Noise Gate Pedals: An Introduction
At some point, we have all experienced unwanted noise from an amplifier. It’s an annoying part of being a musician, and the pestering buzz produced by an amp can drive us crazy.
In this guide, we identify the potential causes of amp hum, how a noise gate can help tighten up your tone, and the different options available on the market today!
What Causes Amp Hum?
Before we dive into individual causes, it’s worth mentioning that all amplifiers have some noise floor. In other words, no matter what amp you are using, it will inevitably produce some sort of noise – whether a hiss, buzz or hum.
It’s something that can depend on the type of amp you use, but it’s an unavoidable part of an amplifier’s design. But it’s not all doom and gloom though, as below we take you through the causes of unwanted amp hum and ways to battle against it!
- Type of amp - Valve amplifiers are coveted for producing a more analogue, warm sound but are susceptible to overheating and can therefore be unreliable. Most preamp valves have a lifespan of between 1-3 years, and they become noisier and more distorted the older they get - this is a common cause of amp noise. Solid state amplifiers don’t need valves to work, but rely on a combination of transistors to deliver their sound. They are considered far more reliable and consistent than valve amps, but still produce low-level noise that can be just as annoying!
- Amount of Volume and Gain - As we said before, all amps have some noise floor. The quieter you have the amp set then the less noise will be emitted. This means that the higher you turn up your amp, more noise will be audible. The same goes for gain (the amount of distortion), which will only produce more hiss and noise the higher it’s cranked. So, if you’re a metal player then noise is an issue you will have to battle more than jazz cats would!
- EQ Settings – Your EQ settings can affect noise levels, or rather the type of noise produced. To cut through the mix, you might normally boost your treble and presence settings, but this can make noise worst by accentuating it – it’ll soon become a hiss that you can’t escape!
- Types of Pickups - Single-coil pickups (most commonly found in Strat-style guitars) tend to generate noise due to their design, which is far more noticeable when playing into a distorted amp. Humbucker-equipped instruments dramatically reduce hum, hence their name. The dual-coil design means that the two magnets essentially cancel each other out, so noise is significantly diminished. Active pickups such as EMG’s use batteries to work, and are generally very low-noise. However, they can become noisy when their source of power (the battery) runs out and becomes flat. So before you panic and think about replacing a preamp valve, check that your active pickup equipped guitar hasn’t just got a dying battery!
- AC Supply and Interference - The quality of your mains supply can also affect the amount of noise your rig makes. If the AC supply in your area is poor, this can cause the amp to emit more noise due to lack of ‘clean’ power. It’s generally a good idea to plug your amp directly into a mains socket if you can, and not through something like a multi-socket. Radio frequency interference can also make a difference; Have you ever noticed a weird electrical noise coming from your amp when you’ve received a text? That’s what we’re talking about Some manufacturers find ways to combat and minimise this problem, but unfortunately it can’t be fully prevented. Static noise can also be caused by lights and surrounding electrical products or appliances. This is why your rig sounds great at rehearsal but hisses and screeches at gig venues! Sigh…
How Does a Noise gate work?
Some people can live with the noise, and some purists think it’s old-school, but for most us we just want to do everything we can to reduce hum.
A noise gate does exactly what it says on the tin; the gate ‘opens’ when the level is above a certain threshold, and ‘closes’ when it falls below, only letting in your desired amount of signal. In most cases, your actual playing will be far louder than the hum of your rig, so you can set the threshold to sit at the same level as the hum. All it takes is a little bit of experimentation, and hey presto – no more noise!
There are three main controls that you’ll most often encounter on a noise gate pedal, though not always. Let’s take a look at what they do:
- Threshold – as mentioned earlier, this control determines when the gate opens and closes, dependant on the signal that’s going through it. A low threshold will give your rig an air-tight quality by cutting out almost all unwanted or extra noise, whereas a high threshold will be more selective, removing only the most abrasive elements of your signal.
- Decay / Release – this controls the amount of time before the gate closes after being open. If you have the decay set low, the gate will close immediately your signal reaches the desired threshold, giving your sound a choppy, almost robotic quality. Setting it high will give it a softer quality, with the gate slowly closing for a more natural tightness.
- Reduction – This determines the amount that the gated signal is reduced by, as the term might suggest. If you have the reduction set to high, the noise will be all but totally silent; set it to low, however, and you’ll retain some of that hum for a rough-around-the-edges quality.
In some ways, this is subjective. Naturally, you’ll want to place the noise gate wherever the noise is, for example after your fuzz pedal. It’s most common, however, to put it at the end of your chain but before any ambient pedals such as delay and reverb.
A noise gate will normally interfere with any ambience effects in your rig, especially with a low decay setting, so putting it after your ambient pedals will give you all the space you desire without any associated noise!
These are some of the most popular names in the category, but there are plenty more available on the market. Let’s take a closer look:
- TC Electronic Sentry – with the Sentry, TC Electronic have taken it to the next level. It uses a multi-band circuit and a built-in effects loop, which allows you to isolate and gate particularly noisy parts of your chain such as fuzz pedals. It also has toneprint capability, allowing you to connect to a computer and tweak your settings in minutes!
- Boss NS-2 – with two simple modes, the NS-2 is one of the most popular gates on the market. It’s both affordable and durable, and also features an effects loop for more accurate noise isolation.
- MXR Smart Gate – MXR are known for making pedals with simple, rugged exteriors, and the Smart Gate is no exception. It uses intelligent filtering to cut out specifically intrusive frequencies, and its simple interface makes it a hassle-free & practical addition to any pedalboard!
- Electro Harmonix Silencer – don’t be fooled by the affordability of this neat pedal; it comes with great features and a sturdy enclosure! It uses a buffered bypass circuit to prevent the dreaded ‘tone suck’, and adjusts the gated signal to anywhere between -70dB and +4dB – that’s right, you can boost the gated signal for added weirdness!
Honorary Mention: Quality Guitar Leads!
It may sound daft, but good cabling can do wonders in terms of reducing that annoying hum. If you’re running a large pedalboard with many stompboxes connected together, make sure to use only high-quality leads to ensure a clean signal is delivered.
Look into the D’addario Patch Cable Kit or high-end Evidence Audio SIS2-B Cable Kit if you want good-quality cables that keep your signal clean. These ergonomic solderless cable kits allow you create your own cables and cut them to the lengths you require. This means you can make your pedalboard as neat and efficient as you like!
Check out our full selection of guitar leads & cables here!
By now, we like to think that you’ll have a better understanding of why your rig makes so much noise, and what you can do to combat it. Whether you’re looking to tighten up your metal riffage, tidy the space between compressed funk chops, smoothen your cranked valve warmth, or anything in between; now you know how a noise gate can benefit you and your chosen sound!
P.S. Have you checked out our other buyer's guides? You might just find something you like!