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Distributing audio over the Internet in a compressed format seems to be more like the rule these days, rather than the exception. In fact depending on your genre, 90% of your listeners may be listening to your mix in a compressed and/or streamed format. While we can lament over the fall of Vinyl and even uncompressed CD audio, the fact is that lossy compression codecs like MP3, AAC and WMA are more popular than ever and something you can't ignore, if you want your mix to translate well into the outside world.
A lot of optimizing your mix for MP3 or any other compressed format is all about selecting the proper Encoder and Encoding Settings. Because these formats are what are called lossy, what's going to happen is you are actually losing information. It's not like a zip form of compression that's lossless. There is actually throwing away a certain amount of information to optimize the file size. Now we can actually encode MP3s right from Pro Tools. I can do it from the Bounce To Disk engine. If I'm bouncing my whole mix, I can actually set it to MP3 file type.
I can also do this from the Regions list. So if I was exporting something from the Regions list as a file, I could choose MP3 as the File Type. Now there are a lot of different ways to encode an MP3. Inside of Pro Tools you need to have the MP3 option installed. This is an additional iLok authorization that you get. It comes with the DV Toolkit 2 and the Music Production Toolkit. So, if you have those you already have the MP3 option. If not, it's very inexpensive. You can get it on Digidesign's website.
However, there are tons of free options. You can even encode inside of iTunes and there is lots of stuff on the web. So if you just do a Google for MP3 conversion, you should be able to find something no matter what system you are working on. Now, I said that it was all about the encoding process and how it was encoded or the bit rate that it's encoded in and for MP3s or really any kind of compressed form of audio, there is really only one thing you have to pay attention to and that is the bit rate that it's encoding that compressed file.
There are a few variables here. You have Constant Bit Rate and Variables Bit Rate. However, more is generally going to be better and Variable Bit Rate encoding is generally going to yield better results with a smaller file sizes than Constant Bit Rate encoding. So, if I'm looking here, I'm usually going to choose the Slowest Encoding Time for the highest quality, and the Fraunhofer Codec here inside of Pro Tools only does Constant Bit Rate encoding.
So again, I'm probably going to opt for a different encoder outside of Pro Tools. Maybe something like the LAME encoder, or I might even opt to encode to AAC, which has some benefits over MP3. Now, higher is better and 128 used to be sort of considered CD quality. However, most people agreed that it slightly below CD quality. 160 is a good compromise between quality and size but now that we have higher bandwidth Internet connections a lot of people are pushing for 256 and even 320, as the encoding standards because for a lot of music a 320 or 256 is going to be virtually indistinguishable from the CD version.
But let your ears decide. Again, Constant Bit Rate versus Variable Bit Rate or CBR versus VBR. The idea is that in order to get a predictable size, we might use Constant Bit Rate but generally VBR is going to yield a better result and what it does it actually uses more bits in the denser more detailed sections of the audio and fewer bits during the quite sections or the silent sections. So, if you had 50 seconds of silence Constant Bit Rate file would be the same size as if you had 50 seconds of actual music.
Whereas a Variable Bit Rate probably be very small in that case. Now MP3 and AACs and any other compressed format usually have ID3 Tag information or some sort of tagging format that allows you to embed metadata in the file. So Title, Artist, Album and Comments, and there are better editors out there, like I said if using iTunes, you are able to edit more information, add album artwork and some can even contain lyrics information and stuff like that.
There are some lossless formats available out there, specifically Apple Lossless as well as FLAC files. Lossless is great because it's actually not robbing you of any data. So, it's going to be a lot bigger file. So, roughly half the size of the original WAV file. But you really need to make sure that it's supported by your target audience or the device you are going to put it on. Apple Lossless is supported on things like iPods but not on other MP3 devices.
And these are generally too big of files to stream over the Internet unless you have a really fast Internet connection. Now some of the things I like to think about when encoding an MP3 or any kind of compressed format is how is it going to affect the quality of my mix or the sonics. A lot of times you have no option over how something gets encoded. For example, YouTube or MySpace, you generally upload your file and they encode it into their own format whether it's a Flash video or audio format, and a lot of times you have no idea what that is or how that's going to affect your audio.
So, what I like to do is go on the message boards and see what people are saying about a specific codec. Oh hey, MySpace switch their encoder and it actually kills a lot of your high-ends, so in order to optimize it you would do this, this and this. So I have find I have made tweaks to the way that I encode my files just for uploading them to specific sites like YouTube or MySpace. Now some general tips overall from when you are encoding to MP3 or AAC. You want to try as many different settings as possible and as many different codecs as possible.
I've had mixes sound great at one bit rate in one format and then another mix sound better using another codec and another bit rate. You want to try watching your high-end. And a lot of engineers will actually create separate mixes with a reduced high-end. So they will just take some EQ and filter out some of their high-end on their mix. Maybe to make that less complex for the converter. A lot of times the high-end is not important information for the human ear and so if you have a lot of high frequency information in your mix, the codec wants to focus on that as opposed to the more critical mids that we are going to hear a little bit better.
So, keep that in mind. Now, like I said it's a compromise, so sometimes I'll make mixes just for specific encodings. I'll make a mix to optimize the output just for what MySpace is doing to the sound. So, I'll encode it, I'll listen to it and I'll say hey, what's going on here and then maybe I'll make some tweaks to see if I can get it sounding better on that site. Now, I don't have to release the CD that way, I don't have to release the download in iTunes that way, but I can make a separate mix optimize for a specific bit-rate encoding.
Now don't over-compress when you are putting music to MP3 in terms of your limiting and you want to watch your output level. An MP3 or an AAC will generally be a bit hotter once it's encoded and you don't want to clip the top end of your signal. So, I'll pull it down to maybe the output of negative one or negative two so that once it gets encoded it's going to be a little hotter. Some engineers have also talked about dither affecting the encoding process or sort of confusing the encoding process, and the verdict isn't out on that but I have heard that not using dither, when you are encoding to lower bit-rate, compressed formats can actually be better than using dither.
So again, you want to trial a lot of different things and let your ears be your guide and know that at the end of the day you just want to do the best you can and understand that many listeners may be able to hear the difference in listening tests. But when asked if they ultimately care of something is compressed, a lot of them don't, and this should make me sad and it makes me sad a little bit. But rather than getting down on the state of the music industry, I'd like to use this information to do the absolute best I can with the current trends in mind.
So, be sure to stay up today on the latest compression and transcoding trends of the different social networking sites and video sites. Check your mixes under heavy data compression and I'm going to do whatever it takes to make my mix sound good for the widest range of people, because at the end of the day I'm mixing for this song and the listener. And sometime, if that means sacrificing a little of high-end that upsets that 1% of the audio file crowd, that's the price I'm willing to pay.
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