Two of the most common questions among guitar players are “What is compression” and “Do I need a compression pedal”. The next question is usually “what is the best compressor”, however that is a whole can of worms we won't be exploring today.
What is Compression?
Compression is an effect the narrows the dynamic range of your signal. Dynamic range refers to the space between your loudest volume and softest volume. Essentially compression allows you to set a ceiling on your volume level, and any signal that goes over that ceiling will automatically be turned down. At the same time, it raises your volume floor so that your softer levels are turned up. This means that all signal entering into the compressor has a more consistent volume level.
Why is this helpful?
Think of compression as a kind of third hand that helps control your volume level, especially within a full band mix. When you start to play harder it knocks your volume down so it doesn’t feel to aggressive, and turns up your soft fingerpicking so you aren’t lost in the mix.
It also can help sustain your notes without using an overdrive or distortion pedal. As your note fades out the compressor can turn up those lower volumes to that it lasts longer. This is a great way to preserve your clean tone while still keeping it present in the mix. Slide players tend to use this effect, but I’ve even found it nice in helping add clarity my delays.
Who uses Compressor Pedals?
In a short answer, everyone. It is an effect that can be used in any genre of music. Country players use them frequently because the pedal adds a nice pop to the front of your notes. This style of playing often called “Chicken Pickin” features a lot of notes played quickly combined with hammer-on’s, pull-offs, and slides. The compressor helps smooth out the whole lick so all notes come out at the same level. In the same way If you are going between full chords and single note runs like in blues music a compressor pedal can help even out your dynamics.
Where does my Compressor go?
Most often if there is a compressor pedal on a board you will find it at the beginning of the signal chain. This just helps to even out your sound at the very beginning before it goes through all of your effect. Drives also tend to add some compression naturally so it is nice to have this pedal first. Of course feel free to experiment with what works best for you. If you have more questions, check out our post on how to best order all of your pedals.
To Compress, or Not Compress?
In the end this question is up for you and your ears to decide. These pedals can go from being a transparent always on effect to a very dramatic effect depending on what sound you want to achieve. Take some time to sit down and experiment with what works best for you. If you like the sound a compressor adds use it, if its not for you then use that space on your board to try something different like a fuzz or octave generator.