Why 128kb/s is better than 320kb/s

(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)

So what’s the best mp3 encoding rate for backing tracks? 128 Kb/s or 320Kb/s?

Right now I bet you’re thinking..”Mmmm…well…let’s see….320Kb/s is a higher bit-rate than 128Kb/s so 320Kb/s must be a better encoding rate for backing tracks, right?”

Wrong!

Using backing tracks encoded at 128Kb/s is far, far better than using backing tracks encoded at 320Kb/s! And here’s why…

Recently I received an email from a regular customer asking me if, instead of encoding the backing tracks at 128Kb/s, we’d consider supplying them to him at 320Kb/s which, he had been advised, would be “better quality.” I told him that we only produce backing tracks at 128Kb/s, sorry…and we lost his business.

However, a month later he was back with us buying 128Kb/s tracks…

The whole story unfolded when we discovered that a small recording studio just outside Glasgow had decided to try to emulate our famous MP3 Backing Trax business (hey, we don’t mind – competition is good) and they were trying to drum up some backing track sales to subsidise their failing recording studio business.

To be honest, they couldn’t really be called competition – just a bunch of cowboys with a little studio in the attic of an old house trying to sell Pop Idol packages to poor unsuspecting kids who think they’re going to be the next Will Young! Anyway, I digress….

They were not professional, gigging musicians like us and knew little or nothing about the backing track business, but that didn’t stop them feeding some poor advice to the customer in question.

Turns out that, in an attempt to talk our company down and talk their own company up, they told the customer that backing tracks at 128Kb/s were not good quality – but they could supply tracks to him at a higher bit rate/quality (ie 320Kb/s).

The customer took a look at an mp3 spec sheet about mp3 encoding, and it appeared to substantiate their claims that 320Kb/s is better than 128Kb/s, so started doing business with them instead of us.

There was one major problem with the advice they’d given him though….the 320Kb/s versus 128Kb/s quality issue they used as an argument appeared to be correct on paper and in theory but, in everyday use, and by that I mean when using the encoded music “live” on stage by a professional entertainer, the exact opposite applies!

Anyway, the customer didn’t know this at the time, and so, taking the bad advice, changed over to using the “competitor”.

But a month later he contacted us again to say he was in trouble and could we help (which we did).

You see, the customer (and our rival) didn’t know much about the whole concept of mp3 encoding and how it affects backing tracks being used in a “live” or on stage environment. Using backing tracks on stage is very different to playing music on your home hi-fi, believe me!

The first thing you should know is that music encoded at 128Kb/s is generally described and considered to be “near CD quality”. That means that most people agree that it is almost impossible to hear any discernible difference in quality. (see my article for more info on mp3 encoding).

The only way to tell the difference is perhaps to listen very intently through a very expensive and sensitive pair of headphones (and even then, most folks can’t tell the difference).

So, if you can hardly tell the difference by using sensitive headphones, then it will be absolutely impossible to hear the difference if the music is being played in a venue where you’re singing (ie a “live” on stage environment).

The burble of the crowd chatting, applauding, chinking of glasses and general background noise etc in the venue makes it impossible to hear any tiny differences that an increased encode rate may give.

So, there are NO advantages whatsoever to encoding backing tracks at 320 Kb/s rather than 128Kb/s (which was the argument that our rival used to get the customers business)!

Yes, technically speaking 320 Kb/s should be twice the quality of 128Kb/s but as you can see from above, anyone with any professional entertainer with experience of working “live” on stage with backing tracks at different bit rates will know that there is no difference whatsoever…and….surprise, surprise…..our competitor had no experience of playing live gigs so didn’t know this!

But there was even worse to come.

The poor customer (who by this time had spent ages re-encoding all his backing tracks to 320Kb/s) found that some of his tracks “skipped” when he used them on stage. I explained to him that this was another reason why we use 128Kb/s to encode our backing tracks. You see a 3 minute pop song at 128Kb/s will be around 3 – 4Mb in size whereas the same song at 320Kb/s will be 6 or 7Mb in size.

That means the processor in your laptop or mp3 player has to work harder to produce the music because of the increased file size, which can mean skipping or stuttering.

Now, if a song on your hi-fi skips or stutters it’s not a major problem, but if your backing track skips or stutters during a performance it’s a disaster – you don’t know where you are in the song, you miss a beat, you lose your place, the audience look at you as if you are some stupid amateur who doesn’t belong on an entertainers professional stage – it’s horrendous!

In effect, what the customer had done was made his backing tracks twice the size, used up twice as much hard disk space, put his mp3 player under pressure by making it work twice as hard…and got no discernible difference in quality of sound for his audience.

The only thing he gained that he didn’t have before was a load of headaches and trouble brought about by skipping and stuttering backing tracks all the way through his performance! A nightmare if ever there was one!

The story however has a happy ending – the customer is now “back in the fold” so to speak and we continue to supply him with tracks and help and advise him (just like we do with all our customers). He knows that, not only does he get great backing tracks from us, he can also relax in the confidence that we don’t just sell backing tracks…we are all gigging professional musicians too so we know what it’s like out there in the field…we walk the walk, therefore we can talk the talk.

As for our so-called “competitor”…well, all is fair in business so I’m not complaining – anyway, professionalism will always prevail. However it makes me very sad to know that there are companies out there run by people who know nothing about professional entertaining and have never played a gig in their life who set up shop selling musical services, and worse still, advise customers of “what’s best” etc. It’s almost a crime!

The poor customer ends up paying thousands of pounds for musical instruments and equipment that’s just not right for him/her and ends up with backing tracks that are in the wrong key or don’t have arrangements which suit live performance.

Rest assured that everyone who works here at MP3 Backing Trax are all currently gigging singers.

Every weekend our staff are all out there using the same backing tracks we sell you at our gigs, so you know the tracks are good, you know they are specially arranged to give the best sound through a big PA, and you know that if you use our backing tracks you’ll sound polished and give the best professional performance possible to your audience.