these take up a lot more space than MP3s (around 600MBs for a CD compared to 144MB for MP3s at the highest quality). There are other lossless formats available, like WMA (Windows Media Audio) which also offers compression at the expense of quality, or ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) and many others.

One of your main considerations when choosing which file format to use, will be the compatibility of the devices you want to play music on. You can for instance, stream music from your home PC through your network enabled TV, but only if it can play the correct file formats. The same is true when plugging a USB stick into a TV, DVD or BluRay player. Each device will list the file formats it is capable of playing. You may find them listed on the front, or you may need to refer to the manual.

Alan Stainer