It’s completely fine to want to focus on building up your rig and dialing in your perfect tone, but one crucial and often unsung hero of nearly any guitarist’s setup is a good noise gate. All the good gear in the world won’t help you if you can’t control your excess noise, buzzing, or feedback, especially in a high-gain rock or metal context. In this post, I will be looking at several gates I’ve used, how they compare overall, and which ones would be the best fit for various applications.
First up is the ISP Decimator II pedal, which has been a favorite of mine since I got my first one over two years ago. It may not seem like much with only a single knob for the threshold, or level of noise reduction, but it has been the most effective gate I’ve used in my ever-changing live rig. Although it is the most effective at removing excess noise, this pedal has no adverse effects on the sustain or tone of your guitar signal, which makes it great for using in any position in front of your amp. It is also good to use in your amp’s effects loop or after a preamp section with moderate to low gain, but can start to choke out the sound in a high-gain context. I’ve also owned the original Decimator pedal, which is still great, but not quite as transparent on your original sound and is somewhat more sensitive on the threshold. The original would be a nice alternative to the II for a guitarist on a budget who just needs a solid gate pedal for in front of their amp.
Next is the DBX 266XL compressor/gate, which is the only rack-mountable unit in this comparison. Though not quite on the same level of tonal transparency as the Decimator II, the 266XL is not only equally effective in noise reduction, but is also far more adjustable with a “release” control in addition to the threshold. This allows you to adjust how quickly the unit clamps down on excess noise from the point at which you stop playing. This unit also has a big advantage for certain uses because it is actually two fully independent gates in one unit, which can save space and money, depending on any other gate units in your consideration. The built-in compressor for each channel is usable, but doesn’t sound as good as a dedicated compressor rack unit or pedal.
The MXR Smart Gate is a bit of an outlier in that I’ve found it works best and most transparently in an amp’s effects loop rather than out front in your guitar’s signal chain. However, the pedal is still very flexible and does a good job in front of the amp if you just need to hush up a few noisy pedals and don’t need the ultra-fast response offered by the DBX or ISP units. I’ve seen numerous guitarists use the Smart Gate in their effects loops with good results, including Steve Lukather of Toto (Bohlinger, 2016) and Edward Van Halen. (Gill, 2016)
Lastly is the Boss NS-2 pedal. While this is the most budget-friendly option of the bunch, it is similar to the Smart Gate in that it will clean up some excess noise from certain noisy pedals, but without the tightness of the ISP or DBX units. This pedal is the least transparent of the pedals mentioned, and can start to choke out your sound pretty noticeably in high-gain applications. The best application for this pedal, in my opinion, is for anyone on a budget who only needs to take care of a small to moderate amount of noise caused by other pedals in their signal chain.
Bohlinger, J. (2016, August 31). Rig Rundown: Toto’s Steve Lukather. Retrieved from Premier Guitar: http://www.premierguitar.com/articles/24642-rig-rundown-totos-steve-lukather
Gill, C. (2016, March 17). Eddie Van Halen Reveals Secrets Behind His Live Rig: Guitars, Amps, Effects and More. Retrieved from Guitar World: http://www.guitarworld.com/eddie-van-halen-reveals-secrets-behind-his-live-rig-powered-van-halens-2015-us-tour/26073