Dealing with 60-Cycle Hum and EMI
For some, that constant buzzing noise is just part of playing guitar. For others, this sound is extremely annoying and needs to be eradicated. If you are in the option of the latter, then I hope to be of some assistance to you in this article. Let’s take a look at the two types of noise you will experience in a guitar rig and some potential solutions for them.
What is 60-Cycle Hum?
It is important when discussing any topic like this that we understand a little bit of what’s actually going on. If you partake in any research on guitar noise, you will likely run into the term 60-cycle hum at some point. Not just the name of a fantastic guitar podcast (check them out!), 60-cycle hum is the term given to that “noise” or static that is heard in some guitar rigs. This term is actually found across many other audio fields too, due to the fact that it is more of a general property of American AC current than anything specific to guitars. In America, our power is AC 120 volts and generated with 60Hz frequency. The noises you would hear from this in a guitar rig would likely be a harmonic of this frequency like 120,180, or 240Hz.
What is EMI?
Electromagnetic interference (EMI) is not talked about as much as 60-Cycle hum, but it should be. In fact, the most common type of guitar noise is actually from EMI. Basically, the key thing to understand with this type of noise interference is that it originates from outside of your guitar rig. Single coil pickups are where you will run into this kind of noise the most. EMI is caused from a wide array of different sources ranging from lighting (dimmer switches are awful) to radio and TV wave transmission. The intensity of EMI can be drastically different from place to place. Yet, EMI still occurs everywhere, and you’re going to have to deal with it to some degree.
How Do I Know What Kind of Noise I Have?
Figuring out what noise type you are running into is actually the easy part. All you have to do is plug in and get everything set up like you’re ready to play your guitar. Then see if you are getting the noise with your guitar's volume knob rolled all the way off. If there is a lot of noise when the guitar’s volume is all the way down, you are dealing with grounding/60-cycle hum related noise. If the noise comes into play only when the guitar's volume is turned up, then it’s EMI.
While you may have a combination of 60-cycle hum and EMI adding to your rig noise, you can still use this basic test to get a general idea of where the most noise is originating.
Dealing With 60-Cycle Hum
There are a few things that lead to the majority of 60-cycle hum issues. Ground loops and other grounding issues are what populate pretty much all of what we would consider 60-cycle hum issues. If you are sure that you are getting hum from inside of your rig, check that all grounds are covered and in good shape.
The Two Amp (stereo) Rig -
The absolute most common place you will run into a problem with ground loops is when dealing with a stereo rig. If you are getting a lot of noise from your two-amp setup and your guitar is not even plugged in, you’ve got a ground problem between the two amps. This grounding issue can be fixed in several ways. First off, make sure that everything is plugged into the same power strip so you know you’ll have consistent power performance. If you still have noise, the best solution is to buy a hum-canceling unit specifically designed to fix this problematic scenario. The other way that you can easily fix this is to use a ground lift on ONE of the two amp’s power cables. Be absolutely certain that you don’t continue to use this ground lift in a single amp setup. The only reason that this is safe for a two amp setup is due to the fact that you still have one of the amps grounding your entire rig.
Dealing With EMI
While 60-cycle hum is usually a problem that can and should be fixed, EMI is kind of just what comes with the single-coil pickup design. However, there are some things that can still be tried to see what might work for you. All of these suggestions are common ways of getting single-coil tone with less buzz.
Consider Shielding Your Single Coil Guitars –
One of the main things you will hear about in the battle against single coil noise is the concept of shielding. Shielding a guitar is the process of using continuous conductive material to block electromagnetic fields (AKA a Faraday cage). Basically, you can use things like foil tape or conductive paint to make a fully connected EMI shield inside of your guitar body. Now, while this sounds like a great solution, it is not by any means a perfect one. Everyone's results will vary in their effectiveness, and in no way will this ever kill ALL of the hum.
Try a Noise Gate –
If you really hate noise but love single-coil tone, then a gate might be your best option. For those that haven’t used a gate before, let me point out some common complaints with them. The main issues people run into with a gate are a lack of sustain and tone suck. While both of these problems can occur, I would still encourage the noise haters out there to try one anyway. If you get a really good gate and learn how to dial it into your rig, it can be one of the best ways for dealing with noise entirely.
Try a Noiseless Single-Coils/Wiring Systems –
When I say try noiseless single coils, there really is no such thing. In fact, most of the pickups branded as noiseless and single coil are really just humbuckers voiced to sound the part. Some folks claim that these really don’t maintain the subtle things that make single coils so particular. Yet, for others, this kind of humbucker provides the perfect tone and dynamics without the hum. The use of noiseless single coils is a fairly polarizing topic, so it is best to play some and decide for yourself.
Another electronics solution is found in the form of things like Music Man’s Silent Circuit design. This kind of noise solution is typically done via a dummy wire that takes care of the noise in some places of the circuit. The best part here is that you do truly wind up with real single coils that are less noisy. While Music Man is the biggest player in this field, other brands have adopted similar circuit designs and there are certain mods out there that can be done to any guitar.
Hopefully, your guitar rig can come out of this article a little less noisy. If nothing else at least you now have a better understanding of why we experience noise as guitar players. And always remember that noise rarely can be heard when playing, so don’t stress out too much about getting a completely silent rig.