Despite my previous
article and blog
posts about MP3 bit-rates for backing tracks, it seems to
be a subject that many singers still feel unsure about. This isn't
helped by some of the conflicting opinions out there about this
subject, especially a recent one from a well-known software manufacturer,
so I feel a follow-up to my previous article on this subject may
be worthwhile and clarify a few things.
Hopefully I can help sort out the confusion this subject seems
to create everywhere it's discussed!
Why so many differing
opinions on bit-rates?
Ahhh, the million dollar question! Welcome to the internet...lots
of different people with lots of different opinions! And unfortunately
there's no way to tell on the internet who is giving good advice
and who is giving bad advice. Sadly, it's really up to the reader
which opinion they think is correct and what they think will work
best for them. I know it's confusing and I do sympathise!
My personal opinions on the mp3 bit-rate subject are pretty well
documented on the pages of MP3 Backing Trax and everything I've
written about this particular subject is based on my extensive
experience of singing, live onstage, with mp3 files, for many,
And I can sumarise it all in one simple sentence:
bit-rates cause larger file sizes, therefore
causing more risk of music skipping. Period.
All I'm doing is
simply putting this information out there and it's up to the
individual reader whether he or she wants to use it or prefers
to listen to different advice and opinions...and there's plenty
of differing opinions out there in cyberspace, that's for sure!
So who's opinion should I believe?
How do you tell the good advice from the bad advice I hear you
ask? Well, it's not always as clear cut as this.
If someone gives you different advice from advice that I give
you, it's not neccessarily bad advice they're giving you.
On the contrary, it's entirely possible that they've just experienced
something different from I've experienced, so are giving their
opinion just as honestly and openly as I give mine.
One thing you can sometimes do if you find yourself with conflicting
advice and don't know which one to believe, is look and see
if there's some sort of "alterior motive", especially
if the advice seems VERY contradictory to other advice you've
read or been given.
In the recent case of the software manufacturer who advised
a singer to change his mp3 backing tracks bit-rates to 256 or
320 Kb/s and use a laptop to play his backing tracks rather
than an iPod, I happen to know that the majority of professional
artists who use backing tracks these days use the Apple iPod
as their chosen playback machine. But I also know that the software
manufacturer he spoke to doesn't make software for the iPod...which
means he can't sell his software to artists who use the iPod
for their backing tracks.
Perhaps this is why he talks about the "cr*ppy iPod"
(his words, not mine I must add)! I'm guessing the hundreds
of millions of iPod buyers would disagree with his opinion and
I certainly haven't seen any queues of people outside my local
Apple store returning their iPods because they're "cr*p"
as he puts it!
So, first look to see if the person giving you the advice has
an "angle". That's important. It will help you sort
out who's giving advice just because they want to help you,
and who's giving you advice because they want to lead you down
a path which has been paved with their own sneaky agenda.
So, what IS the best bit-rate
for backing tracks?
At the risk of boring everyone by repeating all the things I've
written in articles and blogged about before regarding bit-rates
for backing tracks, you basically have 2 choices when it comes
to encoding mp3 files - high bit-rates or low bit-rates.
1. Low bit-rates (eg 128 Kb/s)
reduce the chance of skipping, but give a lesser sound quality.
2. High bit-rates (eg 256 Kb/s
or 320 Kb/s) give better sound quality but are prone to skipping.
The reason I always
choose option 1 (a bit-rate of 128 Kb/s) for backing tracks and
advise all singers and musicians to do the same, is because in
a live music environment audiences cannot tell the difference
between a bit-rate of 256 Kb/s or 320 Kb/s or 128 Kb/s.
The so-called "lower sound quality" with option 1 may
look to be, on the surface, a downside, but in live onstage use
(which is where it matters) it's just not an issue because live
audiences cannot hear the difference, despite what the people
who call themselves "purists" or "audiophiles"
will try to tell you.
Again, my opinions are based on solid experience. I have performed
to hundreds of thousands of people over the last 10 years using
mp3's at a bit-rate of 128 Kb/s and in those 10 years, not one
single audience member has noticed or commented that my mp3 backing
tracks have been encoded at 128 Kb/s.
To further prove this, not only do I create and sell backing tracks
here at MP3 Backing Trax but I also use them every night at my
live gigs so it's not unusual for me to have half a dozen or more
fellow musicians and singers turn up at my live gigs (because
when the local artists want to buy some new backing tracks, they
pop in to my gigs and hear these new songs).
In all these years NONE of these professional entertainers
have ever noticed anything except a good, clean,
So if fellow professionals with more expert and sensitive hearing
than your average Joe Punter can't tell the difference in the
sound quality of a 128 Kb/s in a live music environment, then
the audience can't tell the difference either.
Until I get a queue of fellow
artists and audience members banging on my dressing room door
after a gig to say "Hey, we were just listening to your act
and noticed you're using 128 Kb/s instead of 320 Kb/s..."
then I'll continue with 128 Kb/s (and no skipping...ah, what bliss)!
Bit-rates of 128 Kb/s
for live performance are really a no-brainer (unless you like
to stand on stage smug in the knowledge that "on paper"
your sound is better, even though your audience is not aware of
it and your backing tracks stutter and skip all over the place
making you miss bars etc)!
Let's get down and dirty, really put the cat among the pigeons,
and ask the REAL question that this is all about (and I
want you to answer honestly)...
do you want to impress?"
Do you want to impress
yourself and maybe the 1 person out of a million in the audience
(who I've yet to meet) who thinks he can hear low bit-rate artifacts
in your sound. Or do you want to impress the hundreds of thousands
of audience members out there you perform to over the years
who pay your wages and want to hear you sing and entertain them
in a professional manner?
Choose 128 Kb/s if you want to
sound good, sound professional, and keep your job.
Choose 320 Kb/s if you want to
risk sounding like an amateur with backing tracks skipping and
stuttering and the audience laughing at you.
I'm not being unkind when I say
all this above. On many occasions I've heard artists using backing
tracks which have skipped. It's very embarrassing for the artist
onstage, because depending where in the song the track skips,
sometimes it completely throws them off-time and they can't get
back in to the song after the skip. They have to stop and re-start
the song again or just move on to the next song. Audiences are
rarely sympathetic when this happens and usually laugh at the
And we're not just talking club, pub or theatre acts here - many
of the biggest stars like Britney Spears and others have been
caught-out with backing track glitches and if you've read the
newspapers the next day you'll know the poor artist doesn't get
much sympathy - on the contrary they end up being a laughing stock,
not to mention the public feel "cheated".
Can I still use higher bit-rates
if I want?
Yes, of course you can - the choice ultimately is yours.
I've used mp3 files at 256 Kb/s and 320 Kb/s in a variety of situations
(although I would never chance doing this live onstage) and often
I've experienced no skipping problems.
It depends on your particular set-up and what else is going on
in the circuitry of your hardware mp3 player or mp3 playing software
while it's trying to play your file. In
essence this is really what determines whether your mp3 player
is going to struggle or not to play a file.
And it's an unknown factor.
at anytime, can exactly anticipate what the
processor in your laptop or your mp3 player is going to do, or
it's going to behave and how that spontaneous behaviour is going
to affect playback of your music.
That's why it makes
sense, at the very least, to make sure that if and when your
mp3 player does go a little freaky for a second or two, that
it isn't playing a large 320 Kb/s file at the time.
If it's playing a large file, the processor may need to "rob"
some of the file playing resources to get itself back in operation...causing
a skip in the music.
But if you're playing a smaller file of 128 Kb/s, there's every
chance the processor may be able to recover itself from the
freaky glitch in its operation while STILL playing the small
music file at the same time without any stutters or skips.
This whole thing really boils down to how your processor uses
its resources, no matter whether we're talking about the processor
in a laptop computer or the processor in an iPod or any other
type of mp3 player.
That's why it makes sense to make sure you only use the minimuum
resources you need to use at any one time.
It may well be that high bit-rate mp3 files work well with your
particular system and you don't get any skipping (or maybe a
skip is yet to happen or it'll only happen once in a blue moon).
If this is the case, then high bit-rates may be fine for you.
Perhaps you're even happy to live with the occasional skip.
Personally I can't.
One backing track skipping while I'm in the middle of a song
is just one skip too much - especially when I know it's avoidable
at no sound quality cost to my audience.
I don't want my act to sound unprofessional in any way ever
and I certainly don't want to be working with a time-bomb ticking
away in the background...because that's what you're doing when
you use higher bit-rates in a live music situation. If the audience
are blissfully unaware of the bit-rate you're using, I can think
of NO reason whatsoever why anyone would risk their backing
tracks skipping just to produce a sound that their audience
can't hear anyway....
If you still remain unconvinced,
feel free to play around with your backing tracks at different
mp3 bit-rates and see what works best for you. If
you find that your backing tracks at 320 Kb/s or 256 Kb/s stutter
or skip, you can always go back to 128 Kb/s.
Just don't make me say "I told you so...."!
Article Written by Kenny Campbell
(This article cannot be reproduced without express
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