3 Tips to Reduce Line Level Noise (...and Save Your Sanity)

Looking back at the last year of learning the ins and outs of Ableton Live 9, there were a few issues I resolved in my home studio setup that seemed impossible to solve at the time. But through perseverance, dumb luck, and yes - spending some money - I finally got to the bottom of them. I’d like to talk about something pretty basic that can make or break your creative mindset before you even get your ideas down in Ableton: line-level noise on your inputs. 

Line-level noise can destroy your creativity in the moment and make your tracks sound like rubbish. Because your guitar’s pickups are basically a giant magnetic field, this issue is much more likely to happen on your low-Z guitar input than on any mic input you are using. To make matters worse, the problem is seriously compounded if you plan on using several guitar tracks in your Ableton Live Set, as the Line Level Noise will most likely gain amplitude when joined with other duplicate guitar tracks containing the same frequency spikes. If you have a wall of hum whenever you try to turn up your guitar when mixing or lowering the threshold on a compressor, you have probably come across this, and it is seriously demoralizing when you have the perfect take only to find it is drenched in line-level noise and static. 

So how do you handle this? It’s a little bit different for everyone, and there can be a lot of causes - a poorly grounded outlet, too many wires set up poorly behind your machine, or your computer fan kicking on (this one is common with Mics). I am gonna stay away from anything requiring an electrician, and thank my lucky stars my issues did not require one. 

Here are some things I did to better my signal to noise ratio. 

1. CHECK FOR ELECTRICAL INTERFERENCE. After unplugging my whole system, dismantling all connections and then putting them back together one at a time (highly recommended, isolate your variables), I realized that it was not any one of my pieces of gear causing the hum. This was maddening. I starting looking around the house frantically in desperation and on a whim I turned off the ceiling light to my studio room. Bam. THE HUM WAS GONE. I danced for joy for 10 minutes, and then played guitar all night in total glee. I was in utter shock the cause could be something so seemingly unrelated. If you have dimmer switches in your house, they could definitely be a culprit! They might even be in another room! Check it out and see if your noise level goes down. Here’s the good news - this cost nothing to fix except for my time investment to take apart my setup and it killed 90% of  the noise I was hearing in Ableton on my guitar tracks. Don’t you love saving money (and your sanity)?

2. GET A D.I. BOX. So that was a huge amount of noise killed just from the above lucky break, but I was still getting a lot of noise that seemed like it was only when I face certain directions with my guitar - meaning the magnetic field from my guitar pickups was getting interference along certain axes. In fact, as fate would have it, it was only quiet when I turned 90 degrees from my computer - not a working posture I was willing to accept. Frustrated but encouraged enough to continue, I read a lot about Direct Input or D.I. Boxes from people who gig live or have to plug their guitars directly in to the house P.A. or soundboard - this is usually a Hi-Z (Balanced) Input - meaning a Mic Input. These kind of cables have much lower noise to signal ratio. I decided that I wanted to run my guitar into a DI Box before it hit my Apollo Twin Duo audio interface to go into my Mac. I purchased a Radial Pro DI for $99.00 along with a standard 25 ft. Mic Cable to run into my Audio Interface, which features jacks that allow either High-Z or Low-Z - super cool and versatile. This helped hugely. Small price to pay for the great increase in signal fidelity - I can now seriously compress my guitar to amounts I never dreamed of with no noise to worry about!

3. HOW THOSE PICKUPS DOING? Those two were big improvements -  so now I turned to my guitars themselves. I took my acoustics in to my guitar tech (Gary Brawer in San Francisco - he is excellent) to check out my Fishman pickups in my Martin and Crafter acoustic guitars. He made some minor repairs that helped a lot, but there was still some directional noise! Also, on the electric end of things, I was still playing with single coil pickups via my two Telecasters. Both Stratocasters and Telecasters have these type of pickups in them stock, so if you play Fender you might have this issue. They generate a signature, great tone but they are noisy and are susceptible to lots of noise. After some research, I recently bought a new electric guitar by a company named G&L. It stands for George Fullerton and Leo Fender (sound familiar?). After Leo sold Fender to CBS way back when, the Fender guitars were basically stripped of all quality parts and workmanship to maximize profit margins for the new owners. This was a shame from what I have read of the era. Leo didn’t stop though, he formed G&L with George, and this new company allowed him to continue the evolution of his signature models of Teles and Strats - albeit now named Asat and Legacy, respectively. I had always heard how great these instruments were - and one in particular, a super hot-rodded Strat-esque guitar called the Comanche, caught my eye. It featured one of Leo Fender’s last designs before he passed away: Z-Coil Pickups which in their words, promise to deliver: " a bright and sparkly top end while offering a robust bottom end, all without any 60-cycle hum.” Boy, were they right! This thing is like a Strat on steroids. So many tones between the 5 position pickup switch, a single toggle that will turn all pickups to ON, and dedicated High Pass and Low Pass EQ knobs along with the standard Volume. Because of my lifelong adoration of Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, I had always played a Telecaster since I was a teenager, but I made an exception this time. Highly recommended, my tone is great and my noise has never been lower!

I hope these tips can shed some light on any issues you may be having with line-level noise in working with your guitar in Ableton Live, or whatever DAW you happen to be using. Drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter if you have any other fixes that worked wonders!