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How to Record: Basics of Sound (Lesson 1)

Hi, it’s Warren Huart here. Hope you’re doing marvelously well. As ever, please subscribe, go below and subscribe, go to the email list at, and if you open up the page, there’s a little block there where you can enter your email address, and you will get a whole bunch of free stuff.

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Okay, so what I’m going to do now is we’re going to do a little twenty part lesson series on recording, and I think the first lesson that we’re going to talk about is just the basics of sound. Now, sound is — you know, it’s vibration. It’s basically a piece of wood vibrating. Whatever creates vibrations, we hear it. You’ll notice that when you open up your Pro Tools, or your Logic session or whatever, and when you open up EQs, if you use classic EQs, quite often, they’re in octaves. So they’re — every time the frequency doubles, it’s another octave.

So like, on a Neve EQ for instance, they have an EQ set at 110 and 220. That’s an octave apart, and the next place would be 440, and 440Hz is the sound of like an A string on a guitar, or the octave A string on a bass.

So it’s important to know that sound is vibration, and we have a fundamental note, which would be like, 440Hz, like an A, and then we have second and third harmonics, and they occur in octaves above that. You’ll actually get — if you play a 400Hz, you’d actually get a 600Hz resonance, as well as an 800, and that gives us a timbre. A timbre, depending on how you want to pronounce it, whether you’re English or American, and that timbre is the sound that’s very unique to an individual instrument, depending on what balance of harmonics, etcetera it creates.

I think an important thing to remember as well is, you know, volume. Sound pressure levels. Be really careful when you’re monitoring. When you’re listening, because I think like, 85 to 88dBs is a sort of — is the recommended listening level, and the reason why they say that is that’s the point where all frequencies tend to sound even enough to us, so that you know, the highs and the lows are pretty balanced.

If you turn — you remember back in ye olden days of stereo receivers, there was a control called a loudness control, and when you put the loudness control in and hit the button, it gave you a bass lift, and the reason for this was when you were listening at lower volumes, you know, you don’t hear the bottom end. You don’t hear the bass, you don’t hear all the high frequencies, so what they would do is they would have this loudness control, so you’d just put it in so you could hear some bottom end.

Now, us as musicians, and producers, and engineers, and song writers, what we tend to do is listen very loud, and I know why we listen loud, because it’s part of experience. There’s nothing more wonderful than sitting between a pair of speakers and listening to a great album. You know, listen to Pink Floyd The Walls or something like that is a spiritual experience for me, it’s like, I want to crank it and just sit there with my eyes closed, and listen to this incredible piece of music.

However, that affects two things. First of all, it doesn’t give us the balance that we want to hear. The bottom end is exaggerated, so what we tend to do is turn up the top end, and the more we turn up the top end, the 3-5kHz and above, the more we turn that up, the more our ears turn it down. So what you’ll find is that if you listen very loud, there’s two things that’ll happen.

Number one, your mix’s balance will go all over the place. You’ll end up over compensating and you’ll put a lot of high mids and high frequencies in there, and then when you listen the next day, your mix will be so bright.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, you will damage your hearing over a long period of time. If you do that for a couple of years and you’re mixing always very loudly, you’ll always be mixing loudly for the rest of your life. You’ll just be mixing louder and louder and louder to try and combat the fact that you’re not hearing those high frequencies.

So 85 to 88 is perceptibly quiet for most musicians. It’s a difficult one, where you can see all of the different levels of sound, etcetera, but ultimately, try to listen at a level that isn’t too fatiguing, that your ears, you don’t get exhausted listening. Also remember, try and take breaks.

You know, listen for like 20 minutes, work on something, and then take a break from it, because A, it’s good for your ears, and B, you’ll get a little bit more objectivity, because you’ll take a break and then you’ll come back and hear it in a different way. So I think it’s very important to not listen too loud, and not listen for long periods of times.

And you can just take a break for five minutes. You can literally just listen for 20 minutes, work on the guitar sound, you know, go, “Okay, I think that’s cool,” go and get a glass of water, a cup of coffee or something like that, you know, then come back and listen again like, five minutes later.

It’s frequent breaks is actually really, really good for your hearing, and it’s also good for your mixing, because it gives you focus, because it allows you to stand back and not get so caught up in the little minutia, in the little details. It allows you to keep listening to the whole of it, and not every little thing.

So anyway, that’s a lot of sort of stuff that is interesting to know, but you’ll probably want to know some of the most important things.

Now, if we go to a waveform here, I just did programmed drums on this one. This is just like, a little programmed drum kit, and if you see here, I used Addictive, and I’ve got two kick drums, and this one is actually the same kick drum where I’ve put an effect on it, but you’ll notice if I zoom out just a little, that these are — polarity is the same. So they’re in phase of each other here.

So when this waveform is going up, this is also going up. Now obviously, that makes sense, because it’s the same kick drum, but if we have multiple kick drums, we’d have to do that too.

Okay, let’s move down here for a second to a bass DI, and a bass mic. I’ll get this large so you can see it better. Now you’ll see that this waveform here is going down, out of time with this one here, and if you’ve watched — if you’ve watched any of my videos on recording bass, you’ll know that this waveform going down here and this waveform going down here, what I’ll do is I’ll put a time adjuster on it.

So what I’ve done is I’ve knocked this one back, this top one here, the bass DI, I’ve brought it back a few milliseconds, or a few samples, in this case, it just says 163, I may have made an average. It’s 156, so it’s come back just enough so that this is going down as that one is going down. You’ll see the same thing here. This one will go down, this waveform here that I’m hovering over, to correspond with this waveform here.

That will put it in phase. That will make the polarity the same.

Now, if we don’t have the polarity the same, and one waveform is going down, the other one is going up, we’ll get some cancellation of sound. Now, that occurs in normal life anyway, because when you’re recording something, you’ll have a direct mic on a guitar, but you’ll also have, like, lots of frequencies that are bouncing backwards and forwards. You know, you can’t control the ambience, or it’s very difficult to control the ambience of a room entirely, unless you made a completely dead room, so you’re also going to have different reflected sounds, you’re not just going to get the source one, and so all of those inherent kind of things actually make the sound better, or they give it a uniqueness I should say.

So it’s not like we want everything perfectly in phase, and the polarity to be absolutely amazing, because yes, it might give us really good bottom end, but it also might affect — because we don’t hear things like that, because if there’s a drum kit playing in a room, we’re hearing all of the drums and all of the sounds vibrating off the walls, you know, all of those different frequencies, and that creates energy in drums, so you know, for a drum kit in particular, you wouldn’t want every single kick — you know, you’d want to hear it the way you’d want to hear it. So you know, you bring the room mics in, you don’t need everything so perfectly in phase that it ends up sounding like a drum machine.

You know, so there’s a sort of balance between this, and you’ll never get, like, the polarity of a DI and a bass mic, it’s never going to be perfect. We’ve got it so it’s in phase by using time adjuster enough, but look, you can see the waveform here and here is quite different.


Here, it actually drops down, where there it’s still above, because the DI and the amp work in different ways. The DI is a direct sound off the bass, but this amplifier here is adding its own low frequencies as we’ve done with the amp. We’ve gone in there, we’ve tuned it, you know, EQ’d it, you know, used EQ to get a sound that we want.

So you know, don’t kill yourself trying to make yourself absolutely perfect, because there’s no way to make those two things absolutely perfect, unless they were both DIs, or as in here, both the same kick.

So that’s like an important thing to understand though. Polarity, phase is really important to understand. Now waveforms, as you can tell here, it’s quite logical. A small waveform, a lower waveform is a quieter signal. The amplitude is less, so if you see here…


Obviously, you can hear the compression is coming in and choking this down just a little bit. The way that Pro Tools and all DAWs work is they give you a visual representation of how loud a signal is, and this here is obviously a louder part of the signal than say, this little piece here.

So it’s quite straight forward. It’s — you know, when you’re looking at your DAW, whatever one you use, you’re going to see this kind of representation. You’re going to see waveforms presented in a way that you can understand the polarity, understand their phase relationships with each other, and you can obviously understand that these are pretty good, evenly printed, you know, evenly printed waveforms, and you don’t — there’s nothing really here that looks like it’s distorting or not, but if, you know, we — if — let’s gain this, for instance. So if we take a gain plugin, I’ll show you something we don’t want.

Let’s just make this bad for a second on purpose. Let’s double it. There ya go.

Now, if we go in here, you see what’s happened? There’s square waves. You’ve got all of this clipping here, and so that actually will affect the sound.

Now, it may or may not sound distorted, but it definitely won’t sound pleasant.


It’s not terrible, because it’s not too overdriven, but let’s see what happens if we really go for it.

[mix, distorting]

You hear the distortion there?


You hear that, “kkk?” Some people like that kind of stuff, and on certain genres of music, you know, creating some distortion in the vocal isn’t necessarily the end of the world. I just worked with quite a well known rock band. I mixed a bunch of stuff for them and their vocal sound was distorted, but it was deliberate. But they were probably distorting with plugins, etcetera to create their distortion.

But what you should try and do is print a pretty even, you know, level. If we listen to this without that gain on.


You know, I can hear some edge in there from the top end.


But I don’t hear that crunchy distortion that we just heard a second ago. So just try and print good, even signal. You know, it’s — if you print something that’s clean and even, you’ll be able to do whatever you like afterwards. You can distort it, you can — you know, you can keep it clean, whatever you want to do, but it’s a lot better to start off with a good, solid, even control. I would — you know, you don’t have to use compression going in on every instrument, but there’s certain instruments that do require a reasonable amount of compression.

You know, for bass, I tend to compress the DI a little bit going in always, because the DI is very dynamic, and bass players, unless they’re very skilled and have been doing this for a long time are very dynamic as well, so they might be — you know, and the pickup, the string hitting a pickup when you’re playing with a pick and stuff like that can create really harsh transients.

Vocals are very dynamic. Only the sort of most mature singers who have been doing this for the longest time have really got a control over their vocals. Most of us, and me included, are very dynamic and don’t have that kind of skill yet.

So compression is very useful on the way in. So don’t be afraid to use compression on the way in on vocals. I would say bass, vocals, some drums, you know, I don’t — on drums, I only really use compression mainly on kick and snare to control the — and it’s only the inside kick mic I’ll do that on, and the snare top I’ll do it on. Snare bottom isn’t as dynamic.

The snare top, because you’ve got that stick on it, so you know, you don’t need a — if you have external compressors, probably two or three will get you by most band recordings, and then you can mix between, you know, using inside — you know, compressors in the box, but I think ultimately, I would say, you know, one external compressor is a good way to go, but you know, it — just make sure you print good, fat, clean tones, and then when you come to mix, you’ll have a lot of choice.

Anyway, I hope that’s very helpful. Please, subscribe, and you know, go to and sign up for the email list, and leave me loads of questions. Make comments, I would love to know what you think, and I love having a discussion on this kind of stuff.

So thanks very much for watching!


Warren Huart

Warren Huart

Warren Huart is an English record producer/musician/composer and recording engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Learn more at

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