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Digital Audio#

This Guide is still in draft format.

Section 1. Introduction to Digital Audio#

Section 2. Creating Digital Audio#

Section 3. Preserving Digital Audio#

Bibliography and Further Reading#

Knight, G. & McHugh, J. (2005) Preservation Handbook: Digital Audio. AHDS. http://www.ahds.ac.uk/preservation/audio-preservation-handbook.pdf

Section 1. Introduction to Digital Audio#

1.1 What is Digital Audio?#

As with digital video, digital audio files have become far easier to create over the last ten years. Although digital video has perhaps found more applications in archaeology, digital audio files are often created as a component of projects looking to record oral histories or to recreate 'archaeological sounds', either through the modern reconstruction of archaeological musical instruments or through the recording of sounds within archaeological contexts such as reconstructed - physically or virtually - churches, henges or theatres. A number of examples of the latter exist in the online Internet Archaeology journal (e.g. Thomas 2011).

As with the Digital Video guide, this guide aims to address the issues involved in the creation and preservation of 'born digital' audio files and will not aim to cover the creation of files from analogue originals (although many of the issues discussed here equally apply). The digitisation of analogue audio files is covered in detail in the JISC Digital Media guide 'Audio: Digitising analogue media' [1]. In addition to the extensive material available on the JISC Digital Media site, this guide also draws heavily from a number of other key guides on preserving digital audio files, namely the AHDS 'Preservation Handbook: Digital Audio' (Knight & McHugh 2005), JISC's 'Significant Properties Testing Report: Audio Recordings' (Knight 2010) and IASA Technical Committee's 'Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects' (2nd ed.) (Bradley 2009). A detailed introduction to the technical aspects of digital audio files can also be found in the JISC Digital Media guide 'An Introduction to Digital Audio'[2].

1.2 Current Issues and Concerns#

Again, as with digital video data, digital audio files may be large when created/stored in uncompressed formats and informed decisions need to be made when deciding when and how lower quality files are created. Another issue that is again similar to digital video is that the range of digital audio files consist of a mix of container fomats and codecs which again emphasise the importance of detailed technical metadata in successfully identifying and working with audio files. Metadata also plays a key role with audio files in documenting the file's creation process and contents (e.g. names and dates of interviews, locations, etc.) as these elements may not be as apparent as in similar video files.

[1] http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/audio/docs/category/digitising-analogue-media
[2] http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/audio/advice/an-introduction-to-digital-audio

Section 2. Creating Digital Audio#

2.1 General Considerations#

The process and considerations involved in creating digital audio files are fully discussed in a number of JISC Digital Media documents, specifically:

  • 'Choosing a Digital Audio File Format'[1]
  • 'Basic Audio Editing'[2]
  • 'Choosing a Digital Audio File Format'[3]

As discussed in Section 1, the quality of the file is the key consideration when creating digital audio files. In order to ensure that the file being created is of a suitable quality and fit for purpose, data creators should be aware of :

  • the relationship between audio container or 'wrapper' formats and the codecs that they contain as well as their respective capabilities.
  • the fact that, as a component of the codec, audio formats can feature both lossless and lossy compression or come in uncompressed formats. Data creators should be aware of how these affect both data quality and file size at at what stages in the work flow these options will (if at all) be used.
  • that many files allow metadata to be embedded within the container format and that data creators may want to utilise this functionality to record important aspects of the data creation process.
  • which rights exist (e.g. copyright or moral right). This is particularly relevant to interview situations and data creators should be aware of any ethical implications of their work. In all cases clearance/permission should be sought from those involved in the recording. These issues are discussed in the JISC Digital Media document 'Copyright and Other Rights for Creating Time-based Media Resources'[4].

As a general guide - and one that is repeated throughout these Guides - it is advised that data creators create (and archive) audio data at as high a quality level as is available and in an uncompressed format. From this master dataset, lower filesize/quality datasets can be derived via format migratation or downsampling.

2.2 File Formats#

Waveform Audio (.wav)A widely used and openly documented (though proprietary) container format developed by Microsoft and IBM.The .wav format is commonly used to store uncompressed audio (as PCM) but can also contain audio in a variety of lossy codecs such as MP3. The format can also be tagged with metadata and can embed metadata in the XMP format.Suitable for preservation depending on the codec used.
Audio Interchange File Format (.aif, .aiff)Proprietary format developed by Apple and similar to the .wav format.As with .wav, the .aiff is predominantly used for storing uncompressed PCM audio files. The format is also capable of storing metadata along with audio in other compressed codec formats.Suitable for preservation in uncompressed format.
Sun AU (.au)A format developed by Sun for Unix systems.As with .wav and .aif files, Sun AU files tend to be large and of high quality but are not widely supported outside the UNIX community. Although predominantly using PCM encoding, .au files can support a number of of other codecs.Not widely supported outside the UNIX community so therefore not suitable for preservation.
Advanced Audio Coding (.aac)An ISO standard format based on MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formatsThe format is widely supported by a number of common devices (Wii, Playstation, iPod, iPhone amongst others) and is designed to be the successor of the MP3 format. AAC format data may be commonly packaged in MP4, 3GP, ADIF and ADTS container formats.Suiatble for dissemination but not for preservation.
Broadcast Wave Format (BWF) (.bwf .wav)A specification of the European Broadcasting Union and an extension of the WAV format[5].Broadcast Wave Format consists of uncompressed audio that extends the WAV format with an additional 'chunk' for metadata. Although based on the same format, compatibility between WAV and BWF files can be problematic, particularly when migrating WAV to BWF.Suitable for preservation.
Ogg Vorbis (.ogg)A non-proprietary open format developed by Xiph.org[6].The Vorbis codec has been developed as a completely open alternative to the MP3 format and primarily as a dissemination format (the Ogg wrapper format can also contain codecs other than Vorbis e.g. FLAC).Suitable as a dissemination format.
MP3 (.mp3)A popular ISO standard format and part of the MPEG-1 and 2 standards.MP3 (or MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3) is a lossy format that also allows metadata (ID3) to be embedded within a file.Suitable for dissemination but not for preservation.
MPEG-4 (.m4a, .m4p)An ISO standard container formatThe MPEG-4 format supports a number of different audio codecs (e.g. AAC, MP3) as well as embedded metadata (including XMP). The format is commonly used by Apple's iTunes store although files sold here commonly feature encrypted audio stream and can be identified by the .m4p suffix.Suitable for dissemination.
RealAudio (.ra, .ram)A proprietary audio codec developed by RealNetworks.RealAudio files can use a number of codecs including the RealAudio Lossless Format (ralf). Developed partly for streaming media, users should be aware that some files (e.g. .ram) are merely links to online files rather than files in themselves.Not suitable for preservation.
Windows Media Audio (.wma, .asf)A proprietary format developed by Microsoft encompassing a number of codecs and a container format.The WMA set of codecs includes lossless, voice-specific and 'professional' variants of the standard format. In addition, WMA data is often wrapped with the proprietary ASF container.Not suitable for preservation.
FLAC (.flac)FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is an open and free lossless compression codec developed by Xiph.Org Foundation[6]FLAC has been developed as an open-source, lossless and more efficient alternative to the MP3 format and has been growing in popularity. FLAC encoded audio can be embedded in various different container formats including 'Native Flac' and Ogg.Suitable for dissemination and may have use as a preservation format where compression is required.
VOXThe VOX (or Dialogic ADPCM) codec was developed to store voice data at low sampling rates (compressed to 4-bits). Based on the Dialogic ADPCM (Adaptive Differential Pulse Code Modulation) codec, the file contains no information regarding the sample rate and number of channels used in the file so these must be specified in order to play a vox file.Not suitable for preservation.
Speex (.ogg)An open, free codec developed by the Xiph.Org Foundation[6]As with other Xiph.Org Foundation formats (e.g. Vorbis, FLAC), Speex is a free and open codec. Speex is targetted specifically at providing high quality compressed voice/speech files.Suitable for dissemination but not for preservation.

Other formats#

When compressing audio for web delivery, we have to make decision about which codec (compressor/decompressor) to use. Compressing audio files will produce some loss of quality. Lossless codecs can be found (e.g. FLAC) but they seem to only half the file size whereas MP3 can reduce a file to about a tenth of the original size. This inevitable loss of quality can be minimised by use of the correct codec. Different compressors can give very different results and choice of compressor may depend on the type of audio that has been recorded. MP3 may be a popular option for compressed digital audio but is designed primarily for music and is not designed to be streamed. Audio files deposited with the ADS are likely to be recordings of the human voice for oral history projects. As the human voice has a relatively small range, it is a good idea to compress it with a codec designed specifically for this purpose (for example the Quicktime codec Qualcomm Pure Voice), or the open source and free Xiph.org speex.

  • Both compressed and uncompressed audio files
  • All copyright issues clarified and documented
  • Full data documentation and transcriptions if appropriate
  • If depositor has used a file format that contains metadata, they should inform us of this so we can extract it and preserve, or ensure it's preserved in any future versions
  • Extract metadata from files if appropriate

[1] http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/audio/advice/choosing-a-digital-audio-file-format
[2] http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/audio/advice/basic-audio-editing
[3] http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/audio/advice/choosing-a-digital-audio-file-format
[4] http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/crossmedia/advice/copyright-and-other-rights-for-creating-time-based-media-resources
[5] http://www.ebu.ch/fr/technical/publications/userguides/bwf_user_guide.php
[6] http://www.xiph.org

Section 3. Preserving Digital Audio#

  • Archiving # data
    • deciding what to archive
      • Selection and retention
      • preservation intervention points / file and data lifecycles (specific to guide, will also be covered generically)
    • deciding how to archive
      • archiving strategies (migration (to new format, to 'basic' format), emulation, refreshment)?
      • significant properties
      • file types
    • Metadata and Documentation
      • project level
      • file level
      • standards specific to #
    • Structuring your archive

File Formats for archiving

JISC DM uncompressed formats http://www.jiscdigitalmedia.ac.uk/audio/advice/uncompressed-audio-file-formats

WAV or BWF Some projects may require an open standard format. In these cases the suggested format is AIFF. (from JISC creating... document)

3.3 Metadata and Documentation#

Software used to create/encode (if applicable)
Bit rate (kbps)
sampling frequency range (KHz) if applicable
Codec used (where appropriate)
Length of recording (mins and secs).
Copyright clearances (very important for audio files, especially oral history).
Transcriptions of interviews etc (where appropriate).

Embedded metadata "indicating its purpose, who created it and when, the actions that have been performed on it, associated rights and other information." (Knight 2010)


  • Copyright
    • specific copyright considerations for each guide.

  • Case study/studies

Digital Audio: Bibliography#

Bradley, K. (ed.) (2009) Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects. Second edition. IASA Technical Committee www.iasa-web.org/tc04/audio-preservation(info)

Thomas, D. (2011) 'An Investigation of Aural Space inside Mousa Broch by Observation and Analysis of Sound and Light'. Internet Archaeology 30. http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue30/thomas_index.html

Knight, G. & McHugh, J. (2005) Preservation Handbook: Digital Audio. AHDS. http://www.ahds.ac.uk/preservation/audio-preservation-handbook.pdf

Knight, G. (2010) Significant Properties Testing Report: Audio Recordings. JISC. http://www.significantproperties.org.uk/testingreports.html