For most people, digital audio and MP3 are the same. Actually, though, MP3 is an old format with some serious limitations, and it’s not the best choice for preservation of high-quality recordings.
The creators of MP3 did their work around 1990 when the computing world was very different. Homes didn’t have broadband. The Web was still a lab experiment. The aim of MP3 was to get acceptable sound quality into as few bits as possible. The result was very good given those constraints, but MP3 has never been up to CD quality, much less archival quality.
MP3 uses what’s called “lossy” compression. There are two steps in digitizing sound. The first is to convert the sound to digital samples. The second is to represent those samples in a file format. The process takes thousands of samples per second, so the conversion to a file format usually involves compressing the data to reduce the file size.
Some compression methods are lossless; you can reconstruct the original samples precisely. Lossy compression gives you smaller files, at the cost of losing some information. The design of MP3 saves a lot of bits with very little loss in sound quality, but there is a loss, and many people can hear it. (JPEG images use the same trick to make image files smaller.)
Newer formats have better compression and less loss, but MP3 reached market dominance early, and it’s still the favorite format for consumer audio files. It’s not a good choice for preservation, though. If you ever need to convert an MP3 to another format, you can only get an approximation of the original. Converting it to a more modern lossy format, like AAC, will lose more information.
Archival audio should be stored in a lossless format. The WAVE format has been around for a long time and is a popular preservation format. You can convert a WAVE file to MP3, AAC, or other formats that may come along in the future, keeping the highest quality that the destination format allows. You can keep MP3 files for normal use, but having lossless files in your archive means retaining the recording’s full quality.
Replicopy can handle all your media conversion needs, with the formats that will work best for you. Please contact us to learn more.