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Should you record 24/96 or 16/44.1? Will it make a difference to the success of your master?

It's good to have a choice of bit resolution and sampling rate. But which is best? Should you sometimes choose practicality over quality?


A recent question received by Audio Masterclass asked whether it was best to record at 24-bit/96 kHz resolution, or 16-bit/44.1 kHz? Both are useful, in the right context.

Suppose you are multitracking on a computer-based digital audio workstation. The more data your computer has to process, the fewer tracks you can have, and the fewer plug-ins you can run simultaneously.

So fewer bits means more tracks and more plug-ins; lower sampling rate also means more tracks and more plug-ins.

Although modern computers are fast, they are still not as fast as we would like them to be. In an ideal world, as the world will be one day (??), an affordable computer would be able to handle at least 48 tracks of 24/96 audio, and as many plug-ins as you needed to get the sound you wanted.

But that day isn't here yet. The chances are, if your music has any degree of complexity at all, that you will require more tracks and more processing than your computer can manage. So the answer is to lower the number of bits, and/or lower the sampling rate.

So which makes most difference? Easy - if you go down from 24-bit to 16-bit, then you will save one third of the quantity of data. But if you go from 96 kHz to 44.1 kHz sampling, you will save over one half.

If you add to that the fact that 24-bit working allows a lot of flexibility over 16-bit, but an increase in sampling rate above 44. kHz is barely noticeable to most people, then the way to go is clear - if you need to 'downsize' from 24/96, then 24/44.1 is better than 16/96.

If you have to downsize even more to get enough tracks and plug-ins, then it will have to be all the way to 16/44.1.

But you know, that doesn't really matter too much. Most of the tracks in your song will be mixed with the fader lower than 0 dB. Which means that effectively you are increasing the resolution. A track recorded at 16-bit resolution and lowered in level by 12 dB now has effectively18-bit resolution in the context of your mix. And many of your tracks will be lower in level than that.

So it turns out that multitracking at 16/44.1 is not at all a bad thing to do. But what you must do is mix at 24-bit resolution. It would be nice if you could mix at 24/96, but most systems don't allow intermingling of sampling rates in a single project. You could mix from one system to another though through an analog connection. That would be an interesting way of working.

If your mix is made at the very best resolution available to you, then it is effectively 'future-proofed' against improvements in delivery media to the listener.

So the conclusion... multitrack at 16-bit/44.1 kHz, mix at 24-bit/44.1 kHz. If you have the option, consider mixing onto a separate system via an analog connection at 24-bit/96 kHz.

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By David Mellor Monday April 17, 2006

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