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There are a lot of audio file formats these days— here are the most important ones

In my article “Keeping Track” (September 2017), we covered data. We talked about the information you need to keep with your songs in order to sell, license and organize them. We covered metadata and metatags—data about data that gets embedded in files. We talked a little about the file types that carry metadata and how to use them, and that brought up a wider topic: the types and formats for working with and delivering audio.

There are hundreds of audio formats and an endless variety of settings and options. In this article, we’ll define some terms and categories for audio files. We’ll then use those as a framework to dive into some of the formats that exist as of now, and talk about when and how they’ll be useful to you.

Note that there is one very specific class of audio file I am not going to discuss here: namely, the native format of any given DAW. Because they have to keep track of so much information that’s specific to how they approach various operations, each DAW will package its audio files with metadata that only that DAW can understand. That’s why you can’t just take an Ableton Live Set and open it up directly in Pro Tools!