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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