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From behind the Mixing Console

How Instagram changes the sound of your videos (and how to avoid it)

Sep 102018

Let me get this straight, I love Instagram. If we are looking at social media apps that are mostly used on your phone, Instagram is second to none. Design, user interface, speed, entertainment value; you name it, they nail it. Even though there are still a couple of things that I wish were different (video duration limits can be tough for a music producer) most of Instagram’s features are spot on. 

That being said, there’s one thing in particular that made me scratch my head over and over again and made me wonder how a service that has over 1 billion users, many of whom are musicians, can mess up something like this. It’s the way Instagram compresses the audio of your video files.


So what’s it all about? When listening to your video before publishing it on Instagram, everything sounds fine. It sounds the way you mixed and mastered it. It sounds like it’s supposed to sound. Then you publish it on Instagram, and all of sudden it sounds like a 96 Kbps mp3 file. It sounds distorted. It sounds like crap. This goes for video posts, as well as, the beloved Instagram stories.


So, why is it so? Firstly, I thought, it was a one-time thing, because I didn’t experience the same audio issues every time I published a video. But, I quickly realized it wasn’t a hiccup in Instagram’s compression algorithm – it was Instagram’s compression algorithm. So, I digged deeper into it and compared the audio files of my videos before and after I published them on Instagram. How did I do this? I just published a video on Instagram as a post and as a story, then downloaded the video on a desktop pc and extracted the audio file. Then, I compared it to the original sound file of the video. One thing I noticed right away is that there is a strong high-cut at around 14 kHz. Check the frequency comparison:

 
 
 
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Weird instagram audio compression algorithm is weird. Have you ever wondered why the sound of your video files gets worse after you publish them on ig? The strong high-cut at around 14k hz might be one of the reasons! 😯 You can‘t fool us ig!☝️I did some testing, more info coming soon! 🔍

Ein Beitrag geteilt von Skilly Music (@skillymusic) am

 

You can also see it here in this 3D frequency spectrogram:

 
 
 
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Did some testing. Another good visualization of how the highs of your audio material get lost when posting a video on instagram. 😯🤷‍♂️😒

Ein Beitrag geteilt von Skilly Music (@skillymusic) am

 

Besides that, the stereo-to-mono summing is probably the most obvious alteration that occurs when publishing on Instagram. See for yourself:

 
 
 
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Third visualization of how badly instagram treats our sound 😕 They really seem to have a thing for boring ass mono, because after you publish your video on ig, there‘s no stereo whatsoever🙄 Why? - only the ig audio compression algorithm god knows🤷‍♂️

Ein Beitrag geteilt von Skilly Music (@skillymusic) am

This mono summing process is also responsible for the distorted sound that you may experience when listening to the sound of your videos on Instagram. Why? – Because Instagram apparently doesn’t include an attenuator to attenuate the signal. So, if the sound of your video is already compressed, Instagram's mono summing can lead to an unwanted clipping in your audio material. Look at this image below. You can clearly see how there is some serious clipping going on with the audio that was published on Instagram:

 
 
 
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ig can‘t handle its own mono-summing process. So when your audio is already compressed, some nasty clipping might occur when publishing your video on ig. 😒

Ein Beitrag geteilt von Skilly Music (@skillymusic) am

 

It’s funny that Instagram itself doesn’t even give you any official requirements for sound in videos for posts and stories. At least, I couldn’t find it anywhere. The only thing I found was the official technical requirements for video ads which is not necessarily what we are talking about.

Even if it were the same requirements, it says that stereo is recommended. And guess what? Many of the ads I see are mono as well. So, why do they recommend stereo if the actual video advertisement will be published in mono? – I guess only Instagram knows.


So, how should we, as music producers, deal with this? How can we adjust to Instagram’s weird audio compression? Well, one thing would be to stay aware of this when mastering your track. You could boost your highs above 14 kHz and export it as a mono file. To be honest though for something like an Instagram story this sounds like way too much effort. If you don’t care about the 14 kHz high cut that Instagram does, you could also just export a separate Instagram stereo file with a master peaking at around -5 dBFS. This way you can avoid clipping of the respective audio on Instagram.


I also heard people saying that when publishing a video through a desktop app, for example, Uplet or Gramblr, the audio on Instagram will at least appear in stereo. On the other hand, I also read that tools like these compress your audio in other ways like reducing the bitrate. I haven’t tried this yet, but for those of you who like to schedule posts or post a lot through desktop applications anyways, this might be worth a test.


What I also heard people saying is that this is not because of Instagram, but rather because of the operating system that you are using on your smartphone. According to them, the audio compression, or at least the mono summing only occurs on iOS devices, and not on Android. Again, I don’t see a reason for this being the case, and if it was the case, it won’t help iPhone users at all. Not to mention that Apple should do something about this then, because at the end of the day we live in the year 2018 and guess what, smartphones are capable of replaying sound in stereo!


So, even though I don’t have a scientific answer of how to avoid this problem, I hope that this article gives you a little bit more insight into how Instagram deals with your audio material. Ultimately, most of the users don’t care that much about audio anyways and they won’t care about details like a 14 kHz high cut. However, for us audiophiles, the last thing we want to see is an automatic audio compression algorithm messing up the songs that we worked on for a long time. 

 

 

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