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What the f*ck is 32 bit floating?

What is 32 bit floating?

I, like, I’m assuming a portion of the people reading this have heard of 32 bit floating but are still unsure about exactly what it is. What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages? When I asked a friend of mine, who is also an experienced engineer about 32 bit floating point, he told me he didn’t know and had never used it.

After having this discussion and then immediately seeing this tweet from accomplished Brooklyn based producer Andrew Maury, I knew I had to finally figure out what the hell it was and if I should be using it.

So, what is 32 bit floating?

The Wikipedia article tells us it’s,

A computer number format that occupies 4 bytes (32 bits) in computer memory and represents a wide dynamic range of values by using a floating point. In IEEE 754-2008 the 32-bit base-2 format is officially referred to as binary32. It was called single in IEEE 754-1985. In older computers, different floating-point formats of 4 bytes were used, e.g., GW-BASIC’s single-precision data type was the 32-bit MBF floating-point format.

Alright, well, that about wraps it up… That was almost too easy. Ha. Ha.

Let’s start with the definition of bit depth because I know that one, and it’s not too difficult to understand. Bit depth is what decides the dynamic range of an audio file.

So 32 bit floating means more dynamic range, right? Not exactly.

So is 32 bit floating better? Higher bitrate means it’s better, right? Sort of.

So it turns out the reason no one knows what 32 bit floating is… is because it’s kind of pointless for most engineers even to bother worrying about it.

A video on the Reaper blog is one of the only sources I found that explained 32 bit floating in a practical way. This explanation is easy for a person that doesn’t like spending his time thinking about digital signal processing anymore than he has to.

So… 32 bit floating is a 24 bit recording with 8 extra bits for volume. Basically, if the audio is rendered within the computer, then 32 bit floating gives you more headroom. Within the computer means things like AudioSuite effects in Pro Tools and printing tracks internally. So say you decide to print a compressor, and the output level is peaking badly… If you are using 32 bit floating, you can bring the level down and restore the headroom so the file won’t be distorted. If you were recording to a tape machine, this wouldn’t be impossible. You can’t just record a bass that’s clipping and restore the headroom afterward. The benefit of 32 bit floating is when processing internally, BUT the downside is the files it creates are 50% larger than standard 24 bit audio files.

Most experienced engineers don’t need to worry about headroom as they probably already know how to make sure levels are never clipping when they aren‘t supposed to be. This article from ask.audio says 32 bit floating will also help reduce unnecessary noise introduced by AudioSuite dithering and rounding errors during signal processing in Pro Tools.

Maybe I’ll write an article in the future where I run some tests to see if there is a noticeable difference between AudioSuite effects processed with 24 bit and ones processed with 32 bit floating.

Update: Most DAWs process in 32 bit floating therefore, if you are processing any audio, it is converted to 32 bit to be processed and then converted back to 24 bit. If conditions permit, it is best to work in 32 bit floating all the way through until mastering to avoid any unnecessary conversion artifacts. Once the project is mastered, you can have the mastering engineer convert the final audio file to whatever sample and bitrate you need.

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[More] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering

Click here to read PART 1 “Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering.”

Don’t go after a “pro” sound

Since I started recording, I can remember striving to achieve a “pro” sound. All this did was set me up for disappointment. I’m never going to be able to get my mixes to sound like Chris Lord Alge, so I need to stop trying!

Over time, I’ve learned to instead try and focus on making each mix my own rather than the punchiness of the drums or fatness of the bass. Those fat bass sounds will come with time. In the meantime, don’t be so hard on yourself.

You don’t always get to record the Rolling Stones

When I first started engineering, I was finishing up a session and complaining about the band to a veteran producer. I was probably saying something like “this drummer sucks.” His response was perfect: “you don’t always get to record the Rolling Stones. Make it work. That’s your job.” He was right. You don’t always get to record great bands. This job isn’t always fun. The ultimate goal is to make people sound as good as possible, stop complaining about it and get it done.

Stop talking about gear and start recording

I know talking about gear is fun, looking for new gear is fun, dreaming of that perfect studio is fun. I think every aspiring engineer at some point made a dream list of everything he would have if he had an unlimited amount of money. What’s not fun is trying to get that bass tone you heard on the new Shakira record and not even coming close. One of those things is going to help you grow as an engineer, and the other one isn’t… and those hips don’t lie.

If you can do it in 5 minutes, just do it

I have a rule that if it takes less than five minutes, then I have to get it done right then and there. Did you want to try a dotted eighth note delay on the vocals? You’ll do it after compressing the drums? No, you won’t, you’ll do it now.  I used to find myself with a list of things at the end of every session that if I had just done when it was mentioned would have saved me time and my sanity.

Reverb and delays are the easiest things to fuck up

I don’t even want to say how long it took me to finally understand time based effects and how to use them properly. This isn’t a tutorial so I won’t go into too much technical detail right now, but I think the most significant breakthrough for me was realizing that time based effects aren’t always heard but rather felt. There are times when I like to tuck a reverb in so low that you won’t notice it’s there unless it’s taken away. This subtle use of reverb opened up doors for me when trying to create space and depth in a mix.

Give your ear time to develop

During the first few years of working with audio, there are things you just can’t hear yet. Your ear hasn’t developed, you don’t know what 350 hertz sounds like, you can’t hear the difference between limiting and compressing or that drummer speeding up every 5 seconds. During this time usually, all you know is that what you hear doesn’t sound good. Through trial and error, you’ll eventually find what works and what doesn’t.

I remember when I had just finished one of my first mixes, and I was excited about it. I thought it sounded great so I showed a more experienced engineer “Hey, look at this amazing mix I did.” After hearing it for less than 30 seconds, he said the guitars were clashing around 3-5 kHz and it was interfering with the vocal. As soon as he told me that I heard exactly what he was talking about but if you asked me two hours before I would have said the mix sounded great and vocals were really slammin’.

Gain staging is a thing

Do you know that signal going into that plugin? Well, you need to be aware of the level going out of it and into the next plug-in. I always knew what gain staging was, but it took me a while to get into good habits of checking to make sure levels were right and to figure out what plugins or gear works best at what input level. It’s something that seems so easy, but it’s also so easy to mess up.

Make your own opinion, don’t listen to assholes on the internet

People on the internet have no idea what the hell they are talking about (except AudioHertz). Try everything and decide for yourself, make your opinion. Listen to what people have to say but take it all with a grain of salt, what works for one person might not work for you.

Read the damn manual

Do you know that small booklet of papers that’s included with every piece of gear? Well, there’s actually some good stuff in there. Most people don’t know this, but studies have shown that reading manuals makes you a better lover and a kinder more compassionate person. No one likes reading manuals, but you can learn things you wouldn’t be able to learn any other way. If you spent money on a piece of gear, spend the time to learn how to use it properly.

Just because you know what to do, doesn’t mean you know how to do it

There are so many ways to learn new things that it’s hard to filter out the good information from the bad. There used to be a tried and true method of passing down information from engineer to engineer. You’d start as an intern at a studio, work your way up to assistant and then hopefully to engineer and then producer.

Today most people get their information from YouTube videos or message boards. The problem is you have a lot of people knowing what to use but not how to use it or what to listen for. Everyone knows it’s a good idea to use a limiter on your mix bus, but not everyone knows what you should be listening for while you do it.

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Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering

You really don’t need that piece of gear

When I first started engineering, I was hardly recording any music yet spending hours a day looking through eBay and Craigslist for vintage gear I could never afford. The gear really doesn’t matter as much as your ear. The best engineers can get great sounds using very minimal gear. It’s easy to get caught up with expensive gear, and it’s normal to want nice things but the gear doesn’t make the recording or the engineer, and it certainly doesn’t bring you, clients. Spend more time learning about the gear you have and actually recording with it.

Start with the basics, don’t get caught up with advanced techniques

Parallel compression, four microphones on every drum, m/s, binaural… they’re all great. But I wish I had spent more time mastering the basics before trying out more advanced techniques. I was lucky to have access to a lot of good equipment before I probably should have. A minimalist approach when starting out is always the best. Find out how to mic the drum set with only two mics. Move them around until you get the best sound you can. By experimenting this way you’ll not only get good at micing in less than ideal scenarios, but you’ll also better develop your ear.

Running a session is one of the most overlooked skills

So you know how to use Pro Tools and set up microphones. So do a billion other aspiring engineers. One of the most overlooked skills is the ability to run a session smoothly. Unless a producer is working the session, then it is the engineer’s job to make sure the session is running properly. Not only do you need to run the session, but you also need to make sure the client is having a good time, and you’re fun to work with. Clients are paying to work with you, and if they aren’t having a good time and things aren’t flowing well they won’t want to work with you again. Engineers rely on repeat business and the only way get repeat business is by having satisfied clients.

Automation can make a good mix great

Use automation. That’s it. Before going for the compressor, try automating first. Automation will give your mixes that extra bit of life and take them into a magical world filled with unicorns and rainbows.

Clients don’t just appear at your door

Clients are difficult to get, without any notable credits it’s unlikely someone will just call you looking for work. You need to be active in going out and actually talking to people. Go to shows, make friends, get involved in your local scene, play in bands, DJ at clubs, put on your own shows. The more people you know, the better your chances are at finding work. People want to work with their friends, and they want to work with someone they feel is invested in their art. Be friendly, be interested, and be fun to be around and people will be more inclined to want to work with you.

Be confident in your ear, don’t be afraid to try new things

It’s easy to get stuck in the habit of reaching for the same compressor or same EQ. I still catch myself going to a goto piece of gear because I know it worked well in a previous scenario. I’ve heard about great engineers like Chris Lord Alge keeping their gear at a fixed setting and using it only for one specific instrument. I think this is fine if you’re Chris Lord Alge and have tried everything and truly know what sounds best. If you haven’t tried everything, this type of thinking can stunt your growth. Instead of trying new things and taking a risk, you might go for that compressor that you used on the last song that you already know how to use well. I need to continually remind myself to try new things. New mic placements, techniques, new gear, plugins, etc. A large part of what would hold me back is lacking the confidence to know when something is good. What if I try a new microphone or technique and I think it sounds good, but the next day I realize it sounds terrible? We’ve all had times where we think something sounds good and a few days later can’t comprehend what the hell we were thinking at the time.

You need to put in your 10,000 hours

Like anything else, being a good audio engineer takes experience. Earlier on in my career, I was very concerned with getting the best sounds and having the best mixes possible. As much as I tried, that just wasn’t going to happen without having bad mixes first. At one point, every great engineer was a bad engineer. The hardest part for me was knowing I was terrible. This might not be the same for everyone. I know a lot of guys that thought they were amazing engineers right from day one, but I knew my mixing was not up to par with other professional engineers or even engineers that I would consider to be on my level. It’s easy to get discouraged and let self doubt take over. You just have to keep pushing through.

I am still learning new things every day, my success comes down to trusting my foundation and my ear and knowing that they will lead to creating something great. I’ll leave you with this quote from Ira Glass that helps put the frustrating but ultimately rewarding journey of an artist into perspective.

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. – Ira Glass

Click here to read PART 2 “[More] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering.”

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