DIY Album

16-bit or not 16-bit ?

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What professional sound engineers say :

It is commonly known that professional studio recordings are made using 24-bit depth and sometimes 192kHz sampling frequency. But records that are on a CD are only 16-bit and 44.1kHz which enables a sound quality that is already far above what human ear can feel.

But then our question was :

Why the hell are they using 24-bit/192kHz although 16-bit/44.1kHz is what we use for a CD ? The answer is rather simple : when processing tools are used (such as compression or reverb for example during the mix and also during the final mastering process), low bit depth and low sample frequencies result in lower sound quality after the processing, for a simple reason : numerical errors that occur during the computations (because numerical data use a finite number of digits) get more amplified as the processing chain gets longer. Therefore it is strongly advised to record and process using the highest bit depth and sampling frequency as possible, and to convert the final result to 16/44.1 before burning the master.

But this means several requirements :

  • Much larger amount of memory
  • More powerful computers and stuff to handle this
  • High quality and expensive monitors (they can be very expensive !)

As a conclusion : much more money !

And what we do have :

In our case, we have a very cheap USB soundcard (E-MU tracker pre, about 100€), Behringer MS40 monitors (among the cheapest monitors ever, around 200€), and a laptop (a PC, not even a Mac which means no firewire) with 2GHz AMD Athlon Dual Core and 4GB RAM.

The voice and the stringed instruments were recorded with a Behringer B-1 microphone that we bought for 70€ in Portugal. We also used a Korg Pandora ToneWorks for the stringed instruments effects (Compression, chorus, flanger, distorsion etc…) that we got almost for free from my previous guitar teacher some years ago. The percussions were recorded both with this B-1 and a basic SM58 microphone.

This is what we could call a cheap home don’t you think ?

The home studio

So our conclusion was :

  • First of all, we think our monitors cannot truly render the difference between 16/44.1 and 24/192.
  • Our sound recording skills, experience and listening accuracy may not be sufficient to be able to feel the difference (it is commonly said that a sound engineer’s ear has to be trained for at least 10 years before being fully accurate).
  • Most of the samples we used when setting up the pieces (i.e. snare or bass drum samples for instance) were mostly free samples collected from the internet, or even extracted from CDs, and therefore 16/44.1 samples.
  • The recording process was already quite advanced, and we were feeling doubts growing up in our mind.
  • We read somewhere that Alanis Morissette’s first CD was recorded using 16-bit…
  • We also realised that most people listen to mp3 music on their computer or smartphone directly from youtube or soundcloud with average loudspeakers or headphones !

Then we said, let’s keep on going with 16/44.1 and let’s really try to do our best !

Can you really feel the difference ?

[ yann ]