If you’re a regular reader of Zath, you will probably have read a rant or two about how I can’t stand compressed music, and how I feel the vast majority of digital downloads should be in a lossless format.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Despite our ever increasing broadband speeds and huge amounts of storage, we are still downloading tracks at a paltry 256kb/s from the iTunes store or similar outfits such as the Amazon MP3 Store. If you’re somewhat of an audiophile like myself, you will no doubt be encouraged to hear about the latest rumour to land itself at CNN of all places.
As it stands, master versions of a recording are captured in a 24-bit format. Before being pressed on to a CD they are downgraded to a 16-bit format (I’ll explain what all this means in a little while), and even further compressed still when being prepared for digital download, as they are sold by a company such as Apple as a 256kb/s track. According to the source, there are plans to bring those 24-bit quality tracks straight to consumers on the iTunes store and on other music stores across the web.
Now if you aren’t a music expert, then you probably won’t have the foggiest idea what all of this means – don’t worry, neither did I until I did a little bit of light reading on the subject – but it’s all a fairly simple concept. You see, whether a track is a 16-bit or 24-bit track determines the bit depth of the recording. As the number of bits available increases, so does the bit depth of the track. This means that there is magnitudes more data in a 24-bit recording than in a 16-bit recording of the same track.
At this point, you may be asking yourself “well why didn’t they just give us 24-bit recordings from the start?”, and the answer to that question is incredibly simple: file size. As you increase the bit depth of a track, there is more data in the file, and as there is more data in the file then a single song will be bigger at 24-bits than it would be at 16-bits. How much more storage are we talking? A 24-bit file would be roughly three times the size of its equivalent 16-bit file.
The difference in file size wouldn’t be too noticeable to the average user on a computer with a reasonable amount of storage, but to a company storing millions and millions of files, the difference is a few billion dollars on a brand new data centre with lots and lots of new servers.
If Apple was to keep the same bit-rate of the files, currently 256kb/s, then we would probably be looking at files of around 20-30mb in size each. Eventually, depending on how much Apple wants to invest in iTunes servers, we may even see lossless files with a 24-bit bit depth, although this would easily push the size of a single track to around the 100mb mark.
Whether or not there is any substance to these rumours is anyone’s guess right now, but it would be great to see high quality audio hit the iTunes store. It would certainly save me a lot of time ripping my content from CDs to Apple Lossless using XLD audio decoder software!