How many bits?


In this quarantine week, let’s answer a (not that) simple question: how many bits do you need to encode sound and images with a satisfying dynamic range?

Let’s see what hypotheses are useful, and how we can use them to get a good idea on the number of bits needed.

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8-bit Audio Companding


Computationally inexpensive sound compression is always difficult, at least if you want some quality. One could think, for example, that taking the 8 most significant bits of 16 bits will give us 2:1 (lossy) compression but without too much loss. However, cutting the 8 least significant bits leads to noticeable hissing. However, we do not have to compress linearly, we can apply some transformation, say, vaguely exponential to reconstruct the sound.


That’s the idea behind μ-law encoding, or “logarithmic companding”. Instead of quantizing uniformly, we have large (original) values widely spaced but small (original) value, the assumption being that the signal variation is small when the amplitude is small and large when the amplitude is great. ITU standard G.711 proposes the following table:

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Stretching samples


So for an experiment I ended up needing conversions between 8 bits and 16 bits samples. To upscale an 8 bit sample to 16 bits, it is not enough to simply shift it by 8 bits (or multiply it by 256, same difference) because the largest value you get isn’t 65535 but merely 65280. Fortunately, stretching correctly from 8 bit to 16 bit isn’t too difficult, even quite straightforward.


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Lossless Coding of CD Audio


Once upon a time, I discussed how to pick bit-rate for MP3, while considering re-ripping all my CDs. But if I’m to re-rip everything, I might as well do it one last time and use lossless compression.

In this post, we’ll discuss the simple script I cooked up to do just that, and a bit on how Flac works, and how it compares to MP3.

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Sound Screen


Even if you pay some extra to get low dB fans and set your BIOS to have varying fan speeds it still can be quite far from quiet. 20 dB isn’t that loud, but it’s not silence, and— let us be blunt —adaptive fan speeds seems pretty much to alternate between off and full blast. If your computer is near a wall, the noise reverberates through the room, and the low-frequencies leak in the room on the other side of the wall.

So to muff the sound, I build a “sound shield” made out of custom upholstered panels.

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Picking a Bit-Rate for MP3 Files?


I am currently contemplating the possibility of recoding all my CDs into new compressed formats. I currently use MP3 but since I started my collection in a time when a huge hard drive was 4GB, a lot of those are coded at 96 and 112 kilobits/s… which doesn’t sound all that great. Although MP3 isn’t the greatest format around, it does offer the advantage of being compatible with nearly all players around, something neither FLAC nor Ogg Vorbis can claim.

Some of the most recent devices support the addition of codecs, but not all. My Sansa player doesn’t, although I could probably upgrade the firmware or something but my car built-in player is another story. So for the time being, I considered recoding everything in MP3 with a higher bit-rate, or maybe use FLAC and write some kind of script that transcode the files to MP3 for exporting to a player. I’m not decided yet. But let say I decide to stick with MP3 all the way. What bit-rate should I use?

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