Table of Contents
- 1. The Keeley 4-Knob Takes The Crown!
- 2. The Pigtronix Philosopher
- 3. The Gold Standard In Compression Stompboxes
- 4. A Nice, Economical Pedal
- 5. The MXR DynaComp
- So, What is Compression?
What is the one effect that every professional studio uses?
I get it, I get it. You went to Guitar Center and laid down some sweet licks with and without the compression pedal and you couldn’t see any difference. In fact, right now you are probably wondering just what it is a compression pedal does, how it works, and why you need to buy one (If that describes you, then click here).
For you pros that already know what’s going on with compression pedals, we’ll get right into the reviews. After all, you probably have some funky grooves or high-speed country picking that you need to get on top of.
As you have already discovered, there is a wide range of compressors available. Which one is going to give your playing that “pro” sound you are looking for?
A 2017 Product Review Guide
You and I both know that the sky is the limit when it comes to pricing guitar equipment.
If you are willing to pay for it, they are willing to make it.
However, as you go up from here, most of the compressors are in combination pedals that also handle other effects. And, in a way, you step down in the level of compressor you are purchasing in order to get the extra features.
So this is about as high-end as you can go while still getting a good value out of your dollar.
After all, when you mostly play for beer money, those dollars need to go as far as they can.
When Robert Keeley first started pulling apart other companies’ effects pedals and repairing and modifying them, he had no idea that his company would one day be at the top of the FX chain.
Using his electrical engineering background, he started developing different pedals, and today the Keeley Compressor is really the industry standard for low noise, high-quality compression.
In fact, this one sounds so good it has often been compared to rack-quality equipment.
That’s a lot for just being a stompbox.
The internal attack control lets you fine-tune your sound and works great for both electric guitars and bassists. The bypass switching circuit means that when it is off, it is off. None of this latent humming. And the sustain control presets means that you can go from barely noticeable to extremely compressed sound — without sounding like a newb.
The input sensitivity control allows you to adjust this to work with other instruments from drum kits to keyboards — perfect for studio work.
If you are looking for a professional sound with little to no noise in an easy to use stompbox, the Keeley is going to deliver without overcharging.
2. The Pigtronix Philosopher
I’m not really sure how you are supposed to have “pig” and “philosopher” in the same title.
But then, this company is full of contradictions. They have created some of the most cutting-edge pieces of equipment… but so much of it is centered around the legendary sound of vintage guitars.
They are like the cutting edge of history if you will.
Which brings us to the Philosopher.
What is really unique about the Philosopher is that it does not use the CA3080 chip. It’s like the only compression pedal that does not use this chip.
Not content to run with the herd, Pigtronix retained the legendary Howard Davis and had him design a compression circuit that delivers more clarity with less noise. It is also why they could easily add the sustain effects into this package.
In real life, this little unit is impressing musicians all over. It doesn’t color the tone. It sounds great on a dirty amp. Or a clean amp. And for bluesy and funks, it delivers just the right amount of sustain.
However, the consensus is that it isn’t “soft” enough to really lay down a fast chicken-picking line that you country boys (and gals) like.
The grit delivers diode-powered clipping for a warm and fuzzy sound… and the compression is just enough without suffocating your tone.
The branding may be slightly contradictory, but the sound isn’t. If you have been dissatisfied with the other units you have tried, I suggest you give the Philosopher a try.
3. The Gold Standard In Compression Stompboxes
They should rename this one “The Legend”.
One of the longest-running successful boxes out there, MXR line from Jim Dunlop has been holding down the “king of the mountain” position for years.
There are a few reasons for this. For starters, it is an affordable box. Always has been. You can literally buy it with a week of paper route money if you want to.
And then, it is simple to use. You have two knobs for the stuff you need to adjust all of the time: your output and the sensitivity.
However, your attack and trim knob settings are an internal control which keeps you from always bumping them mid-song.
When you get your pedal, follow the instructions to take the back off and get the sound customized to your taste.
Then, they went through and eliminated pretty much all of the noise. Now, it doesn’t have some of the better noise control that the Philosopher or the Keeley have — but then I’m speaking very subjectively.
You could argue with me on that, and I’d listen.
What isn’t subjective is how bomb-proof this metal can is. They put so much care into their construction, that you can find plenty of used Dunlop MXR pedals selling for more than the price of the new models.
I mean, if me and an actual bomb are ever in the same vicinity of each other, I’m going to try to climb inside my pedal. It’s that durable.
While the red box “Dyna Comp” has been the mainstay of the MXR line for a long time, I’m going to recommend that you go ahead and step up to this “Custom Comp” CSP202 model. The added noise control is worth it, in my opinion.
Basically, it’s the 4-knob Keeley for less money. So go run your paper route and then come back and get this one.
4. A Nice, Economical Pedal
Maybe you have a tiny paper route. Or maybe you aren’t really sure yet that you need to add a compression pedal to the mix.
Whatever your reason, the ModTone Lemon Squeeze is one of those pedals where you just need to skip Starbucks and Beer (like how I capitalized that?) for a week to be able to afford.
And the sound does not disappoint. The consensus among all musicians is that for the size and price, this little fella is holding its own.
Plenty of sustain for holding those notes, and it cleans up your sound to boot.
You get level, sustain and attack controls, which is more than most pedals in this price range offer.
And, no power input required!
It seems to hang on to anything you throw at it. Rythm, country picking, funks. It just adds that little extra smoothness to your sound.
Of course, at this price point, a lot of you are probably worried about the sound quality. So check out this video review. I think it’ll explain it better than I could.
And, I love the retro-style graphics.
5. The MXR DynaComp
So I alluded to the Dyna Comp before when reviewing its “Big Brother”.
The Dyna Comp was really the box that got it all started and has been used and reused and then fixed and resold.
It’s one of those boxes that has so many fans it will probably always be around.
It uses the older CA3080 chip (the Super Comp uses the CA3080A) and the end result is a much twangier sound that is good for funk. I frankly, don’t think it sounds as clean as the other boxes do.
More noise and a lot of those quieter tones that should be suppressed, end up getting amplified.
I’ll probably get death threats for saying that.
But I’m ranking it well above all of the other little wanna-be comps out there. There just are none in my opinion that I’d buy besides the 5 on this list. And I would go for the Lemon Squeeze over this one because I like the sound better.
Sure, Amazon has $30 comps. But you’d be much better off spending $10 of it on beer and sending the other $20 to a nunnery somewhere.
So when it comes to the economical range it is either Dyna-comp with its twang and rich history of durability. Or it’s the Lemon Squeeze with its lesser history but more modern sound.
Decisions, decisions. While you are making up your mind, here is a face-off between the Dynamic and the Super Comps.
So, What is Compression?
Basically, think of it as modulation. Or Squishing.
When the sound gets too loud, it is softened. And when it is too quiet, it is made louder.
Compression has been around in one form or another since the phonograph. Back then, they used to do it manually when mixing a recording. The Engineer would painstakingly go through the recording and any high that was too “hot”, they would limit, and tone it down. Lows that were too quiet were made louder so that the entire song had a more uniform sound.
Over time, our audiences have become very accustomed to hearing a compressed sound. All of our radios use it. All of the TV stations use it. Trying playing a gig without one, and you are immediately dismissed as being unprofessional (depending on how much you get carried away, that is).
Compression is essential for voice. And you can hear the improvement it makes. Humans are notoriously bad about being inconsistent with volume. By using compression, you can modulate that volume into a somewhat sane track >
That way you don’t have to constantly be raising and lowering the volume in your car multiple times throughout the song.
The same thing goes for a guitar.
How Does Compression work?
So, we’ve already discussed the basics.
Basically, it makes quiet things louder and louder things quieter. Here’s a completely non-scientific picture to maybe help you visualize what’s going on:
Overall, this delivers a cleaner tone.
There are a few different features working together to make this happen. let’s look closer.
Controls The “Attack” Tone.
This is especially true for funk, country and any style where fast, clean picking is key. Without compression, the first strike of every string tends to be the loudest and over-shadows the rest of the note. Your sound can rapidly disintegrate into a muddied mess if you aren’t careful.
Many guitar compressors allow you to tell it how fast to “attack” any sound that crosses the threshold of loudness. So you can let it control every loud noise aggressively, or you can let it hum for a moment before reining it in.
While a fast attack can give cleaner sounds it is probably better to use a slightly slower attack to allow for a more subtle sound. After all, the whole aim of compression is to give your playing a more professional and “natural” (to the listener) sound.
Technically, compression is thought of as “limiting” the high sounds. However, it also raises low sounds — to an extent.
So when you strike a note, it will not die away as quickly. It kind of lingers. Almost a sustained effect.
However, when the note is done, the die-off is immediate.
Here’s a photo to help demonstrate.
Depending on how you adjust your compressor it can have a more abrupt or more gradual release.
But What About Compressors Being Too Noisy?
A lot of people complain about compressors adding “noise”.
However, the compressor doesn’t add any noise.
They simply make quiet noises louder.
So that buzz coming from your humbucker?
Yeah. It’s gonna be a little louder.
So it can amplify equipment deficiencies further up in the line.