Amongst all of the stompboxes, compressor pedals have the least sophisticated controls. And yet they still have the potential to be among the most versatile. Even the simplest of compressor pedals have the ability to change the shape of the sound drastically or give it a very slight and subtle improvement.
Thus figuring out what compressor pedal settings to use for what objective could be a tiresome process, involving lots of trial and error. So in this article, we will try to make it a bit easier for you.
Things to know about compressor pedals
Oddly enough not many guitar players utilize compressor pedals on their pedalboards, despite the possibilities those pedals could provide. It could be because of some trivial budget restraints or because there isn’t much spare space on the pedalboard. However it may be, the subject of compressor pedals deserves closer attention considering its sound-shaping abilities. After all, the more information you are provided with, the easier it is to make a considered decision whether compressor pedals are something that you can implement in your workflow, or it’s simply isn’t for you. So in order to do that, the first logical step would be to figure out how does a compressor pedal actually work.
How do compressor pedals work
In all actuality, compressor pedals work exactly the same as conventional compressors do, in the sense that they reduce the dynamic range of any incoming signal. So, theoretically, pedals should have the same functionality as any compressor plugin that you would use in your DAW, excluding, of course, the ability to change parameters with surgical precision, which shouldn’t be a problem since there is no need to be extremely precise when it comes to guitar compression especially on the stage. And considering that guitar is an instrument with a very wide dynamic range, two simple controls should be enough to alter its sound dramatically. Coincidentally most compressor pedals have exactly two main settings, but we will get back to it later.
Do you even need one?
To be completely honest, having a compressor pedal is not a strict requirement and as we already mentioned earlier, many guitar players choose to disregard it but nonetheless, this could be a very useful tool if implemented properly. It can help you greatly if you are a big fan of classic country chops or funk strumming, it could also be of great use if you are very much into some ambient guitar experimentation. But even if you are a traditional and very conservative guitar player, you still may consider a compressor pedal to be of help since it has the ability to subtly enhance your sound if somewhat moderate settings were chosen. But however it may be, in order to decide if compressor pedals are something that you need, you have to try it for yourself.
Which compressor pedal to choose
To put it simply, we couldn’t tell you what exact compressor pedal to use even if we wanted to and there are a few reasons for that. Firstly, we believe that what gear you use is a significant part of your identity and artistic profile, so insisting on a certain piece of equipment may interrupt your creative evolution as an artist. So the best thing you could do on your journey into the music industry is to take any advice with a grain of salt and a lot of critical thinking. Secondly, what works for someone isn’t necessarily suitable for someone else, and moreover, if we would use the same set of pedals, the world would be a much more boring place. That being said, we have a list of very formidable compressor pedals that you can check out.
Guitar compressor pedal settings
If you’ve got yourself acquainted with our list of compressor pedals, you already know that manufacturers don’t follow any common standard when it comes to pedal controls. But this really shouldn’t be a problem since all the compressors work on the same basic principle. So even if the markings on the knobs differ drastically, they still pretty much do the same things without any regard for what particular compressor you would choose.
With very few exceptions, all of the compressor pedals have Attack and Release settings and a Volume knob. Some models also have a Tone knob. And some might have a few extra features that we will cover in detail, along with the main ones.
Attack knob tells the compressor when it shall start to do its magic, which means that you can almost kill the transients with a fast attack or bring up the natural decay with a slower one. It’s needless to say that attack works only in conjunction with the release, which means that adjusting only the attack knob will get you precisely nowhere. Nevertheless, putting the attack somewhere around 12 o’clock will give you either classic country compression or something far more versatile, depending on how you would set the release. Pushing the attack knob to the right might help you to achieve a perfect funk strumming or very articulate sustained lead sound, again, depending on the release.
Sustain knob controls the release of the compressor, which in turn sets the time when it stops working. A shorter release will cut down the decay of the sound and a longer one, as you’ve guessed it, emphasize it. It’s very hard to say which setting is more important, but with very little, if any, involvement of the attack knob, the sustain can have a very dramatic effect on the sound.
So if you want to show off your chicken pickin’ country chops, leave the sustain at 12 o’clock. But if you prefer some old-school funk rhythm, put it slightly on the right. Putting the sustain knob all the way to the right will give you the longest decay possible, which might be just perfect for some guitar ambient experimentation.
It’s a rather optional feature, but nevertheless, most compressors you could encounter have a tone knob. This feature allows you to implement a very simple high-shelf EQ. One can argue that this isn’t really necessary but consider that killing the transient of the signal will also reduce its high-frequency content significantly since most of it is transmitted within the initial burst of the signal. So using a tone knob is a pretty straightforward thing if you are using a very fast attack, turn it slightly to the right until you feel like the balance is restored. If you’re using a slower attack, or simply desire a slightly warmer sound, turn it to the left and keep turning until you are satisfied.
A volume knob is pretty self-explanatory since it controls the volume of the signal. Every time when compression is applied, the dynamic range will be reduced, which in turn would make an overall sound quieter. So most of the time, a volume knob is used to achieve unity gain so there wouldn’t be any perceived difference between the original signal and a compressed one. That being said, absolutely nothing could stop you from making the compressed sound even louder to make the effect more obvious when the pedal is engaged. Furthermore, if you leave the attack and sustain knobs unattended and use only a volume knob, you can turn your compressor pedal into a very capable clean booster.
Some compressors also have a Blend knob, which lets you use your compressor in parallel mode. Blending the compressed signal with the original one can easily add a lot of subtlety to the effect, which is especially useful when it comes to guitar solos. Even if you want your compression to be over-the-top, it still would be wise to dial the blend knob a little bit back in order to achieve a smoother transition when you engage the pedal. Some compressors even let you control the ratio and the threshold of the compression, which puts them in the same league as the compressor plugins in your DAW when it comes to surgical adjustments. But those compressor pedals are very rare and rather expensive, so it’s up to you whether you need those features or not.
We hope that this article was of use to you and now you have a better understanding of what compressor pedal settings to use and when. To summarize it briefly, use slower attack and slow release if you want to exercise your funk chops or use an even longer release for a perfect lead guitar sound. If you have a desire to show off your chicken picking techniques, use a slightly faster attack and even faster release. Set your volume at unity gain and bring up some original signal with a blend knob to make the effect more subtle. If your compressor gives you an opportunity to adjust the ratio and threshold, you should most definitely have fun with those.