I often get questions about what is the best sample rate and bit depth to use. So let me attempt to break it down in a simple and straightforward manner. This article is updated in 2019.
The sample rate and bit depth you should use depend on the application.
What Sample Rate Should I Use?
For most music applications, 44.1 kHz is the best sample rate to go for. 48 kHz is common when creating music or other audio for video. Higher sample rates can have advantages for professional music and audio production work, but many professionals work at 44.1 kHz. Using higher sample rates can have disadvantages and should only be considered in professional applications.
What Bit Depth Should I Use?
For consumer/end-user applications, a bit depth of 16 bits is perfectly fine. For professional use (recording, mixing, mastering or professional video editing) a bit depth of 24 bits is better. This ensures a good dynamic range and better precision when editing. A 32-bit floating point bit depth can have some advantages for professional applications, but the files take up 50% more space compared to 24-bit audio.
44.1 kHz is the current playback standard for most consumer music applications. In video, 48 kHz is also common.
The disadvantages of working at higher sample rates
Higher sample rates of 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, and even 192 kHz are available in music and audio production software. Is there an advantage to working at these higher sample rates? Why not simply just use the maximum sample rate your setup allows?
- When sample rates double, so do the file sizes on your drive.
- It requires more processing power from your computer. The higher the sample rate, the higher the CPU cost.
- Some plugins and audio tools can’t handle higher sample rates properly and could cause issues.
I am referring you to this article by Monty at Xiph.org. He explains this in great detail. The article approaches the question from the point of view of music downloads. But the theory behind digital audio is no different when talking about music production.
I also suggest you check this page on the Infinite Wave website. It allows you to inspect how well your DAW handles resampling from a higher sample rate (96 kHz) down to 44.1 kHz. You might be surprised by the poor performance of some DAWs!
For these reasons, my conclusion is that for most people and most applications, 44.1 kHz is the best sample rate to go for. It provides good fidelity, is safe to work with and is not too taxing on your system.
The advantages of working at higher sample rates
Going for higher sample rates can offer some advantages. This is provided you have the right tools and the experience to handle any conversions properly. Particularly, you may avoid fold-back aliasing issues (audible artifacts) when eventually converting higher sample rate material back to 44.1 kHz.
Here is a great article on the topic by Ryan Schwabe.
Most music professionals I know work at sample rates of 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz.
With my own music, I am currently working at 48 kHz. For mastering, I work at the sample rate of the submitted source files and convert to the destination sample rate (normally 44.1 kHz) at the end of the project. To ensure best fidelity, I am using iZotope RX to handle all conversions.
Different Sample Rates in a Single Project?
What if you are working on a project at a sample rate of 48 kHz and decide to drop in a sample that is at 44.1 kHz, or vice versa?
It depends on the DAW you are using and it’s settings. Many modern DAWs will be fine with this.
Ableton Live, for example, will automatically resample (convert) any imported audio to the project sample rate. The project sample rate can be set at “Preferences -> Audio -> Sample Rate”. It all happens behind the scenes and you won’t really notice anything happening. The same is also the case for most virtual instrument samplers – they will sort out any required conversions for you.
Some DAWs won’t do this automatically. In those cases, you will get audio playing back at wrong speeds. You should always be mindful of three things:
- What sample rate you are working in.
- What sample rates you are importing into the project.
- How your specific DAW deals with different sample rates.
Generally it’s good practice to avoid resampling when you can as it can potentially degrade quality. But I wouldn’t worry if you sometimes have to do it in a creative setting. You don’t want things like that to get too much in the way of your creative flow.
Now, the question about bit depth is more simple to answer.
24-bit audio gives you a theoretical dynamic range of 144 dB, as opposed to 96 dB with 16-bit audio. More dynamic range means three things:
- Better signal-to-noise ratio.
- Better precision when mixing.
- Less worrying about headroom, as you don’t have to run your levels so hot.
32-bit floating point depth is even better, but the benefits there over 24-bit audio seem to be pretty much indifferent in most applications.
For consumer/end-user -type applications, a bit depth of 16 bits is fine. For anything more professional, 24-bit audio should be used. It’s good to note that all professional DAWs are using an internal bit depth of 32 or 64 bits these days.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Let me know where you stand on this. Drop a comment with your thoughts.