FLAC Updates

For many years now, users have associated music with the MP3 format. The MP3 format has become a sort of standard amongst an overwhelming majority of users.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

While many hardware devices and applications support the format, thus making playback extremely easy, some users note the loss of quality. So what is a user supposed to do if he or she is all about quality? Enter FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec).

When many in the file-sharing community search for quality in an audio file, one of the most important attributes is the bit-rate of the audio track. Generally speaking, 320kb/s for an MP3 is nearly CD quality. Some users want higher quality. For this, some switch to an open source project known as OGG, an open source project which can run as high in as 400 kb/s. As a bonus, it’s an open source project. Many users consider open source as something that would give an application a sort of edge over proprietary formats (like the MP3). Still, it’s known as a ‘lossy’ format, meaning quality is still being lost – even though many argue less so than the MP3.

What some users want is a format that does not lose audio quality, this is known as ‘lossless’. Lossless is just what the name implies, ‘no loss in quality’. It sounds great, but there are disadvantages. One downfall is a significant increase in storage space is required. Another downfall is that not as many programs or devices support FLAC.

While this may be the case, a great strength in FLAC is that many converters do support it. If a user wants an MP3 or an OGG file at any given bitrate, a FLAC file provides an excellent source file for whatever compression is needed. It avoids any loss in quality outside of the original encoding itself.

This runs counter to the problem some MP3 users already face. That problem is finding an MP3 that is 320 kb/s in quality, however the source file was from another MP3 file which was originally encoded at 128 kb/s. This is known as transcoding. Many users frown on this because the original 320 kb/s quality is lost. No quality is restored by “upgrading”. FLAC side-steps such an issue.

FLAC, in itself, has been very standardized as a lossless codec of choice at this point in time. It’s not devoid of competition. ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is backed by powerhouse Apple, and WAV (Waveform) is developed by Microsoft), but many users simply use FLAC as a lossless codec of choice. It’s worth pointing out that many CD ripping applications that don’t support FLAC typically supports Microsoft’s WAV format, which can also easily be transferred to FLAC with no loss in quality.

With nearly 7 years since its debut on Sourceforge (given that it’s a GPL project) and its gradual adoption by many users and websites, one may wonder what exactly is being improved to an already well established project on the internet today.

The latest version, version 1.2.0, has “small speed improvements, and some new options and bug fixes”. According to the changelog, other improvements include:

· Added a new undocumented option –ignore-chunk-sizes for ignoring the size of the ‘data’ chunk (WAVE) or ‘SSND’ chunk (AIFF). Can be used to encode files with bogus data sizes (e.g. with WAV files piped from foobar2000 to flac.exe as an external encoder). Use with caution: all subsequent data is treated as audio, so the data/SSND chunk must be the last or the following data/tags will be treated as audio and encoded.

· (build system) Added solution and project files for building with VC++ 2005.

· (libraries) Added runtime detection of SSE OS support for most operating systems.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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