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What Bitrate Should I Use For a Podcast?

This is one of those boring questions. Boring or not, though, it’s asked of me almost every day by readers of The Podcast Host, so let’s get a definitive answer down on digital paper. Don’t worry, it wont take long.

Oh, and if you want it even quicker, an answer that’s right for 9 out of 10 people, here you go:

Q. What Bitrate should I use for a podcast? 

A. 96kbps mono.

Easy! But… there are a couple of caveats, so let’s cover them.

What is Bitrate?

Bitrate as a concept is actually pretty simple – it’s just a measure of the rate at which you can transfer bits. A bit is the smallest unit of data you can find, so that translates as the rate at which you can transfer data.

The common unit for audio is kilobits per second. So that means it measures how many thousands of bits are sent from one place to another every second.

When related to audio, this refers to how much of the detail of that audio, or how much of it’s complexity, we can store. A higher bitrate means storing more of the complexity, and a lower bitrate means less. As you’d imagine, that naturally translates to higher quality for higher bitrates, since it stores more of the detail of the original.

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Higher bitrates store more data, though – more thousands of bits – and therefore lead to higher file sizes. And since we’re still sending this stuff over the interwebs, file size matters.

That’s why the whole argument arises: if we didn’t have to worry about file size, we’d use the highest bitrate we could. But we do, and therefore you have to find a balance between audio quality and file size.

What Are the Common Options?

what bitrate should i use for a podcastTo give you a bit of context, iTunes delivers it’s audio files at 256 kilobits per second, or kbps. The perfectionists at Apple have obviously decided that rate is the lowest they can go while still delivering great audio quality for any type of music.

When you record a CD to MP3 format, the default tends to be in the range of 128kbps to 192kbps. Even the lower end of that range gives you a quality that the vast majority of people couldn’t distinguish from the original. So, for complex music and instruments, 192kpbs still sounds great, and 128kpbs is fine for the majority of us.

Voice is, arguably, less complex, containing a lower range of frequencies and a lower rate of change. Even the most prolific motormouth will struggle to compete with the speed and tempo of an epic guitar solo.

As a result, voice doesn’t need as high a bitrate to maintain high quality.

For a voice-only podcast, the common options are 64kbps or 96kbps, both mono (or joint stereo as Audacity calls it).

File Size and Bitrate

As I mentioned earlier, the whole reason this is worth discussing is that file size is a concern when sending things around online. You’re delivering your podcast, week after week, using up your bandwidth and theirs, and higher bitrates directly lead to higher file sizes.

Don’t forget, too, that you may be taking up your listeners time while they wait for a download. Sure, phones often sync and download shows when it’s quiet time, but In some cases people will download and listen instantly. In that case, they’re sitting there waiting for your file to arrive.

Add to this the fact that people are increasingly listening to podcasts via live stream. As 3G and 4G becomes more common, there’s less requirement to download in advance. Therefore, your listeners might care about the size of the file as they could be paying for it via their mobile plan.

Arguably, bandwidth and download speeds are becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on. I remember when a 4MB MP3 took hours, not seconds, to download. So, as download speeds continue to grow, we could safely increase bit-rate. But, would we want to? I’d still argue it’s worth being careful.

What Bitrate Should You Use for Podcasting?

In my opinion there are three options, one of which will suit 90% of podcasters.

Main option: For the vast majority of us – that 90% – go for 96kbps mono. This is perfectly good quality for a voice-only podcast that has a little bit of intro music, some transitions and an outro. It gives enough quality that you could throw an extra tune or two in the background from time to time, but isn’t going to lead to big file sizes.

Second option: if you feel file size is a particular issue for your audience, you can go to 64kpbs mono pretty safely. Or, if you don’t use music at all, this is the way to go. No need for that extra 32kpbs.

Third option: if you’re creating more highly produced material with a lot of music, often as a background to voice sections (commonly known as a ‘bed’) then you might want to increase to 128kbps. The extra complexity that background music introduces can make it necessary to up the rate to make sure it sounds good.

Also, if you’re putting a lot more effort into production, then the sound probably matters a little more to your audience, so it could be worth the extra bandwidth.

Constant Bit Rate or Variable Bit Rate for Podcasting?

This is a simple one: always choose constant bit-rate. Variable bit rate is good for complex stuff because the software tries to lower the bit rate when it can and save a few bytes.

But for the spoken word, and the bitrates we’re using in podcasting, this isn’t necessary. Many media hosts advise against uploading variable bitrate files too, so always pick constant!

What About Sample Rate for a Podcast?

Sample rate is another number that comes up, but that too is easy. Choose 44.1khz and leave it be.

If you'd like to know more about sample rates though, then check out What does 44100Hz mean?

Summary: Podcast Bitrates

To finish up, I’ve got to say that bitrate is a really subjective thing. Some listeners wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a 64kbps file and a 128kbps export, while someone really into their audio would argue that difference all day long.

My advice above is suited to the general podcaster out there who wants a good standard to work to. If you’re now seething because of what I’ve said, you’re no doubt an audiophile who loves audio with a passion, and quibbles over every little bit per second. In that case, you don’t need my advice though 🙂

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Discussion:

9 Comments

  1. Jonathan Baxter on 4th March 2016 at 11:26 pm

    Hahaha! Wow! I’m glad I looked this up! My podcast is talking over music, so I wanted a good sound. My girlfriend is a music producer, so based on her recommendation, I’ve been posting my tracks at 320!! I’m guessing that’s overkill. Should I write my listeners and apologize for killing their data? 🙂

    I host on Soundcloud Unlimited, but I’m guessing I should lower my bit rate. Would it be a good idea to replaces the episodes that I do have up with a lower rate, or just lower it going forward?

    • Matthew McLean on 9th March 2016 at 2:47 pm

      It depends how long your old episodes are Johnathan? If they’re 45min plus the file sizes will be fairly big yeah. You could maybe replace a handful each week in that case.

  2. Shill Shocked on 18th October 2016 at 4:22 pm

    If the audio is anything professional-level like for a news organization, I would keep it at 128 kbps minimum to accomodate the peaks that more varied content necessitates.

    This is a historically proven quality level that has been used by shoutcast streams for a number of years.

    The alternative is to use more cutting-edge file formats suited to your content, but that may be a technical limitation for your audience.

    • Garret on 17th March 2017 at 1:17 am

      I agree completely. I see 128kbps as an absolute minimum.

  3. Rich Askew on 15th January 2017 at 5:45 pm

    This is great, thanks! It’s answered a lot of questions!

    Re. Constant/ Variable Bit Rate, if Constant Bit Rate is fine for spoken word podcasts, would it make sense to have a variable bit rate where there’s a variety of audio sources (am thinking a mix of music, outside field recordings, studio speech, and audio beds).

    Thanks again

    Rich

    • Matthew McLean on 16th January 2017 at 9:41 am

      Hi Rich, from purely an audio point of view yes, but if you’re making a podcast most media hosts advise against VBR so you might run into some issues further down the line. I’d go with CBR!

      • Rich on 16th January 2017 at 2:35 pm

        Thanks for saving me from lots of future headaches!

  4. Garret on 17th March 2017 at 1:13 am

    Quick nit-pick: 196kbps is not a common bitrate. 192kbps, however, is very common.

    I have been using 192kbps for my podcasts so that the intro music pops and hopefully keeps people’s attention. But the files are getting a bit large with interviews, and I agree with most of the points you made; so I’m going to switch down to 128kbps (I just can’t bring myself to do 96 or 64 **shudder**). I have lots of audiobooks that use 96kbps, and the music transitions are just horrible. I would rather they just skipped the music when using such a low bitrate. I also have a bundle of highly produced audiobooks that use 256kbps and sound great (but I admit that it’s probably overkill).

  5. ktzar on 9th May 2017 at 2:54 pm

    The best codec for voice podcast is Opus, and the best compromise bitrate is… wait for it… 24kbps and 22000 Hz. Voice doesn’t go beyond 5kHz, so it can be perfectly sampled with 22kHz… And Opus switches to Speex for voice, which does an amazing job in compressing it. It’s considered “transparent” at 24kbps.

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Written by:

Colin Gray

Colin has been teaching people how to podcast since 2007. He's worked with Universities, businesses and hobbyists alike. He started The Podcast Host to share his experience and to help as many people as possible get into Podcasting. He runs Podcraft, to spread the art of podcasting, and does the Mountain Bikes Apart podcast whenever he can. Who doesn't like to talk bikes, after all!

August 31st 2015