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Better Tone Through Reamping

October 1, 2008
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Have you ever recorded a guitar track in your studio only to find, long after the guitarist had left, that the sound wasn't quite right for the song? Or perhaps you cut a bass part through a DI but wished later that you'd tracked it through an amp. Or maybe you were mixing a song with a soft-synth track that was well played, but the sound was lifeless.

In all those scenarios, and countless others, sonic improvement could have been readily achieved through the process commonly referred to as reamping — that is, sending your already recorded track through an instrument amplifier or an instrument-level processor (or both), and then bringing it back into your DAW as a new track. The term reamping is a bit of a misnomer because, as you'll see, the track being reamped has usually been recorded direct, not through an amp.

Although reamping most often involves guitar and bass tracks, you can apply it to any recorded audio. Drums, vocals, keyboards, or even a drum loop that needs spicing up can be improved through reamping. The only limit is your imagination. Ironically, in this era of digital signal processing, the devices that make reamping possible are completely analog. (I'll describe these boxes more in a bit.)

In researching this story, I talked to a number of pro engineers and producers who frequently use reamping in their studio work: Dave Bottrill is a producer-engineer whose client list includes Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, and Tool. Producer-engineer Butch Walker has worked with artists like Avril Lavigne, Hot Hot Heat, and Fall Out Boy, among others. Jesse Nichols is a staff engineer at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, whose credits include the Donnas, the White Stripes, and Doves. Joel Hamilton is a New York City-based producer-engineer and musician who's worked with artists such as Tom Waits, Soulive, and Elvis Costello. Paul Antonell owns the Clubhouse, a commercial studio in Rhinebeck, New York, and has engineered for Natalie Merchant, Rusted Root, and Al Di Meola, among many others. Steve Skinner is a producer, composer, and frequent EM contributor whose credits include Akon, Jewel, and Celine Dion. I also spoke with engineer John Cuniberti, who designed and built the Reamp, the first commercially available reamping device. Cuniberti's credits include Joe Satriani, the Neville Brothers, and Train.

Signal Impersonator

Before getting into various applications for reamping, let me explain how the process works. At the very basic level, reamping consists of taking a recorded track, routing it into an amplifier, and then capturing the amplified signal back into your multitrack.

However, it's not quite as simple as that. Here's why: your recorded tracks are low-impedance, line-level signals. They interface successfully with the line inputs of audio interfaces, mixing consoles, and most rackmount processors. But they're not compatible with the high-impedance (and lower-level) signals needed to drive a guitar amp, bass amp, or stompbox. This is where the reamping processor comes into the picture (both passive and active models are available; see the sidebar “Reamping Tools”). These devices take those line-level signals and convert them to instrument level, as if they were coming out of the cable attached to your guitar. “As far as the guitar amp is concerned, it thinks there's a guitar plugged into it,” says Cuniberti.

There are some differences, though. Reamping “will never be as good as having a guy plugged into an amp and standing next to it,” says Cuniberti, because in that scenario, “there's going to be some sympathetic vibration produced from the guitar pickup — and the strings, for that matter — hearing the speaker in the room. There's going to be an interaction there that you just can't re-create; it's physically impossible. So I would never make the claim that it will be the same. Having said that, a lot of times that isn't important. Obviously, if you're talking about guitar players and recording studios, frequently the guitar amp is in a booth somewhere or covered with gobos or blankets or whatever [anyway].”

Once the reamping device is patched in and you hit play on your DAW, the signal for the target track goes out of your audio interface or console, through the reamping processor, where it's converted to instrument level, and then into the amp or stompbox or combination thereof. Simultaneously, you use one or more mics (or, if you're using a processor and no amp, a direct box) to record the newly amplified signal back into your DAW, where you can use it either in place of the original track or to supplement it (see Fig. 1).

One caveat: make sure the original DI track gets recorded noise-free. Any noises on it will be increased substantially when that track goes through an amplifier.

Take Your Pick

Along with bass, guitar is probably the most commonly reamped of all instruments. As with bass, if you want the option to reamp later, you need to record a DI version of the performance — that is, you need to split the guitarist's signal during the tracking session using a DI box, with the XLR output going dry to the DAW and the DI's ¼-inch pass-through jack sending signal to the guitarist's amp, which also gets recorded. (You never know; you might end up with a sound you like, and therefore not need to reamp later.)

The clean DI track is essential as your reamping source, because you don't want to reamp an already amplified track. “It's hard to send a miked track out through an amp and have it sound like a guitar again,” says Hamilton. “It gets incredibly blown out.” Also, the DI track is like a blank slate, which lets you take the track in any tonal direction you want when you reamp it.

Some guitarists may be touchy about having their tone changed after tracking. “At times, I've had guitar players kind of give me a sour look if I want to take a clean signal,” says Nichols. “It's like, ‘What's wrong with my sound?''”

For the most part, though, Bottrill finds that guitarists are appreciative of the additional possibilities. “Guitar players are geekheads like everybody,” he says. “‘You have some more amps for me? Let's plug 'em all in.''” Engineers and producers certainly like the options that reamping provides. “If there's something going on in the song that requires a sound that's a little more driven or a little cleaner,” says Hamilton, “or we all determine that it should be a touch more aggressive, at least we have the option, without having to retrack live. We're going to retrack, but from a previous performance. What I like is that in a way, it [reamping] separates the performance from the timbre” (see Web Clip 1).

“A lot of times,” Antonell points out, “what's perceived as good for the basic tracks doesn't always work for the final mix.” According to Cuniberti, it's a simple matter of prudence: “What you do is that you essentially take out what I would call an insurance policy where, yeah, you go ahead and record the amp, and you can put a microphone on it, but you can also simultaneously record it direct.”

Another advantage to reamping a guitar (or bass) after the fact is that you can minimize leakage during a tracking session involving other musicians. If leakage is an issue, consider not recording the guitarist through an amp at all during tracking, and instead sending the DI guitar signal through an amp-modeling plug-in (meanwhile, you're printing the clean DI signal). That way, the guitarist can get an amplike sound during the session, but afterward, when leakage isn't an issue, you can reamp the DI track and get the precise tone you want.

With the proliferation of good-sounding amp-modeling plug-ins, you could dispense with the reamping processor entirely and generate the new guitar tone totally from software. If that gets you the sound you desire, it's a simpler option. However, many engineers and recording guitarists feel that the sound of a real amp is superior in plenty of situations.

“I can't pull the microphone back 6 feet from [Line 6] Amp Farm or [Native Instruments] Guitar Rig or have a unique acoustic space affect the overall timbre,” says Hamilton. “Again, to suit the track, sometimes we want the bridge to have a completely different sonic footprint than the solo does, and I run out of colors with Amp Farm.”

Cuniberti suggests that when recording a band live, splitting the guitarist's track through a DI and capturing a clean track in addition to the amped one is also a good idea. “If there's a mistake made, it's certainly a lot easier to bring the guitar player back in and just play over that mistake on the direct guitar track,” he explains. “Assuming that you have the same direct box that was used live, or something similar, you would be able to punch in and fix that little spot in the direct domain. Once you've matched up the direct signal for the punch-in and the cleanup section, then you can take that entire thing and run it out through an amp and rerecord the original performance.”

Walker will often reamp, albeit without an amp, to get the sound of tape on a digitally recorded guitar track. “A lot of the time, if it was recorded dry, I'll send that signal out [through a reamping box] and back into the tape echo and bring it back in,” he explains. “I'll set the tape echo to the shortest setting, and I'll get rid of the dry guitar and use only the effected signal. Then I'll time-align it so it fits in the track where it was supposed to be. That way it sounds like a warmer, lo-fi, crunchier guitar.”

Reamping also allows you to go for some completely out-there effects. Nichols describes a particularly unusual one, which involves reamping a guitar through an amp stack, with the speaker cabinet placed under a piano. “You set the 2 × 12 [speaker cabinet] underneath a piano, pointing at the soundboard. And then, depending on what notes are played, it gets all these freaky sympathetic chords and dissonant stuff — octaves and weird stuff coming through the strings. So you'd stick some mics in the piano as if you were recording piano, but instead you're playing a guitar through the bottom of it, and you get a total freak show. It's not something you would probably push up in the mix, but you can definitely make a real swimmy sound, which is pretty cool.”

Getting Down

Bass guitars were the first instruments to get reamped, back when the process was new. “For some reason,” says Hamilton, “bass players are more hip to the idea of Dis and they don't cringe like guitar players do. That's the less sort of exotic procedure, because everybody knows what it's about, to take a DI of the bass.”

“If you don't like the sound [of the bass amp] or you're not sure about it or it's leaking all over the drums, forget about it,” advises Cuniberti. “Just record a DI. It's perfectly usable for the tracking session, and for most of the overdubs, you don't have to worry about it. Later on, run it out through an amp — it can even be a small guitar amp, it doesn't have to be a bass rig — and there you can re-create your amp sound” (see Web Clip 2).

Key Factors

Keyboard players have so many sounds and so many audio-processing options at their disposal, through the world of soft synths and samplers, that you might think they'd never have need to reamp their tracks. But even with all those options, there are times when reamping can really help.

Skinner, a keyboard player, frequently reamps his plug-ins. “If it's a sample like a Wurlitzer or Rhodes, it [reamping] really gives it a lot more edge,” he points out (see Web Clip 3), “and it gives you distortion when you hit it hard.”

It makes sense when you think about it, considering that vintage keyboards like Wurlitzers, Rhodeses, and Hammond organs are all instruments that listeners are accustomed to hearing played through amplifiers.

According to Skinner, some soft-synth sounds benefit greatly from being run through an amp. “The waveforms on most digital emulations of analog synthesizers just don't have the complexity,” he says. “I usually find there's something missing. When you run something through an amp, it's really generating more overtones. So I'll do that to spice up the sound a little bit. You don't hear actual clipping, but it becomes a more complex sound” (see Web Clip 4).

Walker finds that reamping keyboards often helps them sit better in the mix. “I would normally heavily and drastically EQ them,” he says, “to take out all these crazy, massive sounds that sound great when you're sitting in your bedroom playing on a keyboard, but [not] when you try to fit it into a mix with a bunch of other instruments.” Reamping them through an amp with a 12- or 15-inch speaker, he says, “kind of EQ's those sounds to sit in the mix.”

Pushing the Pedal

Beyond guitar, bass, and keyboards, virtually any recorded track can potentially benefit from being reamped. Antonell recommends a few more possibilities, including “getting a little more presence out of a vocal, making a blues harp sound a little more bluesy, or putting a little more grit on a vocal effect or a solo instrument.”

Walker uses the same technique with the tape echo mentioned previously for guitar on vocals as well, or sometimes he'll use an analog tape machine instead of the Echoplex. “I'll amp the vocal out to that, or the guitar out to that, when I want, and set it on the repro head, and run that back in to get a different kind of character,” he says. “And just like the Echoplex vibe, you can mess around with it in [Digidesign] Pro Tools to either time-align it so it replaces the original or use it as a slapback, and you can move it so you can set your own variable delay.”

Nichols sometimes reamps through stompboxes without using an amp. The setup is similar to Walker's tape echo example. Send the track out of the DAW, into a reamping box, and into one or more stompboxes. Bring it back into the DAW through a DI and a mic pre (see Fig. 2). Nichols gives an example: “If you have a really clean Wurlie that you took direct and wanted to put some sort of phaser on it, you wouldn't need an amp.” Such an approach, says Bottrill, allows you to “use the pedal at the level it's intended. You have the proper impedance and the proper level going to the pedal. If you just throw it back to a line input, then it just ends up being sort of a distorted mess sometimes.”

Yet another option for using a reamping device with stompboxes or other instrument-level processors is through an aux send. In that case, you'd go out of your aux (either from a console or from an audio interface, depending on your setup), into the reamping device, into the stompbox, into a direct box, through a mic pre to get it back to line level, and then back to the aux return (see Fig. 3).

Supersize Your Loop

The reamping process is also very effective for adding life to dull or two-dimensional-sounding loops or programmed MIDI tracks. There are a couple of different approaches for reamping such tracks. One is simply to play them through your studio monitors, and capture them back into your DAW with a couple of microphones. (No reamping device is needed for that.) Obviously, the size and quality of the speakers and the sound of the room will come into play here. You could mic each speaker individually or use a coincident stereo configuration such as XY.

Antonell, who has the advantage of using the live room at the Clubhouse, likes to liven up tracks by running them through his Genelec 1031 studio monitors. “I'd use a stereo pair like [AKG] 451s about 10 feet away,” he says.

He likes to liven up not only drum loops this way, but MIDI strings, too. “If somebody has a cheesy string sound and wants to make it better, I'll play it into the room and mic the room, and turn the direct sound lower,” Antonell says. In other words, he's layering the sound of the reamped strings with the original track (see the section “Mirror Images”).

Another approach to “decheesifying” loops and MIDI tracks is to do what you would with a guitar part, and send the offending track out to a reamping device and then through an amp, and capture it back to your DAW through mics.

Nichols says he might do that when a track “just won't sit right or is too clean and kind of cheesy. I'll run that through a guitar amp, with vibrato on it or any kind of weird stuff, and just smash it,” he says. “Or maybe bring it back and run it through an old compressor and just squeeze it and get an interesting sound.”

Beat It

Reamping a snare drum track is yet another application. Hamilton uses a pretty interesting setup for that. “Lately my favorite trick has been to put the snare through a little Fender Pro Junior and then put five or six snare drums on their side on a moving blanket, all just tuned randomly,” he says. “And then I have a pair of stereo room mics picking up that racket” (see Fig. 4).

The sound pressure of the snare drum beats coming through the amp triggers the other snares to sound. “The duration of the pulse is exactly a snare drum length,” explains Hamilton. “One thing that it helps me with a lot is if somebody has an incredibly poorly tuned snare and I'm presented with it in a mix situation, and there's a crazy ring right where the body of the snare is, something I can't notch out easily.”

If the original snare track has too much leakage from the other drums to cleanly trigger the snares in front of the amp, Hamilton sometimes sends the track through a MIDI trigger, which keys a snare sample. The sample is sent through the reamping device into the amp. “I just get the sound of the snare sample coming through the amp perfectly clean,” he says. “And acoustically that's keying the three or four snares sitting in front of the amp.”

Mirror Images

Although many reamping scenarios include the replacement of the original sound with the reamped tone, it doesn't have to work that way. You can also add the reamped tone to complement the original one. This additive approach allows you to layer the original and reamped tracks, giving you a bigger sound.

In such an additive scenario, it can often help to move the mics back from the amp when recording the reamped track. “When I'm talking about keeping an original sound and adding to it, I usually put some distance between the mic and the source,” says Hamilton. “It sits better with the original. It's like putting the original thing that came out of a box or out of a plug-in into the real world, and the real world has space around it.”

He points out that if you're keeping the original track, you have more latitude to be experimental on the secondary, reamped tone. “You can kind of mess with where you point the mics and what you're willing to accept and how much you want to EQ the return. You can go bananas with it because it's not the primary sound in your mix.”

Layering through reamping does not yield the same effect as layering through replaying a part. “Because you're working with the same performance, you wind up with what just sounds like a multiamp single performance,” Hamilton says.

One thing to watch out for when using the additive approach is that your newly reamped track isn't out of phase with the original. Hamilton notes that phase is a problem particularly when adding multiple layers of reamped tracks. “If you're printing the same exact performance through the same exact mic position through the same amp and everything,” he says, “you're going to have funky phase issues going on.” By zooming in on the original and newly added tracks in your DAW, you can slide the latter to get it in phase. “You can look at it, find out where your peaks are, where your transients are, and put it in the right spot,” says Bottrill.

Into the Mix

Clearly, reamping is a very useful creative tool that gives you greater control over the sound of your tracks, after they've been recorded. The applications described in this article are just some of the options available through reamping. If you experiment with the process, you're sure to find even more ways to use it.

(Check out the online bonus material at emusician.com for additional reamping techniques from Bottrill and Walker.)


Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He hosts the twice-monthly Podcast “EM Cast” (emusician.com/podcasts).

Reamping Tools

Here (in alphabetical order by manufacturer) are some of the most commonly used reamping boxes. Some are dedicated devices, while others are multifunction units with reamping capabilities.

Creation Audio Labs' MW1 Studio Tool ($1,350 direct) is a combination DI and reamping device that offers variable impedance, clean boost, flexible signal routing, and more.
creationaudiolabs.com

John Cuniberti's Reamp ($199 direct; see Fig. A) is the original reamping device and was designed by John Cuniberti. Many of the other manufacturers of reamping devices license his design. It uses passive circuitry, including a transformer.
reamp.com

The Little Labs Red Eye Recording Tool ($250 direct) can switch between two functions: a passive reamping device and a direct box. The unit offers expansion capabilities, allowing it to be daisy-chained with other Red Eyes. (See the review of the Red Eye in the August 2003 issue of EM, available at emusician.com.) The Multi Z PIP ($625 direct) is an active DI, preamp, and reamping device. The IBP Analog Phase Alignment Tool ($600 direct) includes a reamping output as well. The PCP Instrument Distro ($1,100 direct) offers guitar splitting, reamping, and more. The IBP and the PCP were EM Editors' Choice Award winners in 1999 and 2003, respectively. Reviews can be found at emusician.com.
littlelabs.com

The Millennia TD-1 ($1,795) is much more than just a reamping box; it's a full-featured tube/solid-state channel strip. Among its varied I/O are two reamping outputs: one to emulate the characteristics of Les Paul pickups and one that does the same for Strat pickups. (See the review of the TD-1 in the November 2005 issue of EM.)
mil-media.com

Radial's X-Amp ($199.95) is a Class A active reamping box that offers two outputs for driving two separate amplifiers. The Pro RMP ($99.95) is a passive model with a single output. The JD7 ($999) is a combination reamplifier and guitar-signal distribution system that lets you feed up to seven amps at the same time.
radialeng.com

ONLINE LINKS

Reamp site
www.reamp.com

Radial site
www.radialeng.com

Millennia Media site
www.mil-media.com

Little Labs site
www.littlelabs.com

EM review of Little Labs Red Eye
emusician.com/hardware/emusic_little_labs_3/index.html

EM review of Millenia TD-1
emusician.com/mag/emusic_millennia_media_td/index.html

EM review of Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro
emusician.com/hardware/emusic_little_labs/index.html

EM review of IPB Analog Phase alignment tool
emusician.com/signalprocessors/emusic_little_labs_2/index.html

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