Kill Noise, Not Tone: Five Noise Killers that Won’t Wreck Your Sound

Noise is a fact of life for electric guitarists. Most of us have come to accept a certain amount of it as a fundamental part of the rich complexity of the guitar playing experience, perhaps even putting it to use for artistic purposes. However, there are still times when the noise gets out of hand and must be reined in. Single-coil pickups, stacked dirt pedals, crappy power supplies, and fluorescent lighting are just a few common sources of unmusical noise that can be a problem for guitarists. When hiss and hum begin to distract from the music or threaten to overwhelm the actual guitar signal, action must be taken.

Unfortunately, many devices designed to eliminate excess noise often have detrimental effects on tone as well, imparting unnatural artifacts, cutting of sustain, and generally interfering with natural dynamics and liveliness. The trick to using these kinds of devices has always been to experiment until striking upon an acceptable balance between noise reduction and tone suck, with the end result typically being a disappointing compromise.

Fortunately, recent advances in noise reduction technology have resulted in a number of new "intelligent" noise gates, suppressors, and destroyers that do away with the nasty stuff while letting the guitar signal pass through unmolested. These units are typically much easier to use than older models as well, and can be dialed in quickly with no sonic compromises. Here are a handful of our favorite tone-conscious noise killers.

Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor

It would be foolish to speak of noise reduction pedals without giving some love to the good ol' Boss NS-2. While it's not quite as transparent and smooth as many modern units (the NS-2 was released in 1987), it's quite usable for most players who need a little help getting control of the hum and hash in their signal chain, and in typical Boss fashion, it's nearly indestructible. Also, as far as I know, the NS-2 is the first compact noise reduction pedal with send and return jacks, a feature that allows the user to isolate noisier pedals (like distortions and fuzzes) in a loop, while placing modulation, delay, reverb, and any other effects that need not be tamed, after the loop. This is a clever arrangement, which many modern gates and suppressors that followed the NS-2 have subsequently employed. The Boss NS-2 also functions as a power supply for the rest of the pedalboard, which is a sweet bonus.

ISP Decimator II G-String

ISP's Decimator line of noise reduction units are very highly regarded for their transparency and natural decay, as well as their ability to quell noise. The company states that they use a powerful, proprietary technology called Linear Time Vector Processing (LTVP) to track the guitar signal, resulting in noise reduction that responds as musically to long sustained notes as it does to staccato passages. I've found this to be a very accurate claim, and the Decimator is definitely a noticeable improvement over many earlier, more primitive, gates and suppressors. The G-String version of the pedal is the ultimate incarnation, as it is designed to work in the series effects loop of an amplifier, and allows the user to keep dirty pedals in need of decimation isolated from their collection of pristine, genteel delays and reverbs. Setting it up is a piece of cake, as its only controls are a footswitch and a Threshold knob. Simply turn the knob until the noise is gone, then rock out. The G-String is adept at removing 60-cycle hum from single-coils, as well as cleaning up hiss from stacked dirt pedals and noisy vintage effects.

Electro-Harmonix Hum Debugger

For guitarists whose primary noise issue is the 60-cycle hum that goes along with playing single-coil equipped guitars, the Hum Debugger from Electro-Harmonix is an excellent utilitarian problem solver. It is purpose-designed to deal with this particular strain of guitar noise, and unlike other single-coil hum solutions, it can be easily bypassed at any time and does not require swapping pickups or modifying your guitar in any way. It's also pretty affordable. The Hum Debugger is placed at the beginning of the pedal chain, and the pedal's only controls are a true bypass switch and a tiny toggle for "Strong" and "Normal" settings. Word on the street is that it makes use of phase cancellation to zero in on 60-cycle hum and zap it. Downsides include weird power requirements (although a power supply is included), and a tendency to do funny things if you place it anywhere in the signal chain besides directly after the guitar. That being said, though, the Debugger can be a life saver for guitarists who gig frequently with single-coil guitars in venues where the power or lighting situation is sketchy and apt to spark sonic chaos.

MXR M195 Noise Clamp

MXR's Noise Clamp is ideal for players that relish in gain stacking experiments, or whose pedalboards are littered with funky, noise-inducing vintage stompboxes. It's designed primarily to subdue extraneous noise generated by pedals, keeping the offending stompboxes in a loop with the familiar send and return jack arrangement, and then using the guitar's dry signal as a reference for ferreting out unwanted nastiness. With a handy internal switch, the loop can be set to be active only when the pedal is engaged, or it can be set to be active whether or not the pedal is engaged. Its only control is a knob for "Trigger", and operation is as simple as turning up the knob until optimum noise reduction is achieved. The Noise Clamp is a very musical and natural sounding pedal, and as long as it is set wisely, it is very effective at doing its job with zero tone suck. Be forewarned, however, that it does not do anything for single-coil hum or amp-generated noise. It's strictly for putting the clamp down on rebellious pedal effects.

Pigtronix Gatekeeper

The Gatekeeper from Pigtronix is a very versatile noise gate that can be as subtle or as ruthless as you please. It boasts features that one might expect to find on a rackmount unit found in a recording studio, but that are still quite uncommon on stompbox noise gates. For one, it has both Threshold AND Release controls, which allows for a great deal more precision when setting it up for an ultra smooth, transparent release. This precision also allows the user to dial in everything from very subtle noise reduction to more drastic, colorful gating effects. It features 100 percent attenuation when gated, meaning that silent parts are truly dead silent, and it has abundant headroom, which prevents the squashed, garbled artifacts that are so prevalent when using lesser quality gates. The Gatekeeper's speedy reaction time and versatile gating make it ideal for the high-gain heshers, but it's also great for general, all-around noise reduction and killing off that irksome 60-cycle hum emanating from your grandpappy's old Tele.

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