Direct Recording Your Instruments - Part 3


If you caught the parts one and two of this direct recording series, then you’ve seen that direct recording is all about flexibility.  It’s hard to imagine that I’ve still not mentioned the most flexible technique of all, re-amping.  Treating a direct signal with a software emulator or a plug-in will always be cool, but using outboard equipment might just be that much cooler.  Re-amping is simply the process of sending the analog output of a prerecorded digital signal into some hardware device (namely an amp or effects) and then rerecording it.  Your options will be somewhat limited by your collection of hardware, but there can be a benefit just from bringing your signal out into the analog realm.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the impedance of some inputs will have to be matched with your outputs.  Namely, any input that expects to see an instrument input will need to be matched.  To achieve this a “reverse DI” or a re-amping device can be used before the amp.  Radial offers both a passive option in the ProRMP and an active option in the X-Amp.

A mic in a nice live room might just be the reverb sound that you’ve been searching for in a plug-in.  In fact, re-amping into echo chambers is just one of many common uses of the technique today.  You can re-amp for room tone, compression, gating, EQ, resonance, filters, or even any time-based effect.  You might even like to re-amp into a Line 6 Pod or Kaoss Pad, in which case you’re re-amping back through a digital device!

One of the most common re-amping configurations involves sending the direct guitar signal through a pedal board.  As a guitarist myself, I remember the first time I did this it felt like I’d grown another set of arms.  Suddenly, I could interact with the pedals as I listened to their effect on the sound.  I could make changes with two hands on the pedals that could never have been done with my feet alone.  I’m fairly convinced that this is what a monkey would feel like if it could play guitar.  But I digress.


Diagram of ProRMP through pedalboard from Radial’s Website


This also enables a guitarist to perform a complex riff, and then record a separate performance of a complex routine of pedal stomping.  I’ve used this technique once or twice after a bad pedal change ruined more than one good take.  Re-amping has also helped picky recording engineers get along with impatient musicians everywhere.  The guitarist, for example, can play his part once through his pedal rig and record the output in a DAW.  The engineer can send this performance through any amp and mic the cabinet however he wants; he can move the mic in as many positions as needed without boring the performer with unnecessary repetition.

One of my favorite tricks is re-amping a virtual instrument for a dash of analog feel.  This almost always works for me on some level, as long as the impedances are matched well.  If you mic from far away, you can re-amp to create an ambience track; on the other hand, you can close-mic the amp just to get the sounds of the amp’s circuitry.  Try sending a few tracks to a bus send and re-amp the output.  You might find that re-amping through an amp or even through your monitors will sum together and compress submixes better than anything you can plug-in to your DAW’s inserts.

Another trick in the same vein is using a virtual amp head with a real speaker and mic.  This gives your collection of software emulations a whole new light to shine in.  Such a wide variety of heads will help you find the best match for your guitar or keyboard amps.  Your emulations will never sound more real than when they become real!

Believe it or not, you can even “re-amp” drums.  Imagine that you recorded some great drum tracks, but didn’t capture the snares on the bottom of the snare drum during tracking.  The snare track probably sounds like a head and a stick.  The recording of that drum can actually be re-amped, and fed back into the drum.  The first step is to carefully EQ and gate the snare drum signal to isolate the actual hit of the stick.  This signal is then sent through a small amp propped up to face upwards.  Place the drum, snares up, on top of the amp and let the stick signal “hit” the head.  It’s really just the air pressure hitting the drum head, but the result is a very convincing snare drum performance.          

Even after mentioning all of these creative uses for re-amping, I’d have to argue that the most valuable use is simply adding reverb to dry tracks.  A good reverb emulation is one of the hardest things to come by in a plug-in.  And even if you have a great outboard reverb, there’s often no better reverb than real-life acoustic reverberations.  Why emulate when you can recreate?

Okay, I know I just rattled off huge list of uses for re-amping, but I’m really just trying to encourage you to use re-amping to experiment with your own recording techniques.  Once you capture the take you want, you can use that same performance to learn about the sound of different amps, locations for the amps, different mics, different mic positions, different mic preamps, and on and on until you find the sound you want.  This really enables the engineer to focus on each aspect of the sound without time constraints or variations in the source material.

There is, of course, an opposing school of thought.  For many, the best performance will only sound the best in its original environment.  There’s definitely some truth to that, because the best musicians often adapt their playing to their environment; unconsciously coaxing out the best emphasis for the room.  For some projects, a musician of this caliber might be the only way to go, but everyone can find some practical or creative use for re-amping at some point. 

This counter point-of-view should serve as a caution that re-amping has its time and place.  It’s a time consuming process that is easily overused.  You can kill the creative flow of a session if the time just isn’t right.  The trick to good re-amping is making use of the infinite options without wasting much time.

It’s also possible that re-amping just isn’t for you.  I personally enjoy playing around with microphones and spaces whenever I have the time.  But I can definitely appreciate the perspective that less is more, and workflow is everything.  Maybe you are of the conviction that getting it right the first time is the only way.  Maybe plug-ins are just fine for you since you really aren’t going to run out and buy more than one amp or mic!  You also have to consider your audio interface’s limitations.  If you only have one stereo output, then your monitors are probably already using it.

Flexibility, for you, might mean the choice to re-amp or not; the choice to emulate or to originate.  But that kind of flexibility starts with a direct signal.  If flexibility is a key aim in your recording process, then I can only hope that this series has been helpful.  Direct recording is virtually synonymous with flexibility.  There is no end to the sounds you can get out of one performance if you employ the direct recording techniques from this series.  Mix and match the techniques or use them as a starting point to develop your workflow.  In the end, as long as you have fun, it is easy to get the most out of your direct signal, because finding the right sound is fun.