Frustrated your amplified guitar is accompanied by an unwanted hissing, humming or buzzing sound? Maybe you’re a high gain player and the sounds you need to secure your heaviness come with a frustrating in-between buzz.
Here’s the thing: unwelcome sounds coming through your amp are mostly a by-product of high gain signals, single coil pickups, or even caused by your mains supply.
If you gig, this is a problem too. You can’t always test your pedals through the mains supply of a venue before a concert, and it can end up as a nasty surprise when all of a sudden it starts emitting a considerable buzz.
Ready for the good news? Noise gate pedals (or ‘Gates’ as we refer to them in this article) remove any unwanted sounds from your rig and give you control over what makes it to the amp. They’re an essential guitar pedal if you play metal, as we’ll find out.
In this article, we go deep into the pros and cons of using these pedals, what you should look for when purchasing one and we throw up some of our favorite models that are worth considering.
If you’re in a rush, here are our top picks.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the 5 Best Noise Gate Pedals on the Market
- Boss NS-2
- ISP Technologies Decimator II G-String
- MXR M135 Smart Gate
- Behringer NR300
- Electro-Harmonix Hum Debugger
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide.
- What is a Noise Gate Pedal?
- Threshold and Decay
- Who Uses Noise Gates?
- Buying Guide – Things to Consider When Purchasing a Noise Suppression Pedal
- Product Round-up & Mini-Reviews – Noise Gate Pedals
- So, Which Should I Go For?
What is a Noise Gate Pedal?
They eliminate any sounds below a specific signal and let any sounds above the threshold through. You set the threshold to the level of your hum, hiss or buzz, and it will no longer be audible. Usually, the level of your actual guitar playing will be significantly louder than any unwanted sounds, so using the gate will not affect the volume of your desired signal.
Some people think gate pedals affect your tone in a bad way. As we’ll see in this article, the marginal loss in tone is more than made up for by the improvements.
Threshold and Decay
There are two settings that any Gate pedal is going to have.
First, threshold. This is the level at which you start letting the sounds come through without any reduction. Generally, the noisier your unwanted sounds are, the higher you’ll need to set this, but it’s important to be careful that you’re not cutting out anything you want to come through. If you’re going to play harmonics, ghost notes, fading trills or anything else which is naturally quiet, make sure you set your threshold low. If you set it too high, these kinds of notes won’t be allowed through.
Secondly, decay determines how quickly the noise suppression kicks in. A fast decay will enable an incredibly tight sound but will seem unnatural. If you want just a moment’s noise before it cuts out (to make it sound a bit smoother), you can set a slower decay. However, if you set your decay too slow, it won’t be effective. The smarter pedals set the decay naturally, according to your playing style.
Suppress Pedal Noise
The more pedals you add to your rig, the more you run the chance of muddying your sound. Some pedals are meant to make your guitar sound noisy, but they end up making the whole signal sound distorted which results in your notes not cutting through as they should. Gates remove the low-signal interference from your chain, while still letting your notes ring through as distorted as you like.
Reduce Single Coil Hum
Humbucker pickups exist these days due to the unpredictability that comes with single coils. Although they sound bright and cutting, they’re easily affected by lighting, electricity and radio signals. Any of these things can cause them to hum and feedback. If you use single coil pickups and fed up with unpredictably hiss, a Gate may help you out.
<Remove ‘Fret Noise’
Is every move audible as you slide from fret to fret? Some people love that sound, most (including me) hate it. If you hate it too, a Gate will sort it out. Setting a high threshold and a low decay will give you a clean sound between notes which is perfect if you’re not a fan of that sliding sound between frets, or if you want the ultimate staccato.
Eliminate Sounds from Unpredictable Mains Supplies
When you’re gigging, you can plug into some dodgy and dirty mains supplies. Unfortunately, this often leads to a loud buzz or humming through your amp. One of these gizmos will stop this noise from ever reaching your amp, by just not letting it through. You only have to set the threshold appropriately.
Giving Clarity to High Gain Sounds
If you’re a high gain player, you might find that your usually super-tight riffs sound far from super-tight. The excess noise between your notes is stopping you from sounding like the sharp player you are. Yes, you guessed it. Some of these products in this list (e.g., the MXR Smart Gate) recognize when the notes you play require a longer decay.
As brilliant as they are for reducing nasty hums, hisses, and other sounds, they have their downsides. There’s no getting away from the fact that they do alter the tone of your guitar, especially when they are set to eliminate hissing sounds. Pedals which have a ‘hiss’ function cut out some of the high-end of your guitar, meaning you might have to tweak the EQ settings.
Who Uses Noise Gates?
Metal and grunge players often use these pedals due to the high gain, dirty style of playing. One legendary guitarist who knows how to use one to play ‘dirty sounds without getting sloppy’ is Jerry Cantrell from Alice In Chains. Fear Factory’s Dino Cazares is also known for using one, although he has claimed that he spends more time controlling unwanted noises with his guitar’s volume control than with his foot pedal.
Here’s a quick demo:
Buying Guide – Things to Consider When Purchasing a Noise Suppression Pedal
Which Type do you Need?
Not all Gates are the same. Most of these pedals attempt to reduce all kinds of noise; you set a threshold for the volume at which you don’t want noises to come through, set the decay – and the pedal does its thing. Other pedals, however, focus only on reducing single coil pickups such as P90s, which are renowned for being noisy. They’re explicitly designed to reduce the hum of these pickups and tend to be very simplistic in terms of controls. On the other hand, other Gates are anything but simple. They apply smart technology to recognize the length of your notes and decay accordingly. This is super handy for high gain players who require gaps between notes in the appropriate places.
Send and Return Jacks
More technologically inclined people sometimes like to use the send and return options. These allow you to create a loop from the pedal, through your effect(s), and back again. It will let the pedal ‘hear’ both the clean sound and the effected sound, which can allow it to reduce pedal buzz more easily. If you’re going to want to this too, make sure the one you buy has send and return jacks.
Product Round-up & Mini-Reviews – Noise Gate Pedals
So, now you know what you’re looking for, and how to use it, it’s time to look at some of the best ones out there. We’ve rounded up some of the top choices out there, and have listed their features.
The Boss NS-2 is a reliable all-rounder, with every feature you need to get rid of unwanted sounds. There’s a threshold dial, allowing you to set the level at which the gate opens and closes, and a decay dial to control how quickly this occurs. There’s also an option to use this as a mute pedal, rather than a reducer, so you can completely stop all sound should you need to.
As well as your standard input and output jacks, it has send and return jacks which gives you the option to hook pedals into a loop. It’s also perfect for guitarists who require mixed functionality, and its sturdiness means its great for gigging.
It will be less suited to those who want something simple, as the features take some getting used to and can largely depend on trial and error.
- There are additional send and return jacks
- Has separate dials for threshold and decay which makes it ideal for tightly articulated playing
- Has a mute mode for when you need to silence your guitar completely
- 9V battery runs out very quickly
- Flattens the tone of your guitar somewhat
- The threshold setting lacks precision, so it’s hard to get the exact amount of reduction needed
ISP Technologies Decimator II G-String
The Decimator II does an excellent job of eliminating unwanted noise. It has a threshold dial so you can decide the volume at which sounds are unwanted, and an on/off footswitch. Without the decay control, it matches the speed of attack to the threshold, which gives you some control – but it’s fairly limited.
That said, it’s still a clear leader in the market, and also has a neat little feature which detects when you shift from a clean to distorted sound and automatically adjusts the threshold to match. It’s perfect for those who play heavier music who need something to give their playing clarity and articulation.
It will be less suited to those who require control over their gate’s decay, and for those on a budget. This is the most highly priced noise gate in our round-up, but it’s also the one that’s popular with professionals (including Jerry Cantrell).
- Extremely sturdy and straightforward to use
- The threshold knob is very sensitive, allowing extreme precision
- The decay is intuitively fast, which gives you absolute clarity and precision
- Without adjusting your gain, the Decimator II is liable to get carried away and lower your decay too much, making the guitar sound unnatural
- On the pricey side
MXR M135 Smart Gate
The Smart Gate has three modes of noise reduction: hiss, mid and full. You can set it to leave out the frequencies that are bothering you at the flick of a switch.
It also has an easy to use trigger level dial, which sets the threshold of your unwanted sounds, and even a ‘hi trigger’ button that works in extremely noisy situations. It also differentiates between long, sustained notes and staccato playing, and adjusts the decay accordingly without you needing to change a thing. If you need to switch it off at any point, it’s also got true bypass so that no excess sound will bleed from the pedal itself.
This pedal is perfect for guitarists looking for something small, simple with a clever bit of tech behind it. If you gig a lot from venue to venue, the ‘hi-trigger’ option is a lifesaver when you’re dealing with unexpectedly noisy mains supplies. It’s also great for high gain players, as the automatic responsiveness recognizes when to reduce the sound quickly and when to have a slow decay. It’s less suited to those who like the ultimate control over their pedals, or who want a simple hum reducer.
- Differentiates between long, sustained notes and fast picking to kick in the decay you need automatically.
- Has three settings for reduction, making it easy to eliminate any unwanted sounds quickly
- There’s a ‘hi-trigger’ button which is used to adapt to extremely noisy situations quickly
- It’s more expensive than some other products on this list
- The hiss, mid and full selector is tiny and fiddly
- The automatic decay might not suit those who would like to experiment with different settings
The NR300 from Behringer is like a budget-friendly version of the Boss pedal above. It even looks very similar. Like the Boss pedal, it’s an all-rounder and works as either a noise suppressor or muter. There are send and return jacks which allow you to insert noisy pedals into a loop from the pedal. There’s also a threshold and decay dial too, so you have complete control over which levels are cut out and how quickly it occurs.
It’s perfect for guitarists on a tight budget, who want to try out one of these. It will be less suited to those who gig regularly due to its flimsiness.
- Everything you’d want from the Boss pedal above, but at an affordable price
- The separate threshold and decay controls give you complete control
- It also works as a muter for when you need to eliminate your sound.
- Extremely flimsy compared to the other pedals here
- Doesn’t have automatic detectors to determine the decay
Electro-Harmonix Hum Debugger
The Hum Debugger is a ‘simple-as-it-gets’ hum reducing pedal. There is one toggle switch, which flicks between ‘strong’ and ‘normal,’ and there’s an on/off footswitch. It’s purpose-designed to deal with single coil hum and does so effectively at the flick of one of its two switches. The strong/normal toggle lets you increase the effectiveness of the gate when the going gets tough, and the pedal itself is sturdy and looks bulletproof.
It’s an ideal pedal for those who gig with single coil guitars in multiple venues where the electric and lighting can unexpectedly make things go awry. This isn’t a full gate pedal; it’s only real capability is reducing the 60hz hum. If you need more than that, you’ll need to take a look at one of the other pedals
- This is a straightforward, no-fuss option for players of single-coil guitar
- It’s sturdy and ready for the road
- It has true bypass
- Not a full gate pedal
- On the strong setting, this pedal alters your guitar’s tone, and there’s a slight discoloring even on the standard setting
- It’s quite expensive, considering its limited functions
So, Which Should I Go For?
If you’re looking to reduce single coil hum and single coil hum only, the Hum Debugger might be right up your street, as it’s purpose-built to do that without you needing to mess around with settings.
If you’re looking for a bit more from a noise gate, and play in a variety of styles, the Boss NS-2 is more suited due to its superior controllability. If you’re on a budget, check out the Behringer which gets you 80% of the way there at a more affordable price.
If you’re looking for something smart which can detect the kind of notes you’re playing and decay accordingly, check out the Smart Gate by MXR. Not only does it let you set your noise threshold, but has extra features like a hiss/mid/full selector.
Love your heavy metal? Then go for the ISP Technologies Decimator 2. This has an extremely responsive threshold control that hardly affects your tone and has a fast decay which makes your playing sound tight and tidy, even when you use your noisiest pedals.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.