A lot of distortion pedals come with a noise gate built into the pedal itself.
But do you always need this? Is a noise gate necessary whenever you're using a distortion pedal? What about distortion from an amp's high gain or dirty channel?
The short answer is no. You don't always need a noise gate, but there are definitely times when it can come in handy.
So it's good to know when it's helpful and when it's unnecessary.
High Gain Levels
Gain simply means volume that's getting sent into a preamp, which is capped off, thus creating distortion. Here's a better definition, if you care to read it.
Gain in a guitar amplifier refers to the initial level of amplification of the guitar's signal before it is further processed or amplified. Essentially, it controls the strength of the signal that hits the preamp section of the amplifier. Turning up the gain increases the signal level, which can introduce distortion or "overdrive" to the sound, giving it a crunchy, aggressive tone that's commonly associated with rock, metal, and other genres. Lower gain settings yield a cleaner, more pristine sound. Gain is often used creatively to shape the tonal character and dynamic response of the guitar in a mix.
When you're using higher gain levels, you get heavier, more saturated distortion, like you hear in modern rock or metal. This can create noise issues, depending on the type of guitar and type of amp you're using.
Digitally-modeled distortion is going to be less likely to have noise issues, but tube-driven distortion usually sounds better.
Generally speaking, the heavier your distortion, the more likely you are to need a noise gate.
Single coil pickups have historically been the most problematic when it comes to unwanted noise. Though more modern designs have gotten better with this, they're still more likely to cause problems, even at lower gain levels.
Humbuckers and active pickups are far better at mitigating noise. Active pickups are especially effective.
So whether or not you need a noise gate will also depend on the type of pickup installed in your guitar.
As it relates to noise control:
- Single coils: Good
- Humbuckers: Better
- Active Pickups/Humbuckers: Best
Separate Noise Gate Pedal
If you need a noise gate, you can get a separate noise gate pedal. There are a lot of these available, so do some looking around and see what works best for your situation. I've used the Boss NS-2 in the past, but there are plenty of others to choose from. You can also check the distortion pedals with noise gates list that I linked to earlier.
Your rig will tell you
To conclude, you don't necessarily need a noise gate unless you're already noticed noise issues. Furthermore, adding a distortion pedal and/or higher gain levels may not even cause problems.
So you can wait until those problems crop up.
At the same time, there's nothing wrong with being prepared and taking the antidote before the poison. A lot of guitar players run noise gates all the time. My personal preference is not to have a separate suppression pedal. Instead, I use a distortion pedal with a built-in noise gate that I have set in the middle position most of the time.
If you have questions about using a noise gate with distortion, feel free to get in touch via the comments section below. I'll do my best to help out.
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