Re-amping is a very effective way of adding character into your mix using relatively inexpensive gear you or a band-mate probably has lying around. Technically put, re-amping is the process of converting a balanced line-level signal into an unbalanced instrument level signal for use with devices that are designed to deal directly with guitars and the like. Initially, the term “re-amping” was usually associated with the process of recording an electric guitar through a DI (direct inject) box and “re-amping” it through a guitar amplifier at a later point in time. The technique has evolved to include many more applications with many more sound sources.
In order to use the re-amping technique a re-amp device is usually required to do the level conversion. While it is possible to re-amp with a “backwards DI”, purpose-built re-amp devices are typically less problematic. There are a number of re-amp devices on the market including the original Reamp, the Radial X-Amp, and the Little Labs Red Eye. They start at around $200. The re-amp boxes all employ a balanced XLR input (usually connected from the output of a DAW or multitrack) and one or more unbalanced 1/4” TS (tip-sleeve) outputs (to be connected to a guitar amp or pedal). Most of the devices available also include a trim pot for adjusting the level being sent to the output.
So what kind of trouble can you get into with these things? Here are some things I have tried with good success:
- Guitar tone choices: While recording a guitarist’s amplifier, as you normally do, also record a DI signal. While the DI signal won’t usually be helpful as-is, you can now send it through another amp, pedal, or plug-in at a later point in time… perhaps when you are mixing and realizing that the guitarist’s amp was too distorted, or could be improved by adding another, contrasting layer. This also gives you plenty of time to play with mic choice and placement. Additionally, when I don’t have space for bass amps during tracking sessions I will record just the DI and re-amp later on, if necessary.
- Late night guitars: If your studio has a loudness curfew consider recording those late night guitar overdubs with just a DI (or a DI and a plug-in). In the morning, when the neighbors have left for their really boring jobs, fire up the amp and re-amp the previous nights overdubs.
- Dirty Drums: While REALLY distorted drums can be appropriate for some genres, I have found that just a touch of amp overdrive or fuzz pedal can add a nice sustain and crack to the snare on most pop/rock productions. I usually apply it in such a way that no one would notice the effect unless it were removed. I send the snare track to the amp or pedal, record it back onto a new track with a mic or DI (if only a pedal was used) and then blend that track with the original. The processed track may need to be nudged earlier in time if you are using a DAW with latency. This can also be great on hi-hats and percussion parts (tambourine, shaker,etc).
- Vocal thickening: Similarly to the above, a touch of overdrive on a lead vocal mixed underneath the original can add some really nice harmonics and complexities to the part. It doesn’t have to sound really distorted to the end listener if blended well.
- Samples and Synths: If you find yourself mixing a song made up of mostly programmed parts, such as synths and samples, a little amp tone can give things a sense of life and realism. For example sending a somewhat fake sounding clav patch through a wha pedal and into an amp with a little overdrive can give you something totally different… and usable.
- Easy Echo Chamber: Instead of using a reverb unit or plug-in try patching the output of an aux send into a clean guitar amp via the re-amp box. If the mic on the amp is placed at a distance, the sound of the room will be present in the signal. Facing the mic away from the amp, at a reflective window for example, will give you an even more ambient sound. Now when you send a track to your reverb aux-send, you are sending it the room and getting reverb the old-fasioned way.
- Delay Pedals: As useful as all the above have been to me, my most used re-amp box technique is to use a delay pedal in the mix. I have found that an mellow sounding analog delay fits into a mix much more comfortably than a very clean digital one. I patch the output of an aux-send through the re-amp box and into a delay, such as a Memory Man or a Line 6 DL4 delay modeler, and back into the mix via a DI. While there are some great analog delay modeling plug-ins out there, and I use them all the time, it is nice to have your hands on the delay during a mix, plus saves on processing power.
I could go on and on with the many variations of the above, but I’ll leave it at that. Does anyone out there have any cool re-amp techniques to add?