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.”
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?