What is a noise gate pedal?
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.
One of the most common and practical solutions to this is the humble noise gate pedal. A noise gate pedal will attenuate a signal that drops below a certain threshold - so in between riffs, licks and chord stabs, it'll cut your signal to prevent that annoying hum.
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!
Wanna hear a noise gate pedal in action? Here's 'Tooth and Claw' by Animals As Leaders - listen out for the frantic stop-start riffage that has absolutely zero noise in between!
How Does a Noise gate work?
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!
Noise gates are particularly popular among the high-gain crowd - modern metal, djent, prog-rock. These artists tend to combine loud, distorted sounds with lots of space - the perfect storm when it comes to rig noise.
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. So what causes unwanted noise?
- Type of amp – valve amps get noisier with age. Solid-state amps are arguably more reliable, and therefore don’t produce as much noise. But anything high-gain will inevitably buzz a little more!
- Amount of Volume and Gain – all amps have a noise floor, i.e. a certain amount of hum or buzz by default. The more you boost gain or volume, the more hum you’ll get – it’s all relative.
- EQ Settings – if you boost your treble or mid frequencies to cut through a mix, there’s a chance you’ll accentuate the unwanted noise from your amp.
- Types of Pickups - Single-coil pickups tend to generate more noise due to their design, while humbuckers are designed to reduce hum, hence the name.
- 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.
- Radio and static interference – phones, radios, Bluetooth devices, electrical appliances. They can all cause unwanted noise if they happen to be close enough to your guitar or amp.
Noise Gate Pedal Controls
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.
Where does a noise gate go in your signal chain?
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!
Honourable Mention: Quality Guitar Leads!
It may sound daft, but good cabling can do wonders in terms of reducing that annoying hum. While they won't fix it quite like a noise gate pedal will, they'll make a difference. There's nothing worse than having a noise gate switched on, only to have it running through cheap, old or noisy cables.
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!