5 Compressors for People Who Hate Compressors

Many players depend on the sound and feel of a vintage-style compression pedal to enhance clean tones and punch up their rig. That thick, gelatinous squish that can tighten up rhythm tones, make single notes bloom, and add singing sustain without piling on the gain. This kind of compression, and the distinctive artifacts that it produces, has become a crucial element of certain styles and genres, with the "chicken pickin'" style of country lead guitar being an especially notable example. Virtually any guitarist that primarily plays clean, or with lower gain overdriven tones, can benefit from the sustain and punch added by a quality compressor.

Now for the bad news: old-school compressors, particularly ones that come in the stompbox format that most of the readers of this magazine have long ago sworn allegiance to, are frequently noisy, not at all transparent, and are well known for exhibiting sonic characteristics that many of us consider to be heavy-handed and unpleasant. When employing these pedals the trade-off for extra punch and sustain is often loads of hiss, an overall darkening of the tone, and a complete flattening of natural feel and dynamics. For many this is an unacceptable compromise.

The good news is that there is another way, a middle ground between the life-sucking vortex of dull, tone-strangling compression, and no compression at all. Recent developments in the pedal world have led to an excellent selection of decidedly modern comps geared towards players that need a little assistance with reigning in dynamics, but have no love for the audible squish, increased noise floor, and dark tonal characteristics of many of the classic compression stompboxes. This new breed of compressor finds its inspiration in the professional audio world, mimicking the smooth, transparent response and enhanced functionality of the best studio compressors. Here are a handful of our favorite new compressor pedals, designed for players that hate compressor pedals.

MXR M76 Studio Compressor

MXR's M87 Bass Compressor has been around for a while now, and is a beloved pedal in the bass world for its clean, natural sounding compression, fully featured control set, and Phase 90-style compactness. In the time since it has hit the scene, a small cadre of clever guitarists has also become enamored of its transparent tone and comp and limiting powers. MXR wisely took note of this trend, and realizing that many guitarists would be discouraged from trying the M87 due to its "Bass Compressor" designation, repackaged it as the new M76 Studio Compressor. The M76 model number is intended as a reference to the Urei 1176, a classic studio limiter, and those familiar with it will notice that the pedal does indeed feature similar controls. Whereas the 1176 is largely notable for its sonorous coloration, the M76 is a bit more transparent. It offers incredible flexibility, organic compression and peak limiting, and it even has a meter for proper visual signal monitoring. Get one!

Bearfoot FX Pale Green Compressor

Though Bearfoot's Pale Green Compressor looks like it might be a basic, old-school squish factory with a standard three-knob layout, it is in fact an incredibly transparent and easy-to-use compressor that has more in common with pro audio units, sonically speaking, than something based on a Ross Compressor. The Pale Green is based on BJFE's legendary Pine Green Compressor, and like that pedal its sound and feel mimics the natural compression that results when a tube amp is turned up and starts pushing the speakers. This variety of compression is the most pleasing to the ears and fingers of guitarists, and is a big part of the reason why we love tube amps so much and why they always sound best when turned up loud. This effect is damnably difficult to achieve in a solid-state device, and especially in a compact stompbox, but Bearfoot has made it happen. As a bonus, the Pale Green's tone circuit is remarkably gorgeous as well, with a warm, open quality that can enlarge even the most squashed and constipated guitar sound.

TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor

For those with experience in mixing and mastering recordings, the concept of multiband compression will be very familiar. Multiband compressors separate the audio signal into different frequency bands, allowing the user to compress each range of frequencies independently and in parallel. This lets you get the bass pumping, for instance, while leaving the mid-range or other frequency bands relatively unaffected. This is a standard tool in the pro audio world, but TC Electronic has brilliantly applied the concept to its new compressor pedal, the HyperGravity. The results are both impressive and unique, offering a distinctly different flavor of compression than most guitarists are accustomed to, and making the HyperGravity a must for the discerning player that wants the benefits of compression without the artifacts. Of course, if you want some audible squish, it can do that as well in either Vintage or Toneprint mode, the latter of which is highly customizable with any variety of compression or limiting one can imagine. The HyperGravity also offers a significant output boost for adding some amp saturation to its silky compression.

Tech 21 Boost Comp

Tech 21's dual-channel Boost Comp is practically a fully-featured, all-analog, FET preamp, being outfitted with not only compression and clean boost, but also considerable powers of equalization. The comp-EQ section and the boost section are independent, and each channel has a dedicated footswitch. The boost comes last in the signal chain, and provides 21 decibels of clean, unaffected wallop that, when combined with the compression and EQ, can transform a tube amplifier without robbing it of dynamics and personality. The Boost Comp's compression circuitry is the main attraction though, and it is lovely indeed. It can function as a subtle, transparent tone enhancer or a ruthless dynamic vise, all without burying the guitar sound in goop or detracting from its natural tonal qualities. The Tone and Presence controls are thoughtfully designed, with the presence functioning as a pre-compression attack enhancer, while Tone can cut or boost the signal substantially after it leaves the compressor. This is superb for alleviating that dark tonal quality that heavy compression can sometimes imbue to an audio signal. The Tech 21 Boost Comp is as high quality a compressor as can be found in pedal form, and its other impressive functions are just icing on the cake.

Origin Effects Cali 76 TX

The Origin Effects Cali 76 TX is as close as you'll get to a Urei 1176 limiter in pedal form, and it is extremely close. It is expensive, with prices starting at 499 dollars American, but for many players, this will absolutely be worth it to get that organic compression and limiting the 1176 is known for, as well as the distinctive sonic enhancements that have made it a studio standard for upwards of four decades. Anyone who has seen an 1176 will recognize the Cali76's control set, with knobs for input, output, attack, release, and ratio. The ratio settings are exactly the same as on the 1176, ranging from 4:1 up to 20:1. At the highest setting it becomes a peak limiter, a feature that should be of particular interest to bassists. The feature that really separates the Cali 76 from the rest of the pack, though, is its transformer-based output section. The transformer is where the magic lives, and Origin Effects offers the base model with a custom iron-core tranny that is designed to saturate euphonically when pushed, adding lots of harmonious overtones. For 100 bucks extra Origin offers a mastering-grade Lundahl transformer option, which is super clean and high headroom, and will mostly be useful for bassists. If you've got the money and the room on your board, the Origin Effects Cali 76 TX is without peer. If you have less money and free pedalboard real estate, Origin has recently begun making a less expensive compact version (sans transformer).

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