Over the previous century, we have preserved the sounds of yesteryears across a variety of audio formats which raises two questions: How many audio formats are there, what are they and what the best practice in respect of audio conversions.
Just as with photos and videos, these recordings safeguard invaluable snippets of history – such as grandma’s tales, or music from your great-uncle’s jazz band – that will not last indefinitely. This article guides you in distinguishing between different audio formats, unveils some tools and hints for digitising them, and elucidates common audio terminologies to assist you in converting your old audio to digital.
Introducing retro audio formats
The term analogue signifies a physical method of storing data. Analogue recording devices, such as film cameras and tape recorders, capture stimuli like light or sound.
Next, recorders alter blank media like film or tape. These alterations are physical portrayals of whatever is being recorded, ideally at a high enough quality to appear or sound the same later.
Late 1800: Initial formats
The first audio recordings were inept during the years between their invention and practical usage. Recording technology gradually improved through experimentation – some formats did not reproduce well, if at all. While it is unlikely you have these recordings in your collection, they marked the beginning of these early audio formats.
Recording device: Phonautograph
Sound waves translated as lines on paper or glass
Used for measuring and examining sounds
Cylinder records (1877 – 1929)
Playback device: Phonograph
Duration: two to five minutes
Grooves mirroring sound waves were etched into the cylinder while recording
Like disc records, a stylus traversed through the grooves during playback
The first cylinders were metal and not suitable for recording
Wax cylinders deteriorated quickly but could be whittled down and reused
Plastic cylinders were durable, and some can still play today
Difficult to mass-produce; most were direct recordings
Susceptible to mould
Digitising recommendation: There is no commercial service or inexpensive equipment to digitise these yourself. Your best option is donating to the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. Donating the cylinder is free, but financial donations are also necessary to help cover the cost of digitising.
1889 to present: disc records
Disc records, often just called records, were introduced as a superior alternative to cylinders. They still used etched grooves to record audio but offered more durability, reliable playback, and mass-production.
Record sizes vary, but the most common are seven, 10 or 12 inches in diameter. You can identify different types of records by their playback speed in revolutions per minute (RPM). The usage of records declined with the emergence of compact cassettes before experiencing a resurgence in the 21st century.
78 RPM records (1901 – 1960S)
Also known as 78s
Duration: three minutes for 10” discs, four to five minutes for 12” discs
The recording industry selected 78 RPM as the standard speed in the 1920s
Constructed from minerals, cotton fibre and shellac
Brittle, fragile, and playback quality depleted quickly
Digitising recommendation: Audacity, a free audio programme we will discuss below, provides a comprehensive guide on recording 78s to digital yourself. These records tend to be older and harder to capture at home
33⅓ RPM records (1948-Present)
Also known as 33s or LPs (Long-Playing).
Duration is approximately seven minutes for 7” discs, 35 minutes for 10” discs, and 45 minutes for 12” discs.
Introduced by Columbia Records.
Made from vinyl, making them more durable than shellac 78s.
Utilises microgroove technology, which includes thinner grooves for recording more audio than 78s.
Most used for full album records.
First vinyl records to gain widespread popularity.
Can be digitised with the right equipment or with the assistance of an audio to digital service.
45 RPM records (1949-present)
Often referred to as 45s or singles.
Can hold two songs for 7” singles and 15 minutes for 7” EPs (Extended Play).
Introduced by RCA Victor to compete with Columbia Records’ 33⅓ RPM format.
Mostly used for popular radio hits and jukeboxes.
Can be digitised at home or with an audio conversion service.
8⅓ and 16⅔ RPM records (1950s-2000s)
Can hold up to 90 minutes for 8⅓ RPM and 180 minutes for 16⅔ RPM.
Predominantly used for spoken word recordings and audio books.
Can be digitised with specific turntables and needles or through professional services.
Magnetic tape (1928-present)
Developed in Germany between the two World Wars.
Has many audio and video formats that can be stored on reels or in cassettes.
Despite its susceptibility to breaks and decay, it is still used for specialty recordings.
Reel-to-reel audio (1930s-present)
Known as open reel audio.
Duration varies based on tape length and speed.
More popular with professionals due to the size and cost of equipment.
Can be digitised at home or with the help of professional digitising services.
Compact cassette (1963-present)
Also known as cassette tapes.
Initially made for voice recording but quickly adopted for music.
Blank tapes often used to make mixtapes and can be digitised cheaply and easily at home or with professional vendors.
8-track cassette (1964-present)
Also known as Stereo 8.
Primarily used in car sound systems.
Has seen a decline due to the superiority of compact cassettes.
Best digitised with professional services due to rarity of equipment.
Mostly used in answering machines and voice recorders. Here’s a lovely example:
Not ideal for music recordings due to lower audio quality.
Can DIY digitise at home with a microcassette player or with professional digitising services.
Compact discs (CDs, 1982-present)
Developed by Philips and Sony, compact discs were first released for music and later adapted for computer data. Due to the fact its already in a digital format, it makes it incredibly easy to convert to an MP3 audio file on your computer.
Digital audio tapes (DAT tapes, 1987-2005)
Developed by Sony.
Uses magnetic tape to store digital data rather than analogue data.
High taxes and opposition due to copyright infringement potential caused the format to not gain widespread adoption. Similar to reel-to-reel audio, DAT tape equipment is best digitised with professional services, if you do not have to convert a lot of DAT tapes to digital, due to older and expensive equipment.
Digital audio file formats (1988-present)
In the past two decades, digital audio files have surpassed CDs as the most popular audio format.
The ability to download, share, edit, and store these files via desktop and mobile devices and the internet has revolutionised the way we create and consume sound.
Not every device and app are compatible with each audio file format, so ensure the file type matches your requirements.
The most well-known formats include AIFF, WAV, and MP3.
Digital audio formats are also able to store more information in smaller physical area than analogue audio formats.
AIFF file audio file format (1988)
AIFF is essentially the Apple equivalent of a WAV file.
It stores high-quality audio but requires much more storage space than compressed file formats like MP3.
WAV file audio file format (1992)
The WAV file format is the PC version of a high-quality audio file, providing uncompressed sound, resulting in large file sizes. Typically, digital audio is initially recorded as WAV or AIFF files before being compressed into a more manageable format like MP3 so just be aware of what type of file you have.
MP3 file audio file format (1993)
The MP3 file format dominated the ’90s and early 2000s with the rise of portable MP3 players and controversial file sharing services such as Napster.
It uses compression to remove minor bits of audio data, resulting in smaller, more shareable files with minimal impact on audio quality.
Windows media audio (WMA) file format (1999)
Microsoft developed the WMA format for use with Windows Media Player to compete with MP3. Like MP3, WMA uses compression to create smaller files for quick transfers.
AAC file format (2001)
Better known as the iTunes format, AAC is compressed but offers superior audio quality compared to MP3. It is widely used on Apple devices, like iPod and iPhone, but is less supported by non-Apple devices and apps such as Windows, Android and Google devices.
Other rare audio formats, analogue to digital
A variety of different analogue and digital audio formats exist due to economics and competition.
For a complete list of audio formats, visit the Museum of Obsolete Media.
How To DIY An Audio to Digital Conversion
After having learnt the entire history on audio formats, we are now going to present you with some examples of how you can convert your audio into digital formats that will stand the test of time. Ahead are a handful of ways you can help yourself and save the sounds of the past for years to come.
Converting analogue audio formats to digital
Preserve your at-risk analogue audio formats, such as vinyl records and compact cassettes, by converting them into digital formats using the free audio software below.
The Process of audio conversions
Always make sure that you are mindful of old audio and video tapes that are affected by mould before you play them. This could seriously damage your old vintage audio players, so be careful and check your tapes before playing!
Locate a compatible player for your analogue audio format for example a turntable or tape deck.
Use a microphone, an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC), and cables that run from the player to a computer that will turn the analogue audio signal into a digital one. Depending on which type of analogue player you use, some will have an onboard device that is designed for conversions, whereas others will send the audio to computers with a software that converts analogue to digital.
Open your recording software and ensure the Input settings match your setup.
Export the digital audio to your desired file format.
Digital Audio Conversions
When the case is that your audio formats are already digital (like CDs or MP3 files), preserving your audio is straightforward. If you are using a CD, you will have to insert the disc into the computers CD-ROM drive, or any other external disc drive that you can connect to the computer with a cable. When using other digital storage, you should simply connect your device to the computer or access your cloud storage online.
Converting digital audio files from one format to another requires appropriate software. If you look on download.com and search for something like WAV to MP3 or FLAC to WMA based on which file formats you have.
Optimising audio quality
Consider using audio capture services for equalising, hiss removal, denoising, and de-crackling to enhance audio quality.
Software for audio conversion and optimisation
Various tools exist for converting, editing, and optimising digital audio files. Some include Audacity, GarageBand, and WavePad.
Be familiar with technical terms such as sample rate, bit depth, mono vs. stereo, and file compression.
Benefits of audio conversion
Benefits include preservation of audio, physical downsizing of your collection, ability to edit and remaster, and easy sharing.