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  • Writer's pictureCj Bertram

Understanding Sample Rates in Audio: How They Work and Their Impact on Sound in a DAW

Updated: May 3, 2023

Sample rates are a fundamental aspect of digital audio production. They refer to the number of times per second that audio is sampled and converted into a digital format. Sample rates are typically measured in kilohertz (kHz) or cycles per second, and the higher the sample rate, the more accurately the audio is captured and reproduced. If you make music for yourself or others, you've most likely seen "44.1kHz" or "48kHz" before. These are the most common sample rates. "CD quality" is 44.1kHz.

The simplest terms to understand this concept are this:

When you record an instrument, or vocal take, there is no higher quality version of that performance than what is happening in real time when you record it. The higher the sample rate you record the part in, the more accurately the recording is going sound to what was happening in the moment you performed it.

This image shows the difference in high and low Sample Rates in Audio.

there are also higher sample rates such as 96kHz or 192kHz. Situations where these can be useful would be if you were to record through high end analog gear or a console. These sample rates pick up sounds much more accurately to the source and can therefore reproduce the coloration or saturation that analog gear or consoles generate better than lower sample rates. The difference you hear can be subtle, and many people debate whether or not it really matters. In my opinion it is subjective and comes down to taste. A downside can be that recording in higher sample rates also produces much larger files which can weigh on a computers CPU when it comes down to mixing.

What Are Sample Rates?

Definition of Sample Rates

Sample rates, also known as sampling frequency, refer to the number of samples of audio taken per second. In other words, it is the rate at which an analog audio signal is converted into a digital signal. Sample rates are measured in Hertz (Hz) or kilohertz (kHz), which represents the number of samples taken per second.

For example, a sample rate of 44.1kHz means that 44,100 samples of audio are taken every second. The higher the sample rate, the more accurate the digital representation of the analog audio signal.

Importance of Sample Rates in Audio

Sample rates play a crucial role in determining the quality of an audio recording. A higher sample rate means more samples are taken per second, resulting in a more accurate representation of the original analog signal. This, in turn, leads to a higher quality recording with better sound clarity and detail.

On the other hand, a lower sample rate can result in a loss of audio quality, especially in the higher frequencies. This is because a lower sample rate may not capture all the nuances of the original analog signal, resulting in a loss of detail and accuracy.

Note that choosing the right sample rate depends on the type of audio you are recording. For example, audiobooks are typically recorded at a sample rate of 44.1kHz, while music recordings may require a higher sample rate of 48kHz, 96kHz or even 192kHz. As stated above, this can be dependent on what kind of gear you are using to capture recordings, as well as personal taste.

It's also important that all the audio equipment used in the recording process supports the chosen sample rate. Using equipment with conflicting sample rates can result in issues such as distortion, aliasing, and other artifacts that can negatively affect the sound quality.

How Do Sample Rates Work?

The Sampling Process

During the sampling process, the analog audio signal is measured at regular intervals and the amplitude of each sample is recorded. These samples are then converted into digital data that can be stored on a computer. The accuracy of the digital representation of the original audio signal depends on the number of samples taken per second. Higher sample rates mean more samples per second, which leads to a more accurate representation of the original audio signal.

Nyquist-Shannon Sampling Theorem

The Nyquist-Shannon Sampling Theorem states that in order to accurately represent an analog audio signal in digital form, the sample rate must be at least twice the highest frequency present in the signal. In simpler terms, it must be at least twice the range of human hearing (20Hz to 20kHz) This means that if a signal contains frequencies up to 20 kHz, the minimum sample rate required to accurately capture the signal is 40 kHz.

If the sample rate is too low, the digital representation of the audio signal will be inaccurate and may result in distortion, aliasing, and other artifacts. Conversely, if the sample rate is too high, it may result in unnecessarily large file sizes and increased processing requirements. Part of the reason I don't accept huge sessions in 96kHz is because I have actually experienced it crashing my computer.

When working with digital audio workstations (DAWs), it is important to ensure that all audio files and plugins are set to the same sample rate. Conflicting sample rates can result in issues such as pitch shifting, phase cancellation, and other unwanted artifacts. I would recommend working in 48kHz, as it is a safe place to be and you can always convert your final mixes down to 44.1kHz if need be.

Conflicting Sample Rates in a DAW

Causes of Conflicting Sample Rates

Conflicting sample rates can occur when audio files with different sample rates are imported into a DAW. For example, if a 44.1 kHz audio file is imported into a project where the sample rate of the session as a whole is set to 48 kHz, the DAW will have to either upsample or downsample the audio to match the project's sample rate. This can lead to issues with audio quality, as well as timing and synchronization problems. In this case, most DAW's will ask you if you would like to change the session sample rate to 44.1kHz to match your files. If you need to change it manually you can do so in most DAW's by going into "preferences" and changes the sample rate as depicted below:

This image shows where you can change the sample rate of your session in Logic Pro X.

Effects of Conflicting Sample Rates on Audio Quality

When conflicting sample rates occur in a DAW, it can result in audio quality issues such as distortion, aliasing, and other artifacts. This is because the DAW has to either add or remove samples to match the project's sample rate, which can result in audio data being lost or added in the process.

Audio Aliasing, How it Occurs, and What it Sounds Like

One of the main issues that can arise from conflicting sample rates is audio aliasing. This occurs when the DAW has to downsample audio with a higher sample rate to match the project's lower sample rate. In this process, high-frequency audio information can get folded back into the audible frequency range, resulting in distortion and other unwanted artifacts.

Audio aliasing can sound like a high-pitched whine or a metallic ringing, and can be especially noticeable in high-frequency content such as cymbals, hi-hats, and other percussion instruments.

Overall, it's important to ensure that all audio files used in a project have the same sample rate to avoid issues with conflicting sample rates. If this isn't possible, it's important to carefully manage the process of upsampling or downsampling to ensure that audio quality is maintained as much as possible.

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