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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Why FLAC? - Format

OK, when I started to write for this blog I intended to write some posts about the mechanics of what I feel are the correct distribution methods for music using today's technologies. There are many different topics to cover to explain why we feel so passionate about this, so I'll start with a basic one which most people will probably know about anyway, but it's a way to get started.

Why FLAC? What's wrong with MP3s?

Well, there isn't anything inherently wrong with MP3 as a music format, but one significant factor which, for me personally, means I do not wish to pay for MP3s and require a FLAC download option is compression.

Both FLAC and MP3 audio files are compressed audio formats. An un-compressed 44.1kHz 16bit WAV master file of a track is compressed to either FLAC or MP3 to reduce the file size so that the file may be more easily distributed via the internet. For example a FLAC file may be roughly 50% smaller in file size than the master WAV, whereas a 320kbps MP3 would be roughly 15% of the original WAV file size. So why is FLAC better than MP3? Well, it's because FLAC is a lossless compressed audio format, where as MP3 is a lossy compressed audio format. This means that the FLAC file, although it is compressed to be smaller than the original WAV file size, retains 100% audio information and quality. An MP3 does not; information is discarded from the file and the audio quality suffers. The FLAC operates like a ZIP file; it reduces the file size, but it can at any time be uncompressed to restore the original bit-for-bit perfect WAV file.

So to summarise the audio-quality of each format:


OK, now since we are talking about digital music distribution being a very viable and, to be honest, a superior successor to selling people CDs, it's important that you sell people the music in an equal audio quality.

Audio CDs are bits of plastic which contain 44.1kHz 16bit WAV audio files. Today, selling these WAV files on bits of plastic is pretty redundant since we can just download the files via our super fast internet connections. Since it takes only a little more time to download these files in FLAC instead of MP3, we shouldn't settle for anything of lesser quality than we have been getting for the past 20 years when buying CDs. Since WAV=FLAC in sound quality and MP3<WAV then we should not settle for buying MP3s.

That's my logic anyway. I've been listening to CDs for the last 20 years and I do not wish to take a step back in sound quality just because I'm buying my music digitally these days. I want it in FLAC.

YMMV of course (perceivable audio quality difference between high bit-rate MP3 and FLAC is often minimal) and if you're not bothered then fair play, but it is important to give people the choice. Again, this is where Bandcamp have got it utterly sussed by offering any format you want up to the best audio quality possible (while also offering OGG, AAC etc). This is also why iTunes fails.

Not everyone listens to music in the same way, be it via CD, cassette, vinyl or whatever, and if someone chooses to buy their music digitally they shouldn't be given a shittier option for audio quality as there is absolutely no reason for it anymore. Give people more format options and more people will buy your music, it's that simple.

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