Audio - Working with common audio file types

Each different file type serves a particular purpose and each has its pros and cons. Sampling rate (sound quality) and compression (file size vs. sound quality) are just two of the factors needed to be taken into consideration when you have a particular objective to achieve, such as putting music on your homepage.

FILE EXTENSIONS AND PROGRAM ASSOCIATIONS You can identify a file type by its extension. Normally, Windows hides the file extension for known file types, and if you are unable to see these last three letters, simply right-click on the file and select Properties. From here, you can also see the file's size. Alternatively, select View-Folder Options, click the View tab, and uncheck "hide file extensions for known file types". Quite often, and especially when you've installed an audio player such as RealJukebox or Winamp that supports a large range of file types, your just-downloaded audio file might have a particular program's icon attached to it, as opposed to Windows' standard unknown file type icon. This means that your file has previously been associated with the program that icon represents, usually upon installation, and you are able to play the file by simply double-clicking on it. The Web site from which you are downloading normally advises you which program you'll need to play/hear the file you're downloading or streaming.

.WAV Most of you will have come across a wave file at one point, especially under Windows. Microsoft created this uncompressed format for Windows and it has since become the default standard for PC audio files, being employed for a variety of uses ranging from in-built Windows sounds to computer games and even CD-quality audio. This is the most commonly used file format when ripping a CD before encoding it to MP3.

.MP3 The MP3 format - that nemesis of the recording industry - is the most prominent way of distributing audio data across the Internet. Startup companies such as Napster and mp3.com have created an entire industry from it. While the legalities are still blurred regarding copyright infringements, the fact that such good quality audio can be achieved for such a little file size is the thing to remember. This format can basically squash a five-minute song at near-CD quality to roughly just 5MB.

STREAMING AUDIO

One of the main drawbacks of music from the Internet is that the surfer usually has to download an entire sound or song before being able to hear it. The problem is not just the waiting time involved but the fact that the downloaded file may not be to your liking. This is where streaming comes in.

Various streaming technologies have spawned industries such as Internet radio stations, cartoons, video clips and more. A notable Internet-only Australian streaming radio station that recently folded was BigFatRadio.com, featuring stars such as Helen Razer of JJJ fame.

Most audio players such as Music-Match and Winamp support streaming, with Winamp being able to connect straight into its sister company, Shoutcast.com. More notably, RealPlayer is widely used and is quite easy to set up; you may have noticed its file extensions of .rm and .ram floating about on your computer. A lot of streaming content can be found at www.real.com. Other notable streaming file formats are Liquid Audio, used by sites like Chaos Music, and there is also Microsoft's .asx format. Programs such as Total Recorder (www.HighCriteria.com) can even capture an audio stream to a .wav file.

CONVERTING AUDIO FILE FORMATS

To do this you need a good sound editor such as Cool Edit 2000 (www.syntrillium.com) or Sound Forge (www.soundforge.com). Just open a particular file from within the program and save it as a different format.

OVERVIEW OF COMMON AUDIO FILES

File extension Primary purpose Best program to use.wav Microsoft's PC standard for audio Any Windows audio program such as Winamp or Windows Media Player.mp1, .mp2, .mp3 MP3 and its earlier incarnations are the most popular form of compressing audio today Windows Media Player, Winamp, MusicMatch and many more.ra Real Audio file. To hear a .ra, you will need to download the entire file first. Real Audio Player; www.real.com.ram Real Audio Metafile. Used for Web page linking, Metafiles contain the addresses of RealAudio (.ra) or RealMedia (.rm). Used for downloading and or streaming. RealJukebox or RealPlayer; www.real.com.asx Microsoft's equivalent to Real Audio streaming Windows Media Player.wma Short for Windows Media Format. Microsoft's answer to MP3 audio file compression. Windows Media Player or Music MatchJukebox; www.musicmatch.com.m3u Play List file for Winamp. Winamp; www.winamp.com.mid These files generally only represent MIDI information of where sounds are to be played, rather than containing the sound itself, and are usually very small. The sounds themselves will come from a wavetable built into your sound card. Winamp supports this file type; www.winamp.com A good MIDI editor is cakewalk; www.cakewalk.com.avi, .mpeg Generally movie file formats, however, audio tracks can usually be isolated. A sound editor such as sound forge (www.soundforge.com) or player such as Windows Media Player.vqf Audio compression format similar to MP3, at comparable quality only 25-30% smaller in file size Variety of players available from www.vqf.com.lqt Streaming and playing downloaded Liquid Audio music files Liquid Player; www.liquidaudio.com

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