When tracking guitar amps live, it’s important that you’ve got some gating in place to keep things sounding smooth and polished. Gating becomes doubly important when working with high gain amplifiers, where every small noise, buzz or hum from your signal chain will be boosted to the max.
There are several places where a noise gate could be applied in your signal chain, but many guitarists will add it right at the start of their pedalboard. It’s a great spot to catch anything your pickups are catching that they shouldn’t, and provides a clean signal for your pedals to do with as they please.
If a guitarist has a particularly noisy pedal, they may also consider moving the noise gate around in the chain. This change in position can suppress unwanted noise immediately following the problem pedal or at the end of the chain just before the amp.
With so many spots to place a noise gate, it’s sometime surprising how often guitarists forget to use a gate or choose not to altogether. Some argue that it colors their sound, which places the weight on our shoulders as recording engineers to clean guitars up in the box. So with such a wide range of tones that guitars come in, what are our options when a noise gate doesn’t get used during tracking?
Adding A Gate To Guitars
Gate plugins are excellent for getting rid of headphone bleed on vocals and cleaning up unwanted sounds when your noise floor creeps up on a track. If you’re someone that likes treating your lead guitars like your vocals, the introduction of a gate to your in-the-box guitar chain should come naturally. It can actually be even more effective than your out-of-the-box alternative, though that’s not an excuse to stop using one.
It’s Simple Signal Flow
The reason your in-the-box gate works so well has everything to do with how the signal develops prior to the plugin. By the time your sounds reach that gate plugin, they’ve been through the ringer. From the pickups through the pedals, pedals through the amp, amp into the speakers, then speakers to the mic/pre/interface combo, a lot of development happens to your sound.
Rather than trying to pinpoint the perfect spot to gate in the hardware realm, a gate plugin will take whatever your “final product” is and treat it indiscriminately. It doesn’t care if you’ve got hum or buzz from your pickups or if the amp itself introduces ground hum, it’s going to treat it the same way.
This can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you’re getting a level of control your hardware cannot compete with. On the other, you can’t dial out any specific issues with the level of control you would with a pedalboard. For this reason, I really recommend a combined approach whenever possible.
Clean up what you can upfront, and then treat anything remaining with an in-the-box solution.
A Less Destructive Approach
If you’ve ever gated drums, you know that a gate can often be a much more destructive tool than you want in your mix. Gates have a tendency of cutting off the tails of the end of notes as the level drops below the gates threshold. You can minimize this issue with a bit of tweaking but the fact remains – something’s getting cut off.
This problem is much more noticeable on toms and other drums based on their tonal characteristics (loud attack, short decay). For this reason, filter-based solutions like Tominator have almost completely replaced gates in my mixes. Yes, even on guitar tracks.
While guitars don’t often have to deal with the short decay and bleed issues that toms do, the basic functionality of the filter’s roll-off is the same. What you end up with is a cleaned-up rhythm guitar free of many of the softer issues (buzz, hum, etc) that can bring down your track’s quality.
Check out how Nick uses Tominator to clean up his rhythm guitars on In The Studio:
There are plenty of plugins out there that it’s not hard to find something fitting a specific use. If you’re looking for a source of creative inspiration, sometimes it’s useful to go against the grain and use those plugins for reasons they weren’t intended/created for.
How have you used a plugin creatively? Come share your best example in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum, or if you’ve got a video example, tag us in it on Instagram using #joeysturgistones for a chance at being featured.
As always, happy mixing!