As I’ve oft-lamented in the past, when it comes to the priorities of the average recording engineer, bass is often near the bottom. The reasons are practical: Unlike drums, piano, and other acoustic instruments, bass is easily recorded with a direct box (DI), eliminating the need for a microphone. Even our closest instrumental cousin, the electric guitar, is almost always recorded via a miked amplifier, due largely to the integral role of the amp in creating the guitar’s tone.
As a studio owner and engineer myself, I know well how much time and energy is dedicated to carefully choosing and placing microphones, constantly checking for unwanted phase cancellation, inadequate frequency response, HVAC noise, rattles and hums, and the other nagging little annoyances intrinsic to the process. This all occurs before the additional (and significant) complexities of choosing the appropriate mic preamp, making corrective EQ and compression adjustments, and ensuring suitable gain staging. Given all that, plus the fact that a bass amp is cranking out low frequencies that are nearly impossible to completely isolate, it’s obvious why the average bass player merely gets a DI and about ten minutes of attention.
Our tendency to get the short shrift is a bummer for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that even a great DI on its best day cannot sound anything like an amp. While some styles, songs, and players don’t necessarily benefit from the additional color amps can provide, the ultra-clean, PA-like frequency response of a DI is also potentially lifeless and dull on its own. For this reason, I’ve become a major fan of reamping over the past several years. It mitigates many of the obstacles outlined above, and it can empower bass players in new and inspiring ways.
Reamping begins with a dry signal recorded with a DI. Remember, a DI is designed to convert the instrument-level signal from a bass to a balanced mic-level signal. In doing so, bass becomes easily integrated into the typical recording signal flow, wherein microphones are connected to preamps that boost their signals to line level for recording to a computer or tape. In essence, a DI “tricks” a mic preamp into treating the bass signal like it’s coming from a mic. Once the bass is recorded this way, its amplitude on the recording media is nominally at line level — much hotter than the original output of the bass. A reamp box takes this recorded line-level signal (from the recording system’s line output) and converts it back down to instrument level. A reamp is essentially a DI in reverse.
The purpose of a reamp box is to re-record a bass performance through a different signal chain than was used on the original session, at some point after the fact. Anything that the instrument-level signal is plugged into doesn’t somehow discern that the track was recorded at an earlier time. Our reamp eliminates all of the problems that make us an afterthought on tracking sessions: The engineer needn’t be concerned about bleed into other mics or feel pressured to focus on the band’s more complex challenges. Attention can be paid to refining the bass sound, and the added sonic dimension of a miked amp can be blended with the direct track to produce the final product. Reamping also encourages experimentation, as it’s easy to try out effects and other outboard gear with the luxury of time.
The next time an engineer insists that you just use a DI on a session, see if there might be time available later on to do a reamp session. Bring your favorite amp (I’m particularly fond of using gritty tube amps here, like my Sunn 200L or an Ampeg B-15) and a bunch of effects, and encourage the engineer to experiment with different mics and mic placement. There are few more deflating moments than listening back to a mix and feeling that your tone wasn’t adequately captured. Reamping is often your best opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen, and it also happens to be one of the most fun things you can do in a studio.
Bass Magazine Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is Bass Player’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonathan has been a full-time musician and producer since 2010. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Dime Studios. Catch up with him at jonherrera.com and at thedimestudios.com.