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State of the Stomp: In Defense of Noise

Signal chain

The potential sources of noise are both maddening and many—lying in wait along every step of the signal chain, and beyond.

Illustration by Philippe Herndon

In the real world, noise happens.

After being a player, tech, and “industry observer" for 30 years, one of the things I've come to grips with is the cyclical nature of trends. Shredding is in, then very much out, then back in but with an ironic smirk, then out again in purported service of the song or ideals of good taste, then back in again. The same back and forth could be said for big amps, skinny jeans, floating tremolos, offset guitars, dotted eighth-note delays, and a host of other aesthetic and sonic considerations.

Lately the trend on the upswing is concern about noise. With all those Jazzmasters and fuzz pedals on social media gear pages, I thought this was on the downslope, but the most prominent worry or concern we hear from customers is noise. Is this pedal supposed to be this noisy? Am I using this incorrectly? Why is this noisy with my rig?

For a designer and builder, noise is a curious thing. I can breadboard things to the ends of the Earth and it will be quiet. We can test it with every guitar we can acquire through every amp we can find. We get prototypes completed, tweak some values because of the differences in shielding and parts placement on a PCB, and then we get a final version.

“If endlessly chasing that dragon means we never get around to releasing something that we're excited about, that's just no fun for anyone."

We run it into every amp we have, give it the go-ahead, and begin spending money we hope to recoup. Then we release it, somebody calls and tells me it's kind of hissy through their specific amp, and lo and behold, it is—even with everything else accounted for. I then find another amp just like what the user has, try our pedal there—and it is noisy. Hmmm. Then I find another like that, and it's quiet.

It's enough to make designers want to pull their hair out and/or light themselves on fire. Like most men of my age, I just grit my teeth, bury my emotions, and probably eat or drink more than I should and give myself an ulcer. Anyone else?

We follow the RFI/EMI noise reduction practices I have in my notes and textbooks. Sometimes certain discrete components or integrated circuit designs are kinda noisy. So are my record player and my '70s hi-fi. But I think they all can sound terrific. At some point, some things are beyond my control. The amps people play, the wiring in their homes, their proximity to a weird dimmer or gospel radio station, their ability to assemble a DIY patch cable, the authentic single-coils in their guitars, the vintage blackface Fender amp or Vox top-boost with a two-prong power cable ... there's only so much you can work around. We make something we think sounds really beautiful and fun and imperfect, and hopefully inspiring and great. We hustle to make it a good pedalboard citizen, and then, we kind of have to live with it. We do a lot more to fight noise than most pedals I've opened up and studied, and I've seen a lot. I'm always game to do more, but if endlessly chasing that dragon means we never get around to releasing something that we're excited about, that's just no fun for anyone.

I also wonder whenever there is a stacked single-coil pickup or a noise gate that really “just" eliminates noise—could it really be doing nothing but that? Something else had to be changed in that design or signal path for it to work. Is that change positive? Does that single-coil hum that comes from my Strat when I'm running into a drive somehow make me feel like everything is a bit more ... alive? Am I the only one who feels that? I also once had a very expensive tube amp steadily increase hum to where it just broadcast a loud ground hum that eventually overpowered whatever I was playing into it. As it happened, I wanted to fill it with dog poop and light it on fire and leave it on the manufacturer's doorstep. So does this make me a hypocrite, a flip-flopper, or just a guy like most of us who have drawn a line in the sand that works for them?

Someone once told me: “Nobody ever returned an album or demanded a refund because of single-coil hum." While that sounds dismissive of what can be a genuine concern, I hope you consider that idea as a player or user. Most pedals are audio amplifiers to some degree, and whatever you feed them—good, noisy, or bad—will be altered by some order of magnitude. Find your acceptable threshold and learn to work around it. Some venues or studios will simply remove guitars, pedals, or amps you've been dead set on using. In the end, what matters is the performance.