Is using a bass compressor cheating?

(Quick shortcuts to bass compressors for those that don’t like to wait: See the MXR M87, Aguilar TLC and Pigtronix Bass Philosopher. More provided at the end of this article.)

The compressor effect is something that’s been around a very long time and is a genuinely useful thing to have. Some consider using a compressor as “cheating.” Is it? Well, before I answer that, let’s examine what bass compression does for you.

What does a compressor actually do?

The technical term for what a compressor does is dynamic range reduction, meaning a specified “floor” and “ceiling” range. The floor is the minimum starting volume and the ceiling is the maximum ending volume. Lower volumes are increased to meet the minimum floor, and maximum volumes are decreased so they do not exceed the maximum ceiling. Some refer to this as the audio signal being “squashed,” and while that may sound negative, it is an accurate description.

This is a 10-second audio clip in visual form uncompressed:


This is the same 10-second audio clip with compression applied:


Notice how the wave has been “fattened up” quite a bit. Lower volumes have been brought up, and higher volumes have been kept from exceeding the maximum range (which in the above is 0db).

Still confused? Here’s a video that explains how bass compression works in a mix:

Using a bass compressor in a live rig

For the first example here we’ll use a very simple bass compressor, the EBS MultiComp:


This one is really easy to figure out. COMP/LIMIT affects the “ceiling,” GAIN adjusts the “floor,” and the switch in the middle adjusts the compression ratio. For a compressor, it doesn’t get too much simpler than this.

Now we’ll take a look at a more advanced bass compressor, the MXR M87 (which we do carry):


This one takes a little longer to figure out because things are labeled differently and it’s easy to get confused by what actually does what.

RELEASE: Adjusts how quickly the pedal returns to the uncompressed level.
ATTACK: Adjusts how quickly the pedal engages compression.
OUTPUT: Adjusts the overall output volume. Does not affect gain.
RATIO: An extra setting for “soft” and “hard” compression. Lower is softer.
INPUT: Adjusts the signal gain.

What does “soft” and “hard” compression mean?

Soft: The range of compression is set wide. Imagine a volume range of 0 to 10. Soft compression would be a range of 1 to 9, meaning only a small amount of “squashing” occurs.

Hard: The range of compression is set short. Using the 0 to 10 volume range example again, hard compression would be a range where the numbers are close together, such as a range of 6 to 8. A whole lot more “squashing” is happening here, with notes ‘attacking’ very early and at a much louder volume.

To note: Compressor pedals more often than not do not use use 0-to-10 numbers for the knobs; that’s just an example so you can understand how it works better.

What makes a more advanced bass compressor better than a simple one?

More tone shaping options, with the best option arguably being OUTPUT. Once you have the sound you want, the overall volume of the entire pedal can be controlled via that knob on the pedal instead of having to walk over to your amp and using its master volume.

For those of you who are very picky about compressed tone, getting a pedal with an output adjustment is pretty much mandatory – especially for any instance where you would have to play through a PA system for whatever reason.

Is there a “best” compressor pedal?

No, because it depends on what sounds pleasing to your ear and how your cabinet reacts to a compressed signal.

Some cabinets can handle a basic compressor easily, while other cabinets may “bottom out” no matter what you set the pedal to. And then there are instances where you may need the attack and release adjustment options to keep a cabinet from “blaring” in a bad way.

In other words, when in doubt, go for the pedal with more options on it so you can compensate for any cabinet weirdness that may happen due to the use of compression.

Is using compression “cheating?”

No, and it never has been.

There’s the belief by some that if you’re lacking punch and/or sustain with your tone, buying or building a better bass guitar with active electronics is the be-all/end-all solution, and that all bass compression does is “destroy tone.”

Not true.

The reason any bass player uses compression is for better consistency of volume when playing. Unless you have surgeon’s hands that can play every single note with the exact same volume, a compressor is a good thing to have in your setup.

In addition, compression can give you tones that the bass guitar alone otherwise can’t provide.

For example, if you want a way to get a barely-there vintage distortion sound without using a distortion/overdrive effect (which would otherwise sound too “ratty” for most,) a compressor works nicely there. “Juice” the settings appropriately and you can get that barely-there distortion very similar to how old drivers in cabinets of yesteryear used to sound.

Those who are compressor-haters always assume a compressor sound with all the settings on the pedal “dimed.” And yes, that sounds crappy, but that’s not how most players use them. Players who use this effect often opt for a soft compression simply to keep the quieter notes from decaying too quickly; the tone is still there and not destroyed in any way.

Does a compressor “save” a crappy bass guitar?

Yes and no.

If you have a bass guitar where the pickups in it just plain suck where you have no intention of replacing them and the volume “goes all over the place” depending on what string you’re on, compression can help, but it’s not a cure-all.

The volume of notes will be a lot more consistent, no question. But at the same time all the unwanted noises will also go up in volume as well. String drag, any creaking noises the pickups ‘hear’, etc. All that bad stuff is increased when you use compression.

While compression can’t “save” a crappy bass entirely, for many it’s the “good enough” solution, because let’s face it, using a compressor effect is a lot easier than installing pickups.

For your good bass guitar, compression is a good effect to have in your rig to get extra control over your sound. As said above, most use soft compression to get that pleasing extra increased volume for the quieter notes; it’s not a tone-wrecker as long as you’re willing to sit down and fine-tune it to your needs.

Does a compressor “save” a dying amp sound?

For this one I can give a straight no.

If a dying amp has a “warbly” way of treating the incoming audio signal from your bass guitar, a compressor will not make that amp sound any better at all. In fact, it will usually make things sound worse. There’s simply not much you can do for a dying amp other than to fix or replace it.

It also should be noted that if you have a ratty old cabinet where the speaker or speakers are in “so-so” condition, yes, compression can be a speaker-wrecker, particularly for slap or percussive players. With compression engaged you’ll be “thumping” the speaker(s) a lot more, and if your speakers are already past their prime, using a sound with compression is not advised because it will probably destroy the cones in short order. If you elect to use compression with old cones anyway, stick to “soft” only.

What compressors does BBG carry?

Aside from the choices at top, there is also the Taurus Tux MK2 and EBS Multi-Comp. If you have any questions about the compressor effect and what it can do for your bass tone, don’t hesitate to ask. Email us direct at

19 thoughts on “Is using a bass compressor cheating?

  1. I agree with the article up to a point. I think many bass players grab a compressor without first trying to get their playing to be consistent. Sure you can put on a compressor and clearn up everything, but first, let’s get the playing correct first, then use the technology to provide that final push.

    • I think this reason is flawed. Most bass players grab compressors because they heard someone say that it would help to fatten up their sound. A compressor used in this manner does nothing but make your mistakes even more apparent. The codgers that always say that all the tone shaping you need is in your fingers (while true to a small degree) is one big reason why we get overlooked when it comes to the cool, new toys. Unbunch those panties, a damn pedal and have some fun. It will get our corner of the stage more recognition in the eyes of effects manufacturers.

      • I love using effects. Up until recently, I always felt like I was walking on eggshells with effects…. like I was going to bring about the end of the world if I hit a phaser or and envelope filter. And the universe would just explode if I used more than one effect at a time. That would be blasphemy!
        Ehhh… whatever. There are times when effects just don’t add any substance to the overall sound. But it is worthwhile to try it out, anyway. Compression is definitely one of those effects. Very cool tones can be had with compressors. The mindset that effects can be negative (referred to as cheating in this instance) keeps all of our pedalboards looking bare.

  2. In my experience, learn to play with the a naked bass first, then add pedals if desired (compression being one of them). I’ve often heard players abusing their effects, thereby covering up what could potentially be tonally unique and dynamic sounds. There is so much you can do to get a varied sound with just a decent bass and amp setup, exploring what the fundamental strengths of the two can do together could do wonders for your playing, and add to the understanding of when and how to apply the effects of the pedals.

  3. Compression pedals are cool, rack mount compressions is even cooler! Though it is best to first learn how to control your own dynamics first, in my opinion nothing makes a bass stand out, either studio or live, like good compression. It makes everything come to life and can really add a lot if used properly. Figuring out how to not over compress is the tricky part but once it’s set there is not turnin back. Start with a pedal to get the feel then graduate. Sans Amp RBI>31 band graphic EQ> Rane DC 24 Dual Crossover Compression

  4. I use a compressor (actually an old MXR AC Limiter) when I play live. I use it to even out my dynamics, so I can really whack the strings, or play softly to get different tones, without a wild change in output level.

    I have been playing for 42 years, so I don’t need a compressor to make up for technique, but because I know how to use one. 🙂

  5. For finger style players in extreme metal, a compressor is pretty much a requirement. I disagree that there is something you can do in your fingering to compensate. Playing riffs up to 300bpm you just have to have one. I play fretless and over 250bpm in the projects I’m in, I need the compressor to bring up the ultra fast fingering and to take the higher notes that just scream out on a fretless. I can tell you that EVERY mistake comes through crystal

  6. I am not opposed to compression in a studio. I just have trouble playing live with one, because I play with a lot of dynamics and being compressed frustrates me. For some reason, allof my basses seem to have lower output on the D and G strings, so I get a pretty even string balance with a rather radical slope higher at the G and lower at the B.

    • I have the same problem. I think its because I’m using an active bass. I think compressors work better for passive basses in a live setting.

  7. For me, it has to do with how I want a certain tone to sit in the mix. If i want to retain some of the beauty of my flatwound strung fretless that sounds so awesome by itself, in a high energy, dense environment, I can’t see that how i can get there without compression

  8. I play in a band where we share the bass duties. I also play keys on some songs, and the two guitar players play the bass. We have a fairly large sound for most of our songs, and the Empress Compressor that I have evens out the differences between our playing styles. It has a blend function, which allows some of the unprocessed sound through as well, so it doesn’t kill dynamics, and you can dig in to get more volume if required. A necessity for me.

    I also use it on electric guitar and I love it. The Empress Comp is the closest thing to a good rack mount compressor on the floor.

  9. As a FOH audio engineer I’ve heard a lot of ruined bass timbres because of wrong compressor usage. Majority of young bass players start using them just because “it’s cool” but they don’t realize that their articulation ability can be ruined. In the studio it’s really nice to have a bassist with surgeon’s hands due to add just a slight compression for a better and fatter tone. However more radical settings could fix unstable articulation in some cases.

  10. As with everything it’s great when used in good measure. Work on your technique and dynamics, get a decent bass with good pickups electronics and string balance, get a good amp with plenty of headroom and relevant speaker ( you cannot play with any sort of dynamics if you have to play hard all the time just to be heard). Then use the compressor to improve the sound where needed. It is not a replacement for good gear!

  11. I record bass with compression ( obviously) but never use it for live performance. Do I have surgical technique? Well, I was a pro guitar player for years and embraced electro classical guitar as part of it. I much prefer to retain the use of my own technique in controlling transients.. it’s impossible to achieve real dynamic-control when a compressor is taking that away from you.

  12. Comments from live usage are great. Been playing a long time- so when I look back at those Cream jams that were recorded for albums like Wheels of Fire and Goodbye Cream where Jack is playing his ass off, on extended solos- I understand now, that heavy compression. The Gibson EB-3 is the most uneven sounding bass. Woofer bass really. So while distortion does in of itself compress the sound- when you hear a tight evenness of the G and E string, that is compression coming not from the Marshall but in the carefully tailored mix, by guys like Tom Dowd a bassist himself and iconic producer either in the recording truck or later on. Live songs like I’m So Glad, Spoonful and Sweet Wine sound like rock, bass jazz concertos-with the help of in your face audio compression- of a very authoritative, punchy bassist/cellist like Bruce. Those albums of a power trio LIVE are remarkable.

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