MP3 Bit-Rates Revisited

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

Despite my previous article and blog posts about MP3 bit-rates for backing tracks, it seems to be a subject that many singers still feel unsure about. This isn’t helped by some of the conflicting opinions out there about this subject, especially a recent one from a well-known software manufacturer, so I feel a follow-up to my previous article on this subject may be worthwhile and clarify a few things.

Hopefully I can help sort out the confusion this subject seems to create everywhere it’s discussed!

Why so many differing opinions on bit-rates?
Ahhh, the million dollar question. Welcome to the internet…lots of different people with lots of different opinions. And unfortunately there’s no way to tell on the internet who is giving good advice and who is giving bad advice. Sadly, it’s really up to the reader which opinion they think is correct and what they think will work best for them. I know it’s confusing and I do sympathise.

My personal opinions on the mp3 bit-rate subject are pretty well documented on the pages of MP3 Backing Trax and everything I’ve written about this particular subject is based on my extensive experience of singing, live onstage, with mp3 files, for many, many years. And I can summarise it all in one simple sentence:

Larger bit-rates cause larger file sizes, therefore cause more risk of music skipping.


All I’m doing is simply putting this information out there and it’s up to the individual reader whether he or she wants to use it or prefers to listen to different advice and opinions…and there’s plenty of differing opinions out there in cyberspace, that’s for sure.

So who’s opinion should you believe?
How do you tell the good advice from the bad advice I hear you ask? Well, it’s not always as clear cut as this. If someone gives you different advice from advice that I give you, it’s not necessarily bad advice they’re giving you. On the contrary, it’s entirely possible that they’ve just experienced something different from me so they are giving their opinion just as honestly and openly as I give mine.

One thing you can sometimes do if you find yourself with conflicting advice and don’t know which one to believe, is look and see if there’s some sort of “ulterior motive”, especially if the advice seems VERY contradictory to other advice you’ve read or been given.

Recently a software manufacturer advised a singer to change his mp3 backing tracks bit-rates from 128 Kb/s to 256 Kb/s or 320 Kb/s and use a laptop to play his backing tracks rather than an iPod. This is despite the fact that the majority of professional artists at the moment who use backing tracks use the Apple iPod as their chosen playback machine.

But I also know that the software manufacturer he spoke to doesn’t make software for the iPod…which means he can’t sell his software to artists who use the iPod for their backing tracks. So perhaps this is why he advised the customer not to use the “cr*ppy iPod” (his words, not mine I must add)!

I’m guessing the hundreds of millions of iPod buyers would disagree with his opinion and I certainly haven’t seen any queues of people outside my local Apple store returning their iPods because they’re “cr*p” as he puts it!

So, first look to see if the person giving you the advice has an “angle”. That’s important. It will help you sort out who’s giving advice just because they want to help you, and who’s giving you advice because they want to lead you down a path which has been paved with their own sneaky agenda.

So, what IS the best bit-rate for backing tracks? At the risk of boring everyone by repeating all the things I’ve written in articles and blogged about before regarding bit-rates for backing tracks, you basically have two choices when it comes to encoding mp3 files – high bit-rates or low bit-rates.

  1. Low bit-rates (eg 128 Kb/s) reduce the chance of skipping, but give a lesser sound quality.
  2. High bit-rates (eg 256 Kb/s or 320 Kb/s) give better sound quality but are prone to skipping.

The reason I always choose option 1 (a bit-rate of 128 Kb/s) for backing tracks and advise all singers and musicians to do the same, is because in a live music environment audiences cannot tell the difference between a bit-rate of 256 Kb/s or 320 Kb/s or 128 Kb/s.

The so-called “lower sound quality” with option 1 may look to be, on the surface, a downside, but in live onstage use (which is where it matters) it’s just not an issue because live audiences cannot hear the difference, despite what the people who call themselves “purists” or “audiophiles” will try to tell you. Again, my opinions are based on solid experience. I have performed to hundreds of thousands of people over the last 10 years using mp3’s at a bit-rate of 128 Kb/s and in those 10 years, not one single audience member has noticed or commented that my mp3 backing tracks have been encoded at 128 Kb/s.

To further prove this, not only do I create and sell backing tracks here at MP3 Backing Trax but I also use them every night at my live gigs so it’s not unusual for me to have half a dozen or more fellow musicians and singers turn up at my live gigs (because when the local artists want to buy some new backing tracks, they pop in to my gigs and hear these new songs). In all these years NONE of these professional entertainers have ever noticed anything except a good, clean, quality sound.

So if fellow professionals with more expert and sensitive hearing than your average Joe can’t tell the difference in the sound quality of a 128 Kb/s in a live music environment, then the audience can’t tell the difference either.

Until I get a queue of fellow artists and audience members banging on my dressing room door after a gig to say “Hey, we were just listening to your act and noticed you’re using 128 Kb/s instead of 320 Kb/s…” then I’ll continue with 128 Kb/s (and no skipping…ah, what bliss)!

Bit-rates of 128 Kb/s for live performance are really a no-brainer (unless you like to stand on stage smug in the knowledge that “on paper” your sound is better, even though your audience is not aware of it and your backing tracks stutter and skip all over the place making you miss bars etc).

Let’s get down and dirty and really put the cat among the pigeons, and ask the REAL question that this is all about (and I want you to answer honestly)…”Who do you want to impress?”

Do you want to impress yourself and maybe the 1 person out of a million in the audience (who I’ve yet to meet) who thinks he can hear low bit-rate artefacts in your sound.

Or do you want to impress the hundreds of thousands of audience members out there you perform to over the years who pay your wages and want to hear you sing and entertain them in a professional manner?

Choose 128 Kb/s if you want to sound good, sound professional, and keep your job.

Choose 320 Kb/s if you want to risk sounding like an amateur with backing tracks skipping and stuttering and the audience laughing at you.

I’m not being unkind when I say all of the above. On many occasions I’ve heard artists using backing tracks which have skipped. It’s very embarrassing for the artist onstage, because depending where in the song the track skips, sometimes it completely throws them off-time and they can’t get back in to the song after the skip. They have to stop and re-start the song again or just move on to the next song.

Audiences are rarely sympathetic when this happens and usually laugh at the artist. And we’re not just talking club, pub or theatre acts here – many of the biggest stars have been caught-out with backing track glitches and if you’ve read the newspapers the next day you’ll know the poor artist doesn’t get much sympathy – on the contrary they end up being a laughing stock, not to mention the public feel “cheated”.

Can I still use higher bit-rates if I want?
Yes, of course you can – the choice ultimately is yours. I’ve used mp3 files at 256 Kb/s and 320 Kb/s in a variety of situations (although I would never chance doing this live on stage) and often I’ve experienced no skipping problems. It depends on your particular set-up and what else is going on in the circuitry of your hardware mp3 player or mp3 playing software while it’s trying to play your file.

In essence this is really what determines whether your mp3 player is going to struggle or not to play a file. And it’s an unknown factor.

Nobody, anywhere, at anytime, can exactly anticipate what the processor in your laptop or your mp3 player is going to do, or how it’s going to behave and how that spontaneous behaviour is going to affect playback of your music. That’s why it makes sense, at the very least, to make sure that if and when your mp3 player does go a little freaky for a second or two, that it isn’t playing a large 320 Kb/s file at the time.

If it’s playing a large file, the processor may need to “rob” some of the file playing resources to get itself back in operation…causing a skip in the music. But if you’re playing a smaller file of 128 Kb/s, there’s every chance the processor may be able to recover itself from the freaky glitch in its operation while STILL playing the small music file at the same time without any stutters or skips.

This whole thing really boils down to how your processor uses its resources, no matter whether we’re talking about the processor in a laptop computer or the processor in an iPod or any other type of mp3 player. That’s why it makes sense to make sure you only use the minimum resources you need to use at any one time.

It may well be that high bit-rate mp3 files work well with your particular system and you don’t get any skipping (or maybe a skip is yet to happen or it’ll only happen once in a blue moon). If this is the case, then high bit-rates may be fine for you. Perhaps you’re even happy to live with the occasional skip.

Personally I can’t.

One backing track skipping while I’m in the middle of a song is just one skip too many – especially when I know it’s avoidable at no sound quality cost to my audience. I don’t want my act to sound unprofessional in any way, ever, and I certainly don’t want to be working with a time-bomb ticking away in the background…because that’s what you’re doing when you use higher bit-rates in a live music situation.

If the audience are blissfully unaware of the bit-rate you’re using, I can think of NO reason whatsoever why anyone would risk their backing tracks skipping just to produce a sound that their audience can’t hear anyway….

If you still remain unconvinced, feel free to play around with your backing tracks at different mp3 bit-rates and see what works best for you. If you find that your backing tracks at 320 Kb/s or 256 Kb/s stutter or skip, you can always go back to 128 Kb/s.

Just don’t make me say I told you so!