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What Is Bit Depth In Audio? How To Choose The Right One

April 23, 2023 
BY DAN SPENCER
Last Updated on May 4, 2023

When it comes to audio quality, bit depth is an essential factor to consider. Bit depth plays a large role in determining the dynamic range, noise, distortion, fidelity, and accuracy of digital audio. This makes it crucial for recording, mixing, mastering, and distribution.

In this blog post, we'll explore what bit depth is, how it affects sound quality, and how to choose the right bit depth for your project. So sit back, relax, and get ready to dive into the world of digital audio and bit depth.

What Is Bit Depth In Audio?

Bits and bytes in the color green with a black background.

Bit depth refers to the number of bits used to represent the amplitude of an audio signal. It is a crucial factor in determining the quality of a digital audio recording. In digital audio, the bit depth determines the dynamic range, or the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds that can be accurately recorded or reproduced.

In simple terms, the bit depth determines the audio resolution. A higher bit depth provides more resolution, which means that more subtle changes in the amplitude of the audio signal can be captured. This results in a more accurate representation of the original sound.

The most common bit depths used in audio are 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit float. Let's discuss them next.

The 3 Most Common Bit Depths

There are 3 common bit depths used in the digital music production world. This options are available in all modern day DAWs and most audio software. Let's first discuss 16-bit, where it all began.

16-Bit

A bunch of CDs with a pink background.

16-bit is the standard bit depth for audio CDs, which have a sample rate of 44.1 kHz. This means that 44,100 samples are taken per second, and each sample is represented by 16 bits. This results in a data rate of approximately 1.4 megabits per second (Mbps) for CD-quality audio.

While a 16-bit depth can produce good quality audio, it is generally considered the minimum requirement for modern day digital audio. For more demanding applications, higher bit depths such as 24-bit or 32-bit float are preferred for their wider dynamic range, lower signal to noise ratio, and higher fidelity.

24-Bit

Compared to a 16-bit depth, a 24-bit depth provides a wider dynamic range, meaning there is a greater difference between the quietest and loudest parts of the audio signal. This allows for more detail and nuance in the audio, resulting in a more natural and realistic sound.

A 24-bit depth is commonly used in professional audio recording and mixing, as it provides a high level of fidelity and accuracy. However, it also results in larger file sizes and higher data rates compared to a 16-bit depth. Depending on your project, you might want to take this into consideration.

24-bit is generally considered the standard for high-quality digital audio, and is often used for music production, film, video game sound design, and other professional audio applications.

32-Bit Float

32-bit float is particularly useful in audio processing, such as mixing, mastering, and effects processing. This is because it allows for a high degree of headroom, which means that the audio signal can be processed without the risk of clipping or distortion. This is because the 32-bit float format has an extremely wide dynamic range, which means it can represent both very quiet sounds and very loud sounds without losing detail or accuracy.

Another advantage of 32-bit floating point is that it is a universal format, meaning it can be used across different platforms and software applications without the need for conversion. This makes it a popular choice in professional audio applications, where compatibility and flexibility are important considerations.


Related Article: 10 Best Audio Interfaces Under $500 | What Should You Get?


How Bit Depth Affects Audio Quality

A note with the words "Quality Matters!" written on it pinned to a board.

Bit depth affects audio quality in several ways.

Firstly, it determines the dynamic range of the audio signal. The higher the bit depth, the wider the dynamic range, resulting in a more natural and realistic sound.

Secondly, bit depth affects noise and distortion. The lower the bit depth, the more digital noise and distortion in the audio signal, resulting in lower audio quality.

Thirdly, bit depth affects fidelity and accuracy. The higher the bit depth, the more accurate the representation of the analog audio signal, resulting in higher audio fidelity.

Bit Depth Vs Sample Rate

When it comes to digital audio, sample rate and bit depth are two fundamental aspects that determine the quality and accuracy of audio recordings. While they are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing, and it's important to understand the differences between the two.

In simple terms, bit depth dictates the number of bits used to represent each audio sample, while sample rate refers to the number of audio samples per second. Bit depth determines the maximum dynamic range and accuracy of each audio sample, while sample rate determines the frequency range that can be accurately captured.

Higher bit depths allow for more accurate representation of audio signals and greater dynamic range, while higher sample rates allow for capturing of higher frequencies and smoother audio waveforms. However, using higher a bit depth and sample rate also requires more storage space and processing power.

How To Choose The Right Bit Depth

The word "How" spelled out in dice.

When choosing the right bit depth, there are several factors to consider, such as the type of audio being recorded, the desired audio quality, and the available storage space.

For example, if you're recording music with a lot of dynamic range, it's best to use a higher bit depth, such as 24-bit or 32-bit. If you're recording speech or ambient sound, you can use a lower bit depth, such as 16-bit.

It's also important to consider the available storage space, as higher bit depth files take up more space than lower bit depth files.

Bit Depth In Recording And Mixing

In digital recording, the choice of bit depth affects the processing when mixing audio. Higher bit depth audio files allow for more headroom during processing and mixing, resulting in higher audio quality.

It's important to think about your end result when you are recording. Almost all audio plugins process at 24 bit or higher. This means that having audio files at this depth is going allow your plugins to work how they are meant to.

If you record audio at 16-bit you can always convert the session over to 24-bit for mixing. The processing will happen within the DAW and won't add any benefits short of plugin processing. With that being said, it won't increase the quality of the recorded audio.

Bit Depth In Mastering And Distribution

In mastering and distribution, the choice of bit depth affects the final audio quality of the audio file. It's important to master and distribute audio at the highest possible bit depth to ensure the best audio quality.

When distributing audio, it's also important to consider the compatibility of different devices and platforms. Not all digital systems and platforms support high bit depth audio files.

For most digital distributors you are going to want to provide your final files are 16 bit or 24 bit. If you are unsure of what they accept, you can always read the FAQ section or reach out to their support team.

What Is Quantization Noise

Quantization noise is an inherent artifact that occurs in digital audio when analog sound waves are converted into a digital format through a process called quantization. Quantization is the process of rounding off the amplitude values of the analog signal to the nearest available digital value based on the bit depth used.

Quantization noise occurs when the rounding off process creates a difference between the original analog signal and the quantized digital value, resulting in an error or distortion known as quantization error. This error manifests as a type of noise that is added to the audio signal and is often perceived as hissing or buzzing by the human ear.

The amount of quantization noise present in a digital audio signal is inversely proportional to the bit depth used. In other words, higher bit depths result in less quantization noise and therefore, greater dynamic range and accuracy in the digital audio signal.

Audio engineers and producers can reduce the audible noise of quantization by choosing a higher bit depth when recording and mixing audio. Additionally, digital signal processing techniques such as dithering can be used to further reduce the effect of quantization noise in digital audio.

NOTE: I record and mix all audio, no matter its use case, at 24-bit.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, bit depth is a crucial element of digital audio that plays a significant role in the quality of audio recordings. By understanding what bit depth is and how it affects audio quality, you can make informed decisions about your audio recording and mixing.

Whether you're a professional audio engineer, producer, or just starting in audio recording, a good understanding of bit depth can help you achieve your desired results and make your audio recordings sound the best they can be.

Now that you understand what is bit depth in audio, take this knowledge and make the best recordings and mixes that you can!

"Some of the links within this article are affiliate links. These links are from various companies such as Amazon. This means if you click on any of these links and purchase the item or service, I will receive an affiliate commission. This is at no cost to you and the money gets invested back into Audio Sorcerer LLC."

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