If you are new to the guitar world you might be confused with what the pedals even are, why there are so many of them and what are they even for?
Well, you aren’t wrong, there are a lot of different types of pedals and it is, indeed, confusing. Boosting pedals, Chorus pedals, Tremolo, Analog/Digital Delay, Reverb, Compressor and many others. A lot, I know, but not as difficult as it seems. If you want to read on what they all are – check here. I’m here to tell you about compressor pedals though – probably the most essential of them all (even though guitarists tend to overlook how important they are).
“Why” you might ask? Well, are you familiar with the fact that some strings on the electric guitar sound louder or quieter than others? Its simple physics, thinner strings don’t put out as much volume as others. What compressor does, it “compresses” the guitar signal normalising the dynamic range of the audio input signal. In simple words, it makes every note pretty much equal in volume. It also normalises, sharpens and clears out the tones. Plus, it can improve the tones making them thicker or more “punchy”. And! It can also improve the sound sustain. Crucial for those guitars that don’t have enough of it. Comp also boost the guitar sound, squeezing out as much volume as possible.
Do you need one?
I would say – absolutely, even if you are just starting. Honestly, I think it’s the most underrated guitar gadget there is.
Yes, comps are mostly used in the studios to control the sound dynamics while recording tracks. But the thing is, comps are like a first aid kit for the guitars. We all know that every guitar, even the best one might have some sound flaws and compressor helps you to balance the sound and enhance the guitar tone. It’s great for powerful sonic attacks and metal shredding, because it evens out the sonic abuse. It’s also very helpful for fingerstyle and picking, as it makes every string sound evenly.
Compressor pedals: How to Use 101
The compressor pedal might seem to be an Aladdin’s lamp for a guitar, but it’s rather tricky to use properly. The first question is what the comp is connected to. Basically, it is the connection point between the guitar and the amp. In a long guitar signal chain compressor goes right after guitar, then all other pedals you might be using, and then the amplifier.
Nest, you need to know the core elements of the comps which are: first up you need to know what core elements of the compressor are:
- Input level – a key element which defines the range of signal that the compressor reacts to. Setting up the input is the most important thing you need to do when getting the comp. Correct input level means that the comp will actually work. The wrong setup will result in unwanted noise and buzz;
- Threshold – it’s the starting point (sound level) where the compressor starts working;
- Ratio – ration refers to the amount of compression applied to signal. There are several compression rations (4:1, 6:1, 10:1 etc). For example, 10:1 ratio means, that it takes 10dB (decibels) above the threshold for the signal to be turned down so they would only be 1dB above.
Next, do learn what control knobs do and what they are for (read that more on that in the next section below). Here it gets a bit tricky, because some control knobs have different names, but have the exact same meaning. Once you understand what they mean it’s mixing time.
- Volume/Level – controls the output level of the compressed signal;
- Attack – controls how quickly the compressor response the signal (how fast it starts working)
- Release/Sustain – opposite to the attack, it controls how much time it takes for the signal to return to normal sound. Or, in guitar terms, it determines the length of the sustain
- Sensitivity – you may find this one on some compressors (like MXR M102 Dyna Comp), and it basically means the combination of ratio, threshold, attack & release;
- Ratio – see above;
- Tone – is a very recent addition to the comps (you can find it on Wampler Ego Compressor) and it means a high-end EQ boost, that adds brightness to the compressed tone.
- Blend (Mix) – allows blending the compressed and dry signals.
Types of Compression Pedals
There are few classic compressor types (see the list below). You might want to take a look at that if you know what genre you are playing and it will help you to choose the compressor by identifying its key features:
- Optical – this one uses light-sensitive resistor (LED) to adjust the gain according to the guitar signal. It produces the most natural guitar sound by softening the attack;
- VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) – probably the most common comp type. Gain is controlled through the conversion of guitar signal to DC voltage. VCA are the most versatile and really fast compressors, as they offer a wide range of attack/release options, with rapid response to the changes in tones, while maintaining surreal control (good for metal, rock genres which use fast sonic attacks);
- FET (Field Effect Transistor) – iconic comp inspired by the studio classic. It gives richer, deeper gain reduction and has a tendency to add some wicked distortion to the sound (good for reggae and blues);
- Valve (Tube) – the earliest compressor design the Valve comps produce very smooth compression and fat, warm, “vintage” sound loved by country players (and Beatles fans).
True Bypass vs. Buffered Output
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding the True Bypass. Some believe that compressor must have it, but in reality, there aren’t that many true bypassers on the market. The reason being is that causes more issues than it may seem. But what is a True Bypass after all?
In a few words, a True Bypass pedal ensures that when in bypass mode (off mode), the guitar signal is routed directly to the amp without any interference from the compressor. It literally bypasses the effects’ circuit maintaining the original tone of the axe. Sounds great, but in reality, it poses a few annoying issues. Like they can add some switching noise.
That’s why buffered outputs are more common. Technically, it works as a preamp due to the additional buffer circuitry, which supports both signal quality and level, with the additional benefit of low output impedance. They do have kind of a bad reputation though, due to some badly produced options on the market, which, indeed, compromise the tone of the guitar except for doing what they are supposed to. A well set-up and flawless buffered comp (like Boss CP-1X) is a great option.
Comps can do really great things to your axe and be a major help at any gig, evening the tone and making your guitar sing just like it would in the studio. If you are still doubtful, you can go for a cheap but wicked Behringer CS400. For just $30, it will forever change your mind. In case you are looking for something fancy, powerful and modern, the Wampler Ego or TC Electronic HyperGravity is my personal favourite.