Review | The Next File Format
The story of the MP3 begins in 1993 when the audio file format was one of three developed by Fraunhofer in order to compress audio down to a smaller file size that was able to be transferred with less strain on then slow internet connections. In one of many hard to believe turn of events, MP3 became the industry standard because the National Hockey League felt the format best captured the sound of live sporting events. 23 years after MP3 technology was used to broadcast its first hockey game, it is still the most widely used audio file format among DJs, but should it be? In this article, we’ll look at alternative audio file formats from the perspective of the DJ.
AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) / M4A
In this press release from Fraunhofer in April 2017, the company recommends replacing MP3 with the AAC codec (it should be noted that Fraunhofer is one of five developers of the Advanced Audio Coding format). AAC was developed four years after MP3 and made some improvements over the previous codec’s sound quality and encoding process. On paper, it’s the superior format, yet it never became the go to format for DJs. Why didn’t the better file format win out?
In 2003, the AAC codec became the new standard for Apple’s iTunes Store, two years after the iTunes Store launched. Unfortunately, the codec was launched in conjunction with Apple’s infamous and inappropriately named FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) technology that restricted music from iTunes from being played on unauthorized equipment. From 2003 through 2007, music purchased from iTunes could only be played on Apple products and it wasn’t until 2009 that all iTunes music purchases were DRM-free. This FreePlay DRM era of iTunes coincided with the rise of Pioneer CDJs. 2008’s Pioneer CDJ-800MK2 was the first model to integrate MP3 technology (the faceplate even says MP3 … twice). One reason M4A and AAC did not catch on among DJs was because the misguided DRM crippled its use outside of Apple’s walled garden. AAC’s launch was similar to Sony’s Betamax video cassette format: it was a better product, but when Sony dictated how the format could and could not be used, the product did not catch on with consumers and quickly lost ground to its competitors.
Additionally, it should be noted that the file naming is confusing: when AAC was finally adopted as a file format on 2009’s Pioneer CDJ-900, the faceplate read AAC and not M4A (the file extension) even though they are the same format. M4As are also notoriously unstable on Pioneer’s equipment, AAC files encoded above 320kbps will not work on older CDJ models, and according to this 2015 support post, cover art from Beatport can cause M4A files to not load. The middle of a DJ set is not the place you want to find out that your tracks don’t load — a belief in stability is a vital part of a solid DJ set. AAC is touted as being better than MP3, but is a slight increase in sound quality worth it? People who are interested in better sound quality have already looked elsewhere.
WAV (Waveform Audio File Format)
WAV or WAVE format was developed before every other digital file format discussed in this feature and, along with AIFF, it is still the industry standard uncompressed file format today. Since WAV files are uncompressed, meaning no data has been removed to decrease their file size, they are also the largest files. As USB drive storage sizes increase, WAV files have gained popularity for DJs who are looking for the most pristine sound. In this 2009 document from Funktion One co-founder Tony Andrews says “MP3s are just about OK being used with the internet and iPods but they have no business being used in professional situations such as clubs and shows.” The WAV format is inarguably the best format available, but the downside is they take up an awful lot of space and can be hard to pull down from the web by international touring DJs who sometimes rely on dicey hotel internet connections. For those looking for a sweet spot in between WAV’s sound quality and MP3’s more manageable file size, there is FLAC.
FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)
FLAC was developed in 2001 as a royalty-free file format that supersedes MP3 in audio quality while keeping features like metadata tagging that has kept the MP3s popular. An obvious choice for DJs, right? This time FLAC’s appeal for DJs was held back by a lag in technology: the FLAC file format was not supported by Pioneer until 2016’s Pioneer CDJ-2000NXS2. Now with Pioneer’s support and digital stores like Bandcamp, 7Digital, and Juno Download selling FLAC files, I expect the format to gain users over time as more clubs are outfitted with CDJ-2000NXS2 and XDJ-1000MK2 players.
In 2015, Native Instruments introduced a new open source file format called Stems. The format allows DJs and producers to play back music in four tracks that run in parallel which allow the user to isolate vocals or drums or other elements from a song. The file format is novel and has its use in certain situations, but the roll out of Stems was uneventful. Only a handful of record labels offered their music in the Stems format and those tracks were only available through a few boutique retailers. One huge drawback from the perspective of a label is Stems requires a completely different mastering mixdown, an already expensive process that doesn’t add up financially given the user base for Stems is so small. Additionally, only a few devices, mostly from Native Instruments, were able to take advantage of the format’s multitrack playback. In March 2018, only 86 tracks total were released in the Stems format on Beatport compared to the thousands released in MP3 format.
MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)
A completely new compression technology was released in 2014 called MQA. The format is aimed at a high end audiophile audience currently, but it’s conceivable that the technology could eventually make its way to DJ soundsystems. There are a lot of unknowns about this format and whether there is a market for it, but it is worth noting as a possible future contender.
Pulselocker and Streaming Music Services
On November 10, 2017, Pulselocker went offline without any notice, leaving its user base in the dark. Pulselocker was a company that integrated with Serato DJ and Rekordbox that allowed users to stream music into their DJ sets. The sudden closure of Pulselocker shows how perilous a reliance on streaming is — companies can close at any time and they can take all of your playlists to the grave with them. It was reported earlier this month that Pulselocker will return later this year under the ownership of Beatport, but issues still remain with the concept of DJing with streaming media. Even though there is some local storage, the intention of Pulselocker is to fill requested songs a DJ does not have, and to do that a DJ has to have a steady internet connection. In my experience, this is not always reliable. When so much of this article is about the sound quality of music, how can a DJ trust in the quality of a song they’ve never played before, maybe have never even heard? As a tool, it seems like a lifesaver for some types of DJs, but not the backbone of any professional DJ’s music collection.
Could the future format be from the past? After all, many older house and techno releases are available only on vinyl and newly released records are cut from WAV files that have a higher resolution than MP3 files. There are many DJs that are working to keep vinyl alive by playing sets strictly from records, and I wish them all the best luck, but there are some pitfalls to this choice. As many current and past vinyl DJs can tell you, the state of equipment upkeep in clubs has gone way down as digital DJing has increased in popularity. I won’t name names, but a run in with a turntable whose pitch control did not work in a DC club permanently ended playing vinyl in clubs for me. One big disadvantage is also the immense increase in costs for new equipment. Technics 1200 turntables that were once $400 USD new are now $700+ USD secondhand now that the base model has been discontinued. Clubs are disincentivized by a dwindling number of vinyl DJs and rising costs to maintain turntables, which is a shame.
Could the future format be the one you already have? When cassette tapes were introduced, their portability and durability were enough sell the new format. CDs were even more durable than cassettes and you could skip through tracks. MP3s were even more portable than CD or cassette or vinyl, you could carry your entire music collection in your pocket. What is the benefit of any of these new file formats over MP3? Is buying a FLAC copy “Around The World” really worth it if you already own an MP3 of the same song? It isn’t more portable, it isn’t more durable, it sounds basically the same under most playback circumstances — it almost feels like buying a phone to replace an identical phone. Internationally touring DJs playing on well tuned sound systems may have already been upgrading their music, but will prosumer and hobbyist DJs do the same given the huge outlay in cost? What if there is another breakthrough file format released three or five years from now, will DJs spend money to replace all of their tracks again for another incremental upgrade?
Which Format Is Best?
There are many formats available to DJs, more today than any other time in history. No format is perfect, all have their pros and cons. Each DJ needs to find the format that best fits their objectives. If access to every song is an objective, then maybe streaming services are a way to go. If the best possible audio fidelity is the objective, then maybe WAV or FLAC or vinyl are the way to go. As much as preference dictates the best format, so does market presence. Perhaps if music in the Stems format were more widely available, they would become a go-to. If turntables and its parts were cheaper and more readily available, maybe vinyl would be the preferred format. Like all other aspects of DJing, file format comes down to what technology will allow the DJ to deliver their best performance.