A lot of experienced guitarists and sound engineers will tell you that a compressor is a critical part of any live artist’s pedal board. But what exactly is compression? What does it sound like? And what exactly does a compressor pedal do?
Compression can be thought of as reducing your guitar’s dynamics over a selected envelope of time. Imagine a singer performing live with a microphone. An experienced performer will move the microphone closer to their mouth when singing quietly and move it away when they increase the volume for the louder parts of the song. If done properly, a professional singer can control the dynamics of their performance evenly. And with a guitar, a compression pedal does exactly the same thing for you!
A good compressor pedal allows the guitarist to control the amount of the effect (the threshold), made up of the attack, release, ratio and makeup gain. The attack control sets the speed that the compressor reacts, whilst the release determines the rate the compressor returns to its original 1.1 state. The ratio sets the amount of compression applied to the sound and the threshold is the level the signal has to reach before the effect kicks in and starts to work its magic.
The compressor will usually come within the first two positions of a pedal board configuration. However, compression can be used in all sorts of ways depending on the desired effect. Heavy metal bands and high gain performances will often use compression to lengthen or shorten the sustain of a sound, doing so by placing the compression pedal further along the series of effects after their distortion pedals.
It might all sound pretty daunting, but it will take a bit of experimentation to get a grip of just what is happening to your sound as you pass it through a compressor pedal. After you’ve had a go using the compressor for some simple volume control effects, try matching your compressed signal to the bypassed signal. This will let you control the noise floor, especially with guitars that have single coil pickups. If you want to lift the compressed signal back up without increasing the noise floor again, then grab a boost pedal.
My favourite compressor pedal has been the Bogner Lyndhurst Compressor. It’s just about as good as it gets as far as specs go for guitar-based compressor effects. It gives you a lot of control over individual parameters, making it feel like a high-end compressor you’d find in a professional recording studio. The icing on the cake is that it adds thickness and warmth to your guitar’s tonal characters using its Rupert Neve transformer. The Boss CP1X is also a really nice compressor pedal with all the control you need to pull off a variety of different dynamic characteristics at an affordable price.
Finally, the TC Electronic Hyper Gravity Compressor is a digital compressor with all the parameters you need to pull the sound that you’re looking for. Being a digital compressor, its tonal characteristics are quite transparent with little colour added by its circuitry. A bonus is that it has the added flexibility of a USB output to connect to further digital effects and enhancements with an accompanying app.
Getting to grips with the inner workings of audio and sound can be pretty complex. But your music will be uniquely yours and all the better for it if you’re able to flavour your sound just how you like it. If you need help or want to know, come in and see me in the Big Music store. I have a tonne of different options available for all of your special audio and effects needs! I’d love to help you experiment with what I’ve got to find the exact sound that you’re looking for from a compressor or any other kind of hardware.