What’s Up With The WAV Files?

Paul McCartney and Radiohead have dallied in digital downloads in the past, and their strategy has changed over time.

Radiohead’s new album The King Of Limbs is being released as a so-called “newspaper” album. I’m not quite sure what they mean by that. The physical album will be released April 9th, but the digital album is available now. If you pre-order the physical album now, you can download the tracks today. The physical release comes with vinyl, CD, and a variety of artwork.

The pay-what-you-want experiment of In Rainbows has gone by the wayside (as I predicted), even though by all reports it was quite successful. However, their pricing is quite reasonable – $9 for the album in 320 kbps MP3 format.

I’m a big fan of the FLAC lossless audio codec for digital downloads. It gets you full digital quality without having to download uncompressed WAVE files. And it avoids all the nastiness of MP3 (important if you want to burn the tracks to a CD that match the physical release).

Well, guess what? Radiohead are offering a CD-quality version of The King Of Limbs. But not in FLAC format. They’re offering fully uncompressed WAV files.

What? Yeah, they’re in a ZIP file, so technically, they’re compressed. But ZIP doesn’t handle WAV files very well. The ZIP file is 367.9 MB, and the WAV files when decompressed, are 383.9 MB. This is less than a 5% savings.

When compressed to FLAC, the same files are 213.5 MB – about a 44% savings.

Interestingly, these are not normal WAVE files. When I went to convert them to FLAC, I got a warning message of a “JUNK” chunk in the file. I opened the file in a hex editor and indeed there is an an extra “JUNK” chunk in the file before the audio data.

(The WAVE file format is built out of “chunks” which contain different information. There are two common chunks – the “fmt” chunk is the header which stores technical information about the file, and the “data” chunk stores the audio. The format is flexible and programs can add other chunks to the file, which should be ignored by other applications.)

Apparently, the “JUNK” chunk was created to pad the file so that the “data” chunk is aligned with a CD-ROM’s sectors. It could be used to align the audio data some other way, as well, but I’m not sure why it would be necessary in this case.

Peering farther into the file, there were a couple other extra chunks at the end of the file, common to the Broadcast Wave (BWF) format, which is a professional audio format that adds extra information to an otherwise normal WAVE file. The reason why film post production uses BWF files is to store time code to keep the audio synchronized with video.

There is no time code or other interesting information in the Radiohead BWF file, so I’m not sure why they are not normal WAVE files.

***

After experimenting with bonus editions and deluxe downloads with The Fireman, Sir Paul McCartney did a similar thing with the classic Wings album Band On The Run late last year. Available on vinyl, three different CD editions, and digital downloads.

The Beatles Mono re-releases avoided my personal pet peeve, excessive dynamic range compression. Band On The Run takes this a step further. The digital download is available in standard (16 bit 44.1 kHz) and high definition (24 bit 96 kHz) formats, and the high definition audio comes in two mixes – “limited” and “unlimited”. Sir Paul has finally done what I’ve been wishing for – separate mixes for audiophiles and iPods. The limited mix uses iPod-friendly dynamic range compression to give that popular loud remastered sound. The unlimited mix maintains the dynamic range of the master tape.

The unlimited high resolution audio sounds great. There’s a bit of hiss that would normally be “cleaned up” in a restoration. It’s nice to see the option to get essentially a transfer of the master tape, hiss and all. It sounds amazing, better than any version of the album I’ve ever had, including the vinyl.

This is all great, but when I purchased the high resolution unlimited version of the album, what did I download?

WAVE files.

The Fireman lossless files were FLAC encoded. The Band On The Run web site even says there is a choice of MP3, FLAC, and Apple Lossless Codec. Seems an odd mistake. I submitted a note to customer service about it. (The Radiohead web site actually says MP3 and WAV, so it’s intentional.)

Like the Radiohead WAVE files, the Band On The Run files have extra chunks in them, including a “pad” chunk that appears to indeed be nothing but padding. These are not BWF files like the Radiohead ones.

The ZIP is 2.61 GB, which includes both the WAVE and MP3 files. There is virtually no saving in the ZIP file. The WAVE files are 2.43 GB, but converted to FLAC, they’re 1.54 GB. This is about a 38% savings.

These savings are not insignificant when you are as big a musician as Radiohead or Paul McCartney, who might expect to sell thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of downloads. Radiohead would have saved 150 MB per download, but Paul McCartney would have saved nearly a full GB per each unlimited version download. This can add 30-50% to the transaction overhead, which the internet service providers might be happy with, but it’s just throwing away profit for the artist.

***

I’m happy that Radiohead and Sir Paul are offering lossless downloads, and the full-range high resolution version of Band On The Run is fantastic. I find it curious that I bought two downloads in the same week that came as WAVE files instead of FLAC.

The only rationale I can come up with for why WAVE over FLAC is that people might have trouble using the FLAC files. You can’t import them into iTunes or Windows Media Player directly – you need additional software (free) to decode them to a WAVE file or encode them to a MP3 or AAC file first. This could be a bit of a customer service headache. But I would imagine that anyone interested in lossless download would already know about FLAC. Anyone else should be choosing the MP3 files.

***

UPDATE 2011-02-23

I sent a note to Topspin, who hosts the files for Paul McCartney, pointing out that the download was WAVE files instead of the expected FLAC. They e-mailed me today with links to FLAC files. They were 16 bit, 44.1 kHz FLACs, though they are the “unlimited” mix. Not quite the solution I expected, but at least they sent me FLAC files, and they’re quite good sounding.

8 Comments

  1. JJ
    Posted 20 February 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I am wondering if there is a mistake on the wave file version. Bloom for example is very distorted, at first I thought this was glitch done on-purpose, now I think it is poor mastering? I have only listened via computer to audioengine A5’s, it does not sound very good. Secondly, I can not get the album into itunes, it just shows up as unknown artist, unknown album. I would like to know what others think, if it is a mistake, I hope an updated version can be re downloaded, or that we canhave access to the mp3 without an extra charge

  2. Posted 20 February 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    That’s what Radiohead sounds like these days! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the files, unless you got a corrupted download.

    That’s one bad thing about WAV – there’s no accepted metadata standard, so iTunes won’t have any idea what it is. You’ll have to type the artist, song, and album information in by hand.

    This *could* be one of the points of using BWF files – you could put MXF style metadata into the file. They did not in this case, however. And in any case, I doubt iTunes would know what to do with it.

    I think the easiest solution is to do what you suggest – let anyone who downloads the album to get the official MP3s as well, which one would assume are properly tagged. The MP3s were included in the Band On The Run download.

  3. Doug C
    Posted 20 February 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    @JJ & @Bangsplat – I have a “skipping” problem with almost all the songs in the .wav format. At first I thought it was deliberate, but by the time I got to sections of “Lotus Flower” I became very suspicious. I really think there is something screwy going on.. Some of the choppy rhythms are deliberate, but some are not. I’d like the chance to try the other file format gratis as well.

  4. Doug C
    Posted 20 February 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Update – I burned the wavs to a CD (from Itunes) and re-imported them into Itunes and the problem cleared right up now that they are 1/5 the size and mpeg-4 format. Of course I’m missing out on the “detail” of the uncompressed .wav but I think there is something definitely funky with Itunes playing those .wav files.

  5. Posted 21 February 2011 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    What version of iTunes and on what OS are you having trouble playing the WAVE files on?

  6. Doug C
    Posted 21 February 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Windows XP SP3 Itunes 10.1.2.17

  7. Grant Wallace
    Posted 23 February 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    So it’s not just me. I downloaded the wav files and am really disappointed. The music is great, the sound quality TERRIBLE. I particularly have problems with CODEX. I have hear a perfect copy of it elsewhere on the net, so it must surely be a corruption of the files. And I thought Radiohead were technological wizards!!!!!

  8. Posted 23 February 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Based on comments here and the search terms by which people are finding this blog, there are definitely problems. It may have something to do with the unusual format of the WAVE files. I have a tool which may fix the problem if that is the case. See next blog post or here https://github.com/bangsplat/Rewrap-WAVE

2 Trackbacks

  1. By WAVE Files, Update – BlogSplat on 23 February 2011 at 9:52 pm

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  2. By Sir Paul Does It Again – BlogSplat on 18 May 2011 at 2:01 am

    […] McCartney did a great job remastering Band On The Run, releasing 24 bit 96 kHz, wide dynamic range digital files. The album was released under the […]

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