- Can humans hear the difference between 44.1 kHz and 96 kHz?
- Do higher sample rates sound better?
- When should you use 48 kHz vs. 96 kHz?
- Also, check out our post on What Sample Rate Should You Use?
If you’ve spent any time looking at recording settings in your DAW, chances are you’ve come across different sample rates.
Maybe you always use the default setting of 44.1 kHz?
In any case, if you’ve ever wondered why some people instead use higher sample rates like 48 kHz and 96 kHz and when you should use them yourself, then this article is for you.
Both 48 kHz and 96 kHz sample rates may be considered “high resolution” because they offer more resolution than CD quality (44.1 kHz). 48 kHz is the standard for music or sound placed in a movie or video.
96 kHz offers several advantages for both recording and mixing, but the main downside is that it requires more processing power from your computer and results in significantly larger audio files.
For most musicians, there is no need to record above 48 kHz.
Sample Rate Explained
Before we can start comparing 48 kHz versus 96 kHz, we need to understand what sample rate is.
Essentially, the sample rate is akin to the frame rate in videos. An audio file’s sample rate refers to how many “snapshots” per second are in that file.
Each sample represents one snapshot of values at that one point in time.
In a 48 kHz sample rate, 48,000 samples (or “snapshots”) are taken per second. Likewise, a 96 kHz sample rate means 96,000 samples per second.
On the other hand, an analog waveform is continuous rather than made up of thousands of samples per second.
No matter the sample rate, your digital to analog converter will take the digital audio, with its thousands of snapshots per second, and convert it back into a continuous analog signal when you hear it.
What The Nyquist Frequency Means For Sample Rates
Have you ever wondered why a strange value like 44.1 kHz became the standard for CD quality audio?
You can thank a scientist named Harry Nyquist.
He discovered that the sample rate needs to be at least twice the value of the highest frequency you need to record.
That maximum frequency is called the Nyquist frequency or Nyquist limit. Human hearing tops out at 20 kHz, so a minimum of 40 kHz is necessary to capture all audible frequencies.
If you try to record a frequency higher than the Nyquist limit of your sample rate, you’ll get what’s known as aliasing or foldover.
Modern analog to digital converters features a filter that filters out these frequencies.
That’s also why 44.1 kHz became standard rather than 40 kHz: the extra 4.1 kHz accommodates the slop of the anti-aliasing filter so that it doesn’t cut off any audible frequencies.
Okay, if you’ve made it this far, we’re almost done with the technical jargon! Stay with me…
Sample Rate And Human Hearing? Does 96 kHz Make A Difference?
Most discussions of sample rate center on the limits of human hearing, as we’ve just talked about. In a 96 kHz sample rate, you can accurately record sounds with frequencies as high as 48 kHz.
The average hearing range in someone with perfect hearing is 20 Hz to 20 kHz. This means that from a hearing perspective, there’s no reason to record at 96 kHz or even 48 kHz rather than 44.1 kHz.
Also, remember that when you hear a recording, you hear it back in the analog domain rather than as a series of thousands of samples per second.
In other words, 96 kHz doesn’t do any better than 48 or 44.1 kHz at accurately reproducing a 20 kHz tone.
As we’ll soon find out, any positive differences people may hear from recordings with higher sample rates aren’t due to being able to hear higher frequencies…
The Arguments For & Against 96kHz
Why Record At 96kHz?
The main benefit of recording at 96 kHz is that it gives you added versatility when processing audio.
High sample rates, like 96 kHz, are beneficial if you plan to stretch and slow down your audio later.
For example, if you’ve recorded a sound source at 96 kHz and then slow it down by half, you’ll still have audible content up to 24 kHz in the half-speed version.
If you instead record that same sound source at 48 kHz and do the same thing, you’ll only have content up to 12 kHz.
For this reason, you may even see sound designers using sample rates of up to 192 kHz because of the flexibility this offers in processing the recording after the fact.
High sample rates also have the advantage of lower latency. Latency is a delay between when a sound is recorded and when it’s played back. The higher the sampling rate, the lower the latency.
96 kHz can also be beneficial when working with plugins during mixing. Saturation, exciter, and compression create distortion that adds high frequencies to your mix.
If you’re working at 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz and apply these effects to sounds like cymbals or synths with a lot of content in the highest frequencies, you end up with aliasing.
This occurs because the plugins add frequencies above the Nyquist limit (i.e. frequencies higher than your sample rate can accurately handle), leading to unwanted distortion.
To compensate, many plugins offer an oversampling option.
Oversampling will make the plugin behave like it’s working with audio at a much higher sample rate, eliminating aliasing.
If your plugins have this option, you can get most of the benefits of a higher sample rate without the downsides.
Downsides Of Recording at 96 kHz
The main downside to 96 kHz is that it requires more CPU power. Many computers can’t handle recording at 96 kHz, so you’ll end up with unwanted clicks and pops that ruin your recording.
In the mixing stage, higher sample rates mean your plugins will all require more CPU power as well.
If you also use oversampling at 96 kHz, your computer may not be able to play back the file in real-time at all.
A lot of budget audio interfaces don’t do well with 96 kHz, either. At higher sample rates like that, a problem called jitter becomes more of an issue.
Jitter is when the distance between samples is inconsistent, leading to unwanted distortion in your audio.
So, even if you have a computer that can handle 96 kHz, if your interface isn’t good enough, any benefits you might get from that high sample rate can end up being moot due to jitter.
Another downside of a 96 kHz sample rate is that your files will be twice as big as they would be at 48 kHz. Over time, that really starts to add up.
Sample Rate Conversion: Is It Better To Start High And Go Low?
Because video generally uses audio at 48 kHz, if you record your song at 44.1 kHz, you’ll need to upsample it for a video.
This can become relevant when making a music video or if you’re writing music for film or TV.
If you know you’re placing your music in some kind of video, recording at 48 kHz or higher is the way to go.
Downsampling (converting a file to a lower sample rate) will always sound better than upsampling (converting to a higher sample rate).
Recording your music at 48 kHz and converting it to 44.1 kHz later is much better than vice versa.
Nowadays, many digital distributors support high-resolution audio with sample rates of 48 kHz or sometimes higher.
If you record at 48 kHz, you may not need to downsample at all unless you’re planning to make a physical CD of your music, too.
48 kHz versus 96 kHz: Which Should You Use?
For most musicians and producers, there’s a marginal benefit to using 96 kHz and plenty of downsides, especially if your plugins offer oversampling.
The bottom line is that the quality of your mics, your level of mixing ability, and of course, the caliber of your song and performance are the main factors in how good your finished track will be, not your sample rate (as long as it’s at least 44.1 kHz).
So I say if you’re just starting out, save the disk space and record at 48 kHz.
On the other hand, if you’re working with great equipment, want the most clarity possible in your recording, and don’t mind the extra disk space you’ll need, 96 kHz is the way to go.
Before you go, check out our article on What Is Buffer Size?