Re-amping Guitars for Fun and Profit
OK, I lied about the “profit” part, but re-amping — that is, coming out of the DAW into an amplifier or effects box and then re-recording the new, processed signal — can be lots of fun and can add to your mixes in interesting and unexpected ways.
At its most basic, you re-amp a signal by routing it through an output of your workstation; converting it back into a high-impedance, unbalanced signal; plugging it into an amp; and then re-recording the result back into your workstation. Quite a few years ago, the practice was to use a reversed passive DI box for the conversion: Take the signal coming off the tape machine, which is balanced and low impedance, and plug it into the low-impedance side of a DI box. Plug a quarter-inch cable into the high-impedance side of the DI and run that to the amp. Mic up the amp, record the results onto another track, and you’re in business.
However, there were some issues with the original approach, including impedance matching and levels into the amp. The output impedance of the passive DI wasn’t quite as high as the output impedance of a standard electric guitar, so amplifiers responded in a slightly different manner than they would if a guitar was plugged in. So, an engineer named John Cuniberti designed a dedicated re-amp box to solve these issues; the latest version of Cuniberti’s design is sold by Radial Engineering as the Reamp JCR.
Though the original idea was to re-amp guitar tracks to make them sound bigger, better — or simply different — the term has come to be used for any track that leaves the DAW for further processing. Run a vocal track through your favorite guitar effects box; use your favorite hardware compressor on a recorded bass track; or even add the sound of a live room to your drum tracks by running them into a speaker in the live room (and recording the results) — all of these now fall under the rubric of “re-amping.”
For many producers (and the vast majority of guitarists), the goal is to get the guitar sound you want when tracking — you choose the amp, the mic, the signal chain, and then play the part. But, since it doesn’t always work out that way, you can plan for the worst case; when you record your guitar track(s), record a direct signal, as well. For each guitar pass, create two channels in the DAW, then group them so that both tracks go into (and out of) record together. Plug your guitar into a DI with the balanced output going to the DAW and the unbalanced quarter-inch output (usually labeled “Thru”) going to any effects and then to the amp. There’s no need to listen to the direct channel, by the way; simply mute that channel or turn down the output. If you need it, it’ll be there; and if you don’t, you won’t hear it. If you don’t have a direct guitar track to work with, that’s OK — you can re-amp a guitar track that has already been recorded through an amp, even if the result will be a bit different than running a direct guitar sound into the amp.
Re-amping doesn’t necessarily mean replacing. You can send your recorded guitar track into a different signal path (a different distortion box, a chorus, or whatever seems like a good idea) then slightly delay the result for a thick, doubled sound. Or you can re-amp the guitar then use the original track for some sections of the song and the re-amped track for others. This is fertile ground for experimentation.
There’s another, more prosaic reason for re-amping: a lack of isolation. Many of us simply don’t have the space to be able to isolate guitar amps from drums, for example. Re-amping can solve the isolation issue by avoiding the use of a loud guitar amp when recording other instruments. There are enough amp simulators available these days that, in a tracking situation where amps aren’t tenable, a good electric guitar sound is easy to achieve.
Even if isolation isn’t an issue, re-amping allows you to tweak the final guitar track with a level of detail that isn’t easy to achieve when recording with a whole group. Are the mids turned up too much on the amp? Should the delay be turned up? These kinds of details are a bit easier to adjust when you don’t have other folks standing around waiting on you; so, once you have time (and privacy), set up your re-amp chain then loop the track so that you can go and twiddle the knobs on the amp. Once you’re happy with the amp sound, listen to the result through your studio monitors. Make whatever adjustments you need to the recording chain. When everything sounds how you want it to, simply hit record…