It is important that you know the pros and cons of the formats that are available, to help you confidently choose which format to go for when buying music online (you’ll often be given a choice), when ripping music, and to help you choose the right format for sharing DJ mixes, working on music files in DAWs (digital audio workstations like Ableton Live) and so on.
Of course, you also need to understand how these formats affect the audio quality of the music, because poor audio quality will instantly and always mark you down as a second-rate DJ.
Read this next: 10 Mistakes Beginner DJs Make (That Pros Don’t)
How do I know what format a music file is in?
Your DJ software can show you this in a column (right-click the library header to choose what columns show), but also, you can right-click on any file on your computer and select “Properties” (Windows) or “Get Info” (Mac). In the file properties or info window, look for the “File Type” or “Kind” section, which will display the file format or file extension, such as “.mp3,” “.wav,” or “.flac.”
Next I’ll talk you through all the music file formats you’re likely to come across. Lower down in the article I’ve answered the main questions we commonly get asked here at our Digital DJ Tips school about music file formats. Finally, to end off with I offer you some “best practices” to help you make the right choices.
Do feel free to ask questions or offer feedback in the comments at the end of this article – we’re a real DJ school, with real tutors, and we always love to chat about this stuff!
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Common File Formats
Music files come in three main types: Uncompressed (just a “straight”, simple digitisation of the original music), compressed lossless (encoded to make them smaller, but exactly the same audio quality as the original), and compressed lossy (encoded to make them smaller, but with some of the original data “thrown away”, the idea here being that if you get rid of inaudible information from the files, they’ll still sound great with a smaller footprint).
Here are the main types you’ll come across in each of these three categories:
Uncompressed music formats
The truest, simplest way of recording audio digitally, well understood by the whole industry and universally accepted.
✅ Universal format, works with everything, causes the least potential problems
❌ Largest files of all, can’t contain metadata, usually more expensive than MP3s to buy
Basically Apple’s version of WAV (WAV was originally developed for Windows computers), but again, universally accepted nowadays.
✅ Unlike WAVs, can contain metadata
❌ Just as large as WAVs, ie very large
Lossless, compressed formats
An open-source file format that uses lossless compression, ie the file is made smaller but nothing is “thrown away” (and so if you were to convert it back to WAV/AIFF, it would be identical to before).
✅ Smaller than WAV/AIFF, but exactly the same audio quality
❌ Slightly less compatible than WAV/AIFF, for instance, doesn’t work in iTunes, and some older DJ gear such as the Pioneer DJ XDJ-RX2. Usually more expensive than MP3s to buy
Just as AIFF is Apple’s take on WAV, so ALAC is Apple’s take on a lossless compressed format – so again, the file is made smaller but nothing is “thrown away” (and so if you were to convert it back to WAV/AIFF, it would be identical to before).
✅ Smaller than WAV/AIFF, but exactly the same audio quality. Unlike FLAC, works with iTunes
❌ As with FLAC files, these are still quite big compared to the formats below
Lossy, compressed formats
Easily the most popular format in the world. Quality is determined by “kbps” or “kilobits per second” – how much storage is used for every second of audio. The smaller the number, the smaller the file (but also lower the quality).
Read this next: Is It Still OK For DJs To Play MP3s?
For instance, online radio is often streamed at 96kbps or even as low as 48kbps. Music MP3s used to be at 128kbps, then 192kbps, and as storage costs have dropped and internet speeds have gone up, they’re now generally sold at 256kbps or 320kbps.
✅ Universally compatible, decent trade-off between quality and size (for vast majority of DJs, 320kbps MP3s are going to be fine), can hold metadata and album art
❌ Some say they can hear the difference between a 320kbps MP3 and a WAV (we cannot); Apple’s AAC format achieves the same quality with a slightly smaller file size
Apple’s take on lossy audio, and a format that music will be in if you buy it from the iTunes store, meaning these are also very common.
✅ All the advantages of this type of file (smaller than the other file types etc), and more modern than MP3s, meaning they’re more efficient – a 256kbps AAC sounds as good as a 320kbps MP3
❌ Not quite as common as MP3s, although as basically all software and hardware can play them, this shouldn’t matter to the vast majority of DJs
Compare these side by side with a FREE music pack
Want to hear the same track across different formats and file sizes? This music pack includes nine songs in three distinct genres: house/nu-disco, funk/breaks and trance/euphoric – just import them into your DJ set-up, listen through each one, and make your choice! As an added bonus, keep the tracks you enjoy for your collection – a gift to you from us and Mastermix.
This is all confusing! Does it really matter?
As long as your music files work with your DJ gear and any other programs you use them with, and they sound good to you, no – not really. The source and quality of the actual music, the quality of the PA system you’re DJing on, and your “gain staging” (basically, your ability to keep things out of the “red” as you DJ) are far more important than the format your files are in.
Read this next: How To Set Your Volume Levels Like a Pro When DJing
Also, just because music is apparently in a high quality format, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been converted from a poor format at some point. Trusting your ears is the best option – so do that! Ultimately, understanding the formats is the important thing here, so you can make your choices confidently.