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Joe Caithness Mastering’s “Guide to Digital Audio for Musicians” Part 0.5 : Language and Terminology!

Sometimes communication breakdowns around language in music projects can slow down your workflow and generally kill the vibe. And by that, I don’t mean that you’d be working with people who speak different language for which you’d have to rush to Translation Services Singapore and go through that ordeal. I’m talking about the lingo, the argot that people in the music business use.

So let me take a moment to explain in the most practical way possible some of the terms you will come across with digital audio….

(Digital Audio) Sampling : How to turn an analogue signal (continuous voltage) into a digital signal (1s and 0s). The computer reads the input signal a defined amount of times a second and stores these as amplitudes. The stored information played back results in a recreation of the original signal. This is not the same as sampling in production/composition, although in this case they are related terms!

PCM : Pulse Code Modulation. A clever bit of science which allows computers to store audio as digital information. Almost all digital audio playback and storage uses PCM. (see Sample Rate / Bit Depth).

deciBel or dB : The measure of amplitude of sound. There are many types of dB which are calibrated and quantifiable to other measurements i.e. voltage = dBV.

dBfsdeciBel Full Scale. The range of values available in a digital audio system. This is measured from 0dBfs (the highest) backwards in negative values i.e. “the audio peaks at -0.5dBfs”. Anything with a positive value in dBfs is called a clip or over (see below).

Sample Rate : How many times the computer samples an audio signal per second. (example 44.1kHz, 96kHz).

Bit Depth : How many different values the computer can chose from when sampling. (example 16 bit, 24 bit).

DAC : Digital to Analogue converter. A device which takes the digital information and reproduces it as an analogue signal (voltage).

ADC : Analogue to Digital converter. A device which takes the analogue signal (voltage) and stores it as digital information.

Clipping : When an input signal contains values over which can be stored. These are sometimes called “overs” and usually results in a red light flashing somewhere.

Headroom : The distance between your highest amplitude signal (or highest value Bit) and clipping.

Dynamic Range : The difference between the highest amplitude and lowest amplitude usable in any audio system. In a digital audio file Dynamic Range can refer to the distance between loud and quiet, but there are way too many standards of this and none are really universally applied currently!

DAW : Digital Audio Workstation. Any program that you do things with digital audio in, it’s that simple!

File Size : The amount of space required to store any digital file. Measured in bytes, kilobytes, gigabytes, terabytes etc.

WAV : This is the standard full quality (or lossless, more on that later) recognized by all systems but created in a Windows or other non Apple based system.

AIFF : Essentially the same as a WAV in most uses but an Apple standardization developed parallel to WAV.

MP3 : The most common lossy audio file format which is commonly used in digital audio distribution and streaming.

AAC : Similarly to the WAV vs AIFF difference, this is a lossy format developed by Apple and used in their systems.

Lossless : This audio is at the full quality it was exported from the DAW .

Lossy : This audio has been data compressed and has changed from the original audio master.

Data Compression : A technique of removing some data from a file to reduce the file size on the disc it’s stored on and improve upload/download speeds. This is unrelated to Dynamic Compression!

File Archive : A way of storing data in a way as to save space on a hard disc. The most popular being the ZIP and RAR formats.

FLAC : Essentially a hybrid of the developments of Lossless and Lossy audio. The audio file retains its original data but the file size is reduced. This works a bit like a zip archive and therefore needs an encoder/decoder to operated.

File Transfer  : A way of sending files over the internet. This can be by email or using a service such as WeTransfer, Dropbox, Google Drive etc.

Distortion : Any change to a signal which is not applied purposefully. “What comes out which didn’t come in and isn’t part of the process of getting from A to B.” or “Input + Process = Output + Distortion”.

Real life usage example : “I limited the audio, but now I think I hear some distortion?”.

(Although you can add distortion if you like for an artistic effect, but “distortion” is probably a rabbit hole of linguistics we can’t really go down right now! )

Compressor (audio effect) : A device which limits the dynamic range by reducing the signal by a chosen ratio to is original amplitude at a chosen value.

Limiter : A device which limits the dynamic range by limiting any signal from going beyond a chosen value. A limiter which mathematically will not allow values over the chosen value is called a Brickwall. Limiting is different to standard clipping because limiting generally has parameters to adjust. (example “limited to -0.3dBfs” – there is no signal above that value).

Equalizer : A device which changes the tonal characteristic of audio by changing amplitude at different frequencies.

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