If you haven’t used a compressor pedal before, prepare to be let into a game changing secret. I understand what a compressor does, but I can’t explain why it feels like it makes playing easier. Try a compressor and feel the difference. Tried one? Want one? There are many compressor pedals available, but what is the best guitar compressor pedal? Read on below to find out more.
What is Compression?
The best and most simple way to describe compression is that it smooths the input signal from your guitar. When you’re playing the guitar you it’s common for parts of your playing to be quieter or noisier. This can be as a result of amp settings or even other effects. If the bass in bass notes in your riff is drowning out the intricate higher notes in your picking, a compressor can dial back the bass whilst bringing out the treble.
A compressor squeezes the input so that louder parts become softer and softer parts become louder. As well as smoothing the tone, when you dial in the right settings it can feel like playing is easier. For that reason I think it’s one of the most important pedals any guitarist can have in their armory.
Compressors first made an appearance in the 1970’s. Since then they’ve gone through many iterations. As well as analog and mini compressor pedals, there are also now digital compressor pedals.
Most pedals will have a variation of four controls, although mini pedals will probably only have two control knobs. The first most common is threshold, sometimes called sustain, sensitivity or compression. This controls how much signal it takes to trigger the compression. This is usually measured in decibels.
The second common control is attack. This controls how quickly the effect kicks in after you’ve hit a note or chord. The third is release. This controls hows long it takes for the signal to stop being compressed, effectively how long until the effect is released.
Some pedals have a blend control. This “blends” the original and compressed signal, which can give an interesting dynamic. Finally most pedals will have volume or level control, This is useful if you want to use the pedal as a clean boost for lead parts.
If you’re using multiple compact pedals, the compressor will usually sit a the beginning of the chain. Certainly you’ll want it to sit before any drive pedals.
Compression is quite a subtle effect, but you can feel it when you play. These pedals usually let you control sustain too. At higher levels this can mean notes can be held for unnaturally long periods. Think Gary Moore or Pink Floyd. Compressors are really great when playing single notes mixed with chords, because it brings out the nuances of your playing style.
Compressors are frequently used in country music, where it’s most noticeable. When mixed with drive pedals you can get some really awesome tones without a whole lot of gain because everything is squeezed.
Compressors are the friend you didn’t know you had. Let’s take a look at some of the compressor pedals available right now.
The first up is the Behringer CS400. This is definitely the budget friendly option. Housed in plastic casing, it’s not a good idea to stomp on this one too hard. Non-the-less it stands out with it’s aqua green coloring.
Input and output is handled by 1/4″ jacks, pretty standard. The pedal has true bypass, so when it’s off you’re not supposed to get any undesirable noise. In terms of control there are knobs for level, tone, attack and sustain. The level acts as your volume control. The tone knob increases the clarity as you turn it clock-wise. We talked about attack and sustain controls in the section above.
The CS400 can be powered by either a 9v battery or a separately sold power adapter. The power adapter isn’t that expensive and is probably worth buying. It’s a bit fiddly to change the battery and you only really get a few hours usage from each battery.
The pedal weighs about 3/4 of a pound or 330g. It’s not a mini pedal, but is still fairly compact.
It’s a good option for a beginner or someone who wants a dedicated compression pedal without spending a lot of cash. It’s probably not suitable if you gig alot. There’s sometimes some background noise, which isn’t ideal. It does a basic job, but it does it well considering the price. Cheap and cheerful, but you’ll need to upgrade to something else if you want to gig.
A noticeable step up in quality sees us arrive at the Boss CS-3. This is a stalwart of a pedal that’s been around for years. Ubiquitous among guitarists for it’s quality and tough build. This analog compressor can be powered by either a 9v battery or by a separately sold power adapter. As with all boss compact pedals changing the battery is a relatively straight-forward operation, unlike the Behringer.
You’ll probably want to opt for the power supply because battery life isn’t fantastic. The Boss power supply is slightly more expensive, however you’ll need it if you don’t want to void the 5 year warranty that comes with the CS-3.
The pedal is housed in a metal casing, which can take a lot of punishment. The CS-3 is more than suitable to gig with. Boss effects are some of the best quality and the CS-3 doesn’t disappoint in that department. A low noise floor means there’s little to no unwanted noise, which is another big benefit over the Behringer.
The CS-3 has four control knobs. Level controls the volume. Tone controls the amount of compression. The attack controls how quickly the effect takes control of the signal after you hit a note and the sustain does what it suggests. It controls how long a note will ring out.
The CS-3 is similar in size to other Boss compact pedals, but if you don’t have another Boss pedal for reference, they’re small but not a mini pedal. It won’t trouble your muscles, weighing just 15oz or 400g.
The CS-3 is a solid, quality workhorse of a pedal. It’s certainly better quality than the Behringer, but it is slightly more expensive. Boss has also improved it’s offering in compressor pedals with the introduction of the CP-1X, which we’ll come onto later.
Electro Harmonix Tone Corset
It’s time to add a little bit of style into the world of compressor pedals. Introducing the Electro Harmonix Tone Corset. Smaller than the Behringer and the CS-3 but still not a mini pedal, this analog compressor harks back to a bygone era with it’s imaginative name and design.
The Tone Corset has true bypass, which means no unwanted effect on your signal when the pedal is switched off. It can be powered by a 9v battery or by a separately sold power supply. The same advice that accompanied the Behringer and the Boss applies to the Tone Corset. It’s advisable to buy the power supply so you’re not constantly changing batteries.
The Tone Corset has four control knobs and a pad switch. The pad switch enables you to select modes dependent on your pickups. If you have outrageously powerful humbuckers, you can select a lower power input mode using the pad switch. Aesthetically the pad switch has a vintage appeal too.
The four control knobs affect volume, blend, sustain and attack. There’s plenty of headroom for volume with this pedal, which makes it a great candidate if you’re looking for something that can also act as a clean signal boost.
The blend control is really effective on the Tone Corset, allowing you to blend the compressed and dry signal to find the perfect tone to suit your style. The attack control allows for plenty of dynamism too, so go ahead and set this to your personal preference. There’s plenty of sustain available with the Tone Corset too.
The Tone Corset is smaller than the Behringer and the CS-3 and weighs just 10oz or 308g.
The Tone Corset is better in quality than the Behringer and similar to the CS-3. However the CS-3 can cope with the variation of pickup power without the need for an on-board switch. It’s cheaper than the CS-3 and slightly smaller if you don’t have too much room on your pedal board. As well as tone, one of the best features of the Tone Corset is it’s funky design.
Next we’ll look at the first of the mini pedals. The MXR Dynacomp is tiny, effective and simple to operate. Other than the 1/4″ input and output jacks, there are just two control knobs and a footswitch. Pretty simple. The Output control knob determines the level, which is broadly the volume of the effect. The Sensitivity control determines the amount of compression. Similar to the other pedals we’ve looked at so far, the Dynacomp is an analog pedal.
There isn’t a separate sustain control knob, but sustain is increased when the output and sensitivity control knobs are turned up. The further clockwise, the more sustain. You can use as boost pedal if you turn the output all the way up and leave the sensitivity all the way down. If the sensitivity is dialed all the way up you get a wavy type effect with a tiny amount of background noise towards then end of the sustained note.
The Dynacomp sits in a metal casing, adding to it’s resilience, and can be powered by either a 9v battery or separately sold power adapter. Again I’d opt for the power adapter to avoid creating a mountain of spent 9v batteries.
The Dynacomp is super compact, weighing less than 1 pound or 380g.
The Dynacomp is super small and easy to operate. I think you lose some of the dynamism because there are less controls, however the Dynacomp does a pretty good job in all other aspects. It’s cheaper than the CS-3 and the Tone Corset too. Suitable for someone who wants something that’ll last, but is simple to operate and won’t take up much room.
JHS Whitey Tighty
Smaller than the MXR still is the JHS Whitey Tighty. Don’t get confused and Google Tighty Whitey, you’ll just get a screen full of underwear! You’ll only want to see one pair of underwear, printed onto a tiny compression pedal.
Aside from the humorous design choice, the Whitey Tighty is encased in metal and is very solidly built. It can’t be powered by a 9v battery, so you’re forced to buy the power adapter. There are three control knobs, volume, blend and compression. They’re simply named making it easy to operate. This is one of the best pedals to use a pure boost if you have the compression and blend knobs dialed all the way down.
The Whitey Tighty delivers great compression with a range of tones. However if you dial up the compression when the blend is turned all they way down, it can sound quite overbearing. Try it for yourself! Turn the blend all the way up to effectively override any compression as you’ll be mixing in mostly the dry signal.
If you’re using humbuckers you probably don’t need to have the volume above nine o’clock, but it works really well to boost when using single coil pickups. As previously mentioned the Whitey Tighty is very small indeed weighing just 5 oz or just under 150g
The Whitey Tighty is great for those who are really short on space. You could almost carry this pedal in your pocket. The pedal sounds really good and it’s easy to operate. It’s a little more expensive than the MXR and the Tone Corset. It’s about on par with the Boss CS-3, but I think it’s probably at little easier to operate.
Finally we come onto one of the more advanced pedals available. The Boss CP-1X uses digital circuitry, which Boss calls Multi-Dimensional Processing (MDP). The result is stunning. Even when compared to the Boss CS-3, which is a great pedal, the CP-1X sounds unbelievably good.
It’s built using the same bulletproof materials as the CS-3, but you get a sci-fi style chrome control panel. The light strip below the control knobs isn’t a Cylon, it shows you how much compression is in effect whilst you’re playing. It’s called a gain reduction indicator and will display the level of compression in decibels.
The digital circuitry has further advantages in that Boss has lowered the noise floor even further, so there’s basically no background noise at all. The CP-1X will work with 7 & 8 string guitars and even with electo-acoustic guitars without losing any of the sound fidelity.
The CP-1X has 4 control knobs, however changing any of them will change multiple parameters subtly thanks to the digital circuitry. We’ve talked about the various terms for the controls. The CP-1X has level, attack, ratio and compression control knobs.
The CP-1X can be powered by either a 9v battery or a separately sold power adapter. As with the CS-3 it’s reasonably easy to change the battery, but it’s worth investing in a power supply, particularly if you’re going to use it to play live.
The pedal is built like an absolute tank, but comes with a 5-year warranty just in case. Make sure to use the official Boss power supply so that you don’t void the warranty! It’s not a mini pedal, but it’s still pretty compact, weighing 0.9 lbs or 450g.
Once you’ve used the CP-1X you’ll see, feel and hear the difference versus an analog pedal. This is pretty new technology so it’ll set you back a little more than the other pedals. It’s worth the extra $50 or so if you’re looking at the CS-3. I especially love the versatility of this pedal, which allows me to switch between my electric guitar and electro-acoustic guitar without needing to adjust anything.
For me compression is the magic effect. It can be very subtle but it improves how it feels to play whilst tightening up your tone. Most pedals can produce a great range of tones and provide all the sustain you’ll need so when talking about the best pedal it usually comes down to preference.
The only exception here is the Boss CP-1X, which for me is hands down the best of the group. The digital circuitry really makes a difference and I really love it’s versatility.
Unless you’re on a really tight budget I’d avoid the Behringer. For me the plastic casing is a big draw back, as is the background noise that can sometime appear. I really like the Whitey Tighty for it’s simplicity and dynamism.
What’s clear is that you can buy a quality compressor for not too much money. I have a soft spot for the Boss CS-3, which you can pick up second hand very cheaply, but I have to say the Boss CP-1X blows even the CS-3 out of the water.
New to the world of guitar effects and what to know more? Check out my post about the the best guitar effects where we explore the most commonly used effects, what they do and how to use them. I hope you’ve found this post useful. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Alternatively you can get in touch using my contact page.
Note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. When you click a link on this page it may go to Amazon or another supplier with whom I have an affiliate relationship. This won’t increase the price you pay. I don’t recommend any product that I haven’t used myself or thoroughly researched.