Unless you’re strictly an acoustic player, at some point you’ve got to put up with or deal with the noise that comes from piling on electric guitar gear. Whether it’s a little fizz, a nagging hum, or a tidal wave of white noise, these unwanted sounds are a distraction when playing solo and a real nuance when performing or recording.
This week on TPS, Dan & Mick diagnose the humbugs. While gates and suppressors are one solution to the problem, the issue is using them to fix the right type of problem. Dan commented, “In actual fact, there is a bigger question about noise.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to solving hum because there may be multiple culprits creating the sound on your rig. Here are some of the places to look and pro tips for getting rid of it.
Resolving Hum with the Right Power Supply
In the first section of the episode, Dan & Mick fired up a pedal board using a daisy chain supply. We all have one and they work great with a simple set up of largely analog pedals. However, when you throw in a few digital effects and multiply the pedals to a full board, they’re easily overworked and often groan about it. As Dan described, since daisy chains all share one ground connection (i.e., their ports aren’t isolated) they not only share a load of power but inadvertently carry digital noise. This means the tiny digital noise hum of one pedal is often picked up and even amplified by its neighbors. Dan demoed this with the Strymon Big Sky and Amptweaker Tight Metal Pro to make the point that it’s not the pedals at fault it’s the way they’re powered! As Dan summed up, “If you don’t power your pedals right, nothing else matters.”
For isolated power supplies, check out the Strymon Ojai series or T-Rex Fuel Tanks. For a simple solution for just a few pedals, do away with the power supplies altogether and fire up a few nine-volt batteries. As Mick noted, while not a permanent solution, this is the original version of isolated power!
Trouble-Shooting Pedal Hiss
So let’s say you’ve isolated your power to the pedalboard but still get a hiss. Where do you trouble shoot next?
Depending on the types of pedals you’re using, some will generate a hum that can be accentuated depending on their position in the chain and how you’re stacking them. For example, Dan demoed how the relatively silent sound of a mid-boosted Ibanez Tube Screamer acquired a touch of hiss when it was hit with a treble boost pedal. “You simply hear the noise clearer on the top end because those are the frequencies being amplified…certain gain pedals are going to be noisier in certain frequencies,” noted Dan.
This became a bit of a problem when Mick wound up the guitar volume. Then the livable frequency hiss became an audible nuisance. Dan continued, once the power problems are sorted, “If you have noise, the first thing to do is wind the volume down on the guitar. That will tell you if the noise is coming through from the guitar or after the guitar.” From here you can move on to the next set of questions.
Playing Position and Pickup Choice
If the source of the hum seems to be through the guitar, there are two things to consider: where you’re sat and what pickups you’re using.
As Dan noted, any room has any number of sources of electromagnetic interference. “It’s all around us. In the studio we’ve got lights, there is AC power, there’s screens, transformers, etc.” The list goes on. All of these sources can create hum when detected by your pickups. One of the quickest and easiest solutions is to adjust your playing position so it is perpendicular to the source of interference. In the TPS studio, for example, the main sources seemed to be the lights hitting Dan & Mick head on. By shifting 90 degrees, the sound dissipated because the pickups were no longer seeing that interference in a direct line.
While the inherent hum of single-coils is arguably part of their sound, if that style of pickup noise is driving you bonkers there are a few solutions. One of them is going for either a noiseless type single-coil or a humbucker style pickup. Humbuckers have two single coils wound in the opposite direction, the result is that the noise picked up on one is cancelled out due to its phase relationship with the other. As Mick commented, “It might seem bleedin’ obvious to say, but they’re called humbuckers because they buck the hum!”
If, however, you’re dead set on your playing position and forever committed to your hissy single-coils, there is an economical and instant solution: just turn your volume pot down when you’re not playing!
Noise Gates and Suppressors
If you’re a high-gain player and after working through the trouble-shooting workflow of all of the above the hiss still persists, then it’s time to think about a gear-based solution. Here is were a noise gate or suppressor pedal is a real asset.
The TC Electronic Sentry was the noise gate option on the TPS board this week. As Dan noted, “It’s very clever. You can actually gate several different frequency ranges and there’s even TonePrints.” The Boss Noise Suppressor NS-2 did the job of a suppressor-type option. What’s the difference? Under a certain threshold, set by you, the effect architect, the noise gate will not let any signal through. Once the signal exceeds a certain threshold, the gate opens and the sound is in full bloom. A noise suppressor, on the other hand, will focus on the extraneous noise but not the signal, so everything else still comes through.
As Dan & Mick demonstrated with both, the brilliance of these options is how they can be integrated into your rig via effects loops within the pedals. As Dan noted, “instead of listening for the noise to open the gate, it’s listening for the guitar.” This means less loss of pick attack and playing dynamics but a cut of unwanted hum and white noise.
No matter what the prognosis is for your noise problems—pickups, pedals, or power supplies—head over to Riff City to find your custom solution for pristine tone without the hum.
TPS Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Fender Custom Shop 1952 Telecaster, Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335, Collings 290 DCS.