The official website showcasing the music of Yellowgold, produced by Jason Howell.

Reader comment: Noise gate versus manual editing

In response to my previous post "Eliminating noise in your project", Ronnie Marler asked this question:

"How is this different/better compared to the use of a limiter / noise gate plugin?"

This is a terrific question, and I suppose the answer comes down to personal preference. Noise gates allow me to set a threshold below which no noise will pass through. So, for example, if I set the threshold slightly above the perceived noise floor, the Noise Gate will not pass any audio through the signal chain, thereby eliminating the noise automatically. The second I begin to sing or speak, that threshold is passed and the gate opens to allow the audio to pass through. Once i stop talking, the threshold is passed on the way down to the noise floor, and again, the gate closes letting no noise through.

Here's my take on it. Noise gates are fantastic tools, and particularly in live environments, they are essential in many ways. In a studio environment, however, you never really know exactly what you are getting in the mix.

For instance, if I set a noise gate on my vocal line and set it up as close to perfect as possible, there is always the chance that something gets through that shouldn't. Or, even worse, something doesn't get through that should.

Let's use the breathe in a vocal phrase as just one example to illustrate what I mean. When dealing with vocals, for example, sometimes you want that gasp of breathe leading into the chorus to be there. It makes the vocalist sound more human. Sometimes those breathes in between phrases gives it a more human feel and brings the listeners closer to the vocalist.

Think about what a single gasp of breathe sounds like. It's not a sudden noise that goes from silence immediately into full volume breathe. A gasp of air actually ramps up gradually from silence (before the gasp begins) up to the full volume breathe. Looking at a waveform of this, you see the peak of the ramp where the cursor is dropped:

Breathe leading into a vocal phrase

Breathe leading into a vocal phrase

If I use a noise gate, I am saying "this is the point to let audio through" and in the case of this single breathe, that threshold by design is passed sometime after the breathe has already started ramping up, in essence, resulting in only PART of the breathe getting through and not the full breathe. This might be what you want, and with the added controls of attack, release, and range, you can likely tweak this so no one is the wiser. But my instinct is never to reach for a noise gate plug-in in this case simply because I'm fine doing the work manually, thereby knowing exactly how each part is treated.

I know, plenty of people use them all the time to great effect, and I'm by no means saying that its the wrong way to do this. (who am I to tell ANYBODY that they are doing any of this wrong? It's all about experimentation and finding what works best for you.) In fact, I'm pretty certain some of you are yelling at your screen, telling me I'm completely wrong here. But as I said, it all comes down to personal preference. I'd much rather take the extra time and treat each phrase manually through my own editing than set up a number of noise gate plugins to hopefully be smart enough to do this without any error.

Not to mention, I like to try to keep my plug-in count down as much as possible. If I make these edits manually, I save my processor for more intensive things.

Ultimately, I'm simply not a big fan of processing things with automatic settings if it can be done manually. YES, it takes more time. YES, it can be incredibly repetitive and boring. But for me, it's time well spent because I have granular control on a point by point basis of what the track sounds like at any given moment.

In fact, this leads perfectly into my next post dealing with De-essing vocals. De-essing is a process that is often used in an automatic way, but I choose to  apply it manually as needed. I'll show you how I approach this next. Stay tuned!