Use compression to get a good low-volume guitar tone
Why use a compressor pedal?
If you’ve read some of my other posts on this website, you’ll know that I absolutely cannot stand the blatant overuse of compression in modern recorded music. I don’t, however, want you to come away from this site thinking that “compression” is some kind of evil term, to be avoided at all costs. In fact, it is one of the most basic and useful audio tools in a musician’s arsenal.
A great way to use compression is to help create the illusion of a louder amplifier sound. Most of us practicing guitarists have to do most of our practice in low-volume situations. It is a well known problem that guitar amplifiers do not sound their best unless they are turned up a substantial amount. By that point, though, neighbors will certainly be complaining!
One reason that our amplifiers sound better at a higher volume is that at high volumes, the amplifier begins to “compress” the guitar sound – that is – it makes the quieter parts louder and the louder parts quieter. One way to test this out: turn up your amp all the way and then blow air onto your guitar strings, hear that cool sound? “Compression” is what allows us to hear such a quite sound at such a high volume (without having our ears blasted out when we actually strum a chord).
I find that using a “compressor” pedal in front of an amplifier, turned very quiet, is a great way to get a good guitar sound at low volumes. Simply turn the pedal on, adjust the compression amount to what sounds good, and you should notice a much more satisfying, but still quiet, guitar tone.
What are some good compressor pedals?
My personal favorite is the “Keeley Compressor,” a very transparent sounding pedal. It is, at this point, a modern industry standard for guitarists. Another good pedal is the “BBE Opto Stomp” which is designed for a subtle and natural sound, though it cannot achieve the moderate to heavy levels of compression that you may want. Or you can go for a more pronounced, vintage sound and get a modern recreation of the Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer such as Analog Man’s Juicer pedal.
A couple of notably popular, though untested by me personally, pedals that you also might look at are the Pigtronix Philisopher’s Tone and the Barber Tone Press. The philosopher’s tone took the guitar magazine review circuit by storm, earning a number of editor’s choice rankings because of the number of controllable compression parameters on the device (most compressor pedals have 1 or 2 knobs, it has 5). The tone press became popular because of its affordable (at least in boutique guitar pedal terms) price and its ability to provide a very clean compressed tone using its “blend” knob.