Compressors can be paired with your guitar, piano, drums, basically, any instrument. If you’re hoping to improve your performance and get better sound output, you might want to invest in a compressor. The good news is, they’re quite affordable. There are plenty of models going for less than $40. Even better news is that once you get accustomed to using a compressor, you won’t ever play without one.
Let’s break it down for you.
Do you need a compressor pedal?
Yes, you do. You want your sound to be fluid and balanced, with every note clear and yet in harmony with the next note. This is what a compressor helps you achieve. It works well in both dark and bright tones and unifies wide audio frequencies.
There are different types of compressors. The most common ones are:
OTA – Operational Transconductance Amplifier
OTA compressors are based on a circuit chip, usually the CA3080 or the more modern LM13700. The main difference between OTAs and standard amplifiers is that the output in OTA is current and not voltage.
They are the most common type of compressors in the market today and are especially good at guitar compression. Older OTAs were notorious for sound coloration, the undesirable enhancement of tone, but modern day OTAs have been refined to eliminate this problem.
VCA – Voltage Controlled Amplifier
VCA compressors consist of an IC chip with transistors that use the signal voltage to determine the output. They are the most popular option for studio style comps and are most notable for their clean sound, responsiveness, and precision. An example of a VCA compressor is the dbx 160A.
FET – Field Effect Transistor
A type of VCA, FET compressors are similar to VCA compressors, with the main distinction being that FETs are more likely to color your sound, something VCA comps don’t do. An example of FET comp is the UREI 1176.
Optical compressors base their reaction to the signal on a light source and photoresistor. As the signal gets louder, the light source grows brighter, and the resistor’s resistance decreases in response to the growing brightness. Optical compressors give the most natural-sounding effect and are renowned for their smooth tones and slow release times.
These are similar to optical compressors, except they have tube gain stages at the end. They have a smooth and toneful effect and are known to color sound. An example of a tube comp is the Wampler Pedals Mini Ego Compressor.
Multiband compressors come in the form of modern, advanced compression software and are used in DAWs (digital audio workstations). Multiband software separates the signal into individual frequency bands, compressing each band to give precisely-controlled dynamics. An example of a multiband compressor is the Behringer Compressor/Sustainer CS400.
Features to consider before buying
Like most technical equipment, there’s a lot that goes into determining how good a compressor is. Before settling for one, ensure that the compressor you choose is good for your usage and will be effective for the type of rig you have. To help you make the right decision, we gathered several important factors here.
Technical specs and performance
Different compressors are designed to give different sound effects. The exact effect you get is determined by the compressor type and specs. An optical compressor, for example, might give you smooth tones, while a tube compressor delivers a more robust attack.
This should be the first thing you consider when picking a comp so that you don’t end up with a compressor that gives the opposite of what you were looking to achieve.
Manufacturers clearly list the type of compressor each model is and the effect it gives. Choose one that’s close to the sound you envision in your mind’s ear for the best experience.
Many compressors come with a battery, but a few models don’t. Some are to be connected to a power source via an adapter. Most comps can use both a battery and an adapter. In models where this is the case, the manufacturer will clearly indicate it to be so.
A lot of these compressors can use the regular 9V power supply, but you need to confirm with the manufacturer or reseller to be sure. Be sure you understand how the comp needs to be powered before attempting to connect it to a power source so that you don’t have to deal with an accidental short-circuit.
Other features to consider include things like:
- Anti-skid pads
- Rubber knob covers
LED lights are helpful because they’ll tell you whether the comp is on or off instead of you having to stop what you’re doing and fidget with it to find out if it’s on. Some comps will have a low battery indicator as well, which is important, specifically for compressors that are only powered by a battery.
The light ensures you don’t run out of battery power whilst in the middle of a performance or recording.
Anti-skid pads provide a solid ground for your toes so that you don’t slip or slide while trying to work the controls.
With the rubber covers for the knobs, you’re able to adjust the controls comfortably, whether using your toes or fingers.
It’s important for the compressor to be housed in a durable casing. Choose a hard-wearing, metal shell, one that will not start to wear out after a few uses. The best of compressors come in an aluminum-alloy shell and will last for years without wear. In fact, this type will stay usable throughout the life of the comp.
The design and overall look and feel of the compressor can tell you a lot about its quality. A good compressor will have a solid build and be well constructed. This all points to thoroughness on the part of the manufacturer, and you can be sure they did their best to keep the compressor at the finest quality.
Signs of poor workmanship are indications of shoddy work. Expect the same sloppiness seen in the exterior to be replicated on the inside. Avoid buying such a comp no matter how attractive the price.
How to use a compressor pedal?
Each compressor gives a distinct effect. For this reason, individual compressors may need to be handled differently. Still, the principle behind compressor operation is the same in all comps. To correctly use a compressor pedal, consider the kind of effect you’d like to give your audio. Then manipulate the compressor until you get this effect.
The compressor comes with a user manual, which guides you on how you’ll set up the comp to attain different effects. Use this as your guide as you learn how to operate the comp and how to manipulate it to get different sounds. In most cases, you’ll come up with a custom way of fine-tuning the compressor for the desired sound effect. Give someone else the same compressor and set of audio, and they’ll probably tune the comp differently.
What does this mean? Guidelines for compressor tuning are just that: guidelines. They’re not hard rules that you must abide by. By and large, you’ll find your own happy spot by trying out different settings until you find a combination that gives your desired effect.