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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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