Blog Entries
Sound Problem Hunt Step-by-Step Tags: hum noise sound



You may be reading this because your system is definitely having noise / hum / sound / crackle / whatever issues.  As explained in the other articles, if you're using a new FlatCat™ pickup it is very unlikely a problem with the pickup itself.  Potted in solid polyurethane, 5-star ratings by customers, hand-tested before leaving the shop, and In the several years this pickup has been on the market not one has failed.  So it's the least-likely thing to be causing severe noise. If it was the pickup the usual result would be no sound at all. Thus, the need to look elsewhere.

But where do you look?  There are a LOT of variables, some of them fairly complex.  We have the guitar, controls, connecting cord, pedals, amplifier, power source, equipment surrounding all of that, power source... any of which can be problematic.

The logical thing is to check the easy stuff first, then move forward to the more difficult.   Based on my experience and the experience of my customers, here are the things I'd recommend checking, step-by-step, in this order.


GUITAR CABLE.  It is amazing how often problems are caused by a failing guitar cable.  To check this I recommend trying at least three different quality cables, if posible made by three different manufacturers.   If you have another guitar that is working, use it to test your cable as well.  Note that a cable working on one guitar doesn't guarantee it will work on another, but if it turns out to be the cable, that is an easy fix.  Defnitely the first thing to check.

USE QUALITY CABLES.  Considering how much you spent on your guitar, amplifier and other sound devices, paying $20 to $30 for a quality, shielded guitar cable is not a huge expenditure.  Professional musicians know:  never skimp on quality cables. Go for the good ones.  Shielded cables are shielded for a reason.

SHIELD YOUR PICKUP.  This is a "quick and dirty" method of potentially cutting some noise.  Simply cover the surface of your pickup with copper or aluminum tape.  (If you don't have such tape handy, just as a test cover the pickup with aluminum foil.) This should prevent RMI / EFI from reaching your pickup.  You may even want to do this on the back of the pickup.  This isn't something I necessarily recommend, but in a bad RFI/EMI area, this step can significantlly reduce noise.  

You can paint the tape if you like for a more aesthetic appeal. Some people actually like the copper/aluminum finish... which can be "etched" with designs using a simple plastic stylus. Your decision on this one

One BIG advantage on this step:  If you do this and you still have hum & noise, you can be almost certain the problem is an equipment or ground loop problem... because you've pretty much eliminated RFI/EMI as a cause. 

PEDALS.  If you use pedals, a mixer or a soundboard of any kind, unplug the guitar from such devices and go directly to the amplifier.  This will determine whether one of your intermediate devices is going bad or has a low battery or bad power source.  If you go straight to the amp and the sound problem disappears, you're closer to nailing down the source of your problem. Then you can go through your equipment piece by piece until you find the faulty item.


AMPLIFIER.  It is good to test through a second amp if available.  I've found most guitar enthusiasts own more than one amp.  It doesn't have to be a fancy amp either; it can be anything from a pricey alternative to a $25 practice amp.  The idea here is to have a second device confirming the noise.  If there is no noise, most likely the problem is with the first amplifier.  Easy solve, even if you have to get it repaired or buy another amp.  This also is a very common problem.


SOLDERING.  You installed the pickup yourself or had a friend help you.  This involved soldering.   How good is your soldering technique?  (Check our article here on soldering technique.)  If you're a pro at soldering, likely this isn't an issue, but even pros make mistakes sometimes... or the pot burns out because it was too old to handle one more solder.   So if you're new to soldering, read our article on soldering techniques.  Regardless, try soldering the leads again to make sure the solder joints are good.  Then test the instrument.  If it suddenly works, you'll know it was a bad solder joint.

POLARITY.  Although our instructions are very precise as to which wire is which, sometimes users attach the wires backwards.  Alternately, on some guitars for some unknown reason the polarity is wonky to start with.  Backward polarity may bring a pleasing alternate sound, or it may affect both noise and volume negatively.  So you might try reversing the pickup wires to see if the polarity needs changed.  If not, you can always switch them back. 

To be frank, some people never even look at the instructions. So to re-state what is in the instructions:  On the FlatCat the solid color wire is always ground (--).  The white or white & striped wire is always hot (+).

LOCATION / POWER / RMF / EMF.  As mentioned in the other articles, the location at which you're playing may be a problem.  This could be because of bad power or severe RMF / EMF interference from other equipment.  This happens often.

The first thing to do is take your equipment to another part of your house where there is no heavy electrical equipment to speak of.  Test your outlets with a polarity tester (cheap and available at any hardware store) to make sure your power source is good.  If you  happen to own a metered voltage tester, check your wall current to make sure it's steady and noise-free.  (See our other articles for checking ground loops. Ground loops are very common issues.)

Once you've confirmed the power is okay, plug in and check your equipment.  if the noise vanishes, you'll know there's something wrong with the area where you were testing before.  Whether that problem is the power outlet, other equipment in the room or whatever, you may need to do some reconstructive surgery on your playing room... or play your guitar in an electrically clean area. You may need to purchase a piece of pro equipment such as the HumX hum killer or similar device.

MAJOR LOCATION CHANGE.  Take your equipment somewhere you know for an absolute certainty has clean power. This may be a friend's house, a local civic center, a local park with an electrical outlet (and well away from major power lines and junctions).  There have been instances that people have discovered their entire home is "electrically ill" due to old wiring, a poor power supply (which may involve your electric company), bad grounding, or a severe RMF/EMF source (such as nearby power station or source).  Such cases are rare, but if discovered may require significant electrical analysis and correction.

FARADAY CAGES.  A Faraday cage is basically a "chicken wire" enclosure in which you set your amplifier or other equipment.  Such a cage blocks RMF/EMF interference.  Some people have had to resort to such a device.  This isn't a fault of the pickup, guitar or amplifier, but literally the "electrical air" around you.  There are articles questioning how safe it is to even live in such an electrical environment.   But if using a Faraday cage solves the problem, it solves the problem. 

Faraday cages are usually placed over the amplifier and mixer boards.  A Faraday cage is easy to make, fairly inexpensive and easy to test. (I recommend cheap 1/2" square welded chicken wire, not hexagonal wound wire.) There are also professional solutions to RF interference.  Check with your local music or electronics store.

GUITAR ELECTRONICS.   I've saved this for last because nobody likes doing this.  (Well, most people don't.)  It could be that installing a new pickup pushed your right-on-the-edge guitar controllers (volume / tone / jack / switches) over the edge... and something failed.  So use a multimeter to check all of your pots, all of your wire links, all of your switches, and make sure they're good.   Some people have had to change out their entire control panel... after which they've verified their sound problems vanished.   It's a hassle, but equipment doesn't last forever.  Pots wear out, corrode, get old.  Connections oxidize.  So checking the electronics is a valid step in "hunting down the sound issues".

"But my prior pickup worked fine!"   Yes, I know, and one would think that is a valid reason to think the problem is the pickup.  But the truth is that different pickups work different ways... and some pickups are tolerant to some problems while not tolerant to others.  It is obvious there was a reason you switched from that pickup to a new pickup.  Likely that reason was because you weren't getting the sound or performance you wanted from your prior pickup.  Your prior pickup "playing okay" doesn't mean the problem you're having now is your new pickup.  It just means that your old pickup was built differently and may have been "immune" to whatever problem you're now experiencing.  It's still not a pickup problem; it's that the FlatCat is more sensitive than most "brick" pickups. 

I have sold FlatCats for many years to some very satisfied customers... ranging from beginners to professionals.  In every case  where a customer was having problems with sound, once I worked with them in tracing down the issue they discovered the problem was external to the pickup; it was never the FlatCat.  That kind of consistent performance and trouble shooting has proved that a pickup that is hand-made, potted in solid polyurethane, hand-tested before shipping and shipped in a padded package... is going to work.  So regardless of the situation, I suggest looking somewhere other than the pickup.  To the date of writing this article, noise has never come from the pickup.  You may discover an equipment or environmental issue that it took the sensitivity of the FlatCat to locate... and that results in significantly better sound  and/or allowing you to install a pickup in an otherwise difficult-to-upgrade guitar.


IS THIS THE  LIST OF STEPS TO TAKE?  Well... these are my solutions, in the order I would take them.  You may wish to switch up the order a bit or you may wish to try other solutions, depending on your situation.  But this should give you a logical head-start on chasing down noise or low volume problems. As I've stated in other articles:

If your problem is noise or low volume, it is very unlikely to be your pickup.  If the problem is with the pickup, the most likely result would be no sound at all.  So look elsewhere for the source of the problem... step by step.

And as always, feel free to call on me for assistance.  Post-sale support is 100%, and free.






This website is powered by Spruz