What sample rate should you be recording at?

Do you record at home? Do you know what the sample rate is? Find out why using the right sample rate is important.

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If you're recording music, either professionally or as a hobby, you will have a made the decision as to which Bit Depth and Sample rate to record your music at... whether you understand what that means or not!

At it's most basic, the sample rate determines the resolution (quality) of the audio capture during the recording stage. Simply put, the higher the sample rate, the more accurately the computer can digitise the waveform of your audio. Ok - that's not really simple. I don't think there is a simple way to write it... digital theory is a difficult subject to understand!

Those who I've spoken to, tutored and taught will know my thoughts on choosing sample rate (and bit depth) for particular projects and scenarios for the purposes of recording source material at the highest resolution, but there are also some other 'preemptive' reasons to track at the higher sample rates - specifically 96k.

1. Don't do your client a dis-service.

When someone commissions you to record a song (or album) for them, they're expecting you to be able to record their music at high quality - not standard quality. Forget the argument that "well, I'm going to dither it down to 44.1 for CD, I might as well record it at 44.1!" It's bollocks. If you were commissioned to design artwork a postage stamp, or a postcard, you wouldn't go buy yourself a number 2 pencil and a magnifying glass... you'd go buy a massive canvas, the finest brushes you could get and then you'd work meticulously on the small details that make up the bigger picture!

Working on audio is a similar principle. It's true that 44.1 already gives us an accurate digital representation of the analogous original - the Nyquist Theorem has already determined that. The upper sample rates exist to allow us to capture the bigger picture, whether you 'hear' the difference or not'.

Don't do your paying customers (or yourself) a dis-service by recording at the 'lowest possible quality'.


This alone, I would imagine, is unlikely to convince someone who's already made their minds up to record at the 'lowest possible quality'. Let's see how these next reason do...

2. Future proof your work - what happens if your album makes it big?
As you record enough songs, or enough albums, for enough clients - the odds increase of one of those albums tasting some modicum of success. When Dire Straits recorded Brothers in Arms, they had no idea that it would become the biggest selling CD of all time. Mark Knopfler had no idea that the album would be remixed and remastered for SACD, 5.1, Laser Disc, Vinyl re-release, YouTube, iTunes, etc etc etc.

Similarly, you have no idea which album you record is going to be successful in 2, 5, 10 or 20 years time.

You      Never      Know.
And
Your Client Never Knows.

You also never know which albums are going to be worked on again in the future. Either for remixes, to release using new technology... we just don't know what the future will bring any of us. 

When a publisher wants to release an album onto one of the many platforms available today, it doesn't get there by accident. Someone in an office will have made a phonecall to the owner of the session and will ask for a 24/96 version of the album/song.

Here's a question - is it up to
you to determine what the potential clients of the future should receive? My answer is no. It's up to the person paying the bill and in an industry as specialist as the music industry - those asking know what they want.

For the hobby musicians, recording their songs may just be something on their bucket list. They have no desires or plans for their music other than to give to friends and family. Personally - I think this is bit silly. Every song that becomes a recording has the potential to be enjoyed by other people, but I suppose it hinges on the awareness and the knowledge of the individual as to where they understand their music can go.

For the professional, who's spending their time and money
crafting a album, they want it to generate income. That income, at the bottom level, will come from CD sales and maybe self publishing sites such as Bandcamp.

But - for the mainstream market, if you're lucky (and calculating) enough to get your music there, you
have to be prepared to provide your music for a broad spectrum of uses.

And, as I stated, it's not up to
you to dictate the format in which a future client receives your product. You have to plan for all eventualities.

If you get a phone call asking for a 24/96 version of your album for MFIT - would you turn it down?
If you want to submit your music for sync at 24/44.1 - how do you know that your 16/44.1 won't be rejected as 'the wrong format'?

Do you think that up sampling from 44.1 - 96, just to meet a client's brief, is acceptable? Christian Wright (Mastering engineer - Abbey Road) put it perfectly when he said "That's fraud!" A client asks for a hi-res delivery of a product and they receive a 44.1 version packaged in 96k wrapping!

The point is preparing for all eventualities.

Sure, recording at 96 takes up more than double the hard drive space for a session. But, hard drives are cheap enough and you should always be consolidating and compacting archive sessions for storage. Someone once said to me: "
You'll never be fired for filing up a hard drive."
The one thing you 'should' be prepared for when making the jump to recording at 96k - the streaming requirements of your tracking/audio/session/project drive. With the wrong equipment, a session will cease up at 96k because the DAW can't get the audio from the drive quick enough. SSD media will help, thunderbolt drives will help and disk caching (Pro Tools HD) will also help too.

With all this in mind, ask yourself; "
Are you doing you and your clients and dis-service by insisting on recording at 'the lowest possible quality' for no other reason than to save disk space?" 
Most musicians are ignorant of recording technique and theory. They do music! They come to professional engineers for their knowledge - not because they have a good mic, Logic and a Mac! 
And 'knowledge', in this context, extends much further than just how to use a microphone and a DAW. 
Next time you open a session - remember this blog post... see if it makes you think about your recording format.