Tools for Audio Geeks: Spek, a Free Spectrum Analyzer

Tonight, I’d like to give a major shout-out to the cre­ators of Spek, a free spec­trum ana­lyz­er I dis­cov­ered recent­ly, which has been extreme­ly use­ful in the course of pro­cess­ing my music col­lec­tion.

Why use a spec­trum ana­lyz­er at all? Glad you asked.

The main ben­e­fit is you can phys­i­cal­ly see how the encode turned out — peaks, fre­quen­cy cut­offs, bit rates, and oth­er details can be checked with this tool. It can be some­what neb­u­lous on the details if you used VBR, but I gen­er­al­ly find that’s not much of an issue con­sid­er­ing being able to see a track’s audio spec­trum pro­vides a bet­ter look at the file any­way.

In the same vein, one excel­lent appli­ca­tion for this tool is ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the music one has bought through var­i­ous online music stores. There are instances of tracks get­ting encod­ed at low bit rates (say, 128kbps) then lat­er re-encod­ed at a high­er bit rate to make users’ media devices read 320kbps. This might fool the media play­er, but even a cur­so­ry spec­trum check is enough to see the unre­cov­er­able loss in qual­i­ty that occurs from this prac­tice.

Thank­ful­ly, bit rate forg­ing is fair­ly rare … but if you’re seri­ous about your music, it’s always worth a sec­ond look.

One more rea­son a spec­trum ana­lyz­er is indis­pens­able is it lets the user quick­ly triage files affect­ed by many kinds of encode errors (skips, pops, silences, and cor­rupt­ed data).

Ever put on a song only to have it unex­pect­ed­ly skip a few bars or drop out to total silence? You’re hear­ing a failed encode, and what Spek seems to do with these files is it will still show the full track time­line at the bot­tom, but as soon as it stum­bles over the unread­able part of the track, it stops pop­u­lat­ing the remain­der of that track’s visu­al spec­trum and leaves it emp­ty, giv­ing an imme­di­ate (and unmis­tak­able) visu­al cue that the file is defec­tive.

Pri­or to writ­ing this review, I’ve test­ed this fea­ture out with mul­ti­ple dam­aged files, both by load­ing them into Spek and lis­ten­ing to them in my audio play­ers to see whether it did this con­sis­tent­ly — and it seems it does.

So that’s it, in a nut­shell. Whether you’re an audio­phile or just an every­day con­sumer, this pro­gram is intu­itive and easy to learn; once you’re famil­iar with its work­ings, it can save you hours of frus­tra­tion espe­cial­ly when work­ing with large col­lec­tions of music files.

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