Noise Gate: for a cleaner performance both live and when recording

A noise gate puts you in control and lets noise simply fade away.


Stereo DSP feedback controller

An interesting tool for the live area, with which many a tricky feedback problem can be solved. Whether for monitor or FOH purposes, the MFE-212 controller does a good job.

Noise, noise baby... How often have you experienced the following situation: You want to make a perfect recording, but afterwards you realise: In addition to singing/instruments, there are also unwanted background noises. Aggravating! Or you are on stage. You haven't even started yet but the PAs are already spitting out an annoying loud buzzing sound. Not nice—neither for you nor for the audience. Noise gates are the solution. These practical helpers are like bouncers and don't even let annoying background noise get through. That means you get a clearer sound pattern and the focus is solely on your sound without distraction. Noise gates are available as software, for example as plugins in a DAW or as a built-in feature in  mixers. And physically as pedals. They can even help you with pesky hum loops. Let's take a closer look at how they work and how you can best use them.

Noise Gate = noise cancelling right where you need it

When making music, whether live or recording, you can't create a 100% acoustically sterile environment. Your setup will always have inherent, external and background noises. That is perfectly normal. And you might notice it during the breaks in playing or singing. This noise is insidious if you don't notice it at first, but make it clearly audible when mixing with an audio compressor. With a noise gate (or even more than one) you can control it and block out the noise. This way you get a clean signal when recording or performing live.

The way the noise gate works is simple

Very, very simply put, the Noise Gate ensures silence until you start playing or singing. Then it opens and only lets your sound through. If you stop playing, silence will return. The gate then closes and blocks out all (interfering) noises again.

To make this work smoothly, you programme the noise gate to distinguish what is noise and what is not. A trigger point determines when the gate should open for audio signals. That's not so difficult, because vocals/instruments are usually louder than the unwanted background noise anyway.

If you have already worked with an audio compressor, you will be familiar with the names of the individual settings. Depending on the version of your noise gate, these settings are more extensive or reduced. These are the most common:

Threshold : You determine the point up to which noise should be minimised or suppressed. It is best to set it directly 1dB above the background noise.

Attack : You determine how long it takes for the gate to open. The most common setting is that it (almost) opens immediately. It is also a possibility that it opens only after a certain delay (slow).

Release : You set how long it takes for the gate to close again.

Hold: How long the gate stays open.

You determine whether the "noise gate" is open or closed.

Not just grey theory: 3 practical examples

  1. Especially in hard rock and metal, high-gain amps are used. During breaks from playing, amplifiers can produce audible distortions. If you don't want this effect to be deliberately on a recording, a noise gate can help.

  2. You stand close to the drums when recording. But you don't want it to be heard during your breaks from playing.

  3. You have suboptimal cabling in the performance venue, causing a loud  hum on stage. Again, a noise gate can improve the situation.

Their settings share some common terms, but the mode of operation differs. A compressor lowers the signal above the threshold, by compressing it. A noise gate grabs and silences everything below the threshold.

Noise gates in action—how to improve your recording

You got a rough idea of how the noise gate works and 3 practical tips for now. Did we mention that a noise gate doesn't actually change your sound? No? So now you know and we can dig a little deeper. Because there isn't ONE setting.

 As dynamic as you are: Customise your noise gate to suit your performance and recording needs.

You can separate instruments from each other. For example, put a noise gate on the drums, one the toms and one on the snare. It's also possible to shape the signal that you're letting through to your liking. Do you want it to be concise or do you want to give it more space? Whatever you decide, the most important thing is that a noise gate ultimately improves the clarity of your recording.

Tips for noise gates

Of course, you do not want the background noise from your microphone to be included in the recording. Set your noise gate so that the noise is blocked out as much as possible, but your breathers are not filtered out in between. And set the attack and release time a little less hard, so that your vocals fade out calmly.

Regardless of this, you can also "mute" instruments that are heard between your vocal breaks.

You want clean riffs with no hand noise. You can rely on the noise gate. Take note of the vibrations of the strings (transients). You should not chop this off. That's why you should set the attack and release time a little less hard as well. Your noise gate may have a lookahead function. So use it. This way, your gate feels ahead and opens shortly before you strike the cord.

Adjust the threshold carefully to include ghost notes.

This is where it gets a bit more challenging as the drums are made up of multiple instruments. That's already the case with miking. When playing, the individual components could cross-talk. That means you actually want to have the snare in the spotlight, but you also hear the toms or bass drum in the background on the recording because the mics pick them up. With a noise gate you can separate the individual instruments. Like the guitar, take the transients with you

Less is more—Don't overdo it with the settings so that your sound is natural and organic in the end.

Trust your ears: How do the settings sound? If you are not 100% satisfied, only adjust after listening.

Noise gates counteract countless sources of interference

We have already listed a few situations above that cause unwanted background noises live or during recording. Why should we now devote an entire paragraph to these tormentors? Quite simply because it makes it easier for you to identify them and know what to do. Or do you want to tell someone that you had to restart a recording because Mum called you to dinner and it's on your track now?

Sometimes there is just this one moment that is absolutely perfect, and that's exactly what you should capture and hold on to without interference. Or you don't want to spend hours on stage wondering how to get the hum under control? So here are a few options for sources of interference:

  • You move ecstatically during the recording, your shoes squeaking across the floor. Speaking of squeaks: Your kick drum foot pedal could use some oiling.

  • Several microphones are set up close to each other on the stage. Nobody wants feedback.

  • Your headphones are not completely closed. Everything you hear over it ends up on the recording.

  • A mobile phone rings near the amplifier. The distortions are clearly audible.

  • You work with many effects. If you have other devices wired together as well, the hum from the wiring and individual circuits will also add up.

  • Your rehearsal room is not completely soundproof, a dog barks outside or sirens are blaring.

There are more options, but we think you get the point. Luckily you have your noise gate that blocks out all of that. Or you can get one now and enjoy the benefits of noise reduction. Spoilers: You'll clearly hear the difference.

Headergraphik: ©  AdobeStock/ Taylor

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