The electric guitar offers so many things that other instruments are not capable of. Of course, no disrespect to any other instrument, but there's a reason why electric guitars are so widespread – incredible expressive capabilities. However, this does not come down just to the instrument itself, but to all the different gear that you can use with it. Since we're all pedal addicts here, we always love to explore new stuff and see how it impacts our tone.
And there are plenty of different pedals that can help you shape your tone. However, people usually get focused on the more "colorful" stuff, like unique-sounding wah-wahs, wacky choruses and phasers, or different atmospheric and spacious delays and reverbs. And for some reason, guitar lovers tend to overlook some really important pieces, like compressor or volume pedals. The one type of pedals that we'll focus on here is the compressor. So let's see, what are the most important things to know about compression and compressor pedals as a guitar player?
What is compression?
The full name of this effect is actually dynamic range compression and should not be mixed with audio data compression. To put it simply, the compressor effect turns up the volume of all the quiet parts and turns down the volume of all the loud parts. As a result, your tone gets dynamically even. Nothing pops out and nothing is too quiet. In the world of guitar, compressors come in the form of regular stompboxes or rack-mounted units.
Main parameters and controls
Exact parameters may vary from pedal to pedal, but each compressor effect has its parameters. It just comes down to the exact pedal model and whether one particular parameter is controllable or not. The first parameter is the output volume, just like you see on many other pedals. Then we have the threshold, which is an essential control, and it sets at which signal strength the compression will kick in.
Ratio determines how much compression gets applied to your signal after it passes the set threshold. For instance, if it's set to 4:1, it means that the signal gets four times weaker than the unprocessed signal after it passes the threshold. When the ratios go over 15:1, the effect is referred to as limiter.
We also have the attack control which is the time period that it takes for the compression to kick in after it passes the threshold. The release control sets the amount of time it takes for the compression to stop acting after it gets back under the threshold. Both of these are measured in milliseconds.
What does it all mean in practice?
Compression comes in handy whenever you need to keep your dynamic output in order. Depending on the setting, it's useful for both clean and distorted tones, as well as with rhythm and lead sections. For instance, funky clean rhythms played through single-coils require some compression. This way, you'll not have any excessive sparkling overtones suddenly popping through the mix.
In hard rock and metal, it can help keep rhythm sections tidy, giving enough thickness, but also leaving enough sonic space for lead instruments and vocals. It can also be good for high gain lead sections when you need to be louder yet keep your tone more even dynamically.
Sustain is a "byproduct" of compression. By turning up quieter parts, you can technically prolong each note. This is why some compressors also have the sustain knob.
Where do they go in the signal chain?
Compressors usually go near the beginning of the signal chain. It's placed after wah-wahs, filters, and equalizers, and before distortion. If there's a pitch shifter or an octaver in the chain, it can go before or after it, depending on what kind of effect suits your needs. If you have some very specific pedals and effects, you'll need to test things out and see what works best for you.
Why guitarists tend to overlook or even dislike compression
While the dynamic compression is an extremely important effect for almost any genre, many guitar players tend to overlook it. With less experienced guitar players, this is mostly because they find them uninteresting or because they don't know what compressor pedals actually do. But no matter the skill level, compression can be used in pretty much any musical style.
On the other hand, some guitar players, even experienced ones, just don't like compression. This is usually the case with those who want to have the full dynamic control over their playing. Some vintage-oriented blues or jazz players might want to use the full potential of their tube amplifiers and their dynamic responsiveness. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. Nonetheless, compression still holds an important place in the world of guitar.
Are you interested in buying a guitar compression pedal? Be sure to check out our Anvil.