Representing Sound Digitally

Table of Contents

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1 What is sound?

Learn It

  • A sound is literally a vibration that travels through a medium than can be heard when it reaches an ear.
  • Normally that medium would be air.
  • The compression and rareification of air can be represented graphically as shown below.


  • The image from the oscilloscope shows a sound wave with varying amplitudes and frequencies.
  • If we were to look at the y values, then we would see that the sound wave is fundamentally analogue in nature.

Research It

  • When we talk about sound, we often use the terms volume and pitch.
  • What do these terms actually mean with reference to a sound wave?
  • Why would it be problematic to store analogue representations of sound on a computer?

2 Physical to Electrical

Learn It

  • In order to store sound in a digital format, there are a few steps that need to be followed.
  • The sound must first be captured with an input device.
  • The sound is converted to an analogue electrical signal.
  • The electrical signal needs to be sampled.
  • The digital data can then be stored.

Research It

  • Use online resources to find out how a microphone can capture vibrations in the air and convert them to an analogue electrical signal.

3 Sampling

Learn It

  • Sampling is the process of turning an electrical analogue stream of data, into a digital stream of data.
  • The process involves recording the amplitude of an electrical signal at set intervals, rounding the value and converting it to binary (typically 16 or 32 bits for sound).
  • For sound, this sampling normally occurs 44100 times per second. We call this the Sample Rate and it is normally expressed as 44.1kHz.
  • The number of bits we use to store the data is known as the Sample Depth.
  • Obviously, the higher the Sample Rate and the larger the bit depth, the higher the quality of the resulting audio.


  • The image above is a graphical representation of how an analogue electrical signal can be sampled and converted to an integer, ready for storing as a binary integer.

Research It

  • There is a good reason that we tend not to sample sounds at a higher sample rate than 48kHz. It is to do with Nyquist's Theorem.
  • Use online resources to make notes on what is stated in Nyquist's Theorem.

4 Compression

Learn It

  • Even when digitised, an audio track can have a huge file size, that makes it impractical to use.
  • For this reason we use compression, to reduce the file sizes.
  • There are two types of compression:
    • Lossless e.g. Dolby TrueHD
    • Lossy e.g. MP3

Research It

  • Find out what the difference between lossless and lossy compression are.
  • Find out what the percentage compression can be achieved with audio files.