Your Signal Chain: Compressors, aka: compressor shootout

Okay, here we have compressors. Some people love them, some hate them, but odds are everyone needs one at one point or another. I have played several, and each has its own tone, its own feel. Some compressors are used to modify/edit sound, to process your sound, whilst others are used more as an effect for a particular sound. Lets take a look at these magical things!

the Infamous, new standard

This is it: the Infamous, new "standard." The Ross Compressor remade!

A compressor is simple by definition, but takes a bit of work to fully grasp/adapt to its methods. This instrument is more less known as a “Compressor/Restrictor.” What this does as its simplest level is it makes quiet noises louder and loud noises quieter. What you do is set the controls to the loudness you want, aka: the threshold, and it will make all your inputs match that threshold.
The differences are this: every compressor has a different threshold, different attack times, and different modes of compression.

Some folks state that compressors make them lose dynamics in playing. There is a compressor for that- some have wide threshold and actually will not boost soft played stuff unless its really, really soft, nor will it restrict unless its really really loud. Other ranges act immediately and keep all sounds equal. This is linked with the attack knob.

The attack knob controls how fast your sound is “attacked” or compressed. It can ease its way into the compression,  resulting in a slight volume/sustain increase after a second or so, or it can “click” instantly in what most guitarist call the heard “pick attack.” The most famous pick attack ever IMHO is Carlos Santana’s. Ever wonder how you can hear every pick stroke in his solo? With a high attack time and a good compressor. This shows how some people use the attack to their advantage.

The way each compressor works is unique as well.

That means it has to be good, right? Right?

The infamous 1 year waiting list version: That means it has to be good, right? Right?

Basically the level of compression is how it keeps the threshold level equal, how long, and how much. Light amounts of compression in itself keeps sound rounded and equal. Ever have one of those performances where you accidentally hit your bass E a little too hard and it sang over any of the other strings in a beautiful “BUH-TWWWWOOOOONG”! That would not happen with a compressor at basic settings. At high settings, max compression, your sound is compressed and raised to the set loudness as long as ANY sound is coming from the guitar. So if your pickups buzz a hint, it will make them louder. This setting is also called “sustainer” for as long as your strings ring even in the slightest, they will be bumped to their threshold loudness, mimicking natural sustain.
I’ve found two beautiful example of this: 1) Ever hear a metal riff, with insane finger tapping that then has these incredible sustained notes, and wonder “I wish I could get every note to sound that loud!” Now you know. 2) Ever hear a jazz guitarist with a silky smooth style, with bends that ring in harmonics nice and loud and even finger-tap chords that stand out in the mix- now you know!

Lastly, the most common examples of compressors these days is the “chickin’ pickin'” in a compressor that is utilized more as an effect with a maxed compressed setting, and a maxed attack setting. This “squashes” the sound, giving you a beautiful “twang” that gives country music is flavor. If you add a touch of Fender reverb, or a slapback echo you are on your way to the Grand ‘ol Opry itself.

An optical compressor performs gain reduction control via a light source into a photo sensitive cell- as the light gets brighter, the photo sensitive cell tells the amplifiers to turn down the volume. Thus less dynamic range, or a compressed signal. There are differing ways of performing compression in addition to an “optical gain reduction cell,” such as “FET limiting,” “diode bridges” and other stuff I don’t really care about🙂 This sound is the way some early recordings were compressed, and is still an excellent smooth compressor.

A tube compressor operates similarly, but offers a degradation of signal like most tubes do. This gives your overall signal a very smooth, warm, “analog” sound that is soft in nature, but still has the power to operate well. We would probably say this “colors” the tone, but like a good tube amp, we love that “color.”

Then we have really the “other compressors” which compress with differing opamps etc… These are many of the popular stompbox pedals today.

The most famous of the compressors today are:

Keeley Compressor/Ross compressor/Analogman CompROSSer: This is the typical/traditional compressor sound. This is very smooth, very warm, and really fattens your sound in a jazzy kinda way. I want to note that this compressor is typical known as a “set and forget” compressor that most guitarists do not even use in a stompbox format- it is ALWAYS on. The typical Ross user can be heard saying, “I dropped my Ross in the toilet and its not working. I figured I didn’t need it. That was the worst show I ever played.” ie.. Most people don’t realize that they are playing a compressor until its gone.
I personally found this type of compressor is the most pleasing on the ear of the layman. (who does not know the difference between analog vs digital delay! thanks blogsology)

Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer/Analogman Bicomp: This is the compressor “Growl” where it either squashes your signal for country twang, or it restricts it so much that it distorts some, gaining a clean sound, but with a growl on it.

Electro Harmonix Black Finger: Typical tube compressor. I’m dying to play this compressor. Supposed studio quality, even to record vocals and so forth.

My compressors/reviews:

Boss CS3 Monte Allums “Opto Plus” mod: This mod takes a very noisy and almost unusable compressor and makes it near studio quality. I’m serious.

Shes a bit touchy, but warms once you get to know her.

She's a bit touchy, but warms once you get to know her.

Monte says it IS studio quality and I disagree slightly as its still missing something. However, it now lets most of your tone through and the color it does give I do not mind. Its a very tight compression, with a small threshold and sounds a bit “thin” compared to other compressors. However, it shines in several ways. 1) Chickin’ Pickin’: I’ve gotten GREAT sounds out of this thing. Very squashed and twangy with low noise- and low noise at high squash is hard to find. 2) I love this for those lead performances. I am not this good by any means, but If I were to try to copy Dream Theater’s soloing style, or Satch’s, I would use this: very tight individual note response, nice pick attack sound, and your runs are heard clear if arpeggios are your thing. With a TS9 after this thing, it sound very Santana-ish. 3) I love this for rhythm, and acoustic rhythm. It levels out my sound some, and though it sounds a bit thin, I love when I strum hard as it is overloaded and GROWLS back at me. Makes a great rhythm piece. 4) For “studio recording:” this thing smooths out keyboards and vocals. I actually have let a keyboardist run his keyboard through this during a live performance. I was pleased with the results. Check out Monte Allums website for sound clips of a vocal by David Prater (producer of Dream Theater- coincidence?) recorded through the CS3 mod. I usually leave all knobs at 12 o’clock for a very smooth, almost natural compression.
I CANNOT EXPRESS HOW MUCH I LOVE THIS ACOUSTICALLY! I can go from fingerpicking delicacy to full strums, with every note heard, even the ones I may not have picked as hard. In a slow fingerpicking, singer/songwriter, worship atmosphere, I do not know why the compressor is not more popular!

Ross Clone by CMATMODS: This is CMATS version of a Ross. Think about the popular “Grey Compressor” pedal. The “Classic” compressor sound comes from a Ross. If you have ever heard a delightful clean sound with smooth pick transition and warm, full notes and wondered why you could never get that sound- chances are it was through a Ross. Keeley has made it big from this effect. I will tell you this fattens my sound and warms it up more than the CS3, but its a very OPEN compressor. I use this for slow, delicate leads (even on acoustic) and from my Les Paul into my Fender SuperChamp tubes it sounds completely jazzy, perfect for church. With a slight ambiance of delay, I play almost all our prayers/alter calls with this.
Compared to a Keeley, this version is more “loose”. By that I mean Keeleys is a tighter compression and its 1 o’clock setting (sustain knob) is like this ones 3 o’clock.

Barber Tone Press:

Shes dark, a bit gothy, but... so easssy... Wait, can I say that?

She's dark, a bit gothy, but... so easssy... Wait, can I say that?

This is the one I am dying to buy! Its a basic Ross in form, but Is better, because you can actually gain YOUR sound. People who hate compressors say its because they “hear” the compression. But they still want the note clarity and smoothing of lows and highs that a compressor brings. The guys at Barber figured out a way to “blend” the two ideas: they created a blend knob that lets you choose how much dry vs wet signal you want. So you can get the nice, tight compression if you want, but can also dial in more dry signal to make it sound more like natural sustain. This is a great gimmick, and even more impressive, its about 100 clams less than Keeley’s famous model.
Click here for the Barber Compressor review

How I use them:

Acoustically: I chain the Boss CS3 mod into my Ross. I have the Ross set with a slightly higher level than the CS3. So I use the Boss for tight rhythm and then the CS3 as a volume boost for smooth leads. It really makes the acoustic stand out as one typically cannot get the 1st and 2nd strings (E and B) to stand out in leads past the 12th fret- but the compressor pulls them out, so you can play lead almost like on an electric.

I use the CS3 into an OD for soloing/riff oriented music where I will pretty much be playing lines the full time. This keeps every note crisp and distinct. Very smooth.
For a smooth/studio sound, run your OD into the compressor. This way when you click on your OD there is a minimal volume boost at a consistent sound. Very Pro sounding. Since your sound is consistent this way, you can actually roll back your volume on the guitar for a lighter OD sound without losing your volume. When you want the full overdrive, just roll back your guitar’s volume. Very smooth, very pro sounding.

I found the OD before the compressor is best in a smaller setting, or a LARGE setting where you have stage space to place the drummer away from your amp. Most mid size churches, I do not use it unless I’m the only guitarist- to keep my sound consistent. I promise, set the OD before compressor and your sound guy will love you!

You can also run this at the end of your effects chain to keep everything tame and good to go at a constant level. This can keep your tremolo’s volume consistent, make your phaser level and your chorus as well. I find this loses some of the effects dynamics. Regardless, many play this way. My only suggestion is to place your delay and reverb AFTER the compressor, to keep your sound warm and airy.

In general, run this AFTER the wah to get a fuller wah sound without the crazy volume spikes. This smooths it well.

There is no wrong way to place a compressor- just use it to make the best of your sound.

Warning: A compresser does bring out EVERY note played through it: this means you may need to practice through it as I noticed many playing nuances I did not like, and many bad notes that were hidden in my distortion. I had to overcome playing problems I did not know existed.

I next want to get the Barber Tone Press and I am on the waiting list for the Analogman Bicomp. I find in my church setting, the compressor is invaluable for clean sounds and styles on a whim, such as when the pastor wants to play one of Bill Gaither’s top hits. Having a Orange Squeezer for the growl or “twang” and a Ross for clean tone all in one pedal would be fantastic. And Analogman builds some great stuff.

edit 9-21-08: one downside to the compressor I have found…..
Well, my amp is sooo easy to overdrive when pushed by my TS9 or another pedal, particularly when I nail the note and bend it in lead. This natural amp breakup is lost when my compressor is on. I can almost achieve it by my OD after the comp,
IF my pedal is set at a higher level than normal. So, basically, I use my compressor 95% of the time in a normal Church service, as I only play a solo once or twice. For that, I kick off my comp and then click on the other OD in my dual OD setup. That way dynamics are heard and squealed easy.
But, again, with a good harmonic OD pedal- with the compressor pushing IT, you get the same effect (unnaturally), which makes for the good “jam band”/”Dream Theater” sound mentioned before. I did say I achieved a perfect Santana sound with the CS3 pushing the TS9: how much does Santana PUSH his amp to break up? Not much, he just has a smooth, cool, creamy sound. That difference is what I am attempting to distinguish here! Good luck finding your sound!

19 Responses

  1. Wow. Nice work! One of the most informative compressor articles I have read. I’m not a compression guy, and you’re making me want one….that’s a good post! Cheers!

  2. Ha, I’m calling BS! Heh!
    You have GAS as much as I do, and this only feeds the monster and gives you a reason to check out more gear!

  3. GREAT, GREAT, GREAT post! I learned a TON of stuff. I’ve actually got a BOSS CS-3 that I was thinking of doing Monte’s mod on. I’m a bit intimidated to try it myself, so I might send it in as I’ve heard several people raving about it. I actually use mine, even un-modded, for acoustic work as well exactly like you use yours! It’s huge help in minimizing the massive output differences between finger picking and rhythm.

    Could you share some of your favorite Keeley Compressor settings for set-and-forget playing?

  4. The CS3 mod makes a world of difference— makes you wonder why they sell it without the mod! I believe i posted the link up there to, the “official” installer of Monte’s stuff. Between his BD2 and this mod, I trust Monte’s ear!

    Keeley set and forget:
    For my Ross, and (Its pretty close to the Keeley) (I have the 4 knob), I set my sustain right about 11 o’clock for light compression that just brings everything together, I set the level (depends on which amp i use) about 12 to 1 o’clock, the attack right about 1-2 o’clock (less for acoustic, not as “poppy”), and tone I put about 9-10 o’clock for the beautiful jazzy, almost “woman” tone. Its gorgeous. If you find its too dark, roll your tone knob on your guitar to treble and its a bit higher, but still warm sounding. (I play my tone about 5 to 7 on my Les).

    Like i said, the Keeley compresses a bit sooner in the dial then the one I have, so you may actually want to roll off the sustain to 10 or so. THE SECRET IS THIS: put all knobs at 12 noon. Then play with ONLY the sustain from about 9 to 12 o’clock as you strum and then finger pick. When you find the medium that works great for both, leave it. Then strum and finger pick as you roll the attack back and forth- happy medium, leave it. Done. Set level to match your amp, then the tone as you want (a touch dark for me🙂 ) and thats it.
    The hardest part of the compressor is finding YOUR setting! Good luck

  5. Thanks, man!

  6. Check out the Indy Guitarist mod for the CS3 too. Sounds fantastic. I just sold mine. D’oh! I might try the Barber Tone Press some day.

  7. yeah, look for my review on the Barber coming up. I’ve played it about 3 weeks and I’ll compare it. I actually think I’m going to use it for the acoustic as its a touch warmer than the CS3 and the “blend” really pulls out the acoustic sound. Then you can reblend for electric. Very diverse. And I did find (in the last month or so) that the CS3 sucks tone when bypassed. ITs perfect as an “on all the time” but it buffered weird in bypass. I’m not a True Bypass freak like some guitarists, but this was too much for me!!
    Thanks for checking out the posts!

  8. […] next up: Zendrive and/or Stacked Overdrives Previous compressor article (shootout wannabe ) is HERE […]

  9. awesome post. i am very much looking forward to reading more.


  10. thanks Gene!! I’ll look forward to your feedback on future stuff!!

  11. Some nice Compressor reviews and info, You should review some opto comps ,like the Demeter or Maxon CP101
    God Bless

  12. Larry, another great article. I am a musician who plays 200+ gigs a year, and I am learning stuff through your research that have long puzzled and frustrated me.

  13. Great article. I recently just started getting into compression and purchased the MXR Dyna Comp a few months back. Needless to say, I’m in love with the pedal. It makes each individual note stand out and shimmer while also cleaning up the overall sound. Plus, you can’t beat it’s simplicity. I would agree with you that more people need to utilize compressors in their board.

  14. Glad you liked it Jeff.
    I now only use a compressor 10% of the time, but have found it invaluable in the right pieces. Remember– always play around with your gear! You never know what will work for you!

  15. Great article – thanks !! It has really helped me figuring out how a compressor work.

    Im wondering though, you write ” I use the CS3 into an OD for soloing/riff oriented music where I will pretty much be playing lines the full time”. further down you write “….OD before the compressor is best in a smaller setting…”. This seems to be conflicting? I see the advantage in using it both ways.

    Ive been using my MXR comp before my OD as a solo booster for a while. Great tone, a little noisy though!!

  16. Thanks for this article, Larry! I’m using a Keeley compressor and learning Santana so you’ve inspired me to take a really good look at the compressor (I’m using the 4 knob version) – as well as the TS9 (which now comes out as the TSPDX, I’ve always been curious about TubeScreamers).

    And the very first comment from 3 years ago still rings true today – this is one of the best articles on compressors! Goodonya, mate! And thanks!!

  17. Thanks to your article I now finally understand about compressors! Thanks you. I was wondering, I’ve become interested in the Pigtronix Philospohers Tone pedal and I was curious if you had any input on it or have heard good reviews on them?

  18. @Gafar: I have not played that pedal, but I have heard very good things about it. People like it…. but a couple of guys I know said it was good, just not their cup of tea. So, basically just heresay– so don’t take my word on it🙂

  19. Thanks again, Larry! Great info.

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