10 Best Compression Pedals
Along with looper pedals [insert link at bolded text], compressor pedals may be one of the most overlooked pedals out there. Hell, I would even bet my leg on the fact that most beginner and even intermediate guitar players don’t even know about it (not the arm, because the guitar won’t play itself). There are so many “essential” pedals out there (distortion, overdrive, delay [insert articles at bolded text] etc), no wonder compression doesn’t get a spotlight. We’ll try to help it out a little.
Now, if you’re a beginner or intermediate player and have never heard of compressor pedals or you didn’t know what they were, or if you’re an advanced player who never really bothered to give compression a try, we highly suggest that you go through some of our choices. In order to help you find a perfect compressor for your needs and pedalboard, we’ve assembled a list of the best compressor pedals out there, for all kinds of musicians and all kinds of budgets. Good luck, and remember – use it wisely!
Xotic SP Compressor
Best Value Pick
Right off the bat, we’re going with this tiny marvel of technology. I’m really glad Xotic got away from only making bass guitars because some of their pedals have been nothing short of amazing. They have so many features squeezed into compact, slick-looking packages that it makes you wonder what kind of profit margin they’re working with considering how affordable most of their stuff is.
The Xotic SP Compressor is no different, in fact, it pretty much epitomizes this ideal. It is a tiny wonder that’s based on the (in)famous Ross Compression, it has True Bypass, and a whole host of options to play with. On the top, it starts out with Volume, Blend and a three-way switch between Low/Medium/High signals. What makes it so versatile are the internal switches with 4 additional options, that will let you choose your compression reaction speed and high and low-frequency filtering.
This pedal is simple enough to be used by any newbie, yet it offers so many options to even the most experienced out there. Because of its quality, versatility and especially price – it’s a great all-around choice.
Donner Compressor Pedal
We have a few budget choices on this list, and Donner has really been taking it to Behringer when it comes to making decent cheap pedals.
Unlike a standard Behringer, the Donner compressor comes in a metal casing. The number one complaint against any plastic casing is the endurance and longevity, and this little guy has plenty of both. It comes with three knobs for Level, Tone and Comp and it has true bypass. The compression it can provide is subtle, and its quality is surprisingly good for the budget price.
If you’re looking for a sturdy pedal you can use for gigs, or you just want to start out with compression and you’re looking for that budget pedal that won’t break after a few stomps – this would be your number one pick.
MXR Dyna Comp Effects Pedal
Well, ever since Dunlop took over MXR, they’ve been riding the wave of reissuing or revamping their classic pedals, and this is a newer version of a stomper that first came out in 1976.
When honoring their classics, they tried to make them as close to the original as possible. In the case of the Dyna Comp – it means a very sturdy red box with simple, yet elegant markings and only 2 knobs – for Output and Sensitivity (basically volume and compression) and a footswitch. Another thing that really works as well as the oldie is the awesome “Nashville” studio quality sound.
Rolling out at a very affordable price, it’s one of the top old-school beginner friendly compressor pedals out there, and with a build quality that easily tops its price range.
TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor
Ok, TC Electronics makes a whole lotta stompers out there, for various niches and price ranges – but in the compressor department – this one takes the cake. It’s the perfect mid-range to affordable compressor pedal with just about anything you’d want in that price range, and more.
The HyperGravity Compressor is really well made, sturdy like a Boss, just prettier. It has more-less standard four knobs for Sustain, Level, Attack, Blend and a LED indicator. What makes it stand out from most compressor pedals out there is a three-way tone switch. Combine that with the knobs and it allows for a great mix of control and versatility – more than most pedals out there. But wait, there’s more – this pedal also has TonePrint technology, meaning you can load up some sounds from your PC into the pedal and do with it what you will.
Add all of this up and you get a ton of versatility and a whole lot of technology stuffed into this stylish stompbox for a very affordable price – and you get amazing value for your money. Definitely the best bang for your buck when it comes to compressor pedals.
Joyo JF-10 Dynamic Compressor
If you’re a beginner looking for a budget compressor pedal you want to try out – look no further then the JF-10 Dynamic.
It’s a compressor pedal you can stomp a bunch of times without giving a damn, that also looks really cool at parties and is of decent quality for the price equaling about a day’s work even in a third world country. It is simple to use with three knobs for Sustain, Level and Attack and has a great range of frequencies you can play around with. It also features True bypass, which is not really common in budget models. Most of all – the overall quality makes it look like it belongs in a higher price range.
So if you’re someone who just thought about trying a compressor pedal and you’re running a tight budget – just grab a Joyo JF-10 Dynamic Compressor and you’ll get that feeling you always needed one, you just weren’t aware of it.
Behringer CS400 Compressor Sustainer
Top Budget Pick
Hailing from the ultimate cheaperino pedal manufacturer Behringer, we introduce their finest work of compressor pedals – the CS400 Compressor Sustainer.
Built as a compressor/sustainer combo to further increase the value you get for the price – the CS400 is of surprising quality for its price tag. It has a regular four knobs for Level, Tone, Attack and Sustain as well as a LED indicator at the top – this little thing can provide you with a very solid tone! The only downside is the plastic casing, which is prone to breakage, so all of us heavyweight champions need to pay just a bit of attention while stomping.
All in all, it’s a great choice for any newbie or even intermediate looking to try this effect out. And if you’re in the featherweight category, well – then it’s a steal!
Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer Pedal
All right, quick trivia – what does a top pedal list everywhere have at least one of? You guessed it, a Boss pedal. In this case, we’ll be going with their CS-3 compressor/sustain combo as a top choice from their product line.
It’s a Boss pedal so you know what to expect. Shoddy craftsmanship, unreliable but with a wild and unexpected experimental effect when you finally manage to tune it. Wrong.
This stomp box can survive World War 3, and it is as Boss as they come. It’s very practical and simple, with the usual knobs for Level, Tone, Attack and Sustain for the added effect that makes this pedal a combo. The controls are quite responsive and the tone quality is very decent.
Simply put, if you want another heavy duty panzer on your pedalboard that will do everything a beginner compressor/sustain pedal needs to do – the Boss CS-3 would be a great, reliable pick.
Electro-Harmonix Freeze Sound Retainer
In a world of compressor pedals with very little to set them apart except for the number of buttons they have (versatility) and the overall quality of the craftsmanship – we have one that’s not like the others, one that just doesn’t belong. We give you – the Electro-Harmonix Freeze Sound Retainer Compression Guitar Effects Pedal (no, we don’t need an acronym for this).
Electro-Harmonix isn’t really known for experimentation, so this pedal stands out quite a bit from their usual arsenal. Even though it’s labeled as a compressor pedal, it really works more as a delay/sustain pedal[insert link to delay pedal article at bolded text]. Even though these effects get comboed quite often – the Freeze Sound Retainer does it in a very specific way. It starts to capture your sound after pressing the footswitch, then after you release, the sound carries in the background as it would on a delay. It uses features from sustain, delay and looper pedals – all wrapped up into one fun, piano pedal-like effect.
This very unique piece of work doesn’t really fit into any category, and despite the simple design, it can be used in oh so many ways to enhance your sound and let you pull off some tones you never would’ve thought of previously. The price is also pretty affordable, so if you’re looking for something new – we’d definitely recommend you try this pedal out.
Empress Effects Compressor Pedal
Even though they emerged on the market in only the last 10 years or so, Empress has really made a name for themselves producing some unique stompboxes. Their pedals are known for quality and a plethora of options – the Empress, in this case, doesn’t suffer from a lack of clothes. In fact, it’s packed full.
The Empress Effects Compressor Pedal looks a bit difficult to handle at first, because it’s bigger than most pedals and has more knobs then you know what to do with. But once you start trying them out you’ll see that it’s pretty straightforward. The control knobs are Input, Attack/Release(compression reaction speed) and Output. There are switches on each side, one that controls ratio and the other that controls the long line of LED indicators placed between the two switches. They combine to give you an unparalleled amount of tweaking in a compressor pedal.
If you’re looking for studio quality compression with about as many options as any has ever had – you should try Empress’ Compressor Pedal. It’s among the best of the best out there, and worth every penny despite the higher price tag.
Wampler Pedals Ego Compressor Pedal
Owning a Wampler pedal nowadays means you’ve decided to make a significant investment and you’re really putting your money where your guitar is. This boutique manufacturer became famous for their extremely reliable, high-quality hand-made stompboxes. Today’s example is no different – the Ego Compressor Pedal lives up to its Freudian bravado.
As you might be guessing this is where I say that this pedal is about as versatile as a compressor pedal can be. I’ve said this about many pedals on this list – but isn’t that kinda what makes them best compressor pedals? They stand out from a sea of averageness. The Ego Compressor does so through five knobs – Volume, Sustain, Attack, Tone, and Blend. Once you start playing around with these, you’ll get a different perception of what versatility really is. High-end parts along with True Bypass can give you ridiculously precise quality compression and sustain.
The Ego Compressor is one of the best compressor pedals ever made. It’s not meant for every player, but if you ever want to get serious with your compression business – there is no better choice.
What Exactly is Compression?
The easiest way of explaining what a compressor does would be saying that it compresses the volume of loud signals, making them softer. Imagine having a threshold in how loud a signal can get, and every time it tries to go above that threshold, the compressor will soften it down, also led by a ratio of your choosing – for example, for every 10 dB above the threshold, the compressor will only allow 1dB to actually come out and be heard.
The compression pedal evens out the sounds. As mentioned, it softens out the louder sounds, giving more space to the actual softer sounds to be heard – everything that sticks out, the compression pedal will put back into place with all the other sounds. So, no matter how far you turn up the knobs, for example treble and bass, they will not be dominating the overall sound under any circumstances, as long as the threshold and ratio are appropriately set.
The easiest way to understand how compression works is by seeing for yourself. You’ll easily understand just by playing one chord, any chord, one time with no compression, and the second time by playing it with compression turned on. The first time you hit that chord with no compression, you’ll mostly hear the bass and the higher frequencies, while the midsection will just be briefly heard. On the other hand, turn that compressor pedal on, and that very same chord will give every note a solid few seconds of fame (so, more than most of us get in a lifetime).
Compression limits louder sounds, making your overall sound more balanced and beefier. You may be thinking that this will sometimes drastically decrease the overall volume that your guitar produces, and you would be completely right. Luckily, there are plenty of amps and pedals out there to compensate for the loss of overall volume by giving you more (or a booster pedal, why not).
Now, we’ve explained the “limiter” component of the compressor pedal, the other thing that compression does to your signal is that it doesn’t let it die out easily – you get sustain. You know that when you pluck a string, that very moment the sound is the loudest, and then it dies slowly, or sometimes instantly. But not with compression. It will keep the same loudness of the signal for an extended period of time, giving you that much desired effect everyone wants for their solos.
Having heard about compression, you may think that the more you have it, the better sound you’ll produce? Well, it’s a little trickier than that. Since this is a must-have effect in every studio, can actually be overdone, by applying too much of it. Many studio recordings could have sounded a lot more dynamic and complex, only if the musicians used less compression.
How Do Compressor Pedals Work?
Now that you fully understand what compression is and what it does to your sound, you’d want to know what to do with the actual pedal. Also known as “limit pedals” and “sustain pedals”, they’re used by rock, blues, jazz, and country musicians.
The main knobs you’ll see on a compressor pedal will be some of the following – sustain, volume, sensitivity – all acting as a threshold or ratio that we already mentioned when we talked about compression. With these knobs you’ll be able to control the threshold when compression is applied, the ratio under which the same compression is activated, as well as the level of sustain you want to get out of your sound, which is most often the main reason why guitarists buy compressor pedals – for sustain. Another knob usually present is the attack knob – it controls how quickly compression starts doing its magic after the threshold is hit – as well as a release knob, used for stopping the compression after the signal goes below the threshold. Both the attack and release functions are applied in milliseconds.
For those of you who like to play around with your sound and mix it up a bit we recommend you look for a compression pedal with a blend knob. It can also be found as dry, or mix knob. What blend basically does is, it mixes your highly compressed sound with dry sound, giving you more detail and body to your overall sound, which is really important considering the dynamics you lose by using high compression. This kind of compression that you can achieve with the blend function is well-known in studios, also known as Parallel Compression, or New York Compression.
Do You Really Need a Compressor Pedal?
Well, it’s a tough question, and it truly depends on who you ask. This is not an essential pedal by any means, and if you’re a beginner you might want to look for something else first and come back here when you already have up to half a dozen pedals on your board. A compressor pedal is most useful when you’re bothered by the imperfections in your tone, and that is something you usually suffer from after you’ve connected a bunch of effects onto your signal chain.
We’ll give you a few examples when you might want to seek help from a compressor pedal. When you’re switching from lead to rhythm guitar and vice-versa, you use compression depending on what effect they want to achieve with your tone. You can use it when you’re playing clean or acoustic only, achieving that perfect balance in chord sounds. Or you can use compression all the time. Yes, some people never turn it off. But, regardless of the effects you’re trying to achieve, the safest play would be to use it subtly.
Compressor Pedals In The Signal Chain
The trickiest part comes when you’re about to introduce your new pedal to the rest of the crew over at the pedalboard. It will be a hard start as with any newcomer, but play around a bit, try this and that, and your compressor pedal will find its place among the rest of your pedals.
We’ll give you just a few bits of advice – a general rule is to use the pedal either at the very beginning or at the end of your pedalboard chain. When you use it at the beginning, all the effects that come after it won’t be compressed, while on the other hand, when you use it at the end of the chain, all previous effects will get compressed, but unwanted noise may be introduced. Depending on the variety of effect pedals that you posses, and the sound you’d like to achieve, you’ll eventually find your perfect composition.
This concludes our list, and honestly – even though it’s one of the less interesting pedals out there, it is a necessary stop on the way towards a studio quality sound everyone hopes to achieve. Come back from time to time, since we’ll be updating this list as soon as something more interesting comes along.
Jason Swartz is CEO of Alliance Talent, he’s helped stars like 2 Chainz, Lil Jon, and Ludacris earn anywhere from $150 to $500K a year in passive income through this proven methodology.
Both guitars have been played by guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Root, and Keith Richards.