Do you have noise in your recordings?

Do you hate noise?

Wish you knew some ways to deal with it?

This past Friday I spent part of the afternoon tracking acoustic guitar for a client. (He’s actually an HSC subscriber, too.)

It was a fairly quiet tune with a more finger-style guitar part. And since the instrumentation for the song was going to be primarily acoustic guitar, I decided to break out two mics and stereo-mic the guitar.

The problem?

Because I wasn’t strumming with a pick and playing nice and loud, I ended up having a fairly big amount of noise initially.

As I was dealing with it, I thought you’d probably like some tips for dealing with it as well.

Get Closer to the Mic

This is usually the first option I run to when I’m encountering noise on my recordings.

Be warned, however. It doesn’t always work.

The idea is that if the source is closer to the microphone, then the mic will “hear” more of the source and less of the noise in the room.

You’ll have to deal with the proximity effect, however. The closer the mic is to the source, the more low end it will pick up.

Perhaps that’s a sacrifice you’ll have to make to cut back on noise.

But here’s the funny thing — oftentimes this doesn’t help. The noise isn’t really in the room…it’s in the gear.

Preamp Noise — A Sneaky Culprit

If you’re using the stock preamps on your audio interface to record (which I was), and you’re recording a quiet source (which I was), and you need to crank the preamps up to get a decent level (which I did), you run the risk of introducing noise.

Cheaper preamps tend to sound just fine on normal loud sources, like vocals, guitar amps, etc. But when you go after something quiet and intimate (like a soft acoustic guitar part), you’ll need to turn the preamp up quite a bit.

The upper range of these cheaper pre’s is generally very noisy. That’s one thing that differentiates cheap pre’s from really nice ones — less noise with higher amounts of gain.

The solution? Buy a nicer preamp?

BZZzzzzz…wrong.

Maybe you can upgrade one day, but you’ve got to record that guitar part TODAY.

The best way to deal with this is to find that “happy place” on the preamp, the place just before all the noise starts kicking in. If the preamp is a lot more noisy at 80% over 75%, then set it to 75% and cut back on the noise.

Also, if you can make the source a bit louder, that always helps.

You’ll still have preamp noise, but playing around with gain-staging for a minute or two can have a big payoff.

Cover it up in the mix.

Does all this noise really matter? Will you notice it in the mix? Sometimes — yes. Most of the time — NO.

Once you add a few instruments, it becomes easy to “cover up” the noise with something else.

If that final strum of the guitar is noisy, try putting a pad sound over the top of it, or a nice reverb-y electric guitar sound.

If it’s a really stripped-down song with just acoustic guitar and vocals, then you’re out of luck.

Don’t worry too much, though. I’ve heard some amazing recordings that have a LOT of noise on them. The noise didn’t hurt things at all. If anything, it made me a little happy.

If you record a lot of acoustic instruments, you might want to check this out:

www.UnderstandingRecording.com/acoustic

It’s a tutorial series on recording acoustic guitar, but get this — it applies to ANY acoustic instrument. Mandolin? Upright bass? Piano? Banjo? Accordion?

I take the same approach with ALL of these, and it works out rather nicely.

  • Dave Marriott – Eclectic wonderland studios

    As someone who spent many years recording demo’s to tape I’m always having to remind myself just how clean a sound you can get recording with a DAW at way less than what I used to think of as a required level of signal. What a huge technical advantage this can be when on a budget! Thanks for the reminder Joe – yep back off that preamp and especially for those of us who got sucked into buying cheap “valve” pre’s some years ago maybe add your own calibration mark somewhere in between the +30 and +60 marks that says “woah – crap kicks in here”.

  • Xan

    Your solutions with dealing with the noise are ov course decent, obvious & practical. And you do mention using a ‘noise buster’ tool.

    I find it’s good to have a selection ov these as one may work better than another in a given situation. i.e. killing the noise with out screwing up the tone too much. I find most ov my success with this ancient program called Dart.

    However often I’ll use a WAVES plugin too. And I has found interesting alternative uses for this plugin too, but that’s beyond the scope ov this response.

    There is one old chestnut you forgot to mention. Simply backing off the top end response with an EQ can often be the best solution for many situations.

    I don’t usually have too many problems with noise as I am generally working on Black Metal music styles and the guitar sound are basically sculpted noise anyway, so they make great masks for anything that appears on the vocal, or acoustic gat tracks..! 😉

  • DonB

    Cloudlifter makes a nice device (no I don’t work for them) which uses phantom power to boost the signal from your mic so you do not need as much preamp gain. It is especially helpful for low output mics such as ribbons and some dynamics. It’s an option to consider that will not break the bank, yet allow your preamps to work in their “happy place” more easily.

    P.S. Joe, I don’t like that you removed dates from your posts. I don’t care for date-less posts anywhere, but in the end it’s your site, of course.

    • Hey Don. Yeah, I may add the dates back in, but honestly the majority of the content on this site is applicable no matter when it was written. People tend to discredit articles that are 2 years old even if the information is perfectly applicabel.

  • Scott

    Joe – in a situation like what you’re describing I have used Magix Audio Cleaning Lab several times. It includes a Noise Removal tool that can sample a quiet spot and then use the character of that underlying noise to remove it throughout the track. I realize that with something as complex as acoustic guitar that you don’t want to damage the definition. This tool is tweakable and I’ve gotten great results with it. I know there are other plugins for cleaning, but ACL is cheap. Plus you get a straight-up audio editor and lots of other tools as well. YMMV, but I’m happy with ACL.