I’ve mentioned numerous times in blog posts and episodes of “Ask Joe” that you need to record at 24-bit. Then I realized that I’ve not written an article specifically on this topic.

When you’re recording digital audio, there are two main settings that you will come across at some point – bit depth and sample rate.

We won’t get into sample rate today. I’ll save that for a future article. To summarize, sample rate measures how many times per second the audio is “sampled,” or measured. Common sample rate values are 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz, and 192 kHz. Is higher better? Hmm…I have my own take on this, but that’s for another day. :-)

For today, just know that if you record at 44.1 kHz, that means the volume of the audio signal gets measured 44,100 times per second. When you put all these tiny measurements together, you get a waveform.

Okay, moving on.

What is bit depth?

Sample rate determines the frequency with which the system measures the volume of the audio. Bit depth determines how many different volume measurements the system has to work with.

In other words, if you think of the audio as being measured by a ruler, the bit depth is how many notches that ruler has. Some rulers only measure in whole inches (low bit rate), while others allow you to measure within one-sixteenth of an inch.

A ruler with more notches allows for a great number of measurement options, and therefore a more accurate measurement.

Comparing Bits to Inches

Okay, so the higher the bit depth the more individual measurements we can achieve. How does that relate specifically to recording?

If you’re recording at 44.1 kHz, then you’re telling your analog-to-digital converter (i.e. your audio interface) to take a volume measurement of the audio once every 1/44,100th of a second. How does it measure the volume? In bits.

1 bit = 6 dB

“dB” stands for decibel. It is logarithmic measurement of volume. If you increase the level of a signal by 6 dB, it will sound twice as loud.

So, for our converter to measure the signal at 2 bit rather than 1 bit, it needs to be twice as loud.

The 16-Bit Ruler

Digital systems don’t have “in between” measurements. Everything is cut and dry in the Land of Didge (shout-out to Slau).

So, the smallest unit of measuring volume in a digital system is 1 bit. There’s no 1.5 bit or 1.42983003 bit.

This means that in a 16-bit system, you have 16 notches on your ruler. 16 potential measurements for your audio. That may not sound like a lot, but keep in mind that these measurements are being taken thousands of times per second.

Alright, we said that 1 bit equals 6 dB of dynamic range (or volume). What is the dynamic range of a 16-bit recording? The answer is 96 dB.

96 dB? That’s great, right? Sure it is…in a perfect world.

Noise Floor

The problem you run into is noise. Every audio system out there has some amount of inherent noise.

In other words, no recording system is perfectly quiet. The electrical components generate a low-level noise. Each piece of your system contributes to the noise party. All of this noise adds up, and it’s called the noise floor.

This doesn’t even take into account any room noise that might get picked up by a microphone.

The noise floor essentially “steals” away some of your dynamic range. Let’s say that all the noise added together was 18 dB. That’s 3 bits.

Since this noise occupies the bottom 3 bits of your system, the level of your audio needs to be recorded ABOVE 3 bits (or 18 dB), or it will be lost in the noise. So instead of having 96 dB of dynamic range, you realistically only have 78 dB (or 13 bits).

The gap between your recorded signal and the noise floor is getting smaller. This means that if you don’t record your signal loud enough, you’ll end up hearing this noise in your recordings. On the flip-side, if you record your signal too loud (to stay well above the noise), you’re in danger of clipping.

24-Bit to the Rescue!

Enter 24-bit recording, super-hero cape blowing in the wind.

Now, instead of giving your converter 16 measurement options, you’re giving it 24. And if you kept your calculator our from earlier, then you know that 24 bits x 6 dB = 144 dB dynamic range!

An audiologist will tell you that our ears aren’t even capable of hearing a full 144 dB of dynamic range. However, having this much available dynamic range allows you to create greater separation between the recorded audio signal and the noise floor.

When you add in the 18 dB of noise we have in our make-believe system, and you drop the usable dynamic range down to 126 dB, you still have a TON of breathing room left.

Check out this diagram:

As you can see, the 16-bit system is still fairly close to the noise floor. The 24-bit system, however, towers above the noise floor, making it much less of an issue when recording.

In a 24-bit system, you don’t need to record the levels super-hot, because you’re signal is not nearly as likely to drop down into the noise floor. This leads to better sound quality, less noise, and less stress when recording.

Do you record at 24-bit? Leave a comment.

[Photo by internets_dairy]

  • Jordan Biel

    Dude your explanation was freaking awesome! Thank you!!!!

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Thanks!

  • Bill

    Higher bit depth allows for higher dynamic range, but it does not ensure that it exists.

    There are poorly-designed 24-bit converters with worse dynamic range than well-designed 16-bit converters, but people think “more bits must be better!” and buy the crappier product. The bit depth tells you nothing; dynamic range is what’s important.

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/lachlanlikesathing lachlanlikesathing

    This article is completely misleading.

    If the noise floor in your environment is 18 db, in order to hear the loudest and softest noise in your recording, for a theoretically perfect 16 bit recording you would need to set the volume level at 114 (18+ 96) decibels. This means the loudest noise in the recording will be the volume of a car horn from 1m away, or a steel mill, or a live music concert. https://www.chem.purdue.edu/chemsafety/Training/PPETrain/dblevels.htm

    You will not listen that loudly. This means that you will set the volume lower, which means the softest noises will be masked by the environmental noise.

    Switching to 24 bit audio WILL NOT solve that problem because you will NOT change your listening volume. You do not suddenly become more comfortable with a steel mill blaring out of your speakers just because it’s 24 bit.

    So again, you will set the highest volume to be the same, and this time for a theoretically perfect 24 bit recording now even more low level detail will be masked by the environmental noise.

    If you actually wanted to hear every detail in a 144dB dynamic range 24 bit audio recording, you would need to set the volume level at 162 dB (18+144). This is louder than a rocket engine take off and would almost certainly make you go deaf.

    A dynamic range higher than 96dB is actually inconvenient because it will force you to turn up the volume higher to hear lower level detail. This is why dynamic range compression exists in albums, even if it is abused.

    You can learn a bit more about it in this video I made: http://youtu.be/nLEhfieoMq8

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      I love anonymous commenters. haha :)

  • Robert Plant

    Holy Cheese, Batman. I just wanted to know if 24 bit digital reverb was any good in a Yamaha Stage PAS 300. You guys are crazy with all your talk of relativity and volt theory and such. I record at 96Khz and 24 bit using a Mac Pro, Logic Pro, Alesis Multimix 6, and a pair of nineteen-eighties headphones with a Samson dynamic microphone and I don’t have any of these issues. Must be the treatment.

    • Jimmy Page

      If you’re using a Samson dynamic mic, save the electrons and just record 16/44.1. You’ll get higher plugin counts and dramatically increase your available hard disk space. To answer your other question: Yes. It’s 8 bits better than the 16 bit reverb.

  • snakebite

    Also need to consider in all the following discussion that the input signal prior to recording was gained sufficiently to make full use of the 16 or 24 bits. It is probably not, otherwise it would be prone to saturation at some points. So there’s several bits lost straight away.In reality, maybe only the lower 12 or 14 bits are being used in a 16 bit system. Then if someone does some digital processing/enhancemt and has the gain set a bit low, then there’s several more bits gone. With a 24 bit system, got a lot my headroom to play with.

  • IzirAtig

    Actually in a 16-bit system you have 65536 notches on your ruler and in 24 bit you have 16777216 notches. It’s about sound quality and lower level means less notches. All audio processing in daw destroys little bit of this quality so even thou final CD is gonna be 16 bit there’s good to be lot of extra “notches” to keep the quality.

    • Bill

      What you don’t understand is that most of those “notches” are wasted. They can’t measure anything useful because the noise makes things move around far more than those notches from one sample to the next.

  • Corey S. Sexton (USC) History

    Ugh,, super hero cape is right.. I have been told since the stone ages by every analog engineer to record at 16bit (as that is what goes onto a CD) I am probably wayyy off here.. but I have used 16bit for the past 4 years and could never understand why my RMS mixes weren’t as loud as the others I’ve heard.. I was starting to think I was inSANE!… so if you record into 24bit the mix will clear up and get louder?…

    I think I love you..

  • Bill U

    Can anyone comment on Erica’s point “It’s a myth that 24 bits has more resolution than 16 bits, other than a theoretically lower noise floor. The notion that 24 bits has smaller steps is incorrect, and misses how a D/A converter’s reconstruction filter works” since this flies in the face of the entire point of the article.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Like I commented to her, I don’t feel there’s really a point in arguing or debating. I record everything at 24-bit and move on to making great-sounding music. The technical theory doesn’t really help anyone make better music, y’know?

      • Bill U

        Joe, are you saying that the original article is therefore useless since it encourages debate on the subject matter?

        Regardless of whether or not one hears benefits in recording at higher bit depths, I would like to know the technical reasons why, or why not. Thus my interest in the article in the first place.

        • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

          I’m not saying it’s useless, but I’ve found that the people who want to really dive into the technical stuff a lot of times are avoiding making music. :)

          • http://www.facebook.com/stirling.nathan Nathan Stirling

            Yeah, all those masses of educated people avoiding making music because they know stuff…….Go figure.

            • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

              Not the masses. I’ve just met those people who get so hung up on the technical stuff and literally haven’t finished a song in like YEARS.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Erica-Mathis/100002238870948 Erica Mathis

    Have you ever assessed the dynamic range of a typical studio
    room, never mind the typical home recording room? For most sources, you’d need to record in a million dollar anechoic chamber to get a noise floor as low as 16 bit digital audio. Using 24 bits instead of 16 lets you record at a lower level overall and that’s were the advantage starts and ends. However recording at 24 bits taxes your CPU more as well. It’s a myth that 24 bits has more resolution than 16 bits, other than a theoretically lower noise floor. The notion that 24 bits has smaller steps is incorrect, and misses how a D/A converter’s reconstruction filter works. Further, the noise floor of any recording – especially one made in a home studio – is usually limited by the ambient noise of the room and heating / AC system. Further, no 24-bit converters actually deliver 24 bits of digital audio. They can’t even do that in theory due to the thermal noise floor (Johnson noise) which is around -131 dB for a 20 KHz bandwidth. This is probably more technical than anyone here cares about: Human’s aren’t capable of hearing a difference in 16 bit vs 24 bit recording.

    Keep this in mind: Even 16 bits is 20+ dB quieter than the best professional 2″ analog tape. If Quincy Jones could record “Thriller” on 2″ tape, the LAST thing the home recording enthusiasts needs to worry about is whether they should record at 16 bits or 24 bits!

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Fair enough. I feel this discussion is probably a bit moot. Musicianship and talent far outweigh the technical nitty-gritty. :)

    • Boston02116

      No 16 bit system delivers 16 bits of resolution. So no reason not to use 24 bit. Who cares about computer power and storage it’s plenty powerful and dirt cheap now. You can tout all the theory you want. Surprised you didn’t start a Nyquist debate about why 44khz sample rate is good enough. All I know is the difference I hear between between CD’s and 24 bit/192 kHz recording is night and day.

      • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

        Keep it nice, folks. If you’re looking to debate and argue, go somewhere else.

  • Max

    If you are concerned with the amount of audible noise in the back round wouldn’t the quality of audio improve if you recorded in a sound controlled studio? If you did that then wouldn’t it not matter if the microphone was 16 bit or 24 bit? Or am I completely missing the point…

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      At this point, I don’t think it matters. Can’t think of a good reason NOT to record at 24-bit, y’know

  • Mac

    In theory, the 144dB dynamic range of 24bit allows us to quantise down
    to just a few nano-volts! However, at this level we are talking about
    the noise level generated by a single resistor. So in practice, many of
    the LSBs (Least Significant Bits) when recording in 24bit contain just
    system noise. In other words, the theoretical noise floor of a 24bit
    digital system is far in excess of what is actually possible in the real
    world of noisy electronics. That is why 24bit DACs are not able to
    actually resolve 24bits of dynamic range. If you read an earlier post I
    mention that some ADCs self dither, this is because the random noise
    generated by even the finest grade electronics is easily enough to cause
    the dithering effect.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Thanks for all the comments, Mac!

  • Mac

    You can’t hear the differene, it’s not that you don’t have the equipment or the ears, it is
    not humanly possible in theory or in practice under any conditions. Not
    unless you can tell the difference between white noise and white noise
    that is well below the noise floor of your listening environment.

  • Mac

    The entire dynamic range of some types of music is sometimes less than
    12dB. The recordings with the largest dynamic range tend to be symphony
    orchestra recordings but even these virtually never have a dynamic range
    greater than about 60dB. All of these are well inside the 96dB range of
    the humble CD.

    • Bill

      This doesn’t take into account that human ears are frequency analyzers. Even if the “musical dynamic range” is 12 dB, the difference between the full-scale bass and the high-frequency hiss can be 100 dB.

  • Mac

    “24-bit does actually give you 144 dB of dynamic range” it is pure theory not related to facts that converter introduces the noise itself so dynamic range is much lower

  • Mohie Tikari

    I use a a Mac and record at 96KHz and 24 bits. The results are understandably good

  • http://www.babysitterpromocodes.com/ Sparrow

    I have a soundcard. So I am in confusion now what setting would give me most perfect sound. 1. 48KHz and 16 Bit ? or 2. 96 KHz and 24 Bit ?

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Always 24 bit. And I honestly don’t think you’ll hear a difference from 96k versus 48k.
      I vote you do both and listen to the difference and decide for yourself.

      • IzirAtig

        Maybe it’s about ears but I hear difference between 96k and 48k. 96 warmer and less “digital” sound.

        • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

          You’ve got better ears than me then! :)

        • Bill

          Doesn’t matter what you think you hear. You have to prove it in a double-blind test or you’re imagining it.

  • Kyle White

    Hi Joe,

    Great idea with the ruler analogy! Overall there is some good information here, along with a few inaccuracies. I wanted to point out the more interesting one below.

    “If you increase the level of a signal by 6 dB, it will sound twice as loud.”

    I do not believe this is correct. An increase in the level of a signal by 6dB will cause a measurement device to say it is twice as loud, however, the human listener will not *perceive* it as twice as loud. An increase in the level of a signal by roughly 10dB will cause a human listener to perceive it as twice as loud.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Ah…I though it was 6 not 10.

  • http://www.rosemaryln.com/ Andrew Gaul

    Hey Joe, Good job on this article, man. I hadn’t seen an approach to bit depth like this before.

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  • Kyle McComb

    I realized I needed 24 bit when I noticed how bad the noise floor is on my digital Yamaha piano… Seriously, play really quietly, the resolution is terrible. And also, at certain velocities on certain notes, you can hear thumps and footsteps and stuff from the studio where the samples were recorded :) It’s amusing. Good article though, something to keep in mind when I buy a new interface (and I know how anti-GAS you are, but this is necessary, need more than a 2×2).

  • http://www.calogeropanvino.com Calogero Panvino

    Hi Joe,

    If creating music using 24 bit depth, what happens to the sound quality if the music is then recorded to a normal CD at 24 bit depth (instead of 16)?

  • Twacce

    I record in 16 bit with my microphone and it has zero noise background, no hissing when recording just a clear voice, only differnce i think is if u want to sound more digital, i just add voice compression and it brings it out more the voice so really theres not that much difference if ur a sound engineer u can just change things to make sound better .

    • lolol

      wow! zero noise floor! that is one AMAZING and NATURE DEFYING microphone. nice, where can i buy one?

  • Paul

    Thanks….
    Now i know what i need to know : 24bit vs 16bit …:P

  • MrCakehole

    I don’t know why some musicians and producers get so hung up about sound quality….content is what the listener is interested in, and from my personal experience, they don’t care one jot if there is a small amount of background noise. I’ve produced on worn out hissy analogue tape machines, humming Ataris and  crackly PC’s and nobody has ever complained about sound quality, even though, in some cases, it has been extremely evident.  

    • gane707

      Your right, it is an opinion of a listener. But who are you to say that they don’t care. Everyone has a personal opinion, you can’t speak for them. I think the reason why you said YOUR people “don’t care” Chances  are, those who went to you  were clients looking for cheap rates and a place that “sound okay”, or your just a home studio trying to build a name for yourself and you “HATE” on others who does quality work. I don’t know what type of musicians you’ve worked with that says they don’t care about “small amount of background noise” but “EVIDENTLY” they’re most likely amateurs……The reason I THINK FROM MY PERSONAL  PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE ” People who are Hung Up about sound quality” are people who likes to per-fect sound. Whether its Vocals, Instrumental, TV,  or the sound of there MUFFLER on their car, they want a perfect quality sound. THE POINT IS “MRCAKEHOLE” all this guy was doing was giving free information to help people out and to give them a better understanding on Frequencies. You obviously own a home studio and work at 9-5 job and you call your self a producer or some sort of engineer….hmmmmm  “I don’t know why some producers or engineers get so hung up on LOW QUALITY…….”

  • http://twitter.com/wakeupcallde Roman Bruckner

    I’m always recording in 24bit, but I’m not really sure if it’s the “right” thing to do. Sooner or later, I’m aiming for a cd release. Hence I have to go down to 16bit. Now I somehow doubt that recording in 24bit, and then putting a dither on it and compress it to 16bit will sound better or just as good as simply recording and mixing in 16bit.

  • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

    That’s completely different. That’s referring to the internal processing of your DAW/plug-ins. This article is about 16-bit and 24-bit AUDIO files.

    • rayray5555

      that seemed like a good question, im confused if i record in 24 bit but have to bring it down in 16bit when putting it on cd will it still sound better since i recorded in 24? note: i realize it sounds better in 24 bit, because i normally bounce it twice, one in 24bit to i hear it on my computer, but then one in 16 bit to put on cd,

      • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

        Yeah, even though the final CD version is 16 bit, you still get all the sonic benefits if you RECORD at 24-bit.

  • Gabe Gibitz

    This was exactly what I needed to have explained! Thanks Joe!

  • Reflect_theband

    awesome blog. Thanks so much. I have been recording at 24 bit but didnt know why.

  • R.j Ce

    after reading this makes me feel like im recording wrong..

    i have an at4040 condMIC/mboxmini… and on the back of the mic have 2 switches (LOWCUT: high/low & PAD:-10db/0db) which is the best settings to use?. and what Bit and whatt Khz do i set it up to?. reply would be very much appreciated, thank you

  • http://alonetone.com/colingarvey Colin G

    Yeah, I changed to 24-bit two years ago when I upgraded my computer. In all honesty I don’t really know how much difference it makes to my sound, but as you say, it is nice to be able to leave tons of headroom and not have to worry about losing quality as a result.

  • Astewart

    I think I “bit” off more than I can chew here.. I do record in 24 bit, but I mix in 32 bit floating, if that makes sense. I have noticed the difference from 16 bit (old system reel to reel) and the new 24 bit on computers, and it is very noticeable.

  • Samuelhanson14

    So wouldnt it be worth it to record in a higher bit rate (like 32) if possible? If one is aiming to do commercialized high sonic quality sound perhaps?

  • Ramorim

    I’m not so sure that I agree on this one. First of all, having 78 dB of headroom is still A LOT considering most musical scenarios.
    Even if you try to record an entire Orquestra, I’m not so sure that you can achieve that level of headroom, considering all the ambient and room noise + microphone pre-amp (etc).

    Even in the most “audiophile” recordings you can still hear some noise (in some very quiet parts of music), and I don’t believe that they’re recording on a 44.1 khz /16 bit system (in which most people end up listening, at the very best scenario).

    If we talk about pop/rock, almost every instrument gets its amount of compression, and in the end (at the mastering stage) it will have even more compression and hard limiting.

    I’m not saying that there is no benefit in 24 bit recording, but if we look at it that way, then why not all the way up to the max specs of bit depth _and_ sampling rate? :-)

  • http://www.mistuhjj.com J2

    Im like a scientist with my recordings. never too hot never too cold on my levels so 16bit vs 24bit is not an issue for me. However, I could see this being useful when recording other less-experienced artists

  • Michael

    This is not exactly true… 16 bit is not 16 different meassurements.
    It is a 16bit code, meaning that you have 16 zero’s and 1’s..

    So the lowest numbers is
    0000000000000001
    0000000000000010
    0000000000000011
    0000000000000100
    0000000000000101
    0000000000000110
    0000000000000111
    0000000000001000
    and so on.
    It gives you 65536 different measures meants in a 16bit digital code.
    And in a 24bit code you have 16777216 different measurements.

    So you cannot say that 1 bit is 1 bit, and that next i 2, so you can’t have 1.5 bit.
    Bit is not the number but how many bits in the digital code you have.
    A 2 bit code will leave with
    000 = 0
    001 = 1
    010 = 2
    011 = 3
    100 = 4
    101 = 5
    110 = 6
    111 = 7
    = 8 different measurements.
    And so on.

    So 24bit leaves you with a lot more detailed waves, but then again, when everything is converted to analog at some time, before it hits the speakers, every step from the digital system will be smooth again after passing the convertor.
    So the only diffents between 16 and 24bit will be the noise. It will probably be hearable in some recordings, but in others I doubt it. I depends on you convertors, how many digitally recorded instruments and how many analog/mic recordings your song have.
    A fully digital song with only synths recorded in 16bit, i doubt that you will hear a differens. Some mixing engines liek Adobe Audio Audition uses 32bit mixing. When mixing a lot of tracks, and having the system calculating tons of effects, reverb, chorus and stuff and putting it all together in the master, it helps to many measurements all the way throug. If you lose a little all the time it will add up to more in the end.

    But if you have the possibility to record and mix in 24bit, use it.. It can only get better, not worse :o)

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      You’re right, and you have a much more mathematical mind than I do. I
      realize that it’s not simply 16 measurements, but since this is simply a
      beginner’s explanation of bit depth, I didn’t want to dive deep into all the
      specifics.

      You’re absolutely right, and I appreciate you pointing it out. However,
      knowing all those numbers you listed doesn’t really help us make better
      music right? :-)

      • Michael

        You’re absolutelly right :o) But then again it seems stupid spending 1000’s of dollars buying nice studio equepment, and then everybody is listening to the music on an ipod with 10$ headphones sounding like crap :o))
        But maybe if the music was crap to start with, it would be even more crap on ipods :o))

        • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

          :-) It’s a never-ending circle.

        • Pal Sheldon

          I had a client come to complaining of a digital glitch in his track we had mixed… when we listened to the 48K 24bit master there was no click only guitar finger movement.. which the itunes with ear buds made sound like digital hash… mmm bring back the…. no lets get something better… Pal Sheldon

      • DonB

        Yes, 16 notches in a ruler is a simplified way to look at it, but it doesn’t really get across the huge difference between 16 and 24 bit.  With your explanation I’d be tempted to think, “24 notches isn’t that much more.  Only half-again as many.”  That’s not even close.  It’s really 256 TIMES as many notches!

        Another simple way to look at it, which is more realistic, is that 16-bit is 2^16.  (2 raised to the 16), while 24 bit is 2^24.  As Michael pointed out that’s a much bigger difference.  A ruler with 65 thousand notches vs. one with 16 million.  (rounding)

        • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

          You’re right. It’s an exponential difference. :)

    • BB

      Bits determine the amount of dynamic range from top to bottom. If you don’t capture the signal up converting it will not give you more content. It never existed.

  • Chad Wilson

    Dale Brown taught me this using a graph with X and Y axis. He plotted bit depth on the Y axis and sample rate on the X axis. It was very helpful to see the problem with steps on the bit side of things. Your article helps a lot with explaining the noise floor. Good work man.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Ah…Dale Brown. Miss that guy. :-)

  • Steve

    You explained that well, I esp. like the ruler analogy. I’m looking at a 16bit recording device and could you tell me…
    What was the bit depth equivalent of the recording device used for Pet Sounds or Abbey Road? Is there a bit depth equivalent to those tape machines? What was the noise floor on those machines? (not the noise of the mics, preamp & etc they used, but the recording tape machine)Curious. Thanks.

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  • Jay

    Great Discussion! I think that chart is a little misleading though. It makes it seem as though recording at 24 bit will give you much more headroom. I don’t believe this is the case. To my knowledge recording at 24 bit will give you increased resolution and low level detail (ala more dynamic range of course) – If you have a noisy signal, switching to 24 bit will not pick up less noise. Make sense?

    • Jay

      …and I just read Kim’s post above mine. She put it so much more eloquently. Thanks.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Jay, 24-bit does actually give you 144 dB of dynamic range vs 96 dB. So that’s a significant difference. Whether that difference is “headroom” or not is more of just a matter of semantics, since digital systems don’t have “headroom” like analog systems do. There’s either no signal, signal, or clipping.

      I’ve done an experiment with a nice hand-held recorder where I switched it back and forth between 16 and 24. There was more audible noise at 16-bit.

      That’s not a super scientific experiment, but it was definitely intriguing.

  • http://kimlajoie.com Kim Lajoie

    Good clear writing, well done.

    Unfortunately, it’s not 100% correct. Noise floor added by analogue equipment is relative to nominal (either 0dBfs or somewhere like -18dBfs, depending on how you view the world).

    So if your analogue equipment has a collective noise floor at -72dBfs (as per your example), it will be at -72dBfs regardless of whether you digitise at 16 bit or 24 bit.

    Where 24 bit recording has an advantage, though, is when your analogue noise floor is lower than -96dBfs. Most good mic preamps, for example, will have over 100dB dynamic range.

    In other words, when recording at 16 bit, your highest noise floor is actually coming from the digitisation process itself. When recording at 24 bit, this digital noise floor is now far below the noise floor from the other analogue equipment in the chain.

    I’ve written a bit more about this issue here:

    http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/bit-depth/

    http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/dynamic-range-and-headroom/

    Hope that helps!

    -Kim.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Great, thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/E.L.COPELAND?ref=profile e.l.copeland

    wow its great to see some folks getting it in. For me . I have been a Cubase user since day one, the 32 bit setting works great when using plug ins and I’d have to work real hard to overload my system. The biggest and best use of sampling rates is 88.2 it just adds the air to a mix as Dolby on Dolby off did when using tape. (yes I am that old)Its very overlooked . If your using Protools , I have noticed is really makes a difference in your final mixes, even when converted to 320 mp3’s. I don’t think we as audio professionals and those who record at home, can argue about sample rates etc, when we have the music buying public buying tracks from Jay Z . which are made from 8 channel stems that are 320 mp3’s. It’s more “what” your recording than the “how” of the music, sound scape, etc. I recently mastered a Grammy nominated project that was done on a very old PC, with one keyboard work station, and a single mic. Lets just make good quaility music that stands up next to anything ” major label”. Nuff said!

  • Ox

    Joe,

    Thanks for the insightful post. It totally de-mystified the whole bit depth and has me racing for the studio now to hear the difference for my self.

    I really appreciate you covering this topic as it seems to be just as important as signal chain, gear, and talent. I’m the type of guy that needs a little logic to become a believer and when I ask most people of the subject they just cop out and say ‘Cause that’s the way it is’ now I know!

    You’ve made a believer out of me. Really love the site! Thought I’d leave a comment so you knew to keep up the good work!

    Thanks,
    -Ox

  • http://abletondenver.com Marc

    Great article, totally on board with you, but here is an advanced idea / question:

    db has 2 modes of perception. Mathematical and audible. In the physical world the “doubling” of sound has a math based formula where as 3db the “sound energy” or power of the waves doubles. This is an “on paper calculation”.

    On the other hand it takes more (and even this is variable due to room, barometric pressure, humidity, etc) to hear “the doubling” of the sound.

    How does the math you discuss relate to these imperfect human characteristics?

    One other thing you need to put into the mix is dithering and how LSB’s are handled. I think you will touch on this (or may have already).

    When migrating from one bit depth to another or processing in an different bit-depth environ, there are bits “added” and “dropped”. The LSB (least significant bit/s) are the ones to be dropped. The “32 bit processing” can frequently cause audio havoc as you get poor dithering and bad bit handling. The concept of “floating bits” enters the picture (Slau begins to hit on this above). A topic of great discussion. How and what floats, when are they added, how, and when are they dropped in the signal path.

    Sound trivial? Not so much – Any time you change sample / bit / and other attributes you diminish the quality of your sound (fact).

    Joe you kick major butt on these topics. But anyone who digs on this article should think about the digital signal path and work really hard to keep a consistent rate/depth for the whole signal chain. A 48 bit internal may not be better then 24bit.

    This is but the beginning, look here for some real freaky stuff (I could teach a semester on this):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal-loudness_contour

    F-R-E-A-K-Y!

    Joe you roxxor the tex-nology.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Ah…the “Fletcher Munson” curves. Mix sounds just right at 85 dB? Turn it down and watch it crash and burn. ;-)

    • http://www.huzzam.com peter jaques

      Marc said: “Any time you change sample / bit / and other attributes you diminish the quality of your sound (fact).”

      Not quite. You can up-sample (go from 16 to 48 bits, say) with no quality loss. Why? Because you don’t need to do any rounding. You’re essentially just adding “.000000000″ to the end of the number, so if in 16 bits you have a sample of, say, 4325, in 48 bits it’s basically 4325.000000000 (yes I’m simplifying). You can then convert that back to 16 bits by lopping off the decimal point & all those zeroes, and you get exactly the same 4325 you started with.

      The problem comes in if you have (e.g. after EQ processing) a 48 bit number like 4325.345823748. When you go to chop off the decimal point, you are losing information & detail. So generally downsampling (decreasing the number of bits) does lose quality, while upsampling (increasing bits) does not.

      Bonus info: upsampling does not increase sound quality, by the way. I’ve been asked this many times. Aside from certain “sound repair” processes, you can’t really get quality back once it’s gone.

      ~peter in oakland

    • sean

      Hi Joe,

      So for recording voice-overs it is better to have one that goes to 24 bit? That is what I would use my pre-amp for and the one I was leaning towards was the behringer umc22 16 bit 48 khz. Would you say that is good for recording voice-overs? There other version the umc202 goes up to 24 bit at 96 khz what would u recommend? Again I am doing no mixing just voice overs. I would be using a rode procaster hooked up to this and recording through recordpad on my computer and or wavepad sound editor

      • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

        I recommend 24-bit for everything.

  • Adam

    So does recording at 24 bits eat up more processor power during recording and mixing? Because my out-dated hardware has a problem with too many 16-bit tracks once I start to apply plugins.

    Perhaps, Joe, you could write an article on making the most of available system resources?

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      It will theoretically require more processing, but I doubt it’ll make a noticeable difference in available processing power. You WILL notice an improvement in audio quality.

      I actually did an entire series of posts on preserve processing power. Here are the links:
      Preserve Processing Part 1 – Bus Several Tracks Through the Same Effect
      Preserve Processing Part 2 – Commit to Plug-in Settings
      Preserve Processing Part 3 – Offline Processing

    • http://www.huzzam.com peter jaques

      It probably won’t matter for mixing, because (as Joe pointed out) most plugins operate internally at even higher bit rates (48 bit is probably most common; 32 & even 64 bit are out there too). So your 16 bit files get changed to 48 bit, just like my 24 bit files do. The actual work of the compressor/EQ/whatever ends up being the same.

      For tracking it probably wouldn’t make much difference to the processor, but it’s 1.5 times as much work for your hard drive. So if your disk is up to spec (7200 rpm, and internal, firewire, or esata) you’d probably be able to get away with it.

      ~Peter in oakland

  • http://jamie@jamiecer.com Jamie CERNIGLIA

    Another great article Joe,

    I run every session I have (barring voiceovers) at 24bit/88.2. I’ve found that my finished mixes have more air to them when compared to 16bit/44.1. Now I won’t say that it is because of the bit rate or the sample rate as there are two variables that I am changing at the same time. I have noticed that 24 bit (in pro tools) sounds much better when you leave plenty of headroom on the individual tracts. In the 16bit world we always wanted to “maximize (y)our bits” The battle was always to get your levels as hot as possible without clipping. This was always super stressful when recording, and then a pain when mixing because all of the plug-ins would clip. In 24 bit land just get a decent signal to pro tools, allow anywhere from 6 to 12 db or headroom, and you are golden.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      It really is freeing once you realize you can give up trying to get the meter within 2 pixels of the clip light while recording.

  • http://www.sessionswithslau.com Slau

    Hi Joe,

    LOL Hollaback!

    Hey, I just wanted to point out something that I think is important to clarify. Rather than “16 notches,” a binary system can represent many thousands of steps. Much like the ratios of decibels, the bit depth is logarithmic. For example, with only 4 bits (for values of 1, 2,4 and 8), it’s possible to represent 16 discrete numbers (or levels). The real strength is in the doubling of each value with each additional bit. So, with only four more bits, we can now represent as many as 256 values. That’s a 16-fold increase in resolution for only 4 more bits. One can really begin to see the power in resolution as we climb the bit tree. At 16 bits, we’re in the 65/532 column and can represent any value up to double that number. Adding another 8 bits to bring us up to 24 gives us an astonishing number of discrete values.

    One other thing I wanted to point out is the issue of 32-bit values. Some folks have the notion that there are systems capable of recording at higher resolution than 24-bit. Currently, 24 bits are all we have in terms of converters. What happens beyond those converters is simply processing that occurs at a higher resolution in software. In fact, Pro Tools works internally at 48 bits. Thing is, when we’re coming in and out of the real world, it’s a maximum of 24 bits.

    Keep up the great work and I’ll be listening intently for your upcoming podcast.

    Slau

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Thanks buddy. Great clarifications.

    • http://www.huzzam.com peter jaques

      Yep I was going to point out the same thing. Most simply, a 16 bit system has about 65,000 notches, while a 24 bit system has 16,000,000. So it’s a *much* more sensitive & detailed “ruler.”

      (the math: 2 to the 16th power is 65,536; 2 to the 24th power is 16,777,216)

      ~peter in oakland
      (from memphis originally, by the way — i see you’re in smyrna, joe)

    • Bill

      So, with only four more bits, we can now represent as many as 256
      values. That’s a 16-fold increase in resolution for only 4 more bits.

      But the only thing you’re measuring with that increased resolution is noise.

  • Hugo

    If 16-bit is good and 24-bit is better, then why are 1-bit recorders such as the Korg MR-1000 considered superior?

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Good question. 1-bit recorders operate completely differently from 16- and 24-bit. 16 and 24-bit recorders use PCM (pulse-code modulation). 1-bit recorders use DSD (direct-stream digital), which operates at a super-high sample rate (like 5.4 MHz). Rather than measuring each sample on a “ruler,” these measure the first sample, then it simply asks itself “Is the next sample louder or softer than the previous?” Those are the only two options, so a 1-bit system allows you to measure each sample relative to the previous one.

      With such a huge sample rate, you end up with ENORMOUS files. Computers/hard drives couldn’t stream such massive files in a multi-track setting, which is mostly why it hasn’t made its way into the major DAW platforms.

      All that to say, 1-bit and 24-bit converters are completely different animals.

    • http://lightrainends.bandcamp.com/ neil

      I don’t know much about it, but I was reading a bit (haha) on wikipedia the other day:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_Stream_Digital

      It’s an interesting idea, and maybe it does sound better, but nobody really has the playback gear for it, so your music would almost certainly get dumped back to PCM formats anyway (WAV, MP3).

  • Al

    Thanx Joe for sharing your knowledge.
    Well explained for beginners and intermediate users.

    Since I’m recording at 24-bit, I noticed there’s more room for further editing purposes.
    On the other hand, I know that the default sample rate/bit depth for an audio CD is 44.1/16. So the question is when I bounce to disk/record to disk , what happens exactly?
    Is there any lose of frequesncies after coverting to Wave ACD format? In other words, what’s the difference between 16 and 24 when making an audio cd out of protools session.

    Thanx again for helping beginners to learn more.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Hey Al, I’ll cover this in a future post. When converting down from 24-bit to 16-bit, you need to apply dither. Essentially, you’re lopping off 8 bits, but you get the benefits of recording the audio and mixing down at 24-bit.

      • Cush

        ^^
        I look forward to this post. That conversion and dither have always sort of baffled me.

        I stumbled upon your website late last night, and I’ll tell ya…I wish I would’ve found it a year ago. The wealth of knowledge and suggestions here is astonishing. Thanks Joe and everyone that contributes with comments.

        • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

          Thanks Cush! I’m glad you found the site! Welcome.

  • http://www.lightrainends.com Neil

    24BFL!!! That’s ’24-bit for life’ — i’m thinking of getting a tattoo:)

    When I switched from a 16-bit interface to a 24-bit interface, I definitely noticed a significant difference. Not so much in just listening back to a single recorded track, but in how multiple tracks came together in a mix. The noise floor in each track seems to get added together, and you end up with something pretty noticeable.

    Not sure if ProTools has a similar plug-in, but in Logic there’s the “Bitcrusher”, that effectively reduces your bit rate. I think it sounds pretty awful as an effect, but it’s an educational tool on what bit depth means, as you listen to a very clean sounding track get noisier and noisier.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Ha. Removing bits is a fun way to screw up a sound. Great for sound design. Awful for everything else. :-)