Dealing with noise (part 2)
Noise is every guitarist’s worst enemy. We’ve all experienced hissing, buzz, crackle and hum. It’s frustrating but there are many things you can do to reduce noise to a minimum. In this second part of the article we’ll look at how to deal with noisy pedals and how to set up combinations for David’s tones.
Before you make any hasty decisions it’s wise to determine what sort of noise you’re experiencing. As we talked about in part one of this feature noise can be caused by many things and most commonly from outside interference.
Loud low frequency hum that’s consistent when you move around but changes in pitch and volume when you touch any metal part on the guitar.
- Bad ground. Make sure your guitar, cables, pedals and amp has a clear path to ground and are properly shielded. See part one for further troubleshooting.
Loud low frequency hum that comes and goes when you move around.
- 60 cycle hum caused by electronic interference being picked up by the pickups. Switch off any nearby electric components (TV, computer, cell phone, radio etc) and run your rig on a separate circuit in your house/studio/stage if possible. 60-cycle hum is common for guitars with single coils that by nature are exposed to outside interference. Shielding your guitar will help to some extent but it won’t eliminate it completely. Keep in mind that gain pedals like a Big Muff or Tube Driver will amplify this type of noise so be sure to determine what kind of noise you’re hearing before you ditch the pedal. If you’re not able to eliminate the source, a noise gate will be needed (more below). See part one for further troubleshooting.
Static noise or inconsistent crackling.
- Check all cables, jacks plugs and inputs, battery clips etc for loose components or bad connections. The source might also be inside your guitar, pedal or amp. Unless you’re experienced with electronics take your gear to a trained technician.
Consistent hiss or vague oscillation sounds.
- Mainly caused by colouring and tone sucking due to cheap parts, wrong parts, faulty parts, long cables, wrong or bad power supplies etc. Some noise and hiss is normal since any part of your rig is basically an obstacle and will colour and drain the signal. However, loud hiss that dominates your tone needs to be fixed. Either ditch or replace the unit that makes the noise or add a noise gate (more below).
There are mainly two reasons for hiss, hum and rumble from your pedal board: faulty parts and/or bad connections and combinations and/or settings that are too extreme.
Old pedals and simple circuits
Older pedals from the early era of stompboxes are generally noisier than newer pedals. Back in the late 60s a guitarist was happy just to get anything that could make his amp distort and noise wasn’t really an issue. Basic circuits, inconsistent designs and sometimes-cheap parts and hasty wiring caused (and still does) a lot of noise. “Bleed through” is a typical problem for pedals without true bypass switching – a slight distortion or oscillation (depending on type of effect) when the pedal is off (typical for early Electro Harmonix pedals like the Big Muff, Electric Mistress and Memory Man). Replacing the on/off switch with a true bypass switch easily solves this and it will not have any effect on the tone.
Cheap parts can be replaced and other components can be tweaked for a better sounding, more silent pedal but keep in mind that this will alter the pedal’s character. Modifying a Boss SD1 for a smoother tone or a RAT for more lower end is quite understandable but people seems to be scared shitless over even the slightest signs of noise and can’t wait to modify their newly purchased ’73 “ram’s head” Muff or ’76 Electric Mistress. Perhaps I’m a naive purist but I strongly believe that these classic pedals get their mojo and character from the imperfect circuit. Keep the authenticity of the pedal and get yourself a clone or boutique version with better parts and wiring.
Noise from gain effects
So, what is a noisy pedal? Noise is relative and it’s hard to explain just what level of noise you have to expect. I get contacted by people who hate their new Big Muff because it hums and rumbles whenever they stomp it. Others complain that the Tube Driver hisses like hell. Gain effects are by nature noisier than other pedals and you will have to learn to live with that but also get to know your pedal and find the settings that work for you.
Without getting too technical, overdrive, distortion and fuzz is created by compression/limiting and clipping. The harder you drive a tube, the more compressed the signal will get and the more it will distort. This is called clipping. See here for more technical info.
Here’s a quick exercise to determine the noise level of a pedal and if it’s something you can live with or not:
- Plug the guitar into the amp using a good quality cable, preferably no longer than 10ft to avoid too much interference and tone sucking.
- Roll off the guitar volume to avoid interference picked up from the pickups (typical 60 cycle hum).
- Set your amp as you’d normally would including the volume (you need to set the volume fairly high for this to have an effect).
What you now hear is the level of noise generated by your guitar, the cable and amp. A “healthy” setup should have about the same noise level as your stereo at home.
- Place a pedal in the line using a similar cable to the amp as from the guitar to the pedal to avoid different colouring and tone sucking.
- Keep the guitar volume rolled off.
- Set the pedal to unity level with the bypassed signal and the gain and tone controls to 50%.
- Stomp the pedal on.
What you now hear is the noise created by the pedal and its components. A “healthy” Big Muff or Tube Driver should add only a hint more hiss. Experiment by adjusting the controls on the pedal. You’ll notice that the more you increase the volume and gain, the more hiss you’ll get. This is basically the clipping reaching extreme levels and it’s perfectly normal but a warning that you should keep your settings fairly moderate. Increasing the tone control adds more treble, which again amplifies the noise. If you want more gain from your pedal, it often helps to roll off the treble or tone just a tad to eliminate some of the increased hiss and the bright tops.
If you now set the guitar volume to 10 you’ll get more noise (mute the strings with your palm to avoid feedback). Again, if you’ve covered the steps in part 1 (shielding and eliminating 60 cycle hum) this noise will only be a slight increase and perfectly normal because the pickups will pickup some outside noise and the gain pedal will amplify it. The pedal will also amplify 60-cycle hum so you might not have heard any with a clean signal but once the Muff is on, you’ll get a loud, low frequency hum. This is not your pedal but outside interference so don’t freak out! See the top of the article for troubleshooting.
Vintage style single coil (non-noiseless) pickups are more exposed to 60 cycle hum than humbuckers, so if you’re uncertain whether the noise you hear is from the pedal or outside interference, try the exercise above with a guitar with humbuckers.
David’s tone – settings and combining pedals
Combining gain pedals is like asking for trouble but we all do it anyway, including David. This kind of setup requires some experimentation and will to compromise to make it work with your rig.
I often get asked “why can’t I get David’s tones with my Muff and Tube Driver?” and “this combination is impossible to use… just a lot of noise”.
David’s been combining fuzz/distortion with boosters/overdrives since 1972 when he introduced the Colorsound Power Boost in his rig. In recent years he’s been combining Big Muffs and Tube Drivers to get that super smooth sustain. It’s easy to forget though that there’s a third component in this combination – his amps. Although David always sets his amps clean, they are loud and set just at the breaking point where the tubes starts to heat on the edge of distortion. This allows him to use the amp not only as a basis for his pedals but also as a component that works with the pedals. While Hendrix would crank his Marshalls and add a Fuzz Face to take it over the top, David lets the amp and pedals work together to reach the ultimate sweetspot. What this basically means is that the Muff and Tube Driver, or any other gain pedal, doesn’t need to be maxed because the tubes in the amp will add compression and gain.
I have said this many times before – every setting and setup I’ve listed throughout this site should only be used as a guide for your own rig. Not as absolutes. Why would David’s Hiwatt and Big Muff settings apply to a small practice amp set for “neighbour friendly” volume? Even if you’d have a duplicate of David’s rig, you’d need to consider the venue, acoustics, playing technique etc. Tone and noise goes hand in hand and too much tone means more noise.
David’s gain pedals are set fairly mild. Both the Muff and Tube Driver (marked #1 in his pedalboard for clean boost) are set to about unity gain with the bypassed signal:
- Big Muff: sustain 1:00, tone 10:00, volume 11:00 (o’clock)
- Tube Driver (#1): level 2:00, hi 2:00, low 2:00, drive 8:00 (o’clock)
As you can see, there’s no aggressive settings here and notice also that the Tube Driver isn’t set for boosting the volume, but rather for a very mild crunch. If you try this setup on a typical practice amp that you have at home, it may sound dull and far from the huge tone David gets. Don’t solve this by increasing the amount of gain. That will only add more hiss and feedback. If combining pedals doesn’t work for your setup then ditch the booster and slightly increase the settings on the distortion. In some cases where the amp isn’t suitable for a Muff or Tube Driver, you’d be better off choosing different pedals that will give you a much better tone and less noise. See this article for more.
Combining a distortion with an overdrive or booster is one thing but David often uses this combo with a compressor and delay and perhaps even some modulation. It’s important that you know how to arrange your pedals for this to work. There are no rules, but the normal way is to have the gain effects first, then modulation and last delays.
You have probably experienced that distortion+overdrive is barely working but add a compressor and you get lots of feedback and increased hiss. There’s two ways of dealing with this – either roll off the amount of compression or switch it off. Again, although this works for David it doesn’t mean that it works for you and your setup. See this article for tips on how to use a compressor.
Huge pedalboards are almost synonymous with noise. For each pedal, patchcable and power supply you add, the more you expose your rig to electronic interference, faulty parts and tone sucking. Designing the perfect pedal board can drive you insane or bankrupt but my best tip is to keep things simple and tidy. Evaluate each new component and rearrangement and make sure everything is working properly. And people… try not to clutter your boards with too many pedals. I’ve seen stuff that’s so big that I wonder how the hell it works at all. David’s PULSE setup is impressive but cleaned, modded and tweaked by the best technicians in the business not to mention the fact that he can afford to use only the very best components available. Again, keep it simple and you save yourself a lot of hassle.
One is often considering whether or not a pedal should have true bypass, hardwire bypass or buffers in terms tone but your choice can also have in impact on the level of noise in your rig. Too many true bypass pedals will ultimately mean more cable, which again means more tone sucking and hiss. Buffers are essentially pre-amps and too many of these means that your signal is “copied” numerous times and cheaper buffers (Boss, Ibanez etc) will colour and drain your signal. Some pedals are also extremely sensitive to what’s placed in front or after it, which might cause both tone alteration and hiss. As an example, a Tube Driver can change dramatically if placed aside the “wrong” pedal. Other pedals, often complex delays (Boss DD20) and modulation processors tend to be more noisy if placed in a power chain with other pedals and needs to be powered by a separate supply.
Some pedals are better off on batteries. You can argue all you want but a fuzz or vintage booster sounds much better on a non-alkaline battery. After much experimenting I’ve found that both Rayovacs and GI produce the warmest tones and least noise. Adapters can make a lot of noise so you need to make sure you’re using one that fits the pedal and that’s both regulated and has a noise filter (a standard Boss 9V works for most pedals). DO NOT use generic hardware store adapters! These will sure make a lot of noise and are not designed to be used with pedals! Se part one for more on power supplies.
I’m no fan of noise gates/suppressors. I know some swear by them but my experience is that too many are using them for the wrong reasons. The way I see it, a noise gate should be used a last resort in case you can’t eliminate typical 60 cycle hum (the source can be interference from a power transformer on the other side of the street, which obviously isn’t that easy to just switch off) or if you’re using gain pedals that have an insane amount of gain (Boss MZ2) that needs to be controlled. If used wrong, a noise gate can do more harm than good. I’ve seen many tutorials on You Tube that teaches that a noisy overdrive pedal can be silenced with a noise gate. That’s fine, but the noise these guys are hearing is a loud, low frequency hum, which you by now know, is 60-cycle hum coming from outside your chain. Not the pedal! It’s easy to add a noise gate and go “yes!” when the noise completely disappears but you haven’t really solved the problem. The noise is still there only suppressed by settings that are probably so extreme that you have no sustain left or get a strange effect like a slight doubling or phase shifting. Hopefully these articles will have taught you some tricks to more effectively eliminate your noise problems.
A good noise gate should be able to maintain the sustain and have a smooth threshold/decay allowing your tone to fade without sudden stops (also depending on the settings). It should also be able to recognize your picking and not kill lighter tones. Noise gates operate in different ways. Some are linear and should be placed last in the chain (MXR Smart Gate), while others acts as loopers (Boss NS2) allowing you to place overly noisy pedals in a loop outside your main signal path. Check out the Electro Harmonix Hum Debugger and ISP Decimator as well.
It’s impossible to cover everything. Noise is a huge topic and every guitar player might be dealing with different problems. Hopefully these articles have made you a bit wiser. Feel free to use the comment field to share your experience, tips and recommendations! In the next feature we’ll talk about the differences between true bypass, hardwire bypass and buffers and what it all means in terms of noise and tone.