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Addressing Home-Studio Hums

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I’ve received a flurry of questions from readers lately, so for this month’s column, I thought I’d share my responses to a handful of them in hopes that we can all learn together!

Hi Mitch,
I’m a Premier Guitar subscriber and enjoy your columns. In a past column about problem sources of noise [“Silence is Golden,” November 2011], you mentioned the following as a potential culprit:

“You! We’ve all experienced how the noise a guitar produces drops dramatically as soon as you firmly make contact with the strings. This is because the strings are grounded to the amplifier. Most players assume that when you touch the strings, you ground the guitar. But this is backward—your body functions as an antenna, picking up noise. When you touch the strings (assuming the strings are grounded internally), the noise from your body is dumped to ground.”

This issue just recently became more severe than it had been in only one location in my house. I usually keep an amp in my bedroom and various other amps in the rec room, but only the bedroom has this issue—so I’m guessing there is more RFI in the area. To help remedy the situation, I bought an Electro-Harmonix Hum Debugger, which works pretty well, but I was wondering if you had any other tips for one to keep their body from being such an effective antenna.
Regards,
Jeff

Hi Jeff,
There isn’t much you can do about your biological antenna. The usual solution is the string ground in the guitar, but the Hum Debugger and other noise reduction systems such as the Rocktron Hush will work well in many situations. The only other solution I can think of is to build a Faraday cage around your bedroom—basically a huge, grounded shield that encompasses the entire room … not very practical for most studios!

Certain locations may indeed have more airborne noise than others, as you’ve found with your bedroom versus your rec room. Sometimes, simply turning your amp or guitar—or yourself—in a different direction can also help reduce noise.

Hi Mitch,
In my modest home studio, I have an Mbox 2 interface, which is connected via USB to a Dell laptop running Pro Tools LE. I have pretty good luck mic’ing guitar cabinets and acoustic guitars, microphones on vocals are okay, and my drums are all plug-ins. The trouble I have is getting a direct signal from a bass rig even though the setup is relatively simple: bass guitar to preamp, and XLR output to the Mbox. I hear a high-pitched buzzing with irregular pops and snaps, so my current conclusion is that I’m getting hard-drive interference.

I purchased a Radial JPC for running a PC sound-card output into a mixer, hoping that it would also remove the hard-drive noise. When engaging the ground lift on the JPC, there is a noticeable improvement, but the noise is still there.

I’m going to try moving some of the equipment around—including getting the PC farther from the Mbox—with the thought being it could be a proximity issue. Another idea (although extreme) is to replace the current, standard hard drive with a solid-state drive that has no moving parts.
Regards,
Charles

Hi Charles,
Based on your email, if I had to guess, I suspect that your bass is picking up noise from somewhere. What I would do is work through the problem using the process of elimination, by substituting new cables and pieces of gear to find the source. From your description, the problem arises when the bass is plugged in— not when you’re using microphones—so that should be your starting point.

If you can, try a different bass. Also, try moving the bass away from the computer since pickups will sometimes pick up noise from computer monitors and other gear (such as hard drives). It may help to move the Mbox farther from the computer, but I suspect the real culprit is your bass or the cable you use to connect it to the system.

It could be that you have a ground loop with your bass rig, since engaging the ground lift on the Radial DI reduces the noise. I’d also try running your laptop on battery power— rather than plugging it in—to see if that helps.

Hi Mitch,
I’m currently trying to put together a simple bedroom studio setup, and as a music student, my main use of this rig will be for arrangements. What I have in mind so far is an M-Audio Fast Track C400 (which comes bundled with Pro Tools SE software) to record my bass and guitar, and an Avid KeyStudio for a MIDI controller.

I don’t know what to get for speakers or headphones. And I haven’t considered a microphone yet, since my priority is to record the guitar and bass. I just want to be able to record whatever idea I have and get decent sound quality. I was told that Logic works the best for arrangers, but since I’m a PC user, I decided that Pro Tools SE would be good enough. I’ve checked my computer specs and it meets all the requirements for the software.

Do you have any recommendations, or am I at least on the right track?
Thank you!
Derek

Hello Derek,
Yes, I think you are on a good track and Pro Tools SE will be fine to get you started. As you progress, you might also look at Cakewalk SONAR or Steinberg Cubase, which have a lot of nice virtual instruments and MIDI/ scoring features that can help with arranging and composing.

I would choose a good all-around microphone. A Shure SM57 dynamic microphone works well for guitar and bass. And when it’s time to record acoustic instruments or vocals, a condenser microphone would be a good investment.

And for speakers, a good set of powered studio monitors, such as those from M-Audio, Alesis, Samson, Focal, Mackie, KRK, or the many other manufacturers, would pair nicely with the C400.

That’s it for this time, faithful readers. If you have questions, send them via my website. Who knows, you may find your question answered in an upcoming column!


Mitch Gallagher is the former editor in chief of EQ magazine. He’s written more than 1000 articles and six books on recording and music technology, and has released an instructional DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Electric Guitar Sound. To learn more, visit mitchgallagher.com.
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