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Give Life to Your Guitar Tracks by Reamping

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This post is part of a series called Producing Guitar: From Recording to the Finished Product.
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Ever wish you could go back in time and change things? Or ever wish life had a save and load option like in a video game? While time travel may not yet exist, the ability for us as audio engineers to change sounds after the fact does. One powerful way to change the guitar tracks we've recorded is reamping.

Everyone of course knows MIDI allows us to change notes, our ability to pitch correct has never been better, and synths can emulate whole orchestras. But how about changing an instruments tone? Sure we have EQs and digital modeling of this and that, but it doesn't make up for using the wrong sound at the start.

Thankfully, if guitar or bass is your thing, the ability to go back in time is already here!


What is Reamping and Why Do It?

photodune-6068855-amp-knobs-s

The ability to go back and change the cab or amp for a recording, while keeping the performance itself, is known as reamping. But why would we want to change the amp later? Some styles of music have very definitive sounds that (generally speaking) can only be achieved by using the right amp. If you don't have the correct amp while tracking, make do with what you have, and get access to the proper amp later. This allows you to focus on what truly matters, recording a good performance!

On a more abstract level reamping is a means to separate sound and tone from technique and performance. Just like how with MIDI you can choose any synth, with reamping you can choose any amp, cab, or pedal combination you can dream up.

Sure you could use a Fender for metal, but it will not sound like any famous recordings. Why? Because Fender amps are not usually used in metal recordings.

But with reamping, you can track on your Fender and borrow a Marshall later. As audio engineers or producers, this also allows us to change mics, preamps, pre-conversion compression, etc. without any degradation in signal quality.

So, how does reamping work?


The Reamping Process

Image via PhotoDune
Image via PhotoDune

1. Going Direct

Have you ever listened to your guitar plugged straight into your computer? It has a very boring and twangy sound. You'd better get used to hearing it if you plan on reamping!

The only aspect of the guitar we cannot change by reamping is the guitar itself, so naturally that is our starting place. By recording the guitar directly, we are essentially capturing the performance through that guitar and nothing else.

Everything from there on out is ours to change and tweak till the end of time. However, there is more than one way to record a guitar directly. Here are the available options and how they differ:

  • Line in: Plugging your guitar directly into your microphone preamp (usually through a combo XLR-1/4 jack) is known as line in. By going line in with no other gizmos in between, you are going to get the most typical direct guitar sound available. You might get a little tone from the preamp if it is a very colorful pre, but it may not even be noticeable since line in signals are very hot and need little gain. Less gain means less preamp sound.
  • Hi-Z: Not all line ins are created equal with some offering Hi-Z (high impedance) instead. While you typically will plug your guitar in the same way, these special line in jacks can offer quite a different sound depending on the guitar. Any audio device that is Hi-Z (guitars are a prime example) needs a Hi-Z input, or else the tone can potentially be altered. By using a Hi-Z input you are emulating plugging into an amp (from an impedance standpoint), and arguably getting a truer sound.
  • Direct box: If you are looking to get a lot more tone out of your preamp, then a direct box is the key. By using a direct box between the guitar and the preamp, you are able to drop the signal from line level to mic level, and thereby require more gain. By needing more gain you are going to get more tone out of the preamp and be able shape the direct signal.

So which approach is better? That depends! If you are looking for a thicker mushy kind of sound in the end then using a direct box into the appropriate preamp would be best. If you want a truer sound, then either Hi-Z or line in would be a better option. If you have both on your audio interface, then try out both and see if the Hi-Z makes a noticeable difference on your guitar.

2. Recording Direct

While the above options deal with tone, they do not account for playability. If you are used to playing with off the wall distortion, then obviously playing without it all of a sudden might be difficult.

You typically will have one of three options to choose from in this situation:

  • Amp Modeling: Since you are going in direct, you now have available to you a wide array of virtual amps and cabs to choose from. While the point of reamping is to not use these in the recording, they're useful for playback during tracking! Simply record your signal direct, slap on some amp modeling, and you are good to go.
  • Direct box: Besides using them to get your preamp, direct boxes also offer us a way to get to the amp at the same time. Typically, direct boxes have an XLR output for the preamp, and a 1/4" output to go to an amp or speaker. Simply grab another 1/4" cable to go from the direct box's output to your amp, and you are set. You can even record direct and the amp at the same time if you set up a mic!
  • Aux Outputs: If you really want to hear your physical amp, but opted to not use a direct box, you will need an auxiliary output to get your direct signal to the amp. First, you will need to send the direct signal via an aux send in your DAW to an aux output (not primary Stereo L-R) on your audio interface. Next, you will need to physically connect that aux output to your amp (typically via a 1/4" cable). Do keep in mind that if your computer and interface are not fast enough, you will suffer from noticeable latency, and playing may be difficult.

3. Reamping

JCR Reamp by Radial Engineering

JCR Reamp by Radial Engineering

And finally we arrive! After laying down perfect guitar tracks and splicing together an awesome solo, it's time to reamp.

The actual process is very simple: simply send your direct signal out of the DAW to your interface and connect the interface to the amp. Set up your favorite microphone on another channel, hit record, and enjoy. That's it!

However there are a few key points to keep in mind.

More than likely, your outputs will be line level, which typically is hotter than than your guitar would be. The impedance from the interface will also be different (if not drastically) from the guitar, and the resulting tone could very easily be different from what you are used to.

Some amps may sound perfectly fine coming directly from the interface, while some may not. You simply never know!

The easiest way to overcome these drawbacks is to use a reamping box. While similar to a direct box, a reamping box is designed to take your signal and match it appropriately to the amp, as if it were a guitar. There is nothing saying they are required, but if you want to be consistent then they come highly recommended!

So what can we do during the reamping stage? Anything! Well, not quite but here are some ideas:

  • Dial in the original amp just right to fit with the mix, if it was too bassy or thin before.
  • Change amps if the current one was not fitting in with the rest of the song.
  • Switch around the microphones, the mic position, the amp's position in the room, the preamps you use, etc.
  • Double track! By using different amps or microphones, or even a combination of those techniques, you can create a thick but perfectly played double track.

Conclusion

Reamping offers an excellent option for changing your guitar and bass tracks without changing the performance. From choosing different amps to picking different microphones, the creative possibilities are nearly endless!

Remember to take care when recording direct and insuring a proper setup, and everything should be smooth sailing! Thanks for reading.

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