Jun 20, 2017

One of the most vital studio tools in history, the compressor does the job of “keeping in check” the louder spikes of a signal, allowing for a more consistent overall volume: by attenuating the louder sections of the signal, the compressor will make the quieter sections sound closer in volume.

Compression could be described as the balancing act between the loudest and quietest you want your guitar to sound: if you abuse it, you’ll lose sensitivity, if you bypass it, you may hear uneven notes and unwanted spikes.

HOW COMPRESSION WORKS

For the uninitiated, this is how compressors work: set a volume Threshold (in decibels), and any peak above that level will be “squeezed” according to the selected “Ratio,” which is normally a value between 2:1 and 8:1. A ratio of 2:1 squeezes those peaks by 50% of their “above the threshold” volume, while 4:1 squeezes them by 75% etc. Any section of your signal that stays under the threshold is unaffected.

Other popular functions in compressors are”Attack” and “Release” (often called “Sustain“) which delay, respectively, the effect’s initial and final reaction times: for example, a longer attack would let the guitar’s initial “hard” pick sound come through uncompressed, while a long release will prolong the squeezing for a few seconds after the level withdraws under the threshold, for a more natural sounding return to the uncompressed signal.

A ratio of 2:1 squeezes those peaks by 50% of their “above the threshold” volume, while 4:1 squeezes them by 75% etc.

Blend” (or “Mix“) is also a popular feature in the pedal compression realm, allowing the player to mix back in a little bit of the uncompressed guitar signal for more sensitivity (this is also done in studio consoles using a trick called “parallel compression”).

Finally, since compression works by reducing the level of the signal, another useful feature is the “Volume” (or “Level“) knob, placed after the compression, which allows to bring the volume to its original, pre-compression level (or above it, working as a clean boost).

FROM STUDIO TO STOMPBOX

While compressors have been in use in recording (and radio) technology to achieve a more consistent signal since the early days, only in the past few decades have they been incorporated into stompbox format for use with guitar, bass, and keyboards.

Admittedly, a compressor is not a particularly creative pedal, but it can make a huge difference in your tone. It can be used in a “set and forget” kind of  way (in particular if you play rhythmic guitar or bass, which require steady levels), or be activated when you need more “body,” as you would do with a clean boost. In sparse music, it can be used to prolong your notes’ sustain. However, in most situations, compressors don’t need to be tweaked from song to song – which is why a lot of players are opting for the mini pedal format. Hence this guide focused on mini-compressors!

VARIATIONS IN TONE: TRANSPARENCY

Compressors can affect your tone depending on the technology used and (if not tweakable) on the hard wired attack and release settings. But generally speaking, a quality compressor shouldn’t change the tonal quality of your signal (i.e. its EQ), and this is why you’ll find that most pedal companies advertise the transparency of their compressors. Cheaper compressors tend to muddy up your signal or make it a little thinner. There are better pedals out there to tackle color and EQ… 

a quality compressor shouldn’t change the tonal quality of your signal (i.e. its EQ).

But the bottom line, as usual, is that there is no right and wrong in tone: it’s up to your ear to decide what sounds better and what sounds worse!

And after that absolute truth of relativism, it’s now time to get going with the list of mini-compressors on the market!

We organized them mostly by price range, but also grouped ones that have particularly useful options like the “Blend/Mix” and the “Level/Output” knob, or use a different technology (optical compressors).

The pedals in each gallery are organized by “perceived” popularity – most popular first.

And, as usual… Clicking on the thumbnails will open a demo video!



HIGH END MINI COMPRESSOR PEDALS

These options offer top notch compression, a transparent sound and amazing build quality. Many have additional controls for extra fine tuning of the signal. They all offer a post-compression volume, which might tell you something…

Xotic SP Compressor – $132
Really transparent, offering the high-quality design Xotic is known for. A 3-way switch lets you choose between compression modes of hi, mid, and lo to dial in your perfect compressor ratio (i.e. the amount of squish). Useful blend knob allows you to mix back in the uncompressed signal for a more natural result.

Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone Micro – $119
An optical compressor design featuring 4 controls. The specially-tailored EQ control is focused around 2kHz, which is a frequency area that can make or break guitar tone. Internal power rails boost the effect to 18V, providing maximum clean headroom no matter what kind of rig you run. I features a “Blend” knob.

Henretta Engineering Orange Whip – $125
A unique pedal inspired to the Orange Squeezer casting an incredibly small footprint and internal trimmers for subtle controls. Great for super-squishy, funky tones. Even when dialing in subtle settings, it’s a fairly obvious sound.

Wampler Mini Ego – $179.95
The most versatile mini compressor. 5 controls let you sculpt your sound, including wet/dry Blend, Sustain, and Volume. Tone switch lets you alter between dark or bright sounds, and Attack switch sets slow or fast compression.

One Control Lemon Yellow – $167
Very musical, with controls for compression ratio, amount of compression, and level. A switch on the side allows for increased release time (more sustain), and a small footprint and solid construction round out the feature set.



MID-PRICED MINI COMPRESSOR PEDALS

You don’t have to spend more than $100 to find a rock solid mini compressor pedal. The options in this category offer a great combination of performance and price, but the lower tag implies either lack in versatility (less knobs) or a cheaper build, which could cause a lack of transparency and durability.

The exception here is the TC Electronic Hypergravity Mini, which is more affordable because based on a digital design, which actually preserves the transparency of the tone and allows for extra versatility. However, the downside in this case is that not everybody likes the word “digital,” when applied to compression.

Mooer Yellow Comp – $58.49
A smoother, slower-attack compressor based on an optical design. Controls for amount of compression, EQ, and volume make this perfect for adding just a touch of dynamic balance. It doesn’t really color your sound, but that’s the point.

TC Electronic Hypergravity Mini – $99.99
The only digital mini-compressor on the market, it offers almost limitless tonal possibilities. A vintage mode gives you the flavor of classic (more colored) compressors, and Tone Print feature lets you to take control over virtually every parameter of sound to dial in exactly what you want.

Hotone Skyline Komp – $79.99
Another take on optical compression for guitar, based on the venerable LA2A studio compressor. Very transparent, almost not even there, perfect for subtle compression on rhythm and acoustic guitars.

MXR Dynacomp Mini – $99.99
A legendary compressor pedal rehoused in a smaller enclosure, with additional switch (the standard size is just 2 controls) to choose between fast and slow attack times.

Malekko Omicron Compressor – $99
A standard 2-knob compressor from a mini-pedal pioneer, with controls for Sensitivity (amount of compression) and Level. Built with the same components found in legendary vintage Ross compressor pedals (NOS ca3080 IC, anybody?).

Fender Micro Compressor – $79.99
A middle of the road (tonally) compressor that’s a bit subtler than the average. While many compressors sound the best on a clean signal, the Fender works surprisingly well on heavy, distorted sounds.

Mosky Mini Dyna Compressor – $65
A single knob compressor that stands up surprisingly well to others. It has fixed attack and release times while offering a unique approach to guitar squeeze, but lack of output control somewhat limits the amount of compression you can use, without losing a lot of volume.

Joyo Pipebomb JF-312 – $65
Great for single-coils, a little muddy (non transparent) with humbuckers. The coveted mix control lets you dial in parallel compression as a dry/wet blend. Built with a handy control cover, it also features a “Level” knob to bring back up the signal.



BUDGET MINI COMPRESSOR PEDALS

You don’t have to break the bank to find a compressor that works for you. These budget models offer a variety of options at incredible value. If they work for you, (and if you are a “delicate stomper”) they might be all you need.

Donner Ultimate Comp – $37
A surprisingly subtle, great sounding compressor. Best for a spanky sound, not so much for sustain. Works well for country, blues, funk, and jazz rhythm tones.

Kokko FCP-2 – $24.50
One of the lowest-end options, it delivers a surprisingly sufficient sound. It fattens things up a bit, and tames harsh peaks. They obviously skipped on the construction, but for the price point it’s worth a shot.

Valeton Comprince – $49.99
A solid, affordable 4 knob compressor. There are controls for attack and release of the signal, when usually guitar compressor pedals feature one or the other. Tone and Volume controls are also welcome extra, in particular at this price point.

Monoprice Compressor – $44.96
Similar to the Mooer Yellow Comp, with controls for amount of compression, EQ, and output volume. Small, and well-built for a budget model. Equally at home for rhythms or leads.



MINI COMPRESSORS WITH “BLEND/MIX” KNOB

We decided to create a separate category for the pedals featuring the “Blend/Mix” knob, because they really work in a different way compared to your regular compression (maybe that’s why this kind of compression has its own name: parallel compression). By allowing you to blend your clean, uncompressed signal with the compressed one, these pedals create a more natural sounding effect, where the natural dynamics of your style aren’t entirely lost.



OPTICAL MINI COMPRESSOR PEDALS

Optical compressors are based on a technology that just sounds different from your regular design, normally based on a Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA) or a Field Effect Transistor (FET). They can be very transparent and feature a slower attack and release.

By Brandon Stoner and Paolo De Gregorio

 

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