ROB LONG GOES DEEP ON ONE OF RECORDING’S MOST USEFUL GUITAR CONCEPTS.
Re-amping is simply the process of playing a previously recorded track back through an amp, speaker or FX unit(s), and re-recording the signal back to tape or into a DAW. The purpose is to enhance the signal in some way, in order to add colour, character or warmth to a track, or even to introduce an ‘organic’ element into the texture rather than relying 100 percent on digital emulation.
Re-amping is nothing new. Abbey Road’s famous Studio Two reverb chamber was designed to add natural reverb to tracks by playing them through a speaker and re-recording them into the mix. With the rise of the home studio, this technique has developed further and become even more popular over time, largely due to the added flexibility and control in limited surroundings.
The most common scenario is when an electric guitar, bass or keyboard track has been recorded cleanly through a DI or mic preamp with no amp or FX. The clean, dry signal is then fed through a DAW output into a guitar amp, which is then miced up and re-recorded. As you’ll soon see, there are many more creative applications for the technique – it’s just another creative tool to be explored!
The first question is usually, "Why go through all that trouble when you can just play through an amp and mic it up to start with?" Firstly, even at the highest level, it’s not always easy to nail the perfect guitar sound during tracking – the focus is often more on getting the right take down. It may not be apparent how the sound is going to interact with other elements in the track until much later, such as during mixdown. Thus, re-amping can become part of the mixing process, which is all about finalising the sonic qualities of the track and getting everything to work as a whole.
Further to this, you may not actually own a great guitar amp, amp mics, preamps, or a room in which to crank it all up. Home producers often record drums elsewhere and then bring them home to work on. Mixing is also commonly done in a professional environment. Re-amping later in a pro studio could be the
answer for people who want to get their parts down in the comfort of their own time and space, then worry about getting the perfect tone in a more equipped and versatile workspace further down the track.
Timing restraints can play a part, as can the player's fatigue. People often reach their peak performance in three or four takes, but sometimes, all the messing around in finding the ‘perfect tone’ distracts and interferes with the actual performance side of things. Thus, it’s often best to separate the two processes. You might just be a night owl who likes to shred at 2am but doesn’t want to wake up the cranky pants in the next room!
Recording through a DI is fast and works well – you can insert a guitar amp plugin, dial up a tone that’s close enough, get your take down and edited, and then come back and re-amp it later to perfect the tone. However, you can have your cake and eat it too. It’s often nice to play the take through a real amp with your familiar sound and setup.
But why not capture a dry DI tone at the same time? This can be tweaked later. For this method, you would need to split the signal from the guitar – sending one signal to the FX/amp – then another signal to the DI.
We’ve got plenty of reasons for reamping covered – let's take a look at the ‘how’ of it all. RECORDING
Work out whether you want to record a clean DI track, or if you want to record both a DI and live amp track simultaneously. There are numerous devices available which will enable you to split the guitar signal in a 'technically correct’ way. It’s import to get a clean, high-quality signal in if you want to get a quality sound out. Basically, you'll want maximum level, minimal noise, and to avoid ground hum. Most DIs will have a ground lift switch, which is far more useful than it may seem at first. RE-AMPING
Once you’ve got your tracks ready, you can set up for a re-amping session. Make sure you have your final edit done, as you don’t want to have to do this twice. Often times, I’ll save up a handful of songs and do them all at once for efficiency. Now, it is possible to go straight from your DAW into a guitar amp, but this will often introduce noise and can sound a bit 'wrong’, as the impedance will be different to a guitar and thus drive the amp in a different way.
Using a bonafide re-amping device will produce best results. This is like a reverse DI – it takes the balanced signal from your DAW output and converts it to an unbalanced signal,
with impedance to match that of an electric guitar. This results in a ‘normal’ sounding tone without any ground hum.
Now you can take all the time in the world to perfect that tone. You can tweak the amp and FX settings, experiment with different microphones and positions, change amps... There's a world of options out there.
A word of caution is needed regarding re-amping tones that were originally played through an amp or already have distortion or overdrive on them. Gained up amps – especially tube amps, distortion pedals and the like – all add harmonics to the tone. By adding more harmonic distortion on top of this, you can end up with a very unnatural, noisy, hollow mush which can sound almost like white noise.
If you have the time and space, why not take the concept even further? Creativity is only limited by your imagination!
As mentioned, early studio re-amping centred mostly around adding ambience to sources – the chamber reverb being the best example. If you have access to a full range PA speaker and a room that has some nice, reflective surfaces, try feeding a sound source back through the PA and micing the speaker. Be careful not to create a feedback loop, though.
Theoretically, anything that you’d normally add room ambience or reverb to could benefit from this. There are so many variables – room, mic, speakers, the sound source, and so forth. But that’s the beauty of it – introducing the element of chance and variation as a contrast to using standard digital plugins with predictable results.
Added live-room ambience can really bring a mix to life. Rather than recording in a reflective room and not being able to alter the tone later, you can take your time to blend the full, clean and tight punch of the closely miced instruments with the re-amped space in a way that suits the track.
Try working with individual tracks or a bussing combination of tracks, and play around with it all to find what works for you. It could be the glue you’re looking for.
One pitfall with re-amping is that there’s usually some latency, or a slight delay between the original track and the re-amped track. This is due to the added time it takes for the signal to go out of the DAW, be converted to analogue, be processed and miced up, and then be converted back to digital via the DAW input.
There are a few options outside of manually readjusting the track’s timing to match the original. This will be especially critical when it comes to recording percussion or drums, where precise timing is imperative.
Really, once you’ve got the gist of the process, the fun is just beginning. Lash out and try some unorthodox, tone-bending experiments – record drums back through a distorted guitar amp or a wah pedal; try running a snare track through a speaker while it rests on top of a snare drum and mic up the result; or just lay a snare on a horizontal guitar cab, feed a drum track into it and mic the whole thing up!
What about something wacky like vocals recorded through a speaker inside a bass drum, or even a guitar amp suspended over a bath – that could be the answer to a revolution in surf rock. You can blend the re-amped tone alongside the original, or re-amp it twice in two completely different ways – one more traditional sounding, the other more edgy.
Re-amping keeps the creativity alive well after the instruments and players have left the building. Explore it to create something unique and take a trip from the often sterile world of computer-based recording.
ABOVE: STACKS ON STACKS ON STACKS
LEFT: I LOVE THE SOUND OF NAPALM IN THE MORNING