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The noise gate has two functions:
In its principal role of managing noise, the noise gate can be applied to a single unmixed signal that has periods of silence, during which noise is apparent.
This is important enough to state again, that the noise gate can be used thus:
The classical example of where the noise gate would be appropriate is the electric guitar, where the amplifier is likely to be noisy.
When the guitarist plays, the sound of the instrument drowns out the noise so there is no problem.
When the guitarist isn't playing however, the noise of the amplifier becomes apparent, and irritating. In this situation, what the noise gate does is detect when the signal level is high, when it assumes that the guitar is playing, and opens fully to allow the signal through unimpeded.
When the gate detects that the signal level is low, it assumes that the guitarist is not playing and closes completely, blocking off the noise.
Another classic use of the noise gate is on a drum kit, where several might be used. The conventional method of miking up a drum kit demands a mic on each drum, a mic on the hihat and two overhead mics.
The problem with this is that the mics are all so close together that each mic picks up every instrument of the kit to an extent, as well as its own instrument. This inevitably blurs the sound.
To make it more focussed, all the mics except the overheads are gated so that each channel is only open when the drum is actually sounding. In this situation it is often subjectively better to set the gate so that it attenuates when closed, by perhaps 10 dB, rather than cut off completely.
In live sound, this technique is often extended to virtually every microphone for the entire band.