Revamping Through Reamping

Want to breathe life into lackluster directly recorded tracks? Using the technique known as “reamping,” you can create an entirely new palate of sounds for your guitar, bass, keyboard or other parts — and without having to start from scratch.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on December 8, 2010 by

Unless you have access to a dedicated soundproof space 24/7, chances are you do a lot of recording by plugging instruments directly into effects processors, such as those found within GarageBand or similar programs. While these digital emulators have gotten significantly better over time, sometimes there’s just no substitute for moving air.

To breath some life into lackluster directly recorded tracks — or, for that matter, any kind of tracks in need of extra dimension — engineers often call upon a technique known as “reamping,” whereby a direct (and preferably untreated) signal is sent from the output of a recorder and fed into an instrument amplifier, which is then miked up and recorded to a separate track, to be used in conjunction with or as a substitute for the primary track. By changing amp settings (or even changing amps), you can create an entirely new palate of sounds for your guitar, bass, keyboard or other recorded parts, and, best of all, without having to start from scratch.

For example, let’s say you’ve recorded a bass by plugging straight into your mixer or recording interface. Later on, however, you decide that your directly injected bass could use some boost, the kind that only a good bass amp can provide. If you like the original performance but just want to improve the sound, rather than re-cut the part, you’d simply take the direct-bass signal and run it out to the amplifier, then re-record the “reamped” signal separately. Easy, huh?

Well, yes, but to really get it right, there are a few other minor details. Unlike conventional low-level instrument signals, recorded tracks are line-level and low-impedance, meaning there is an impedance mismatch that occurs when sending the signals to be reamped from your recorder out to the amplifier. While you could conceivably work around the extraneous buzzes and other noises that are likely to occur by just plugging straight in, the best approach is to use a good-quality transformer that is designed to properly balance line-level signals (i.e., match the impedances).

These “reamp boxes” come in two flavors: passive (which merely reduces the signal output to that of an instrument-level signal) and active (which, in certain instances, is capable of “tricking” the amplifier into thinking the signal is emanating from a guitar pickup or other real instrument). One of the more popular reamp devices is a little red box called the Reamp, designed by veteran recording engineer John Cuniberti (his latest version, Reamp V.2, sells for $189 and is available at Cuniberti’s website. Others include the Pro Co TradeTools RA1 Reamping box ($159), as well as the Radial ProRMP Studio Re-Amper Passive Re-Amping Direct Box ($99). Running the signal through any stomp box while reducing the pedal’s output level has been known to work in some instances as well.

While it isn’t always necessary, reamping tends to work best when starting with a completely unadulterated signal, which you can easily achieve by recording the instrument straight in without using any effects (suitable, though hardly inspirational), or, better yet, adding an effect for monitoring purposes only (rather than “printing” the effect during the actual take). If you’d prefer, you could also play through an amp while simultaneously saving a “clean” version of the signal for reamping purposes by placing a direct-injection (DI) box in the signal path. The DI box splits the signal, sending one-half to the amp and the other straight to your recorder (again, to a separate channel). The DI also has the added benefit of balancing and cleaning up the signal along the way.

Obviously, there are certain things that reamping can’t do, such as adding harmonic feedback or other “physical” dynamics that occur when a real guitar player is situated next to a real amp. Still, reamping can provide a multitude of benefits, including the ability to experiment with different kinds of amplifiers (in case you happen to run into someone who owns a Marshall stack or Leslie 147), even after the original session is complete. “You can preserve those inspired first-takes, always knowing you can reamp later if you are unhappy with the amplified sound,” says reamp man Cuniberti. Reamping allows engineers to try various mic settings and placements in order to maximize room ambiance, without having players perform the parts multiple times, adds Cuniberti. And for those who perpetually plug straight into laptops or use canned percussion tracks, reamping enables you to get a much more lifelike vibe out of your cloned tones. While reamping is most often used for instruments, the procedure can enhance just about any kind of recorded signal, even vocals.

“Like a lot of people, I use my old Ampeg, or any other cool tube amp, to re-amp parts out of my digital recorder,” says New England-based producer/engineer Jim Weeks. “I’ll feed vocals or perhaps even entire mixes through it as well, and then re-track the signal. I might even put a digital-delay return through a tube amp and mike that, then use that as the return.”

Another way of adding beef to flat tracks without coloring the signal is to send the parts out to a basic speaker (or set of speakers) instead of an amplifier, then recording the “ambient” sound to a separate track, as you would during reamping. While this method works particularly well for vocal tracks, like reamping, you could try the technique with just about any recorded passage.

“Sometimes during the mixing process, I’d set up a pair of mics in the studio,” recalls Joe Tarsia, the legendary producer/engineer and founder of Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound studio, “then turn on the studio monitors and feed the track into the studio and weave some of that back into the mix. Or just hang a couple extra mics way back in the room during a strings session, just to try to get some of the room ambience and make it sound like it was a real live date.”

Engineer Tony Platt had similar luck using this method during his years recording high-voltage rockers AC/DC. “The basic tracks for Highway to Hell were done at London’s E’Zee Hire Studios, which was a very dead space — so much so that during mixing, I came in and fed the various parts back through the speakers and into the studio, recording the result for extra ambience. Which worked very nicely indeed.”

All you’ll need is a cheap small speaker placed in one corner of a room, with a microphone facing away from the speaker in the opposite corner. Connect the speaker to the output of your recorder, with the microphone connected to an open record track. Play the track through the speaker, recording the sound of the room onto a separate channel. Once complete, all you have to do is blend the two parts together until you achieve the desired results (and adding a touch of delay to the room track will make it sound that much fuller).

Songwriter101 exclusive by Dave Simons

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