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Posts Tagged ‘compression’

Maxon CP-9 Pro+ CompressorEven after all these years, I still ask that question. I used to use a compressor for my solo acoustic gigs to tighten up my dynamic range, especially if I played in large, open spaces or a venue with high ceilings.

But it also frustrated me a bit because even with light compression, that narrower dynamic range made me feel as if the subtle highs and especially lows just weren’t coming through. So in the end, I decided to not use a compressor, and simply adjust how I attack my strings with my right hand.

That has proven useful and actually has helped make me better at controlling my expression. But there are times when I’m in a crowded, loud venue where I really need my guitar to cut through the ambient noise and a compressor would really help do that.

So… to answer the question I posed as the title of the article, it really depends…

Great! That’s a really f’d up answer… 🙂 In all seriousness though, here’s where I’d use a compressor:

  • If you’re playing in a place with high ceilings and your amp/PA is on the ground, using some light compression will help get your sound out. You lose some low- and high-frequency definition, but it’s a good tradeoff. There’s nothing worse than having your vocals completely drown out your guitar. On the other hand, if your PA is elevated as it is in the restaurant I play in, compression might help, but you could probably do without it.
  • For large, open spaces, compression is a must. Again, it should be subtle. You don’t want to squash your signal because it’ll come out muffled and lifeless.
  • If you use a speaker array like the Fishman SA220 or Bose L series, or HK Audio system, a just little compression will help to define your signal as those kinds of PA systems are multi-directional. That said, if you’re playing in a smaller room, or one that has good acoustics, I wouldn’t bother with compression at all.

The danger of using compression is that you might over-compress your signal, and that’s a bad thing. Compressors by their very nature reduce the dynamic range of a signal. So over-compressing will make you sound like you threw a blanket over your amp.

As for the type of compression method, that really boils down to personal preference. However, I would advise using a “soft knee” compressor as opposed to a “hard knee” compressor. With a hard knee compressor, once you hit the dB threshold for the compressor kicks in, you get compression at whatever ratio you set. That might be useful if you’re playing quiet, then suddenly slam your guitar. But dialing in the makeup gain when the compressor is engaged is a pain in the ass.

I prefer to use soft knee compressors that kick in gradually and only get to their maximum ratio once you hit a certain gain level. This means that you’ll always get a bit of compression, no matter what volume you play, but you don’t get the full squish until past a certain point. And as long as you don’t get too over-zealous with the ratio, you’ll notice a definite “kick” to your sound.

With respect to the actual compressor type to use, again, that’s personal preference. There are pedals and rack mounts available that offer different types of compression. Personally, I’ve always gravitated towards optical compressors for acoustic. I used the venerated Maxon CP 101+ for a number of years before I sold it. This is a great optical compressor that is also very subtle. Maxon makes a CP 101 reissue that’s based on the original design.

As for other types, I’ve only used them for recording. Here’s a great article on the different types of compressors. For recording, I’ll typically use VCA compressor plug-in since that is very flexible. But for mastering, I may use a FET compressor plugin for the overall mix as that seems – at least to my ears – to liven things up a bit.

As always, try before you buy. A compressor is not really something you specifically NEED, but it does come in handy for some real-life applications, and can make the difference between stumbling with your sound and putting your best foot forward.

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Got a press release from Pigtronix yesterday on the new Philosopher’s Rock pedal, which is an optical compression-sustainer/germanium distortion pedal. Normally I’d say, “Yeah? So what…” but this time I’m a bit intrigued, partially because I’ve been thinking about getting another compressor, and partially because I’ve been looking for another pedal to use distortion into a clean amp. So it’s nice that this pedal combines both. Here’s the press release:

Pigtronix Announces Release of the Philosopher’s Rock Pedal

The Philosopher’s Rock is a compressor sustainer and germanium overdrive pedal that expands the already notorious line of Philosopher pedals from Long Island’s Pigtronix effects.  The Philosopher’s Rock is the over-achieving little brother of the company’s top selling sustain pedal, the Philosopher’s Tone.  Simplified down to offer up the best sounds of its predecessor, the Philosopher’s Rock sports a streamlined control layout plus the added benefit of germanium enhanced overdrive, along with an unbeatable price point.

The Philosopher’s Rock utilizes Pigtronix award winning compression circuit that has been acclaimed by the likes of Andy Summers, Dweezil Zappa, Johnny Hiland and Billy Sheehan.  On this new unit, the controls have been paired down to a classic compressor layout of just 2 knobs (Volume & Sustain) plus a single toggle switch for layering in a refined, vintage flavored germanium overdrive.

With a four times wider range of compression, endless sustain, germanium overdrive and a new vertical footprint and idiot proof control layout, the Philosopher’s Rock is destined to become a future classic.

“The Philosopher’s Rock is Killer. It must go in my rig stat!” – Ian Thornely of Big Wreck

“The Philosopher’s Rock is incredible!” – Brad Whitford of Aerosmith

Pigtronix Philosopher’s Rock carries a list price of $175 and is available now at Pigtronix dealers everywhere.  Check out the Philosopher’s Rock and the entire 2012 lineup of Pigtronix effects at: www.pigtronix.com

All hyperbole aside, this pedal seems to be pretty cool…

Here’s demo video of the pedal:

For more information, visit the Philosopher’s Rock page!

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Soft/Hard Knee Compression

I’ve actually been thinking about writing this article for almost a year and a half. The back story behind it is that I was having a discussion with my eldest son about why I didn’t like the music he listened to. He was arguing that if I make the claim that I like all kinds of music, I shouldn’t contradict myself by saying I didn’t like his kind of (he was really into hardcore punk at the time). My response was that I actually liked the songs, but hated the vomit screaming vocals, and hated the total lack of regard for dynamic range in the music – it was all one volume from start to finish! I shared with him that I didn’t believe it was a function of the song, but a function of the mastering, and an endemic problem in music being produced these days.

To demonstrate, I grabbed an old Cars CD from my collection, and played a couple of songs for him. There were perceptibly distinct swells and dips in volume in all the songs – very dynamic. Then we put on one of his CD’s and listened to a couple of songs. After we finished, my son couldn’t believe the difference in recording technique used 20 years ago. Even he said the performances on my old CD seemed so much more alive, where the songs from his CD didn’t have nearly the amount of dynamicism, and they seemed almost muffled compared to the clarity of the Cars’ recordings.

I told him that it was due to the heavy compression that producers are using these days, and gave him a simple explanation of what a compressor does. I also shared that I believed that producers were just being lazy and using compression as a shortcut so they didn’t have to teach their musicians and singers proper mic and recording control. Heavy compression and limiting means you don’t have to fix the recordings as much, saving studio time, and thus getting a production out faster. I did say that compression is not bad, but it is overused. Correctly and judiciously applied, compression can really have a positive effect on a production.

But despite that, I didn’t write the article. I can’t explain why… Looking back, I suppose it may have been in large part due to wanting to focus more on getting gear reviews out, and focusing a lot on my own recordings. But I recently read an article in the new issue of Guitar World that covered compression: What it is, what it’s used for, and how to apply compression to vocals and various instruments. It was very instructive. As I eluded above, compression can be a very useful tool in the studio to tame wide swings in volume in a vocal or an instrument, and can add presence, and because of how it works, in many cases, a compressor is used to add sustain. At its most basic level, a compressor reduces the amount of dynamic range by reducing sounds that exceed a predetermined volume threshold; but because this also reduces the overall volume of the signal, makeup gain is added to bring up the volume of the quieter sounds. The end result is that you get a “fatter” signal.

I’m not going to go into any technical detail about compression. For that you can read this excellent reference. In fact, I’m going to assume you already know a bit about compression.

And while compression is very useful, as with anything you can have too much of a good thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t use it, but I am going to make an appeal: Don’t get sucked into the trend of creating a less dynamic recording. I can understand the need for compression over radio, but this trend is simply making for much lower audio quality and less dynamically expressive recordings.

Good Mic Technique

I was once speaking with this old timer named Patrick who, at 72, is still gigging and recording. I was talking to him about recording, and he said that young people don’t know good mic technique, and complained about the overuse of compression. His words, “Boy, back in the day, we didn’t have compression. So when a singer like Sinatra got to a phrase where he needed to pick up his volume, he just moved away from the mic. It ain’t goddamn rocket science. But compression made people lazy.”

Wow! What a statement, and it really is easy to do for a singer. But what about guitars? This is a bit tougher, but at least what I strive for is to make sure I’ve got a lot of dynamic range in my recordings by either tweaking the input or output gain so my waveforms have as much vertical travel variation on the track as possible. I will sacrifice volume for dynamics. After the fact, I may add a touch of compression, but only very limited, and to keep true to the natural output of the amp, use fairly short release times. This is approach can be a lot of work because it requires that I play fairly consistently, but that’s also good training. It’s also a lot of work to get a good mix, but in the end it’s totally worth it!

I believe if you just start with good mic technique, and use compression sparingly, your recordings will come alive.

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