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What Do Compressor Pedals Do?

Are you wondering what does a compression pedal do or how they work? This post will help you understand what “compression” is, how it works and if you should add one to your pedalboard.

best compression pedal
Boss CS-2 Compression Sustainer Guitar Pedal

What Is Compression?

Compression reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal. If you’re wondering what dynamic range is, it’s the ratio of the amplitude between the softest and loudest sounds.

Compression is achieved by boosting quieter parts of the signal and reducing the louder ones. The basic parameters of compression are:

  • Threshold: This sets the level at which compression will start. When a signal crosses the threshold, the compressor will engage.
  • Ratio: This determines the amount of reduction applied to the signal. The higher the ratio, the more compression.
  • Knee: This lets us set how the compressor reacts between the audio signal’s compressed and non-compressed states. A hard knee is an immediate effect, while a soft knee is a more gentle and gradual compression.
  • Release Time: The time it takes for the signal to go from compressed back to its original uncompressed form. Release Time is usually measured in ms.
  • Attack Time: The time it takes for the signal to become fully compressed after crossing the threshold set.
  • Output Gain/Make-Up Gain: This allows us to boost or reduce output level after the compression. 

History Of The Compressor Pedal

Compression was initially designed for recording studios to have better control over the dynamics of individual tracks or the overall mix. Recording engineers and musicians realized that certain compressors added a different tonal quality to the audio signal, such as shimmer, sustain, body, and even a certain warmth. Guitarists desired this tonal quality when they were playing live as well. 

One of the earliest uses of a compressor on guitars dates back to the mid-Sixties. Roger McGuinn’s electric twelve-string Rickenbacker on the hit song ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by The Byrds was created by recording straight into the mixing board using a studio compressor. 

MXR released a colorless, transparent compressor pedal called the Dyna Comp, which was compact and easy to use. Instead of an elaborate interface, its controls were simple, with only an Output and Sensitivity knobs.

Eventually, more brands started to develop their versions of a compressor pedal. Some of the earliest known examples of compression pedals were the Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer made famous by the early work of Mark Knopfler with Dire Straits and Jeff Baxter and Jay Graydon of Steely Dan. 

During this period, the other notable compressor was the ROSS Compressor, released in 1979, as used by Trey Anastasio of Phish.

These pedals would become a blueprint and lay down the groundwork for the many different compressor pedals available in the market today. 

What Does A Compressor Pedal Do For Guitar?

A compressor pedal in your pedal chain lets you level the dynamics of your sound. It can boost the sound when you play something softly and reduce the sound and prevent it from clipping when you play something with too much force.

Since it works on the dynamic range of your sound, it can have many uses. Such as:

  1. Boost Clean Tone: Instead of adjusting the volume on your amp, a compressor can boost your clean tones. This boost is beneficial when playing in a band with others, and the guitar gets lost in the mix during soft and clean sections.
  2. Add Sustain To Lines and Solos: Many compression pedals have an additional sustain feature on them that is especially helpful when playing solos or lead guitar if you feel like you need to stand out.
  3. Add highs to your guitar tone: They help add some added highs to an otherwise treble-centric instrument. These additional highs are ideal for funk players who need a crisp-sounding guitar tone.

Signal Chain Placement

Most guitar players typically place their compressor right at the beginning of their chain. Putting the compressor as the first pedal to interact with the guitar signal makes your tone stronger and more dynamic. 

Another option is before a preamp. Some musicians like to place their compressor towards the end of their chain. But this has one major drawback. If there is a noise or a hum caused by any other pedals in the chain, the compressor will pick it up and probably increase it. Although this problem can be solved using a noise gate, it will alter the sound.

Many guitar players have been experimenting with their sound by placing one in different parts of the chain, but the consensus is that a compressor is usually the first pedal in the chain.

Notable Users Of A Compressor

One of the best-known compressor users is the revered David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, who used an MXR Dyna Comp during the Seventies. In the Eighties and the Nineties, he even experimented with using multiple compressors, setting them to a high level to achieve a mid-heavy tone without boosting the gain from his distortion and overdrive pedals. 

John Mayer is another prominent user of two compressors for his live rig. He uses an Analog Man Mini Bi-Comp, a boutique pedal with a ROSS style compressor, and a Strymon OB.1, which doubles as a boost pedal.

Other compression users include, but are not limited to:

  • Adam Zindani or the Stereophonics uses a Boss Compression Sustainer.
  • Neil Fallon of Clutch uses a Keeley C4 Compressor.
  • Devin Townsend of the Devin Townsend Project uses a Diamond Compressor. 
  • Ride’s Andy Bell is known for his extensive use of the old-school Ibanez Series 9 Compressor.
  • Rory Fiers of And So I Watch You From Afar swears by his Pigtonix Philosopher’s Tone. 

Genres That Make Use Of Compressor Pedals

Compression pedals are used by musicians across all genres looking to get an overall better guitar sound. 

They are ideal for guitarists who use a finger-picking style of playing, and this helps them boost what would otherwise be a soft sound. 

They are also great for rhythm guitar players since compressors level out the difference in dynamics of each string played. 

Country musicians can benefit from it because it adds a certain thickness to their sound when coupled with a delay

Many metal guitar players would be lost without a compressor pedal.

But perhaps some of the most significant benefits are reaped by blues guitar players who use it to fatten their sound along with a slight overdrive.

It does not matter what kind of music you play or your playing style. Everyone could benefit from a compressor on their pedalboard.

Do You Need a Compressor Pedal?

Whether you play guitar, bass, or both, it is often difficult to stand out from the crowd when playing live with other people. While you may have spent a considerable amount of time practicing, this may still be difficult to achieve. In which case, it is time for you to get a compressor pedal. No matter what your style of music is, a compressor will help your playing sound level and dynamic at the same time. This means that you do not have to worry about digging too hard into your guitar and ruining your sound. Alternately, you do not have to play hard on softer parts of your music just to be heard. Your compressor will do it for you. 

But if you have just started to play guitar, you may want to skip this one for now. Instead, you can focus on effects pedals and start your dynamics pedal journey when you feel like you have spent a considerable amount of time on your craft and now require tools to take it to the next level.

A compressor pedal, over the years, has transformed from a recording tool to a pedal that musicians have been doing exciting and fun new things with. If your guitar has single-coil pickups, you can use them to fatten up your tone. It also adds input gain to humbucker guitars and helps you achieve that sound you have been chasing after for a long time.

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Categorized as Pedals