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Compressing audio for the web

From: Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering

Video: Compressing audio for the web

Distributing audio over the Internet in a compressed format seems 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 Windows Media Audio are more popular than ever and something you can't ignore if you want your mix to translate well into the outside world.

Compressing audio for the web

Distributing audio over the Internet in a compressed format seems 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 Windows Media Audio are more popular than ever and something you can't ignore if you want your mix to translate well into the outside world.

One thing you want to do when you're working towards a master that you know is going to be compressed for the web is start by selecting the proper encoder. Most of the formats are going to be lossy, that is to say that you're actually losing data in the compression process, unlike let's say, a zip file where you are zipping some data up and then extracting the back out into the exact same 1s and 0s as you had before compressing it.

When you use MP3 or AAC in non-lossless formats, you're actually losing the information forever. So even if you went back to a CD, let's say, you downloaded some of your favorite MP3s and then you've converted them to WAV files to burn to a CD, it's not the same as burning those original WAV files to the CD. You actually lost some information that you can never get back. So selecting the proper encoder is going to give you the best results.

Once you've decided on a format, whether that's going to be MP3 or maybe AAC because you're encoding it for the iTunes store, there are many encoders that you can use. Pro Tools has the Fraunhofer codec built in, in its export. So if I am doing a file Bounce to Disk, or if I'm exporting the clip from the Clips list using Export Clips as Files, if I choose the file type MP3, I'll choose Interleaved and hit Export, I get the MP3 encoding window that comes up.

No matter what encoder you're using, you are going to be given some decisions about the quality of the encoding or how lossy you want it to be, and this is known as the bit rate and it's really all about bit rate. In uncompressed audio, we're always talking about the sample rate and the bit depth, but when we are working with compressed formats like MP3 and AAC, it's all about this bit rate number. I can generally encode in a constant bit rate and that's going to use the same bit rate for the entire length of the file or I can use something called Variable Bit Rate or VBR.

What that's going to do is, it's going to use more bits in the denser sections where more things are going on and fewer bits when less audio information is taking place. In this case, I can choose as low as 16 kb or as high as 320. Now you can see this is also dropping down the sample rate here that 16 setting. Now unless you're really encoding it for maybe audio books or old-school telephone systems, typically we are going to want to be encoding our files at as high of a bit rate as we can.

Now that broadband Internet connections are pretty ubiquitous, I tend to send my MP3s at the highest possible bit rate either 320 or at least higher than 256. However, different sites have different requirements and one exercise that you can do on your own is just take this standard Pro Tools MP3 encoder and take the same track and do a few different encoding settings. So try one at 320 and compare that to the WAV, see if you can tell the difference between the two, and it's actually going to be fairly hard at such a high bit rate, and then start dropping it down.

And as you drop down to, let's say 128 or even 96, you are going to start hearing some fatigue in the high end, you are going to start hearing some aliasing in the symbols, and what it is really doing is that MP3 encoder is figuring out what part of the spectrum it can throw away. So by doing that, it kind of thinks about how humans hear and how that kind of rolls off, and it removes some material from the audio, and a lot of times you can hear that in the high end.

An exercise that I'd like to do all the time is go to YouTube and the stream will start at a very low bit rate. It will start at the 480p stream and then I'll kick it up to the 720 or the 1080 and what you'll notice is that the audio instantly gets betters because on YouTube, the quality of the audio is connected to the quality of the video and what you often hear is as soon as you kick it up to the higher bit rate, all the highs and all the brilliance of these symbols in the top end come back into the mix.

Actually, no matter what you're using to encode, whether it's the Fraunhofer, I personally use the LAME encoder and that can be rigged into almost any program, even iTunes. So just do a Google search for the LAME encoder and you'll find a ton of information. But regardless of whether using VBR or CBR, if you are going to use lower rates, or even if you plan on having your audio uploaded to sites like YouTube, Facebook, Bandcamp, things like that, there's going to be some compression and sometimes this compression is proprietary.

For example, SoundCloud kind of has its own compression and I know a lot of people that kind of use that as a lowest common denominator, how does my mix sound after I upload it to SoundCloud. And some of the things that you can do to optimize your mix for compression is for one, just listen to it with different types of compression, but in terms of making changes to it, a lot of times what's going on the high end and the low end can actually confuse the encoder. So if you have a whole ton of top end, it can actually force the priority of bits over to the range that our ears are less sensitive, that top end and it can sort of waste bits on a lot of high frequency material.

I hear people go either way. Some mastering engineers recommend boosting the high frequencies for compressed formats because you are going to lose some of the top end in compression and I've heard other mastering engineers say, no, I am actually going to carve some of that off. I am actually going to low pass filter above a certain frequency so that that encoder isn't getting confused by any ultra high highs and it's focusing on the critical mid band where our human ears are going to be listening most closely.

Ultimately, there's a lot of experimentation and figuring out what the different codecs are going to sound like and generally, I find I get the best mileage out of just getting a really great sounding mix in the CD 16-bit format, and I find that if I work really hard and get a really great sounding mix that translates to CD well, it generally translates really well to compressed formats also. When you're limiting for something that's going to be compressed, let's say, you're using Maxim; for CD I'll typically set my ceiling to just under 0, because that's really all I need to prevent the CD from clipping.

Now with encoding to MP3 or AAC, sometimes a bit of level gets added during the encoding process. So knocking this down to -1, you're ceiling to -1, in other words, leaving a dB of headroom at the top end of your master can actually make the encoded file sound better because the output of the encoding isn't actually clipped. So again, this is something you can experiment with. Apple released a PDF on guidelines for mastering for iTunes and if you go to their web site and look it up, it's got a ton of great information on optimizing your mix, sample rates, bit depths, how those get encoded into the iTunes formats, how lossless audio is changing the way that were distributing digital music and kind of what the future holds for that.

It's a really great read. I highly encourage you to check it out, but in the end, do the best you can. Many listeners may be able to hear the difference in listening tests, but it's actually kind of funny when asked if they ultimately care, most don't. Remember, people just love music and that's why you tend to hear people checking out music videos on YouTube, listening to songs on their iPhone speaker or their ear buds and they love it. So at the end of the day, make sure your content stands out.

So if you spend all the time worrying about your sound mix and how it translates on YouTube, but you forgot to actually create an interesting mix and an interesting song, that's what's really going to get you. So just put all this stuff into perspective when you're working on your mix and ultimately, your master.

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This video is part of

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Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering

84 video lessons · 10402 viewers

Brian Lee White
Author

 
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  1. 12m 57s
    1. Welcome
      1m 15s
    2. What is mixing? The past, present, and future
      4m 38s
    3. Exploring strategies for mixing and mastering
      5m 47s
    4. Using the exercise files
      1m 17s
  2. 47m 4s
    1. Mixing "in the box"
      4m 45s
    2. Setting up the studio: monitors
      6m 24s
    3. Setting up the studio: acoustics
      6m 42s
    4. Staying organized: labeling tracks and clips
      11m 42s
    5. Staying organized: memory locations and window configurations
      9m 28s
    6. Managing system resources during mixdown
      8m 3s
  3. 48m 42s
    1. Introducing the Pro Tools mixer
      3m 19s
    2. Understanding mixer signal flow
      3m 55s
    3. Using inserts and plug-ins
      8m 54s
    4. Working with plug-in settings
      5m 57s
    5. Using sends and creating effects returns
      9m 5s
    6. Submixing with aux tracks
      6m 4s
    7. Using groups while mixing
      5m 32s
    8. Using master faders effectively
      5m 56s
  4. 18m 12s
    1. Conceptualizing the mix and making a plan
      6m 17s
    2. Adjusting volume and pan to balance the mix
      7m 49s
    3. Knowing when to process: mix problems vs. mix solutions
      4m 6s
  5. 43m 54s
    1. Understanding the mechanics of sound
      3m 21s
    2. Learning the basics of EQ: frequency-specific level control
      3m 3s
    3. Using DigiRack EQ 3
      6m 42s
    4. Exploring EQ strategies in mixing: correcting vs. creating
      7m 19s
    5. A working example: kick drum and bass
      8m 22s
    6. A working example: filtering loops
      6m 2s
    7. Exploring mixing tips and tricks: EQ
      9m 5s
  6. 1h 23m
    1. Understanding dynamics and dynamic range
      1m 48s
    2. Working with dynamics processors
      2m 41s
    3. Using the DigiRack Dyn 3 compressor/limiter
      8m 36s
    4. Balancing and shaping track dynamics
      2m 42s
    5. Using gates and expanders
      8m 26s
    6. Using de-essers to eliminate sibilance
      6m 52s
    7. A dynamics workflow example: vocal
      12m 21s
    8. A dynamics workflow example: drums
      12m 19s
    9. Exploring mixing tips and tricks: dynamics
      10m 11s
    10. Building parallel, or upward, compression
      7m 40s
    11. Reviewing dynamics concerns: How much is too much?
      2m 45s
    12. Using Avid Channel Strip
      7m 26s
  7. 59m 21s
    1. Using time-based effects to add depth and width
      3m 49s
    2. Exploring DigiRack D-Verb
      15m 48s
    3. Using the DigiRack delays
      11m 10s
    4. Mixing with reverb
      11m 28s
    5. Mixing with delays
      10m 40s
    6. Exploring mixing tips and tricks: creating mix depth
      6m 26s
  8. 15m 14s
    1. Working with the Creative Collection
      7m 18s
    2. Building distortion and saturation
      7m 56s
  9. 56m 48s
    1. Understanding automation
      4m 10s
    2. Recording real-time automation moves
      9m 0s
    3. Viewing and editing automation
      13m 12s
    4. Using clip gain
      9m 59s
    5. Automating plug-ins
      9m 34s
    6. Exploring automation strategies for mixing
      10m 53s
  10. 39m 22s
    1. Understanding the characteristics of a great mix
      6m 23s
    2. Working with a reference track
      7m 51s
    3. Avoiding common pitfalls
      10m 59s
    4. Building healthy mixing habits
      3m 23s
    5. Crafting your mix from start to finish
      10m 46s
  11. 1h 6m
    1. Understanding mastering
      5m 13s
    2. Working with general mastering strategies
      9m 5s
    3. Using limiting and compression to maximize track level
      12m 6s
    4. Working with multiband compression
      5m 34s
    5. Bouncing the mix
      8m 4s
    6. Understanding sample rate, bit depth, file formats, and dither
      9m 0s
    7. Metering with the DigiRack Phase Scope
      7m 46s
    8. Compressing audio for the web
      10m 0s
  12. 1h 19m
    1. Evaluating plug-in processors
      6m 3s
    2. Using saturation and other analog-style effects effectively
      11m 45s
    3. Setting up side-chains
      7m 27s
    4. Master bus processing
      11m 6s
    5. Creating and using mix templates
      10m 35s
    6. Dealing with plug-in delay and latency
      12m 28s
    7. Drum sample replacing
      12m 59s
    8. Setting pan depth in Pro Tools
      6m 39s
  13. 1h 0m
    1. Mixing in Pro Tools 11: What's new
      4m 36s
    2. Understanding the AAX 64-bit plugin format
      8m 31s
    3. Configuring the Pro Tools 11 Playback Engine
      8m 36s
    4. Using new metering options in the mixer
      7m 16s
    5. Working with advanced metering options
      8m 18s
    6. Mixing shortcuts in Pro Tools 11
      5m 40s
    7. Printing a mix using Offline Bounce
      7m 6s
    8. Advanced Offline Bounce workflows
      10m 51s
  14. 21s
    1. Thank you and goodbye
      21s

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