april 2009

Peter Stroud answers reader questions on cutting down hum and noise in your rig

Greetings, fellow gear geeks. This month, I thought I’d open up the lines and take a few questions. Please feel free to email me with your questions: Peter@65amps.com.

This past month I received emails asking for advice on the everlasting dilemma: getting rid of noise in your rig, pedalboard and guitar. You may never get rid of all noise permanently, but it can be reduced. I’ll offer up a few suggestions:

Mike Elzey writes:
Do you have any tips for eliminating hum? On occasion I still run into problems at some venues with serious hum. With my Keeley compressor and a distortion box engaged the hum is so loud it’s distracting. It’s a low level, probably AC hum. I have a (not wireless) pedal board with a Furman power conditioner built in, and I tried using a power filter at one bad gig but to no avail. It’s worse with single coils, of course!

Ahh yes… We all step into the typical club that is buzz central due to poor AC power—where all the circuits are being shared and drained by cash registers, neon beer signs, house and stage lights, and power for PA and stage. The result is a bad buzz in your rig and/or an anemic-sounding amp tone (mostly with tube amps that like to see their proper voltage and current). Singlecoil pickups? Forget about it. Noisy as hell and hard to overcome, short of riding your guitar’s volume knob between every riff. Over the years, I’ve seen our soundman back in the AC mains box rewiring on the fly to isolate the PA from the lights and house… definitely guerilla club fare, not for the inexperienced!

I’ve written previously in PG about using a Variac to isolate my rig and boost the AC to proper voltage and current (“Tone Sucking Low Voltage,” August 2006) and it’s still consistently the best sound remedy in most situations. But it’s an investment ($550 or so for the proper Staco 10 amp Variac with builtin Digital Voltmeter), and you have to use it carefully! But it’s worth it if you’re playing clubs constantly. There are other potential remedies. Try a power conditioner, like those offered by Furman. But if the club’s power is bad or suffering low current, sometimes even the power conditioners can’t solve the issue. A Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor can help if placed after the compressor and distortion pedal, but if the AC-generated buzz is so loud, it certainly won’t clamp it down entirely.

A wireless guitar system can reduce noise considerably by eliminating the cable connection to your rig (and AC). It’ll at least break the ground between your guitar and the microphone, saving you from mind-altering shocks and the accompanying blue flash in your peripheral vision as your lip touches the mike. If all else fails, use a guitar with humbuckers for this gig and leave the single coils on the stand. Sometimes you just have to muscle through it until you’re out the back door heading to the next town.

Allen Randolph writes:
My rig is a Fender Hot Rod DeVille 212 with a pedal board with a Dunlop Wah, Barber Compressor, Xotic RC Booster, Fulltone Fulldrive2, Fulltone OCD, BBE Stomp Sonic Maximizer, Ernie Ball Volume pedal and Fender Tuner in the front, and a Boss Digital Reverb, Visual Sound H2O Liquid Chorus/ Echo and an Electro-Harmonix XO Stereo PulsarTremolo pedal through my effects loop on the amp. I use mostly Strats and Teles and want to get rid of the hum from the single coils and board. What is the best hum cancellation unit? Is there one worth trying? What would you do?

First of all (if you’re not already doing it) add a quality pedalboard power supply, like the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus or the Juice Box from pedalgear.net. Then, follow a process of elimination for finding noise in your pedalboard, mostly relating to the DC power. Start with the first group of pedals on the floor, with the second group disconnected from the loop on your amp. With amp volume up and guitar volume down, remove one pedal at a time from the chain until you find the hum-causing culprit.

Many old-style Germanium transistor distortion or fuzz circuits use a reverse DC polarity (center positive); you can either get a cross cable for your power supply or just use a 9-volt battery. These pedals are usually very low draw, with a battery life of up to 9 months. Use the isolated 9V power options on your DC power supply for a pesky pedal. Most have at least two independent groups of 9V or other DC level outputs specifically for this purpose.

Hum canceling for single coil? There’s nothing available yet that really works, short of switching to specially designed active pickups or humbuckers. But again, a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor (not a noise gate) behind your compressor and distortion pedals will help. I usually set my NS-2 to clamp down the noise generated from the pedals, not hum from the guitar. Still, it’s best to ride your volume control on the guitar when you’re not playing.

Read MoreShow less

There are a lot of choices for hearing protection; we take a look at Hearos High Fidelity Series

John Bohlinger’s “Last Call” column last month got me thinking more about hearing protection, which I admit I don’t use very often. The band I’m in is not into blaring stage volume, and rehearsal is usually even quieter. And, unless I’m opening up a big amp to hear what it can do (or when Brett Petrusek is around), I don’t find myself dealing frequently with uncomfortably loud music. But some of my favorite amps do require high volume to really sound their best, and I did hear Bohlinger pretty clearly reminding me that volume doesn’t have to hurt before it starts doing damage.

The problem I always have with earplugs is that even when they’re comfortable enough to wear for long periods, they leave me hearing only a “thuddy” low end and muffled mids with no high end to speak of. And taking the soft foam plugs out to make EQ adjustments and then holding them in until they expand into place again—it’s not an easy way to spend an afternoon testing amps.

As luck would have it, we had recently received a few sets of High Fidelity Series earplugs from Hearos. These are designed to provide flat attenuation, and are made specifically for musical application. With average attenuation across the frequency range falling somewhere around 20dB, they don’t provide the greatest amount of noise reduction available. But they do allow you to hear a more balanced frequency spectrum. After trying several different kinds of hearing protection while testing amplifiers, I can say that wearing these is much like wearing a set of studio headphones. Of course, they don’t weigh as much, but the sound is as balanced, and they don’t take a lot of time to install correctly. They’re also washable and reusable, and they’re comfortable enough that they won’t drive me crazy if I wear them more often.

Hearos High Fidelity Ear Plugs
List $14.99

Taylor expands their line even further, blending their SolidBody and hollowbody for the versatile T3/B Bigsby-equipped semi-hollowbody.

Download Example 1
Bridge pickup, bridge with coil tap, neck pickup, neck with coil tap
Download Example 2
Large variety of tones achieved from rolling the tone knob up and down as well as pulling it out to activate the second voicing
Download Example 3
A couple of clean tones in a Gypsy Jazz duet configuration
Download Example 4
various sounds of the guitar with an overdriven tone

While Taylor is primarily known for their fine acoustic guitars, they’ve recently been garnering a lot attention with their innovative electric guitar designs. Expanding on and combining elements of the SolidBody and the T5, the T3 is an ambitious instrument that offers a wide range of tonal options to satisfy the demands of a diverse group of players. Make no mistake, the T3/B is not a “jack of all trades, master of none,” but rather a well-thought-out instrument that plays great, sounds fantastic and looks incredible.

The T3/B (“B” for Bigsby) is a semi-hollowbody electric constructed from sapele rather than the traditional mahogany and topped with a beautiful, quilted maple top. The body is hollowed out, but leaves a solid block in the center where the quilted, bookmatched maple piece is laid directly on top. The 21-fret sapele neck with ebony fingerboard is styled in a very comfortable and fast shallow C profile that is bolted on with Taylor’s proprietary T-Lock. Though the guitar uses a bolt-on configuration, it isn’t chunky or obtrusive in any way, and it feels rock solid, no doubt due to the design of the neck joint. Both the T3/B and T3 (stop tail piece) models incorporate a roller-style bridge, which in the case of the Bigsby is excellent for combating the tuning issues associated with that style of vibrato. It includes the standard 2-humbucker design with 3-way toggle and a master volume and tone control, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye. The pickups are not the typical PAF-style, but Taylor’s own Style 2 HD (high definition) humbuckers with coil-splitting activated by pulling up on the volume knob—and a tone control that adds a second capacitor by pulling up. The range of tones possible grows exponentially with these additions, but more on that later. Finally, the whole guitar is tastefully appointed with chrome pickup rings, knobs, strap buttons, and Taylor’s own tuners.

The T3/B I reviewed came in a Honey Sunburst finish (see page 2), but that just doesn’t do the finish justice. Not only was the quilt top the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen; the finish was so rich and deep I had a hard time figuring out if I should play it or just look at it! The good news is this guitar plays as good as it looks, which was a nice realization. The neck is instantly comfortable and fast playing, without feeling like your hand would cramp due to lack of substance. It sort of combined the best of all neck shapes into one, and lent itself to just about any style of playing—always feeling easy. The action was set up to be just a hair higher than low, which was perfect for big bends and chords that rang clean without fretting out. The neck offers good access to the 21st fret on the higher strings, but was a little more limited past the 15th fret on the fourth, fifth, and sixth strings. What I found refreshing was the way the neck joint felt seamlessly connected to the body, and low profile, unlike some traditional designs. Taylor clearly thought through these designs when coming up with the guitar, and it paid off big time. That wasn’t the only area that stood out, as even the detail of the volume and tone knobs is brilliant: they look like art deco top hats, and they feel better than any guitar I’ve played in my life. The taper of both knobs is smooth and controlled, and they exhibit a weight to them that feels fantastic and deliberate when rolling them up or down. The sum of these details adds up to a solid feeling and fun guitar to play.

If Taylor had stopped at the 2-humbucker, 3-way switch design they would’ve had a winning guitar. But they didn’t, and I’m really glad they decided to go the extra mile, because there are a lot of fantastic tones to be found. The Style 2 HD pickups have a very clean and articulate sound. I wouldn’t call them PAF-like… in fact, I don’t really have anything to compare them to. They’re incredibly versatile and worked well through every amp I played them on. But it wasn’t until I pulled the volume knob up and split the coils that the real tonal magic became apparent. Again, the coil-tap wasn’t the familiar Strat sound of a single coil, just a more articulate and less weighty sound than the humbucker. It was very useful in a variety of situations and allowed me to dial in just the right amount of heft or leanness, depending on my needs. To top it off, the tone control actually did something! Rolling back the tone all the way sounds like it shifts the mid frequency rather than the typical dark tone, and pulling up shifts the tone again by adding another cap to the control, giving more versatility to the shape. This is one of those rare guitars that doesn’t necessarily have a stock setting to it. Where I usually tend to go straight to the bridge pickup with volume and tone full-up, I ended up using every combination of pickup, coil tap and tone variation. It was amazing to hear one guitar shine in so many different ways.

The Bigsby implementation is by far the best of its kind that I’ve used. After letting the guitar settle in and adjust to my climate (Arizona is very dry—a great place to test the mettle of any guitar) I never had a tuning problem. Typical Bigsbys tend to drag the wound strings across the bridge and pull the guitar out of tune. With the roller bridge, just about all of the binding up is eliminated, and the travel of the vibrato is ultra-smooth and controlled. Even with the roller bridge, it still feels like a Bigsby but doesn’t carry any the negative side effects. These types of vibrato units are designed for a less dramatic effect that a Floyd, but they are so very effective when used properly. It’s just another example of a tasteful appointment to the T3/B that I really enjoyed. And as an extra bonus, the weight of the tailpiece and the way it was mounted made the guitar sound acoustically quite loud and surprisingly responsive. Big points for that.

I rarely come across an instrument that is as beautiful as it is functional. Taylor seems to have pulled out all the stops on the T3/B, since it effortlessly excels in musical styles ranging from rock to blues to jazz, and yet never feels out of place. With all the chrome, quilted maple and flair in the design, it would be easy to create a garish and over-the-top guitar—this is anything but that. Somehow Taylor has figured out a way to incorporate style, class and functionality into the perfect package. I can’t think of a single thing I would change, except for the fact that it needs to be returned now that I’m done reviewing it. Bummer!
Buy if...
You want beauty, brains and brawn. 
Skip if...
You're watching your wallet.

MSRP $3198 - Taylor Guitars - taylorguitars.com