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Sample Width / Bit Depth / Sample Size

Last updated: January 12, 2023

Sample width is also known as “bit depth” or “sample size”. Sample width is related to sample rate but determines how many digital steps are available to represent the signal level (voltage) at each sample. Data is commonly stored as bytes and the more bytes you have available, the more distinct numbers you can store. If you think of an audio waveform as a line graph with time along the x-axis (as it is displayed in most audio editors), then sample width is how much resolution you have on the y-axis.

1 byte (8 bits) allows you to store 256 values (2^8). 2 bytes (16 bits) allows you to store 65536 values (2^16). Note that because of the binary system, the number of values that can be stored doubles for every extra bit that you add.

It turns out that 65536 is more than enough to represent any humanly-audible difference in signal while still being a convenient multiple of 8 bits (1 byte) used for storage. Recording and editing workflows often use a higher sample width such as 16 or 32 bit floats so that volume levels can be altered and other effects applied without quantisation artifacts being introduced.

16 bits is ideal, 8 bits is too low and there is no reason to export audio that will not be re-mastered at higher than 16 bits as it just wastes data.

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