sample-rateI come across a lot of people who are confused when it comes to sample rates. They see a box that goes up to 192 kHz, and they instinctively think it must be better.

Bigger is better, right? Or is it?

First off, a CD is at a 44.1 kHz sample rate, which means it can reproduce up to around 22.05 kHz. Human hearing caps at 20 kHz, and most of us can’t hear much past 16 kHz anyway. So this should be fine, right?

Well now we have interfaces and converters going all the way up to 192 kHz. These can theoretically capture sounds up to 96 kHz.

Can we hear a difference?

That’s the question. I’m not doubting that 192 kHz is a higher resolution, meaning that it captures much more information, but can we hear a difference down in the 20 Hz – 20 kHz range? I’m doubtful.

I think we’re at the point of splitting hairs. There are engineers and scientists out there who are much smarter than I am who can show me on paper how the higher sample rates are theoretically superior. They talk about how there are lower harmonics of the higher frequency content that occur in the audible range, and that these harmonics are necessary for accurately capturing and reproducing sound.

Again, that’s all good, but I have to still ask can we hear a difference?

I’m not going to say definitively that there is no benefit from recording at 192 kHz. I simply want to make the point that when you’re deciding on an audio interface or converter, you shouldn’t place unnecessary importance on whether or not the device goes up to 192 k.

A cheap converter at 192 kHz won’t sound nearly as good as a good converter at 44.1 kHz. The sample rate is just one part of the equation. The analog components of the converter have just as much (if not more) influence on the sound quality as the digital converters themselves.

To top that off, if you’re reading this, then chances are you have a home studio. We home studio folks are focused on making great recordings on a budget. If you focus all your attention on using a high sample rate, then you use a $40 microphone, $50 preamp and $100 speakers…I don’t think that high sample rate is going to help you.

If I had to choose between good analog components – microphones, preamps, acoustic treatment, studio monitors – and a converter that goes up to 192 kHz, I’d go with the analog gear every time.

Why? Because I haven’t heard a remarkable difference at higher samples rates. Perhaps if I had a multi-million-dollar facility I would have the setup to be able to hear the difference, but I don’t. And the people who will be listening to the albums I produce won’t be listening on super high-end equipment either. They’ll be listening to it as an mp3 on their iPod.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t focus on creating great-sounding recordings. I’m simply saying that I don’t think using a super-high sample rate is a prerequisite for making good recordings.

Don’t blindly take my word for it. If you have an interface that does 44.1, 48, 88.1, 96, and 192 kHz, spend an afternoon recording the same thing at the different sample rates. My guess is you won’t be able to hear the difference. If you can, great!

In addition to potentially not being able to hear the differences, you also have to deal with the fact that recording at 192 kHz:

  • takes 4 times the amount of CPU to handle the audio. You can record 4 tracks at 44.1 kHz and use the same amount of CPU that it would take for you to record one track at 192 kHz.
  • takes up 4 times the amount of space on your hard drive. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard enough time with filling up my hard drive too quickly, and I do everything at 44.1 kHz. I can’t imagine filling up my drives 4 times as fast.

What do you think? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Let’s hear it. Leave a comment.

  • Jarek

    I recorded classical guitar using 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz. Same settings, same everything. I carefully did not move my guitar while changing SR. The card was Metric Halo ULN2 Expanded. Good card. Then I converted all files (except 44.1 of course) to 44.1kHz using Sample Manager which supposed to be one of the best soft for that job. I left 24bit. Next I sent these AIFF files to few my friends asking question: which sounds best? These are folks who have rec studios, some of them rather good. At least Adam A7 and so on. All of them pointed 44.1 not converted as the best sounding. Blind test. This led me to conclusion: yes, the higher SR sounds better however you must stick with it till the end. There are some people (Linn Records for example) that you can download even 192kHz masters in FLAC format. OK.
    HOWEVER, at the end of the day it seems that there are errors during SRC that make music sounding worse after conversion, so I think it is really better to record in 44.1kHz 🙂

  • Blackwing13

    I’m not against you. I,too, don’t hear obvious difference from standard 44.1/48 compared to higher sampling rates while recording.
    However, I guess our plugins do ‘hear’ the difference. When it comes to mixing, my plugins sounded much better in 88.2/96. Especially on EQ. Less artifacts, less ringing.
    Don’t take my words for granted. Try it. 🙂

  • Personally, I can’t hear the difference either, but one case where high sample rates are an advantage is if you plan on doing a lot of timestretching – in which case the extra samples can really improve the quality of your stretched output audio…

    • That’s the one scenario I can think of where higher sample rates could make a difference. Good call, Dan.

  • Hi Joe,

    I have to agree with you. At the end of the day everyone is listening in on their portable music device and most of the time it’s an MP3 file.

    I think we’ve traded high quality converters and “pristine” audio for really good songs and a chance to share our work with the rest of the world. Not a bad trade off. As technology becomes cheaper and more accessible we’ll see an improvement in sound quality as we’re seeing with picture and video. You can now get an HD camera for $250 and the same principle will follow suit in the realm of audio.

    Great post Joe.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks Mateo! You’re right. With internet getting SO fast, it will be easier to stream higher-quality audio.

  • Sorry… Hope I’m not overstaying my welcome here, but I wasn’t clear in my last comment (I keep telling myself not to post things from my phone when I’m super tired! :+) )
    If you begin a project at a higher sample rate than 44.1KHz, and it’s intended for CD, then at some point you will either have to (re-)enter the analog domain, or go through sample rate conversion (SRC). For most home studios, mixing in the box (ie. staying digital within your DAW for the mixing process) is the best way to go, with the greatest signal integrity. I swear by analog mixing in the “big rooms”, but at home, in-the-box is best, because unless you have a ‘worthy’ analog desk + outboard, you are doing the audio a disservice.
    SRC is also not ideal. I have done much A/B testing in great control rooms, and comparing SRC audio with the original – quite a noticable difference.
    Finally, because mastering one’s own work is so often necessary in the home-studio world, having the option of staying digital all the way through mastering can be a very good thing, because again, that would often be the path with the greatest signal integrity…

    Thanks – my $0.02

    • Good stuff, Jason! I’ve not done a lot of listening to different SRC algorithms, but I can certainly see how it could affect the sound. Thanks for sharing!

  • Another reason to stay at 44.1 is to avoid sample rate conversion later on: you therefore have the option of staying digital from start to finish.

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I tell ya, I can’t tell the difference at all. 44.1 khz at 16 bit sounds just fine to me. I don’t personally record with a computer yet. But those higher sample rates do not sound any different. I’ve tried recording at a higher sample rate with a Zoom H2 and the H4N Micro Handy Recorders. When you do that it hogs up much of the space on those SD Cards(much like recording your tracks on a computer at a higher sample rate). It’s not worth it. It’s a bunch of baloney.