File Format Info

Which Audio File Format is Right For You? 

WAV vs. AIFF vs. MP3 File Formats

WAV (Waveform Audio File Format)

Filename Extension: .wav
Format Type: Uncompressed

WAV files are popular because they are considered a “first generation” format. That is, they are generally kept as the first digital copy of a file completely uncompressed. This means that WAV files are the best possible quality and have not gone through any digital alterations except to be outputted.

The downside of this type of compression is large file sizes. If you download a song, you’ll notice the WAV files are substantially larger than the MP3 alternatives — sometimes by two to three times more!

WAV files are good to have, however, because they allow the most flexibility. They are ideal for making copies of songs from because of their “first generation” status.

AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format)

Filename Extension: .aif or .aiff
Format Type: Uncompressed

In terms of file size and quality, AIFF and WAV formats are fairly interchangeable. For you techno-junkies, the AIFF format results in an uncompressed PCM (pulse-code modulation) file meaning it still has relatively large file sizes, but maintains a higher quality of sound.

In fact, AIFF files and WAV files have similar file sizes as WAV also uses PCM.

Again, AIFF files offer a lot of flexibility in editing, copying, changing file formats, and other post-production activities. They are the Apple/Macintosh equivalent of WAV files, though both Windows PCs and Apple Macs will recognize either format.

MP3 (MPEG-2 Audio Layer III)

Filename Extension: .mp3
Format Type: Lossy Compressed

When Internet file-sharing boomed into popularity with Napster and the iPod, the MP3 cornered the market for one reason: it had a small footprint. Without broadband connections, it was impractical at the time to share file sizes larger than the MP3 standard 2 – 3 Megabytes.

And that preference has stuck for some time now even though MP3 does not have nearly the same amount of quality as WAV or AIFF files. But despite this growing base of people using higher quality formats, there are still those who prefer the MP3 — whether out of nostalgia or quality, who knows.

What does this mean for you?  Well, the MP3 format uses compression which actually removes data from a song using complicated algorithms. The reason for removing this data is to save space and make the file smaller.

So, if you have a slower internet connection or limited hard drive space, MP3 could be your file format of choice. If you’re worried about quality loss, don’t fret too much about it. While, yes, there is a noticeable drop off in sound quality, MP3 files fall square under the “good enough” umbrella.

Native and Foreign Types in Video Editing Software

No we’re not talking early American History here. We’re still talking file formats.

In terms of software, file types can be either native or foreign. Native file types are those which the program is designed to work with while foreign file types are those which the program has to use some sort of workaround, even if it is still supported.

Most video editing programs will support many different audio file types, however, if you import an audio file that isn’t native to the program, it may have difficulty editing it or have to render it before it will play.

Using native formats is always encouraged and you can avoid a lot of hassle in editing production music simply by choosing the right format to download.

Which One Should You Use?

The unsatisfying answer is, as always, “it depends,” but here are some simple questions that might help you decide which is best for your situation:

  • Would I prefer high-quality sound or small file-size?
    • High Quality Sound: AIFF or WAV
    • Small File Size: MP3
  • Is the primary use of the file on a Windows PC or Apple Macintosh system?
    • Windows: WAV or MP3 (see above)
    • Mac OS X: AIFF or MP3 (see above)
  • Does the program I plan to use the song in support this format?
    • Yes: Download the appropriate file type
    • No: Download the high quality file and convert it to a usable format

There are countless other considerations as well. For instance, if your finished project is going to be played in front of a large crowd, you want to use the highest quality song possible. However, if your project is just background music for a business meeting or classroom presentation, an MP3 file would more than suffice.

When it comes down to it, choose the format you’re most comfortable working with and that you understand.