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Noise Begone

These tools are amazing—they can take a track that seems way too noisy to ever use and turn it into a much cleaner, nearly noise-free, workable track.

Top: iZotope’s RX is an amazingly powerful software tool for removing all sorts of noise, as well as repairing various problems within an audio fi le or track. Top Right: For simple, straightahead noise reduction, BIAS SoundSoap is effective for cleaning up basic problems.

For the past two installments of Guitar Tracks, we’ve been exploring ways to control and remove unwanted noise from our guitar recordings [“Silence is Golden,” November 2011 and “Hush Up,” December2011]. We’ve looked at ways of managing the noise as your tracks are going down, and also removing it after the fact, when the recording is finished.

This month, let’s wrap up by looking at some very powerful tools for removing noise from tracks. These tools are amazing—they can take a track that seems way too noisy to ever use and turn it into a much cleaner, nearly noise-free, workable track. There are, of course, limits. There may be some audible artifacts from the noise-reduction process, especially as you push the software harder to remove heavy amounts of noise.

There are several different types of software noise-reduction tools. Some work by using tuned filters that can be applied to the track to take out noises such as 60-cycle hum. Others work by taking a “fingerprint” of the noise in the track. For the latter, you need to find a place where your guitar isn’t playing, but the background noise is audible. The software takes a look at the background noise first, then creates an algorithm that removes it. Now, when you play your guitar track through the software, it looks at the audio, and removes the portion it has a fingerprint for—the noise. What’s left is the audio it didn’t recognize from the fingerprint, which is your guitar playing. In other words, the software compares what it knows is noise against the track you are feeding it. It removes the noise portion, leaving you with a clean audio track. This type of noise reduction software is easy to use with a little practice—you quickly learn how far you can push the noise removal before you start to hear artifacts.

One of the more powerful examples of this sort of noise-reduction software is RX from iZotope. RX runs on both Mac and Windows, and can provide pretty amazing results with hiss and other noise. Plus, it has tools for removing 60-cycle hum, massaging clipped (distorted) tracks so they sound better, removing clicks from recordings made from vinyl records, and even “Spectral Repair,” which can be used to fix other sorts of noise problems. For example, with a live recording, you could use Spectral Repair to remove a cough from an audience member that occurred during your delicate acoustic guitar intro. Pretty crazy stuff, but it works amazingly well. It can run as a plug-in within your DAW or you can use it as a standalone program for cleaning up different types of audio files.

If you don’t need that much power, something like BIAS SoundSoap will let you quickly and easily dial down the level of noise within your tracks. Just move the sliders around until you get the result you want. A variety of other noise-reduction programs also exist; some come with DAW programs as plug-ins, others are available separately. Some work better than others, so if possible, try before you buy. (Many software manufacturers offer free, trial versions of their software for this purpose.)

Now, a bit of proselytizing: I love high-tech tools and am a big fan of RX, SoundSoap, and other programs. The power available in today’s computers allows us to do pretty miraculous things, and the art and science of noise removal has reached truly astounding capabilities. Tracks that seem as if they will never be listenable due to heavy noise can be cleaned up to a remarkable level and with minimal collateral damage to your precious guitar tone.

But—and here’s the preaching part—the onus is still on us to record great tracks to begin with. Few would deny that cutting a great, pure, clean track provides better results than having to process a poorly recorded track into some semblance of quality sound. And even if we’re not talking “better,” it certainly is easier to record a clean track at the outset, so you don’t have to worry about it later.

Here’s my advice: Make the extra effort to record great-sounding tracks from the get-go. That way, you won’t have any problems with noise— whatever little bit of noise is in the tracks will simply be a natural part of the sound and easily masked by the music. In other words, get it right from the source.

Now, having said that, the rest of my advice is to do what you need to do to get the tracks you want. If you’re faced with noisy tracks, don’t worry about being a “purist” or a recording snob who only works with pristine tracks. When you need to deal with a noisy mess, break out the tools—whether careful editing, volume automation, hardware or software noise gates, or the big software guns—and clean it up. With music production, the ends justify the means!

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