How to Use a Reamp Box on a Snare Drum

Reamp boxes have become a real game changer for the home recordist and project studio owner. They allow us to beef up bass tracks, experiment with different guitar amps, and run tracks though interesting stompboxes without impedance matching issues. Flat sounding keyboard and guitar tracks that were recorded D.I. can be given new life by sending them through an amp.

But what about drums? They aren’t an obvious choice, but there are so many ways to use your reamp box to improve your drum mixes.

It’s no secret that under-snare mics can be troublesome. They are difficult to isolate from the kick drum and hi hats. Mechanical noise can also be a problem, and let’s not forget phase issues. Last of all, in project studios, we often have to make decisions about how to allocate our available inputs. In most cases, one will be dedicated to a to snare mic. But what if we find ourselves missing the sizzle of the snare wires when it comes time to mix? Reamp to the rescue.

Solo a snare drum track, and send it out of your interface to a reamp box. Plug one end of a standard 1/4 inch guitar cable into its output, and the other into a small practice amp. Lay the amp on its back, facing the ceiling. If you are using a tube amp, do not lay it directly on the floor, prop it up so the tubes will have ventilation. For this reason, a solid state amp is ideal, since sound quality isn’t really a consideration for this application. I’ve been using the same, late ‘70s, 10-watt, Ampeg G18 for years. If you don’t already own a practice amp, there is a world of cheap options out there.

Play your snare track through the amp. If there is a lot of bleed in it, you may want to consider gating it, but it’s not necessary in most cases. If you do gate it, note that the snare might sound a little odd and cut off. That’s OK, because we are only using this sound to “hit” the snare.

Place a snare drum, upside down, on the amp. Now comes the fun part — it’s really cool seeing and hearing the snare being “played” by the signal from the guitar amp, as if there is a phantom drummer in the room. Adjust the volume so it’s just loud enough to fully excite the snare with each hit, and stop there, so as little as possible of the triggering track comes though.

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Explore Your Mic Locker

Now it’s time to set up your mic. It’s common to mic snares with a dynamic, like the ubiquitous Shure SM57, but with space, bleed and proximity no longer a consideration, your choices are limitless. I’ve successfully used an Electro-Voice RE20, Sennheiser 421, Blue Spark, AKG 414, Shure SM7, and various small condensers. I especially like the Oktava MK 012, with a cardioid capsule. Move the mic around the shell. Aim it at the side, or directly down at the center. Try putting the mic further into the room. Find a mic combination and position you like, and send this back into your DAW, onto a new track, the same way you would if you were recording any other instrument. Cue up the track from the beginning, and sit quietly in the room while recording your new snare track. Be mindful of the round-trip latency (delay) involved with this process -- you may find yourself nudging the newly recorded track back a few milliseconds to compensate.

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Mixing It In

It’s common to use this as a parallel track. Remove any gating you may have used on your source, mix it with the rest of your drums tracks, and bring up the reamp track to add some “snap,” brightness, life, or ambience — whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

Try tuning the snare to the key of the song. Add a real snare to electronic drums. Fix poorly recorded tracks. Once you get the hang of it, let your imagination run wild.

Why Stop At Snares?

The same technique can be used with a kick drum. Add a room mic to drums that were recorded with close mics only by sending the entire kit though a small P.A. (which doesn't even require a reamp device!) and into a large room, stairwell, warehouse, garage or bathroom. Record that in mono, with a large condenser, or ribbon mic, or try using an M/S pair. Make the world your reverb tank. Send the kit though a guitar amp, adjust the tone controls to taste, add some crunch, or see how it sounds with a little spring reverb.

Remember, pianos are percussion instruments too. Place a guitar amp next to the open, lower cavity of an upright piano, send lifeless digital piano tracks through it. Depress the sustain pedal, I use a brick or stand there with my foot on it, and mic the piano from the top as you normally would to pick up the harmonics and overtones of the sympathetically excited strings.

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Sure, there are many tools in your DAW that can be used add some dimension to your mixes, but nothing beats getting your tracks out of the box and into the room. For about the cost of an inexpensive plug in, a reamp box will likely get more use, and encourage you to experiment in ways you may not have imagined.

Buying Guide: Snare Drums
Everything you need to know about snare drum sizes, styles, and other considerations
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