Audio file format

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An audio file format is a file format for storing digital audio data on a computer system. This data can be stored uncompressed, or compressed to reduce the file size. It can be a raw bitstream, but it is usually a container format or an audio data format with defined storage layer.

Format types[edit]

It is important to distinguish between a file format and an audio codec. A codec performs the encoding and decoding of the raw audio data while the data itself is stored in a file with a specific audio file format. Although most audio file formats support only one type of audio data (created with an audio coder), a multimedia container format (as Matroska or AVI) may support multiple types of audio and video data.

There are three major groups of audio file formats:

Uncompressed audio format[edit]

There is one major uncompressed audio format, PCM, which is usually stored in a .wav file on Windows or in a .aiff file on Mac OS. The AIFF format is based on the Interchange File Format (IFF). The WAV format is based on the Resource Interchange File Format (RIFF), which is similar to IFF. WAV and AIFF are flexible file formats designed to store more or less any combination of sampling rates or bitrates. This makes them suitable file formats for storing and archiving an original recording.

BWF (Broadcast Wave Format) is a standard audio format created by the European Broadcasting Union as a successor to WAV. BWF allows metadata to be stored in the file. See European Broadcasting Union: Specification of the Broadcast Wave Format (EBU Technical document 3285, July 1997). This is the primary recording format used in many professional audio workstations in the television and film industry. BWF files include a standardized timestamp reference which allows for easy synchronization with a separate picture element. Stand-alone, file based, multi-track recorders from AETA,[1] Sound Devices,[2] Zaxcom,[3] HHB Communications Ltd,[4] Fostex, Nagra, Aaton,[5] and TASCAM all use BWF as their preferred format.

Uncompressed audio can also be stored in raw audio format.

Lossless compressed audio format[edit]

A lossless compressed format stores data in less space without losing any data.

Uncompressed audio formats encode both sound and silence with the same number of bits per unit of time. Encoding a uncompressed minute of absolute silence produces a file of the same size as encoding an uncompressed minute of music. In a lossless compressed format, however, the music would occupy a smaller file than an uncompressed format and the silence would take up almost no space at all.

Lossless compression formats enable the original uncompressed data to be recreated exactly. They include the common[6] FLAC, WavPack, Monkey's Audio, ALAC (Apple Lossless). They provide a compression ratio of about 2:1 (i.e. their files take up half the space of the originals). Development in lossless compression formats aims to reduce processing time while maintaining a good compression ratio.

Lossy compressed audio format[edit]

Lossy compression enables even greater reductions in file size by removing some of the data. Lossy compression typically achieves far greater compression than lossless compression by simplifying the complexities of the data.[7] This of course results in a reduction in audio quality, but a variety of techniques are used, mainly by exploiting psychoacoustics, to remove the data that has least effect on perceived quality. The loss in data (and thus quality) may not always be easily perceived through casual listening. The popular MP3 format is probably the best-known example, but the AAC format found on the iTunes Music Store is also common. Most formats offer a range of degrees of compression, generally measured in bit rate. The lower the rate, the smaller the file and the more significant the quality loss.

List of formats[edit]

File Extension Creation Company Description
3gp multimedia container format can contain proprietary formats as AMR, AMR-WB or AMR-WB+, but also some open formats
act ACT is a lossy ADPCM 8 kbit/s compressed audio format recorded by most Chinese MP3 and MP4 players with a recording function, and voice recorders
AIFF Apple standard audio file format used by Apple. It could be considered the Apple equivalent of wav.
aac the Advanced Audio Coding format is based on the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 standards. aac files are usually ADTS or ADIF containers.
ALAC Apple Apple Lossless compression, a lossless compression format from Apple.
amr AMR-NB audio, used primarily for speech.
atrac (.wav) Sony the older style Sony ATRAC format. It always has a .wav file extension. To open these files, install the ATRAC3 drivers.
Au Sun Microsystems the standard audio file format used by Sun, Unix and Java. The audio in au files can be PCM or compressed with the μ-law, a-law or G729 codecs.
awb AMR-WB audio, used primarily for speech, same as the ITU-T's G.722.2 specification.
dct NCH Software A variable codec format designed for dictation. It has dictation header information and can be encrypted (as may be required by medical confidentiality laws). A proprietary format of NCH Software.
dss Olympus Olympus]] proprietary format. It is a fairly old and poor codec. Gsm or mp3 are generally preferred where the recorder allows. It allows additional data to be held in the file header.
dvf Sony a Sony proprietary format for compressed voice files; commonly used by Sony dictation recorders.
flac File format for the Free Lossless Audio Codec, a lossless compression codec.
gsm designed for telephony use in Europe, gsm is a very practical format for telephone quality voice. It makes a good compromise between file size and quality. Note that wav files can also be encoded with the gsm codec.
iklax iklax An iKlax Media proprietary format, the iKlax format is a multi-track digital audio format allowing various actions on musical data, for instance on mixing and volumes arrangements.
IVS 3D Solar UK Ltd A proprietary version with Digital Rights Management developed by 3D Solar UK Ltd for use in music downloaded from their Tronme Music Store and interactive music and video player.
m4a An audio-only MPEG-4 file, used by Apple for unprotected music downloaded from their iTunes Music Store.
m4p Apple A version of AAC with proprietary Digital Rights Management developed by Apple for use in music downloaded from their iTunes Music Store.
mmf Samsung a Samsung audio format that is used in ringtones.
mp3 MPEG Layer III Audio. Is the most common sound file format used today.
mpc Musepack or MPC (formerly known as MPEGplus, MPEG+ or MP+) is an open source lossy audio codec, specifically optimized for transparent compression of stereo audio at bitrates of 160–180 kbit/s.
msv Sony a Sony proprietary format for Memory Stick compressed voice files.
ogg Xiph.Org Foundation a free, open source container format supporting a variety of formats, the most popular of which is the audio format Vorbis. Vorbis offers compression similar to MP3 but is less popular.
Opus Internet Engineering Task Force a lossy audio compression format developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and made especially suitable for interactive real-time applications over the Internet. As an open format standardised through RFC 6716, a reference implementation is provided under the 3-clause BSD license.
ra & rm RealNetworks a RealAudio format designed for streaming audio over the Internet. The .ra format allows files to be stored in a self-contained fashion on a computer, with all of the audio data contained inside the file itself.
raw a raw file can contain audio in any format but is usually used with PCM audio data. It is rarely used except for technical tests.
TTA The True Audio, real-time lossless audio codec.
vox the vox format most commonly uses the Dialogic ADPCM (Adaptive Differential Pulse Code Modulation) codec. Similar to other ADPCM formats, it compresses to 4-bits. Vox format files are similar to wave files except that the vox files contain no information about the file itself so the codec sample rate and number of channels must first be specified in order to play a vox file.
wav standard audio file container format used mainly in Windows PCs. Commonly used for storing uncompressed (PCM), CD-quality sound files, which means that they can be large in size—around 10 MB per minute. Wave files can also contain data encoded with a variety of (lossy) codecs to reduce the file size (for example the GSM or MP3 formats). Wav files use a RIFF structure.
wma Microsoft Windows Media Audio format, created by Microsoft. Designed with Digital Rights Management (DRM) abilities for copy protection.
wavpack wv. format for wavpack file http://www.wavpack.com/flash/wavpack.htm

See also[edit]

References[edit]