Best Compressor Pedals for Guitar – For Evening Out Your Signal

The humble compressor guitar pedal is perhaps the most overlooked and underrated guitar effects pedal. Veteran musicians will appreciate their versatile and un-intrusive impact, but since compression pedals aren’t as obvious as say, overdrive pedals, they tend to be forgotten about by those building their pedal collection in the beginning.

In many cases, a compression pedal should actually one of the first pedal you ever buy. Used to create sustain without distortion, and to help even out your signal – and useful even as a level booster to increase sustain and tone in tube amps – they’re an awesome addition to a pedal collection.

Pedal board with compressor pedal

Compressor pedals are used widely in Country music and a ton of other genres as we’ll see in this article.

Sneak peek: Our Pick of the Best Compressor Pedals for Guitar

PREVIEW PRODUCT FEATURES

Wampler Mini Ego Compressor Guitar Effects Pedal

Wampler Mini Ego
  • Small and sturdy
  • True bypass
  • Highly versatile
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Orange Kongpressor Analogue Class A Compression Guitar Effects Pedal

KongPressor
  • Highly controllable
  • Great for vintage vibes
  • Cool design
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Xotic SP Compressor Pedal

Xotic SP Compressor Pedal
  • Very simple to use
  • Well built
  • Great sustain
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Boss CP-1X Compressor Pedal

Boss CP-1X Compressor Pedal
  • Intelligent Compression
  • Lots of control
  • Clean tone
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Behringer Compressor/Sustainer CS400 Ultimate Dynamics Effects Pedal

Behringer Compressor/Sustainer CS400
  • Great value
  • Decent controls
  • Stompbox design
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Empress Effects Compressor Analog Compression Guitar Effects Pedal

Empress Effects Compressor Analog Compression Guitar Effects Pedal
  • Sidechain option
  • Cool LED display
  • Tone transparency
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MXR EQ Effects Pedal (M76)

MXR M76 Studio Compressor
  • Studio quality
  • Fine tune control
  • Clear tone
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Electro-Harmonix Black Finger Tube Compression Pedal

Electro-Harmonix Black Finger Tube Compressor
  • Made for tube amps
  • Simple to use
  • Cool retro look
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Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon. If you do purchase something we get a small commission, which has absolutely no effect on the eventual price that you pay.

Here’s what we’ll cover, jump straight to an area of interest or for full effect, read from top to bottom.

What Do Compression Pedals Do?

Compressor pedals create sustain without adding distortion or clipping the sound. They also control dynamics for recording or to keep from overdriving sound equipment. They do this by detecting the volume of the signal and control how loud or soft a signal gets. If the signal starts to fade, the compressor increases the volume. It also or limits the signal if it’s too loud.

Compressors can also add some volume and can act as a booster, helping to get more tone from a tube amp that doesn’t have enough gain or distortion.

How Do They Work?

Compressor pedals compress the signal that’s coming from your guitar, giving you a reduced dynamic range. This dynamic reduction happens thanks to a threshold which lowers the instrument’s highest peaks, or by boosting lower signals. When softening the higher peaks, threshold controls allow you to set the volume at which sounds should be reduced. This is called ‘downwards’ compression. Compression which boosts the lower signals is called ‘upwards’ compression.

Compression pedals also have controls which allow you to set how much compression takes place, the speed with which compression activates and deactivates and even tone knobs to encourage more treble to come through the compressed sound.

The Key Benefits to Using a Compressor Pedal

Creates Sustain Without Distortion

Compressors also have the ability to increase the sustain of notes beyond the instrument’s usual capability.

Some pedals have a dedicated sustain knob, whereas some enable sustain via their attack/release knobs. You can alter the attack and release of your compressed sounds to make the notes last longer.

Controls how loud and soft the signal gets

If you find that when you’re performing, some sounds just aren’t cutting through, whilst some are blasting people’s heads off, then compression will help even out your sound. It will reduce the overall range in volume, so that the listening experience for you and your audience will be more stable.

Remember, a compression pedal won’t automatically make you play the right notes, but they can fix inconsistencies in how forcefully you pluck each string in an arpeggio or chord. They can also help you to avoid losing notes in a wall of sound when playing rapidly such as with sweep picking.

‘Squashed’ Sounds

Sometimes ‘squashed’ guitar sounds are desirable for genres like country music or for ‘chicken pickin’’ guitar playing. ‘Squashed’ means to have a very even tone and attack, with very few dynamics.

High Notes

Using the highest notes on your guitar can often lose a lot of volume compared to playing the same lick in the middle. A compressor pedal is able to boost those higher notes so that you can use them just as freely.

Here’s a decent summary of what compression pedals do and how they sound:

How Do Compressor Pedals Work With Other Effects Pedals?

Many guitarists combine compressors with other pedals. here you place them makes a big difference to their end result:

Compressor First

Most people choose to place their compressors first in their chain, or after their tuner pedals.

This enables it to smooth out the dynamics of the guitar, before it goes to the effects pedals. If the compressor is placed after other effects pedals, it can also squash these and make them sound unusual.

Placing the compressor before your overdrive or distortion pedals can also encourage sustain as the overdrive or distortion pedals will receive a thick tone with little dynamic range.

Compressor After Overdrive/Distortion

The second most common place to position a compressor is after the distortion/overdrive and before any other effects.

This enables the compressor to even out clean and overdriven sounds, which is what some people require.

Most guitarists don’t position compressors too far down their signal chain, due to the way they affect their other pedals.

Is There More Than One Way of Using a Compressor?

There are different ways of setting up your compression, from fully on, to combined with a dry signal, to active only in certain frequencies.

Full Compression

Often, compression pedals release just the compressed signal after they’ve done their job. This means that the compressed sound is what comes through the output, which is what many guitarists want to release.

Parallel Compression

Some guitarists opt for ‘parallel compression’. This is when the compressed signal is mixed with the dry signal. It allows you to keep your natural attack and dynamics whilst still benefiting from compression.

This is often favoured by those who are seeking a more natural sound.

Multi-Band Compression

Multi-band compression is another technique, which involves compressing different frequencies to different degrees. It can be useful if you want to keep your low ends tight, but allow more expression in your high end notes.

The Downsides to Playing With a Compressor

They’re Not Well Suited To Expressive Music

Compression gets a bad rap sometimes for ‘squeezing the life’ out of your playing.

Expressive genres like blues often rely on the dynamics of the player. Most bluesy players use their picking technique to control their volume, which becomes an important part of the music and the performance. Using a compressor will neutralise this, which can in turn remove the emotion from the sound.

However, some blues players do use compressor pedals, largely due to the benefits they have on sustain. It depends on how important a dynamic range is to your sound.

Hum And Hiss

If you leave your compressor on, or it doesn’t have true bypass when it’s out of use, this can lead to humming or hissing sounds in your signal.

On its own, this doesn’t usually cause too much of a problem on stage but it can add to the hum of other pedals. It’s also something to be absolutely avoided in a recording situation.

Dulling Sound

Compressor pedals can dull your original sound as they squeeze your dynamics closer together. This can result in a ‘flatness’ or lack of brightness.

Luckily, many compressor pedals have a tone control, to rectify this problem.

What Types Of Compressor Are There?

There are 5 main types of compressor pedal:

Optical

Optical compressors work by a light gaining brightness as a signal increases in volume. This light is then read by a photocell, and will adjust when the light gets to a certain brightness, according to your settings. These pedals are often favoured for their smoothness of sound.

Voltage Controlled Amplifier

Voltage controlled amplifier (VCA) compressors utilise internal transistors to detect input voltage. Your settings will determine which voltages are beyond the threshold. These kind of compressors are considered to be very clear, quick to respond and they have the added bonus of being cheaper than some other compressors.

Valve

Valve compressors are similar to both optical and VCA compressors, but they have a vacuum tube inside them rather than a transistor. The effects are pretty similar, though some consider valve compressors to have a warmer tone.

Field Effect Transistor

Field effect transistor (FET) compressors tend to be quite pricey, but they also try to combine the best features of valve compressors and transistor compressors. They can fatten the sound of your instrument and even add distortion. They’re built to preserve the fatness of your sound, even when reducing the gain as you require.

Multi-Band

Multi-band compressors can really affect your tone. They only compress certain frequencies (according to your settings), rather than the complete signal. This can be really handy if you want to use compression in different ways through a variety of octaves, but be careful if this isn’t what you’re looking for.

Which Artists Use Compressor Pedals?

Dave Gilmour has famously used compressor pedals since the 70s, and it’s one of the tools that helps him to achieve his signature sustain.

Compression is also popular amongst heavy metal bands such as Metallica, as it allows everything to be loud, all the time!

You can really hear it in their 2008 album, ‘Death Magnetic’ This album has sparked debate about how much compression is too much compression. What do you think?


Buying Guide: Features You Often Find On A Compressor Pedal

Compressor pedals don’t always have the same features, but here are some that you often find.  

Threshold

Threshold, sometimes ‘input level’ is how loud the signal needs to be before the compressor kicks in. In other words, the threshold is the point at which you want your volume to peak. If you set your high threshold to, say, 2db, anything above that will be reduced by the amount you set it to be reduced by. If you set this somewhere that’s not too far away from your lowest volume, this will make all of your notes sound similar in terms of gain, enabling consistency and clarity.

Release (Sustain) Time

Release time is how long it takes to remove the compression effect once the signal is back below the threshold. A short release time can enable more natural sounding performances, however sometimes you might need a longer release time to achieve smoothness between compressed parts and non-compressed parts.

Tone

Tone controls on compressors usually increase the high end. Compressing the peaks can often make the guitar’s tone duller as it reduces the higher end frequencies. Lifting the high end via the compressor pedal compensates for this.

Attack

The attack control can come in really handy, as it can determine how quickly your compression kicks in. Sometimes, you don’t want it to work straight away, as it will take away from the feeling of the music. Adjusting your attack so that the compression is a little more slow acting can be the remedy to what would sound soulless.

Ratio

The best way to think about Ratio is ‘how much to turn down the volume’. For example, if the ratio is 2:1, for every 2dB the input signal increases, the output increases by 1dB. Musiciansfriend.com have a decent guide that explains all this.

Blend Control / Parallel Mix

Blend or parallel mix controls allow you to combine the compressed signal with the original signal. These controls enable you to set how much of each signal is coming through, so that you can keep some of your original sound whilst still having the benefits of compression.

Volume

Volume, or output level controls on compressors determine how loud the output from the pedal is, after it’s compressed.

Extra Features To Look Out For

There are some features which can make a compressor pedal stand out from the rest.

True Bypass

True bypass means that when the pedal is switched off / out of use, the input leads directly to the output without any interference from the circuitry. This will keep your tone transparent as it runs through the pedal.

Multi-Band

Multi-band features in compressors allow you to alter which frequencies are affected by the compression.

This can be really handy for those who want consistent dynamics when they’re playing open strings, but need to exhibit some emotion in the higher frequencies as they solo up the fretboard.

LEDs

LEDs are included in some compressor pedals. These allow you to easily keep an eye on what the compressor is doing, even from a distance.

 

So, now you know what you’re looking for, let’s take a look at some of the best compressors on the market.

Best Compressor Pedals

Wampler Mini Ego

Wampler Mini Ego Compressor Guitar Effects Pedal

The Wampler Mini Ego is a small, voltage-controlled pedal which has volume, blend and sustain dials. These allow you to maintain some of your original signal, whilst still reaping the benefits of compression in terms of dynamic control and increased sustain.

The pedal also has a tone switch and an attack switch. These allow you to quickly boost your high or low-end frequencies and to alter how quickly the compression kicks in.

Although these switches are on/off switches, rather than highly controllable dials, this will suit those who like to keep things as simple as possible.

This pedal is perfect for the player who doesn’t want to overthink or get too techy, and would like something that’s small and sturdy. It’s also a good option for those who want to boost their lower sounds, rather than to reduce higher peaks.

The Mini Ego might be less suited to those who are interested in taming down their higher peaks; pedals with more options regarding ratio and threshold are better for that.

Pros

  • Extremely small, sturdy and easy to use.
  • Contains true bypass.
  • Versatile in terms of genre: works equally well from funk to chicken pickin’ to sustained lead lines.

Cons

  • You can’t power it off batteries.
  • The attack and tone controls are very limited.
  • The LED is fixed so there’s no visual representation of the compression.

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KongPressor

Orange Kongpressor Analogue Class A Compression Guitar Effects Pedal

The KongPressor is an optical compressor, which has a naturally slow release that contributes to its smoothness and natural sounding compression.

It also works as a super-clean boost pedal if you turn the ‘squeeze’ dial down, and it has attack and release knobs as well as volume and chime (tone) dials.

There’s a transparent buffered bypass which allows your guitar to travel through the pedal when it is switched off, without it affecting your tone. That said, it’s the kind of compressor pedal that makes your guitar sound so good, you probably won’t want to switch it off.

This pedal is perfect for those who want to fatten their clean guitar sounds, and for those who lean towards vintage tones and looks. It’s the smoothest sounding of the pedals listed here, so will be the obvious choice for those who like to keep a natural sound.

It’s less suited to those who want to use compression as an effect, or who might want to use it to reduce their louder signals.

Pros

  • Attack and release knobs give you full control over how quickly the compression kicks in and how long it lasts.
  • Eye-catching design makes it a welcome addition to any pedalboard.
  • Optical maintains the signal’s integrity.

Cons

  • Although it has a transparent buffered bypass, its lack of true bypass won’t suit those who are committed to this feature.
  • The design on the pedal might not suit everyone’s taste.
  • The LED is fixed so there’s no visual representation of the compression.

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Xotic SP Compressor Pedal

Xotic SP Compressor Pedal

Like the Wampler Mini Ego, the Xotic SP is a mini, voltage-controlled compressor.

It is also extremely simple. There is a blend control, a volume control and a low-mid-hi switch. It can enrich your clean signals effectively whilst maintaining your natural sound. The low-mid-hi switch is also easy to quickly shift.

It’s super-easy to use this pedal, and unlike most mini pedals it can also be powered by a battery as well as an adapter.

This pedal will suit those who know what they want, and want a simple, blended compression unit to add something to their softer sounds, which doesn’t require much setting up.

It will be less suitable to those who want a large amount of control over their compression, or to those who are looking to add sustain to their notes. The lack of control over attack and release makes this pedal suited to enhancing clean, soft signals above anything else.

Pros

  • Extremely small, sturdy and simple.
  • Contains true bypass.
  • Can be powered by batteries or 9V adapter.

Cons

  • The simplicity of this pedal will frustrate tech geeks and those who require more control over their compression.
  • It is more susceptible to humming than some other compression pedals.
  • It doesn’t do much for sustain.

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Boss CP-1X Compressor Pedal

Boss CP-1X Compressor Pedal

The BOSS CP-1X is a completely different kind of compressor pedal, which uses “multi-dimensional processing” to analyse your guitar’s signal in multiple ways, as you play.  

It uses intelligent software to ‘listen’ to your playing, and takes into account different strings, neck position and whether you’re playing single notes or chords.

It’s used by legends including David Gilmour, The Edge and Bonnie Raitt, largely due to the fantastic effect it has on sustain as well as compression ability.

This pedal has attack, ratio, level and compression dials, and also LEDs to show the current level of compression at a glance.

It’s perfect for players who want to sound anything like Gilmour et al as well as for players who like to get into the technological side of their guitars’ effects.

It will be less suited to those who like to keep it simple and are looking for a quick-fix clean boost for their country sound. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work extremely well for country music, you’ll just need to take some time over setting it up.

Pros

  • Extremely attentive technology analyses your notes as you play them.
  • You have a high level of control over your attack and ratio via the dials.
  • Unlike other compressors, this one doesn’t muddy your tone.

Cons

  • It can be a bit difficult to get your head around to start with.
  • It doesn’t contain true bypass.

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Behringer Compressor/Sustainer CS400

Behringer Compressor/Sustainer CS400 Ultimate Dynamics Effects Pedal

Behringer’s CS400 is a multiband compressor, which is designed with dynamic consistency in mind.

It’s a cheap and cheerful compressor, but don’t let that put you off. Although it comes at a fraction of the price of other compressor pedals, the CS400 isn’t short of features. The pedal from Behringer is an excellent budget friendly compressor pedal, providing amazing value for money. One thing that stands out is that, although this pedal may not be the absolute best of the best, it punches far above its weight class.

There are attack and sustain dials which give you controllability over how much compression you use, and there’s a level knob which you can use to enable a volume boost or to keep things even. There’s also a tone control so that you can boost any high-end sounds which get lost.

This pedal will suit the guitarist on a budget who wants to tidy up their dynamic range on stage. Although it isn’t as sturdy or as silent as some other compressor pedals, it does the trick. Pedals which cost 8 times as much will perform at a similar level at moderate settings, although you will begin to notice the difference as you turn everything closer to the max.

It will be less suited to those who are going to be on the road a lot, as it’s made from plastic and won’t fair well to getting tossed about.

Pros

  • Extremely budget friendly.
  • Works as a sustain pedal or volume boost, as well as providing compression
  • Tone control lets you highlight different frequencies

Cons

  • It’s not as robust as other compressor pedals.
  • No true bypass and no sidechaining
  • Can cause undesirable noise

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Empress Effects Compressor Analog Compression Guitar Effects Pedal

Empress Effects Compressor Analog Compression Guitar Effects Pedal

The Empress Effects Compressor is an analogue, FET (field effect transistor) pedal, which works wonders for your tone. It is a sturdy pedal with 5 dials, two toggle switches and a foot switch.

There are input and output controls, as well as attack, release and mix controls. These allow you to decide how much of your original guitar goes in, how quickly it’s compressed and released and how much comes out.

The toggle switches are for ratio and meter. The ratio has three settings: 2.1, 4.1 and 10.1, so you can quickly flick to whichever one of those suits the level of compression you require. The meter toggle allows you to either meter gain reduction, input or both. There are then several LED lights on the pedal, which show you what your pedal is doing at all times.

It has true bypass, so when it’s not in use it isn’t affecting anything, and there’s an option for parallel compression here which will suit those who want to keep their natural tone.

This pedal is also the only one in the list to have a side chain, which allows other instruments or effects to affect the sound.

This compressor will suit those who want ultimate controllability over the effect/process and it’s perhaps the most well suited to recording from this list. It’s also the most suited to those who are looking to reduce, rather than increase volumes, thanks to the input knob which works as a threshold. It offers a lot of features you wouldn’t expect to find outside of a studio or software compression.

It will be less suited to those who want a simple, starter compressor pedal. It’s also not going to be one for people on a budget.

Pros

  • High controllability with multiple knobs and a sidechain option.
  • The input knob works as a threshold which makes it easy to set the peak volume
  • There are LEDs which allow you to see what the pedal is doing at a glance

Cons

  • It’s expensive
  • No battery power options.
  • There are no knobs to control the sidechain exclusively.

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MXR M76 Studio Compressor

MXR EQ Effects Pedal (M76)

As with most elements of audio engineering and music production, the level of sophistication and quality that can be achieved in a studio is on a very different level to what you’ll typically be able to reproduce live without having a very expensive and carefully controlled environment.

The MXR M76 compressor pedal is a valiant attempt at making sure you can tap into this wherever you are. If you’re going to be playing in small venues without huge budgets to spend on their sound systems, this pedal is one that you’ll be glad you have.

In terms of what it offers, you have all the standard controls along with separated input and output levels. You also get excellent visual monitoring and a large range of compression ratios.

Pros

  • ​Each note is clear thanks to the Constant Headroom Technology
  • Individual input and output levels gives you fine tune control
  • Very clear visual monitoring with a ten-part LED setup

Cons

  • No sidechain options
  • Expensive, but fair for the quality
  • No 2:1 ratio option

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Electro-Harmonix Black Finger Tube Compressor

Electro-Harmonix Black Finger Tube Compression Pedal

Possibly the most interesting compressor pedal you’ll ever see, and we don’t make that statement likely. It’s one of the few genuine tube compressors, giving a very distinctive character to the compression without spoiling the tone you’ve been painstakingly perfecting. There are a lot of different sounds you can get from this thing, although the actual controls are fairly limited.

Pros

  • ​Effective with bass or guitar
  • No unwanted noise
  • Simple to use, but very flexible

Cons

  • Repairs can be expensive if one of the tubes breaks
  • Needs a specific type of power cable only supplied by Electro-Harmonix

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So, Which Is The Best Guitar Compressor?

As you can see, there are a wide variety of compressors out there to suit all kinds of players.

The Empress Effects Compressor is the premium choice and capable of studio quality. There are an amazing amount of controls on this model, and its sidechain option gives you the option of feeding additional instruments into the compressor to influence the sound. Alongside all of the standard controls and being able to quickly switch between three of the most commonly used compression ratios, you also get parallel compression options, separate input and output monitoring and adjustment and blending controls. The sound quality of the Empress Effects Compressor is excellent, having minimal tone colouration and true bypass.

On the other hand, if all you need is something cheap and cheerful to help you clean up your sound a little and don’t want to break the bank, the Behringer CS400 is your best bet. The MXR M76 is also fairly simple, although offers more a more hands-on experience with exceedingly good sound quality.

If you simply cannot stand the way that modern compressors sound, and want to get the true sound of a tube compressor, the Black Finger is king. Unlike most tube compressors, it can use up to 300 volts and the two optical compression methods give very different attacks.

The BOSS CP-1X is the one with the best sustain, and is favoured by no other than Dave Gilmour. The innovative technology that this pedal uses to produce an amazingly intuitive compression is also fantastic.

If you’re after something small and simple, with an awesome boost the Wampler Mini Ego is the obvious choice. The Xotic SP is similar, and is also the easiest to use of the compressor pedals. The Orange Kongpressor is the best for vintage tones, and is the one that’s most suited to leaving on throughout a gig, to enhance your overall sound.

Whichever compressor you decide is right for you, we hope that this guide has helped you, and that you have fun squashing your sounds!

 

 

Image Credits:
Featured image: marcelodonati / Featured image

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.

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