6 Pedalboard Tips to Fix Noise, Buzz and Ground Loop Issues June 10 2022

6 Pedalboard Tips to Fix Noise, Buzz and Ground Loop Issues

June 10, 2022 - Michael Hahn

Pedalboard noise is a frustrating distraction that can affect any player’s rig.

It’s not easy to find the source of noise and diagnose the problem to find the underlying cause.

But there are a handful of effective strategies you can use to reduce noise in your setup and get better tone performance overall.

In this article I’ll go through the six key steps you should consider for lower noise in your guitar rig.

1. Place a buffer first in your chain

Using a good buffer at the start of your signal chain is standard advice for any pedalboard these days.

The reason has to do with the electrical qualities of the signal produced by your guitar’s pickups. Since a traditional pickup is a passive device, its output signal has a naturally high output impedance.

This type of signal can easily lose top end and sparkle as it passes through a long cable or a chain of connected devices. The problem is especially bad with an entire chain of true bypass pedals since they behave like a long length of cable when the effect is turned off.

Buffers fix it by transparently changing the high impedance pickup output to a nice, strong low impedance signal. Of course, you can do this with any always-on pedal in your rig, but a well-designed buffer is purpose-built for the job and can provide better results.

Some buffers like the Empress Buffer+ include additional noise filtering to help reduce hiss from your guitar’s pickup for the rest of the pedals in line.  

Simply converting to a high impedance signal isn’t a silver bullet for noise issues, but it will ensure that your tone stays intact throughout your signal chain.

2. Use an Isolated Power Supply

Powering your pedals correctly is essential for the best tone and noise performance.

For starters, you’ll need to match each pedal’s voltage and current requirements with the correct power supply to get them up and running.

If you’re just getting started with guitar pedals, you might be using a “daisy chain” to power multiple pedals from the same outlet.

In theory, this works fine if all your pedals require the same voltage and their total current doesn’t exceed the maximum available from your wall wart.

However, not all pedals play well together when they share the same power supply in the real world. You may find digital pedals like reverbs, delays, and DSP amps interfere with old-school analog designs and cause distracting noise.

You might have pedals with different requirements that can’t easily be powered with a one-size-fits-all solution.

Modern isolated power supplies deliver clean, accurate power to your effects. They’re the key ingredient that turns a collection of pedals into a professional sound design tool.

3. Put Noisey Pedals in a True Bypass Loop

If one pedal in your chain is wreaking havoc on the rest, you may have to isolate it completely.

The easiest way to do it is with a true bypass looper.

In the past, pedal designers didn’t always account for how their stompboxes would perform on a board full of effects. Quality power filtering and transparent bypass weren’t key concerns the way they are today.

In many cases, vintage pedals can color your tone when bypassed and even introduce noise or bleed from their effect.

True bypass loopers are a cheap and effective fix for this issue. They’re simple passive devices that use proper 3PDT switching to completely remove any pedals inserted in the send/return loop from the signal path.

Place any offending pedals inside a true bypass loop to fully isolate their electronics when not in use.

4. Use a Noise Gate

If the noise in your signal chain comes from high gain distortion pedals, you’ll need to take a more active approach to noise reduction.

In these cases, the noise is a side effect of the amplification process that adds saturation to your signal. Since it’s baked in, you won’t be able to reduce it much with any of the mentioned methods.

Instead, many heavy players use a noise gate to mute their signal when they stop playing so that the background hiss doesn’t come through.

These pedals work by setting a threshold for when the gate will clamp down on the noise. The trick is to set the sensitivity so that your playing opens and closes the gate without chopping off notes or articulations.

The Empress Heavy has a built-in noise gate to keep your sound tight and noise-free even with aggressive high gain.

5. Use an Isolator to Break Ground Loops

A ground loop is an electrical issue that causes a specific noise problem in your signal. For example, a ground loop produces a nasty hum that are far louder than the typical hiss and buzz of a basic guitar chain.

Ground loops can occur whenever your rig is plugged into multiple electrical outlets. For example, you might encounter them if you’re using a multi-amp setup or if your amp is located far away from your pedals on stage.

You’ll need a device that electrically isolates the devices from each other to fix it. Typically, this is done with the same transformer-based circuitry you’d find in a DI box.

The Empress Reverb and Echosystem both include transformer isolation on their stereo outputs to let you lift ground loops without needing an additional line isolator. The silver box in the top right corner of the image below is the output tranformer from the Reverb and Echosystem.

6. Try a Noiseless Pickup

Finally, if nothing else seems to work, you might consider addressing the noise at the source—your pickups.

After all, magnetic guitar pickups are a 1940s-era technology. However, if you’re open to trying a modern design, plenty of options are built specifically to address noise.

Remember that the single-coil pickups found in most Fender-style guitars have a naturally higher noise floor than dual-coil designs like the humbucker or Filtertron.

The dual coil humbucker was the original noise-suppressing pickup made literally to “buck” the hum.

That said, if you need the authentic sound of a single-coil, you can consider any of the noiseless designs that have been introduced over the years to combat the problem.

If you’re not concerned with recreating the sounds of old-school passive pickups, you could also consider an active design for an even better signal-to-noise ratio. But, again, there are plenty of options if you’re willing to experiment!

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is a Montreal-based musician, music writer and engineer at Autoland Audio

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