15 Best Compressor Pedals: Your Buyer’s Guide (2019)

best compressor pedal

Ah, compression. The occasionally misunderstood, oft-abused signal processing element present in almost every audio environment. Typically the domain of the mixing and/or mastering engineer, guitarists are well served by knowing what a compressor is and what it does.

If you’ve never used a compressor before, you should do yourself the favor of tossing one into your signal chain to see the possible benefits. If you know all about what they can do, you can go ahead and skip right to the first entry on our list. Otherwise, check out the very end of this post for more details about compression.

What follows on this list is no particular order. All of these have been used and loved extensively, and all have their place. We’ve chosen a range of price points from just under $100 to over $300. That means that we’ve chosen not to feature the ultra-cheap Chinese take offs like the Donner Ultimate Comp, which we included on our cheap effect pedals post. If those work for you, awesome, you just saved a bunch of money. If you’re looking for something a little more special, read on.

We’ve segmented the list into two sections: the first set are normal sized pedals, while the second set are mini pedals, because utility players like these needn’t take up a lot of space if you don’t want them to.

Here are the 15 best options for a guitar compressor pedal that will help you master your playing dynamics.

1. Origin Effects 76-CD Cali76 Compact Deluxe Compressor

product image for origin effects cali76 deluxe

Origin Effects

Based on the legendary Urei 1176, and on its own predecessor Cali76, this pedal is probably the finest pedal-based compressor going. At its core, this is a studio compressor based around field effect transistors mated to a class A amp, which makes this very low noise and capable of very fast attack times. Though it’s optimized for guitar, it has a very wide frequency response and can be used for a variety of sources. That fact may make you lean toward something else that focuses on guitar a little more in terms of tonality, but if you want the full set of compression tools in something that fits on a pedalboard, this is the way to go. It’s expensive, but as they say, you get what you pay for.

Controls include Dry, Out, In, Ratio, Attack, and Release. The Dry knob is the blend feature, which allows you to pair the fast attack times and high compression with your original signal for the best feel. The In control sets the input preamplifier level, which can be pushed into clipping. The Out is the standard output level, while Attack sets the time to compression and Release sets the time to recovery. Ratio sets the overall compression amount and the threshold simultaneously.

The pedal can be run anywhere between 9 and 18 volts for your preferred amount of headroom. The jewel light LED works as a visual readout for the amount of compression taking place. When it’s red, there is no compression, while orange signals that compression is active and works as a dimmer, getting brighter as more compression is applied. When it turns yellow, gain reduction is up to 27dB, with a maximum of 38dB. This will help you set the controls correctly for optimal effect.

In many ways, this is the culmination of all of Origin’s excellent compressor options. If you want to explore the rest of them, go here.

Price: $329

Buy the Origin Effects 76-CD Cali76 Compact Deluxe Compressor here.


  • Type: Studio FET
  • Controls: Dry, Out, In, Ratio, Attack, Release
  • True bypass?: No, “signal-conditioning” bypass
  • Jack placement: Top
  • Power requirement: 77mA at 9V or 104mA at 18V DC
  • Special features: Able to run at 9 to 18 volts for higher headroom, compression-indicating LED

Find more Origin Effects 76-CD Cali76 Compact Deluxe Compressor information and reviews here.

2. Empress Effects Compressor Analog Compression Guitar Effects Pedal

product image for empress effects compressor

Empress Effects

Empress make some of the most advanced and well-loved pedals on the market right now, and their compressor is no exception. If you can relinquish a little bit of control compared to the Cali76 above (as well as a little pedalboard room), you can get many of the same features at a notably lower price.

This is essentially a very similar device, being a studio-style FET compressor jammed into a pedal enclosure. Controls include Input level, Attack time, Release time, Mix to blend in the original signal, and Output level. Instead of a variable Ratio knob, Empress has opted to include a switch that selects between three pre-defined ratios: 2:1, 4:1, and 10:1. For guitarists who tend to play a wide variety of styles on a number of different guitars, this might not be optimal, but for folks who want to set it and forget it, it’s great. Like the Cali76, there’s LED-based metering, rendered in a strip of lights across the top of the unit. This, too, is selectable between monitoring the input volume, gain reduction, or both. When metering both, the yellow lights in the middle display the crossover between the two.

The real kicker to this is the ability to use a TRS plug in the sidechain input for things like high pass filters when playing bass. A nice little bonus feature to augment the function and push it ever further toward studio compressors.

Need more options? Browse more Empress Effects products here.

Price: $249

Buy the Empress Effects Compressor Analog Compression Guitar Effects Pedal here.


  • Type: Studio FET
  • Controls: Input, Attack, Release, Mix, Output, Ratio, Meter
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 100mA at 9-18V DC
  • Special features: Selectable metering allows you to monitor input signal, gain reduction or both, TRS plug sidechain input, able to run at 9 to 18 volts for higher headroom

Find more Empress Effects Compressor Analog Compression Guitar Effects Pedal information and reviews here.

3. Carl Martin Andy Timmons Signature Compression Effect Pedal

product image for carl martin andy timmons compressor

Carl Martin

Building off the company’s original Compressor Limiter, the Andy Timmons version was born when the company caught wind of the fact that he always had two of them on his board. He switched between them depending on what he was playing and with which guitar, so the company approached him to design a version that housed two compressors in one unit. The functionality here is a little more constrained than the options above, but the ability to quickly switch between two settings could prove valuable in a variety of settings.

The controls are as you’d expect, though again condensed from the above. Each compressor channel has its own Comp and Level knobs, which set the ratio and output levels. Both sides share the Threshold and Response knobs in the middle, which set the level at which the compressor kicks in and the combined attack and release times. Because these are shared between both sides, you might find the pedal a bit limiting on the whole, since you can’t change the speed on the fly. Still, setting two different ratios and output levels are excellent for solos or for level matching different guitars.

You can either swap channels using the Select switch, or via a remote switch using the input jack on the side. The LED indicates activity, getting brighter with higher gain reduction. Ultimately, a very usable and handy tool.

Need more options? Browse more Carl Martin products here.

Price: $279.30

Buy the Carl Martin Andy Timmons Signature Compression Effect Pedal here.


  • Type: Studio
  • Controls: Comp (two), Level (two), Threshold, Response
  • True bypass?: No
  • Jack placement: Top (remote jack on the side)
  • Power requirement: 200mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Two-channel compressor for setting two varying levels, remove jack for switching between compressors, activity LED

Find more Carl Martin Andy Timmons Signature Compression Effect Pedal information and reviews here.

4. Fender The Bends Compressor

product image for fender the bends


In my review of the entire new Fender line of pedals, I talked about this being two things, notably: Very sweet sounding and very quiet. Compressors can sometimes be quite noisy since one of the quiet things they’re boosting is the noise floor. Fender has outfitted this unit with “dual internal audio paths” which are designed to reduce noise when possible. I find this to be very effective on top of the other nice features for a pedal at this relatively low price point.

Controls on The Bends include Drive, Recovery, Blend, and Level. Drive is the overall compression amount, which sets the threshold and ratio together. Recovery sets the release time, Blend the balance with the original signal, and Level the output volume. Being an OTA-style compressor, there is no attack setting, as it responds immediately when the level hits a certain point. If you find that you’re losing some of the transient front-of-note attack, blend in some more of the dry signal to recover some of it.

As with the units above, the LED indicates when compression is active, which, again, is quite a nice touch at this price. LEDs in the knobs allow for quick reference on dark stages, and these can be defeated with a switch at the top, if desired. After spending a little time with it, I feel strongly that this is an excellent value and deserves strong consideration, even if it isn’t as multi-faceted as other options.

Price: $129.99

Buy the Fender The Bends Compressor here.


  • Type: OTA
  • Controls: Blend, Drive, Recovery, Level, LED switch
  • True bypass?: Unknown
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 60mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Activity LED, magnetic battery door, indicator LEDs in the knobs with off switch

Find more Fender The Bends Compressor information and reviews here.

5. Keeley Compressor Plus

product image for keeley compressor pro


Like the Origin and the Carl Martin, Keeley’s latest compressor builds on a tradition of fine units that came before it. The original version was a landmark pedal, reimagining guitar compression for the boutique world. The current generation combines features in a way that helps it compete with higher-priced devices.

Controls for this are Sustain, Level, Blend, Tone, and a pickup selector switch. Sustain is the ratio, blend adjusts the mix from 50/50 to full compression, and Level adjusts the output. The two unique options on this pedal are the tone knob, which is based on a recovery circuit found in analog delays that restores the high end at the output stage. The Single Coil/Humbucker switch adjusts the attack and release automatically to match each style of pickup. Like the Fender, utilizing the Blend knob will help you fine tune the attack.

The output stage also includes an expander circuit, which gradually increases gain as the note fades out. Ultimately, this is a more vintage-style take, having move in common with a Dyna Comp than the studio options above. That makes it a little better suited to guitar applications, and its presence on pedalboards everywhere confirms that.

Price: $129

Buy the Keeley Compressor Plus here.


  • Type: Vintage transistor
  • Controls: Sustain, Level, Blend, Tone, Pickup select
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 10mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Pickup selector adjusts attack and release settings to match single coils or humbuckers, expander circuit on the output adds gain as notes fade out, tone control uses analog delay style treble recovery

Find more Keeley Compressor Plus information and reviews here.

6. EarthQuaker Devices The Warden V2 Optical Compressor

product image for earthquaker devices the warden

EarthQuaker Devices

EarthQuaker is typically known for being not at all subtle, so for them to roll out a compressor means that there must be some character lurking in this box somewhere. To begin with, this is an optical compressor, which tend to have more flavor and a smoother overall sound compared to other types. The control set on this means maximal flexibility, despite the fact that it’s missing the blend control present on other modern compressors.

Attack, Release, Level, and Ratio all do the jobs you expect them to do. The Tone knob dials in the amount of coloration you want, which is a specifically-designed element of this pedal. Set it to about 11 o’clock for the flattest setting. Sustain in this case is more akin to input level, and since this pedal relies on feedback within the circuit, the compression increases as you turn it up.

Though it lacks the blend control, this is a very modern guitar pedal compression with enough flexibility to dial it in exactly as you want it.

Need more options? Browse more EarthQuaker Devices products here.

Price: $199

Buy the EarthQuaker Devices The Warden V2 Optical Compressor here.


  • Type: Studio Optical
  • Controls: Tone, Attack, Release, Level, Ratio, Sustain
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Top
  • Power requirement: 45mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Internal 18V power rail

Find more EarthQuaker Devices The Warden V2 Optical Compressor information and reviews here.

7. Walrus Audio Deep Six Compressor

product image for walrus audio deep six

Walrus Audio

Walrus Audio makes a variety of extremely good pedals. Everything they make is well-considered and balances function with ease of use. Their compressor is no different, combining a Urei 1176 style FET circuit with simple controls that more closely mirror vintage pedals.

Those controls are Level, Sustain, Blend, and Attack, all of which do their expected jobs. Really, there are no surprises here; just a fine studio-style compression unit in a traditional pedal-sized enclosure with controls that focus on guitar playing. The internal power rail boosts voltage up to 18V, giving you lots of dynamic headroom. The amount of compression on tap in this unit can get extreme, but use of the Blend knob will preserve a natural sound and feel.

Need more options? Browse more Walrus Audio products here.

Price: $199

Buy the Walrus Audio Deep Six Compressor here.


  • Type: Studio FET
  • Controls: Level, Sustain, Blend, Attack
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 8.9mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Internal 18V power rail

Find more Walrus Audio Deep Six Compressor information and reviews here.

8. TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor

product image for tc electronic hypergravity

TC Electronic

Ever the crafty industrialists, TC Electronic have taken the simple matter of a compressor and expanded it significantly. For the trade-off of going digital, you get immediate access to not one, but three different compressors in one pedal. Beyond that, this is TonePrint enabled, so you have access to as many different compression algorithms as there are in the world. If you can live with algorithmic compression in your plugins on your DAW, you might be able to live with it for your live sound, too.

Controls are the same as the Walrus Audio above with Sustain, Level, Attack, and Blend. The Blend knob on this is notable because not only is it blending the compressed signal with the dry, it’s also blending the dry-through analog signal with the effected digital one. That can help to mitigate any doubts you might have about introducing digital conversion into your effect chain. Sustain in this case is actually threshold. The switch in the middle selects TC’s Spectra compression, a TonePrint slot, or a vintage-style compressor. You could change this between songs or during guitar changes to dial up something that suits the purpose perfectly.

This is a multiband compressor, which means that it separates the signal into multiple frequencies before compressing them. Each of the high, mid, and low frequencies are compressed in a way that specifically addresses that band, rather than squashing them all at once together. Additionally, you can choose whether the bypass is true or buffered, depending on your needs.

If you don’t require the instant switchability between different compressor types, TC Electronic also makes a mini version that defaults to the vintage voicing, but is also TonePrint enabled.

Need more options? Browse more TC Electronic products here.

Price: $129.97

Buy the TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor here.


  • Type: Studio and Vintage
  • Controls: Sustain, Level, Attack, Blend, Compressor type
  • True bypass?: Optional true or buffered bypass
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 100mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Three main compressor types, including access to hundreds of TonePrint profiles, multiband compression

Find more TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor information and reviews here.

9. Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer Pedal

product image for boss cs-3


If you’re just getting into compression and don’t want one of the dirt cheap pedals we discussed in the intro, you might just be looking at this unit. It’s the third of the CS line to come from Boss, most recently (not at all that recently) adding a Tone knob. Like all other Boss pedals, it’s an old stand-by that works reliably within spec for short money and winds up on a lot more pedalboards than you’d suspect. It’s not fancy, but it sure does the job.

Controls are Level, Tone, Attack, and Sustain, where in this case sustain is the release time. With the sustain knob all the way down, this works as a hard limiter, which can be useful in some applications. Dial in to taste and get a little compression happening. Simple is sometimes beautiful.

This is not the only compressor available from Boss. They also make the CP-1X ($149.99), which competes more directly with modern studio-style compressors. It features the 18v power rail, adaptive circuitry, and an LED gain reduction readout. It’s digital, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but one benefit of that is that it’s whisper quiet. The price puts it in league with frankly better options, but if you want to see how Boss is moving its game forward, it could be worth a look.

Price: $99

Buy the Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer Pedal here.


  • Type: VCA
  • Controls: Level, Tone, Attack, Sustain
  • True bypass?: No, buffered
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 11mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: None

Find more Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer Pedal information and reviews here.

10. MXR Dyna Comp Mini Compressor Guitar Effects Pedal

product image for mxr dyna comp mini


Finally, the vintage guitar compression unit that really popularized this whole genre. As Reverb notes in their write-up of the Boss CS-3, the Dyna Comp represents one of three major schools of thought on pedal compression, alongside the less-charismatic CS-3 and the pricier but more advanced Keeley above. Clearly, we’ve come along way from the days when those were the only options, but nevertheless, the Dyna Comp lives on.

Okay, this isn’t quite the Dyna Comp of yesteryear, which, like the Phase 90, is still available in both the very vintage script logo version and the more recent but still very similar block logo version. For most of history, the MXR Dyna Comp has been a two-knob affair, summing four compression parameters into the Sensitivity knob and pairing it with an Output knob. It’s a sound, alright, and you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s dark and squashy and was born to compress the signal of your vintage single coil guitars.

However, being that it’s the year 2018, we’ve chosen to feature the mini version, which is essentially the same as its older siblings, but with two important improvements for the modern player. First, it’s tiny, of course. Stick it at the front of your chain without eating up too much space. Second, in addition to the expected knobs, there’s now an Attack switch, which selects between slow and fast response times. If you’ve ever lamented the inability to change this on the older units, this upgrade is worthwhile.

Now, as if three versions of the Dyna Comp alone weren’t enough, MXR makes a further five compression stompboxes. This includes the Custom Comp (the one I use currently, if very infrequently) and the upgraded version, the Custom Comp Deluxe. If the switch on the Dyna Comp Mini doesn’t cut it for you and you don’t need the small form factor, have a look at the Super Comp, which is an update with an Attack Level knob. To compete with the options at the top of this list, they also make the M76 Studio Compressor, which has a gain reduction readout and is available in bass flavor, as well.

Price: $99.97

Buy the MXR Dyna Comp Mini Compressor Guitar Effects Pedal here.


  • Type: Vintage OTA (CA3080 metal can IC)
  • Controls: Sensitivity, Output, Attack
  • True bypass?: No, hardwire bypass
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 4mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: None

Find more MXR Dyna Comp Mini Compressor Guitar Effects Pedal information and reviews here.

11. Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone Micro Compressor

product image for pigtronix philosopher's tone


A miniaturized version of the pedal that formerly came in a Zvex-style box, the Philosopher’s Tone could possibly be the best-loved pedal from the Pigtronix stable. (Any guitarist who’s been on the internet for five minutes knows it sure ain’t the FAT Drive, which pops up on a certain deal-of-the-day page at least once a month. But I digress, as I am wont to do.) This pedal is renowned for it’s ultra-quiet operation, which is a thing of beauty in a compression pedal. It somehow manages to avoid boosting the noise floor in a lot of situations that other pedals would not.

That said, the control layout is a bit odd for a compressor. All of the usual parameters of ratio, attack, and release are fixed. Not tied to one knob like the Dyna Comp; fixed. You use the Sustain knob to dial in the threshold at which the compression takes over, which can be tempered with the Blend knob. Otherwise, you get knobs for Volume for output level and Treble, which is active for boosting and cutting. It’s quite a strange set of controls, but if you’ve been through the rest of the list and found it wanting, or if you just hate fiddling with the sometimes-maddening controls of a compressor, this might be the one for you.

They also make the Germanium Gold Compressor, which swaps the treble knob for a Grit control. This is adds a germanium drive circuit to the signal. Again, kinda weird, but at least it’s something different to consider.

Price: $119

Buy the Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone Micro Compressor here.


  • Type: Optical
  • Controls: Sustain, Blend, Treble, Volume
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 35mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Internal 18V power rail

Find more Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone Micro Compressor information and reviews here.

12. Wampler Pedals Mini Ego Compressor Effects Pedal

product image for wampler mini ego


Like the Keeley before it, the original version of the Ego compressor from Wampler made quite an impact on the scene. It’s a very highly-regarded offering, with version two adding top jacks and soft touch switching. We’ve chosen to feature the mini version for reasons we’ve already discussed, but also because Brian is a wiz at making truly great mini pedals, as we discussed in our overdrive post. Ultimately, this builds on the Dyna Comp, using an expanded feature set to mitigate the darkness of that vintage unit.

Controls on this include Blend, Volume, Sustain, and switches for Tone and Attack. Volume is the output level, Blend for your dry signal presence, and Sustain controls the release, which works a bit like the Keeley expander circuit. The Tone switch is darker to the left, which is essentially the off position, and brighter to the right. The Attack switch is like the Dyna Comp Mini, choosing between fast and slow response times. If those switches don’t work for you, simply go for the normal Ego.

Need more options? Browse more Wampler products here.

Price: $149.99

Buy the Wampler Pedals Mini Ego Compressor Effects Pedal here.


  • Type: Vintage (likely OTA/VCA)
  • Controls: Blend, Sustain, Volume, Tone, Attack
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 14mA at 9V DC or 22mA at 18V DC
  • Special features: Able to run at 9 to 18 volts for higher headroom

Find more Wampler Pedals Mini Ego Compressor Effects Pedal information and reviews here.

13. Xotic Effects SP Compressor Effect Pedal

product image for xotic effects sp compressor

Xotic Effects

With this post, in combination with our distortion and boost posts, I’ve finally covered the three mini monsters of tone from Xotic. All three of them are good and worthy of your consideration. The SP may just be the best of them for sheer flexibility.

The evident controls on this are Volume, Blend, and a switch that selects between Hi, Mid, and Lo compression levels. Internal dipswtiches control the rest of the functions, and ship with the Attack and Release switches off, the High Cut Filter on and Input Pad off. If you flip the Attack switch up, that is faster response time, while flipping the Release switch up shortens the recovery time. Turning the High Cut Filter off will result in more high end content, while flipping the Input Pad down turns it on, offsetting higher-output pickups that might clip and rolling off some low end.

There are sample settings for these, so you can easily get these where you need them and leave them alone after that. Just about any type of compression you may need lurks somewhere in those settings, though they are clearly not as flexible as the variable settings on most of the pedals above.

Need more options? Browse more Xotic Effects products here.

Price: $132

Buy the Xotic Effects SP Compressor Effect Pedal here.


  • Type: OTA
  • Controls: Volume, Blend, Compression, Attack, Release, High Cut, and Input Pad
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 5mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Internal dipswitches allow for dialing in a variety of vintage and modern tones

Find more Xotic Effects SP Compressor Effect Pedal information and reviews here.

14. Fairfield Circuitry The Accountant Compressor

product image for fairfield circuitry the accountant

Fairfield Circuitry

Fairfield Circuitry is better known for their stranger concoctions, like the Randy’s Revenge and Shallow Water. But they’re not afraid to take on more utilitarian pursuits, like making a really ace mini compression pedal. This follows more closely in the path of the Pigtronix above, with the thrshold, attack, and release time all being fixed. (Stats on those: Threshold – 50mV; Attack time – 5 ms; Release time – 500 ms.)

It addition to the standard Volume output control, there are two switches on top of the unit. The Ratio switch selects between 3:1, 6:1, and 12:1 compression settings. The Pad switch selects between zero, -8db and -16db input pads. You can use this to pickup match, but also to affect some change to the threshold by muting the incoming signal somewhat. With Pad set to zero and Ratio set to two, this becomes a hard limiter, which could be useful in some situations.

Ultimately, this pedal will work best for relatively limited setups or for pickup matching. It’s not as fully-realized a compression tool as many of the others on this list, but it will also save you from endless tweaking when you really just need really good compression without much else in the way.

Price: $175

Buy the Fairfield Circuitry The Accountant Compressor here.


  • Type: FET
  • Controls: Volume, Ratio, Pad
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 12mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: Selectable input pad for pickup matching

Find more Fairfield Circuitry The Accountant Compressor information and reviews here.

15. Henretta Engineering Orange Whip Compressor

product image for henretta engineering orange whip

Henretta Engineering

Modeled after the elusive Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer of the 1970s, this tiny orange box has no apparent controls. It’s just a small square you toss on your pedalboard and go, not unlike a buffer. There are some controls, but really, you’re meant to use it as it’s set up out of the box for some subtle, very musical compression without much fuss.

Inside, there are two gold screws that allow for the adjustment of the Compression and the Output, not unlike ye olde Dyna Comp. Truly, you’re not meant to do much with these as the usable range is quite limited. If you like the sound, you’re in luck. Slap in on your board and get to playing. If you don’t, you’re going to want to revisit the rest of this list. We felt like it merited inclusion both for the novelty of having no surface controls, but also because the original is a pretty distinct sound.

Need more options? Browse more Henretta Engineering products here.

Price: $125

Buy the Henretta Engineering Orange Whip Compressor here.


  • Type: FET
  • Controls: Compression, Output
  • True bypass?: Yes
  • Jack placement: Side
  • Power requirement: 50mA at 9V DC
  • Special features: It’s really small

Find more Henretta Engineering Orange Whip Compressor information and reviews here.

What is a compressor?

A compressor is a device — whether physical or algorithmic — that decreases the dynamic range of an audio signal. Dynamic range is, in the simplest terms, the highest and lowest points of volume from a given sound source.

A compressor limits and reduces the highest points and boosts the lowest points to bring the two extremes closer together. The result is a more even, controlled tone that makes your total output more consistent and perceptibly louder. You’ll hear some folks refer to this as “squishing” your signal.

Compression for a guitar player usually takes the form of a pedal, though certainly plugins in your DAW or a rack console might also do this job. You might use one to manage spiky pickups that respond a little too well to changes in your pick attack. You can use them to affect a certain kind of sound for a given passage, or even as a lead boost in place of a boost pedal. Compressors also increase sustain since, again, they’re boosting quiet sounds, so as your signal trails off, the compression will add more gain and lengthen the end of your note.

Like an EQ pedal, compressors can also help you punch through a mix. As a matter of fact, guitar compressor pedals are at their best in a live setting. For one thing, you might need a healthy amount of volume to appreciate the full effect of what the compressor is achieving for you. For another, when you’re just playing at home, it’s much less likely that you’ll struggle with volume jumps without the context of other musicians to illustrate how you might be taking over in certain places.

The decision to buy a compressor largely hinges on what problems you’re trying to solve. If you are a very passionate player who tends to hit the strings harder as the show goes on, but you don’t want your signal getting out of control, you might consider one. If your songs alternate between very loud passages and very quiet ones, you can use one to retain all the detail when playing playing softly. Sometimes, a guitar that really shines in the studio doesn’t translate the same on stage and can use the assist. Or, as Dan from That Pedal Show says, a compressor is quite simply an overdrive for your clean tone.

Let’s unpack that sentiment a little. If you’ve turned up the volume on your amp enough, you’ll start to run out of available headroom, which then affects so-called “natural” compression by similarly limiting dynamic range since you can’t go any higher. As headroom runs out, the signal clips, which is what generates that well-loved driven sound. A compressor intentionally decreases the signal while increasing the volume floor for the sake of evenness, usually keeping it well within the confines of your amp’s available headroom.

Effective use of a compressor can mean that you get louder cleans that don’t clip, which can have obvious benefits to the feedback you feel when playing. That relationship between amp and instrument is one of the core elements of good tone and, by extension, good playing. For more on amp compression, see the That Pedal Show video at the end of this intro, or listen to Rabea Massaad’s demo here.

By contrast, if you’re using an overdrive or distortion pedal, the signal is boosted and clipped within the pedal’s available headroom first, which results in a compressed signal before the amplifier. For a lot of medium to heavy gain sounds, a compressor isn’t necessary at all. The compression achieved by boosting the signal until it clips beyond the existing headroom naturally limits the highs and lows enough that you are unlikely to struggle with unwanted volume spikes, even if you start playing harder.

Still, that doesn’t mean you won’t want one. There are just too many combinations of guitars, amps, pedals, and players to say for sure. Maybe you have a large tube amplifier with a massive amount of headroom, like, say, a Fender Super Reverb. You might not struggle with the amp clipping before you want it to, but because it has so much headroom, if you hit harder, the signal will be louder. Enter the compressor.

Maybe you have two different drive pedals that give you the sound you love at different volumes and you find yourself lost in the mix. Enter the compressor.

Maybe you have wildly inconsistent pick attack and don’t want anyone to know. Enter the compressor. Ultimately, when your compressor is dialed in correctly for your needs, playing can be easier and the feeling under the fingers can be more satisfying.

Now that we’ve established a foundation, we can talk a bit about the different kinds of compressor pedals out there. The genre started out in the MXR Dyna Comp area of things (it appears on this list), which is a transistor compressor. This is probably the tone you’ll hear when newer compressor designs refer to “vintage” compression. These tend to be dark and compress a lot, making them well-suited to bright but somewhat weak single coil pickups like in your old Telecaster.

Optical compressors use a light-based resistor and have a smoother response and overall character. There are OTA (operational transconductance amplifier) compressors, which is a similar kind of circuit to OP-AMP stages found in overdrive pedals, employed by the vaunted but discontinued Ross Compressor. Finally, there are the “studio” compressors, which tend to offer a higher degree of control than older designs.

When evaluating which to choose, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the parameters of compression so you can identify the control set you want. Compression is made up of the following controls:

  • Ratio: The degree to which the signal is compressed, or the multiplier of range reduction. 2:1 is relatively mild, whereas 10:1 is extreme.
  • Threshold: Determines the staring point of the compression.
  • Attack: Sets how quickly the compression is applied after the note is played. Set very fast, you can lose some transient response and feel, though this is sometimes desired and appropriate.
  • Release: The opposite of attack; determines how long after the note is played that compression should be maintained. Often called Sustain on devices meant for guitar.
  • Level: The output level of the compressed signal.

Simple guitar compressor pedals boil the first four controls down into one knob or switch, usually called Sensitivity or Amount or something similar. Most pedals available today offer more control than that, mapping to one of the parameters above. They also more and more often feature a blend knob that allows you to dial in your preferred amount of the original, uncompressed signal. This is very useful in maintaining the transient response and pick attack at the front of the note, which helps them play especially well with modulation effects and mild overdrive. Additionally, Tone knobs are becoming very prevalent, which allows you to dial the effect in to match your sound.

At this point, you might ask, “Where do I put a compressor in my signal chain?” The answer, 90 percent of the time, is at the front. This shapes and compresses your tone directly from your guitar and delivers that pristine signal to the rest of your effects. If you have a crushing sound from your pedals, you might want to put it at the end to produce a studio-like effect of summing the dynamics of everything in the chain. Be aware that compression will increase the presence of any noise in your signal chain, so putting it at the end is a gamble if you don’t have very clean power or noise mitigation utilities on your board.


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