Dither: Everything You Need To Know
Dither may be one of the least talked about parts of music production, but it is still an important topic that every producer should be aware of.
If you want to ensure that your songs are as high quality as possible, including dither in your mastering process is a necessity.
In this article, you will learn:
- Why dither is necessary
- How to use dither
- The importance of dither
- Why reducing the resolution of our music causes distortion
- How dither prevents distortion
- Answers to common questions about dither
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Why Dither Is Necessary
When your music is done and it’s time to release it, you have to export your music out of your DAW. The standard bit depth for musical files is 16 bits, which is lower than the typical 32 bit resolution you find in most DAWs today.
The bit depth, or resolution, of your song specifies how much data is stored for every moment of your song. The more bits, the more information and detail the file will have about your song.
When your music’s resolution is reduced, your DAW throws away a small amount of information about your songs. This process can create subtle distortion in your songs, reducing the quality of your music.
Dither helps solve this issue.
How To Apply Dither To Your Music
Dithering is done once as the very last part of the music production process. Once the mastering process is complete, it’s time to dither and bounce your songs into their final versions.
Typically, modern DAWs have a dither function built-in and all you have to do is select the right settings when you go to bounce your music out of the DAW. If your DAW doesn’t have this, you may have to get a dithering plugin, which will be the very last plugin on your mastering chain.
If you’re sending tracks to a mastering engineer, don’t worry about dithering. Since dithering is the final step in mastering, the mastering engineer will handle this for you.
To add dither to your songs, all you have to do it select the proper dithering options in your DAW when you bounce your tracks.
In Logic Pro, this boils down to two simple settings – the resolution and the dither selection. The resolution for these bounces will be 16 bits, and dithering will be turned on.
Depending on your DAW, you may have the option to select from multiple dither algorithms. While each algorithm will apply dither a little bit differently to your music, any one of them will do. It will be challenging for all but the most experienced mastering engineers to hear the difference between algorithms.
Once you’ve got your settings in place, simply bounce the song and you are done!
The Importance of Dither
Keep in mind that dither is not the most important part of the music production process. Getting high quality recordings, using high quality samples, arranging your music effectively, and mixing your music well are all far more important.
Dither is only a small part of the puzzle, but it does a great job at solving a single issue: distortion caused by reducing the resolution of your songs.
This distortion is not always noticeable, but it will be present if you don’t use dither, and it will harm the audio quality of your songs, especially when experienced on high quality playback systems.
If you want to ensure your music’s audio quality is a high as possible, adding dither is a quick and easy way to support this.
That’s all you have to know about dither. Simply add it when you convert your songs to 16 bits at the very end of mastering.
If you want to learn what causes distortion and how dither functions at a more detailed level, keep reading.
Why Does Distortion Occur?
To understand dither in more detail, we have to start by understanding why distortion occurs when we reduce the bit depth of our songs.
As you may know, digital files are stored as measurable steps of data in the form of binary code – ones and zeros. Every moment of your music is represented by a distinct binary value.
With higher resolution music, such as 32 bit, a tremendous amount of data can be utilized to describe your music, creating rich detail and high audio quality. When converting a high resolution file to a lower resolution (like 16 bit), the information stored in your file has to be simplified.
When this simplification happens, many of the binary values will have to be rounded up or down, which may result in sounds that do not effectively represent the music they are responsible for. With enough rounding, distortion will occur.
Distortion is not always noticeable in our music, but it will still be there when dither is not applied. To give you a feel for what this distortion sounds like, we can demonstrated it by artificially reducing the resolution of a test sample by an extreme amount.
Here is my initial test sample, bounced at 32 bit resolution:
To apply distortion to this sample, all we have to do is lower the volume of our sample by a significant margin (in this example 72 db), bounce it at 16 bit resolution, and then turn the volume back up to a level close to unity.
Here is what this example sounds like with the exaggerated amount of distortion:
Pretty bad, right?
Fixing Distortion With Dither
Dither prevents distortion from occurring by adding noise to a signal using a specialized dither algorithm. This low-level noise adds resolution back into the distorted parts of the file, making it sound closer to and less distorted compared to the original, full resolution file.
Adding noise to your songs may sound like a bad idea, but the noise that dither adds is very quiet – well under -50 dBFS. It will fix the distortion issues of music that has reduced its resolution without being noticeable to the listener.
Let’s go ahead and add dither to the sample that we were using earlier. By applying dither during the bouncing process, we can hear how dither improves the audio quality.
As a reminder, here is the distorted sample without dither added:
Here is the sample reduced to 16 bit resolution with dither added:
Sounds better, right? The guitar comes through much clearer and the distortion is gone.
Note that you can hear the noise from the dither during this clip, but when dither is applied to normally-loud music, this noise will be inaudible.
Common Dither Questions
Should You Add Dither When Reducing The Resolution To 24 Bits?
Yes. Just like reducing the bit depth from 32 to 16 bits, you are losing information when you go down to 24 bits.
The distortion incurred by reducing the resolution to 24 bits will be much less prevalent and virtually undetectable, but it’s still a good idea to add dither anyway.
Is It Safe To Dither More Than Once?
It’s best not to dither to 16 bit resolution more than once. The noise added by the dither algorithm is quiet, but adding multiple instances of it can start to become noticeable during quiet parts in your songs.
If you apply dither when converting files to 24 bit resolution, and then apply it again when converting to 16 bit resolution, this won’t be a problem since the noise added during the first application will be extra quiet.
Should You Add Dither When Converting Your Files To Lossy Formats Like MP3 or AAC?
No. The audio codecs that convert your lossless WAV files compensate for this loss of data on their own, so you don’t need to apply dither in these cases.
If you want to learn even more about dither, I highly recommend checking out the book Mastering Audio: the Art and the Science by Bob Katz. This book goes into tremendous depth on the engineering principles behind distortion and dither.
Dither is an important way to maintain high audio quality in your songs. Even better, it’s quick and easy to use.
Next time you’re ready to bounce your song for the last time, make sure to add some dither. You won’t regret it!
Now you know how to approach the very last step of the music production process – but what about everything that comes before that?
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