What's the hum and noise?

Welcome to the problems that home studios, and studios built in homes, have. Noise, it's everywhere! That fridge, the hum from the light, the computer fan, the bird out the window, those stinking cars going by, the neighbor's dog barking, the A/C or furnace kicking on and blowing air! ARGH!!!! It's maddening! What's even worse is when you unplug anything you can, turn off the heat, get things perfectly quiet, and there's still so much noise in your recordings. What's a guy/gal to do?!?!

I hear ya, it sucks. Pro studios have voltage regulators running, high end power conditioning, quiet/silent ventilation, sound proof(ish) walls and windows, the whole 9 yards! But we're doing our recordings in houses that weren't made for that and we're not about to put more money into our home to get it to that point than the house and property is worth. I know these issues all too well, so I thought I'd walk through some of the common culprits and solutions I've come across. And I've even talked to some of my friends and heard some of their creative solutions too.

Aside from the obvious physical noise causing issues, i.e. animals, TV/radio, fridge, fans, cars, and so on, the main noise issue I seem to see people struggle with is power related. The hard part with this one is that it can come from so many different sources. A bad ground in the house. Too many things on the same circuit. The wrong things together on the same circuit. Audio cables touching power cables. And so on. Some of these things we can fix really easily. Others, not so much. Sometimes you just have to pick your battles.

I would like to say, if there's a grounding issue at your house, get it fixed! Maybe you live in an old house where there isn't a ground. Maybe that ground has gone bad. Maybe...a lot of things. If you have a constant 60 cycle hum no matter where you plug your stuff in the house, get an electrician out there asap. Your studio gear and all your electronics need better power. That being said, I've seen certain amps, guitars, mixers, and so on just not like the power in a place and there's not really any issue. It happens, it sucks, but it happens. My buddy Mark told me about an old trick that he's used to solve a non-grounding hum on an electric guitar or bass and it's pretty low tech, but fabulous. Take an alligator clip and attach it to one of the strings down by the bridge (so it doesn't mute the string), run a wire from the string to a piece of tin foil in the sole of the player's shoe, and the issue should be fixed! I've tested it, and it worked for me! **NOTE** I probably wouldn't recommend this on a stormy day as you're turning the player into the ground. Electrocution is not fun nor advised. You can also use a device known as a Hum X to correct a ground problem on a single device. It's been hit or miss for me, but I still take it with me for gigs.

Aside from grounding issues, the most common issue I tend to run across and see is a mic or instrument cable touching a power cable. Sometimes this can't be avoided, but that's pretty rare. If there is anyway possible to get those cables to not touch, DO IT. Even in my studio, sometimes my cats will go under my desk and get some cables moved so I have to go and separate them by hand. If you're hearing an annoying electrical noise, check and make sure that none of of audio cables are touching power cables. I see this one all too often and it's an easy fix. Honestly, 9 times out of 10 this is the issue I see when there's an awful electrical hum in the audio.

Now, if what you're hearing sounds more like air, or an airy hiss, then you're likely not having grounding or electrical issues. You're having power issues, but not electrical issues. This hiss sound is the sound of the circuitry in your preamp being pushed too hard to run the microphone that's hooked up to it. Take a look at your gain knob on that preamp. If it's turned past 3 o'clock, you're likely hearing this noise. Most interfaces and budget pre's don't have a lot of power or gain to them, and that's an issue for some microphones. The Shure SM7b is known for being a noisy and power hungry mic. Why? Because it needs a lot of gain to get a good clean signal out of it. Most interfaces simply aren't powerful enough to handle it. I suggest having either a nice preamp before your interface or having a CloudLifter on hand for these types of mics. Adding a second preamp, like a Neve 511, will give you enough clean gain and a nicer character and sound than your interface alone. But if you don't have that kind of cheddar laying around, a CloudLifter is a great option. It'll give you a substantial gain boost using Phantom Power and should put you over that noisy edge making that mic usable under normal conditions. You can also use a mixing console between your mic and interface. A lot of people go this route as it gives them more gain, a bit of preamp character, and a usable EQ prior to being recorded. The only thing I would suggest here is making sure that you're using a decent mixer. The preamps in mixers are not always great, and if it gives off bad character, you're simply recording that bad character and there's nothing you can do about it later. Make sure you like the sound that the mixer imparts before using it as an extra gain stage.

As far as environmental noises go, do your best. My brother works in Hollywood, and even they unplug the fridge in the next room to get the sound quiet enough. You can buy or make sound panels to block noise. Don't record right next to your computer. If you're using a cardioid mic, point the back of the mic towards the noises to reject as much of that as possible. Use a high pass filter to get rid of some of the excess low end rumble including some cars going by. Use moving blankets on the walls to get rid of unwanted room reverb. And so on and so on ad nauseam.

There are so many things to discuss when it comes to unwanted noise in recording, that I could nearly write an entire book on the topic. The biggest things I could say here is to use your head and test things out. Make sure cables that don't have to touch aren't, and unplug and/or remove anything not needed in the room or from that circuit in your house.

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