How to Use a Compressor on a Guitar | Understanding Transients

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So you’ve finally got yourself a compressor, but you have NO idea where to begin. Compression is a BIG topic, so today we’ll be focusing on how to use a compressor on a guitar.

In their very essence, compressors DECREASE the amplitude of loud sounds or…

INCREASE the amplitude of quiet sounds.

The result is what we refer to as dynamic range compression.

Now, why would we want to do that, aren’t dynamics essential to a “lively” performance?

You’re right, a performance without dynamics would sound “lifeless”, but TOO MUCH of a good thing can be disadvantageous.

For example, a guitarist might not articulate certain notes as LOUDLY as others.

In the mix, only the notes that are LOUD ENOUGH will “cut-through”, so everything else will become inaudible.

Are you beginning to see why compression is so important? Let’s keep going!

 

Using a Compressor Guitar Pedal vs Post-Processing

Whether you’ve recently acquired a compressor in the form of a guitar pedal and/or an effect plug-in, we need to understand the difference.

Did you know that by inserting an effect at different stages, you can get different results?

IT’S TRUE!

You can try it out for yourself; place your compressor at the BEGINNING of your signal-chain. 

Now place it at the END.

 

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The difference will be VERY EVIDENT if you’re using some form of “distortion” pedal.

Think about it, each “step” your signal takes CHANGES IT PERMANENTLY. Audio signal processing is “sequential”, so the ORDERING of your processes matters.

For example, you could actually use a compressor guitar pedal as a “clean boost” by setting the “output gain” in the positives.

You can use this TECHNIQUE to drive the “front-end” of your amplifier by having the “ratio” set to minimum.

HOWEVER, you would NEVER be able to achieve this in the post-processing phase.

Once your signal reaches your digital audio workstation (DAW), it has reached “full-maturity”. It’s basically an “image” of the original sound, so it won’t REACT in the same manner.

So, should we be using one or the other, maybe both?

 

How to Use Multiple Compressors in Series

Now that we understand the LIFECYCLE of an audio signal a bit better, we’ll be able to apply STRATEGIC COMPRESSION throughout.

What do I mean by “strategic compression” though, is using more than ONE compressor actually better?

As a matter of fact, most sound engineers use compression at different stages to achieve SPECIFIC RESULTS.

 

Here’s an example:

 

Your guitarist, Gary, arrives at the recording studio with his new compressor guitar pedal. He wants to use it for a “funky” tune he and his bandmates are about to track. However, he wants to use it SOLELY to provide a “clean boost” to drive the “front-end” of his amplifier.

 

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A guitarist with a plan like that is ALWAYS appreciated in the recording studio. This is considered a STRATEGIC spot to introduce compression.

Now, the sound engineer will most likely need to apply some compression during post-processing, but for a DIFFERENT REASON.

Since Gary’s guitar signal will most likely come out FULL and STRONG, we might simply need to reduce his dynamic range.

By using “a little” compression at different stages, we generate much more CONTROL over the final result.

Even more so because there are DIFFERENT TYPES of compressors that have STRENGTHS for certain applications.

 

Using a Compressor on Electric Guitar vs Acoustic Guitar

Electric guitars can either be used as “lead” instruments and/or as part of the “rhythm section”. However, our compression methods may differ slightly depending on the ROLE our instrument plays.

Acoustic guitars will usually accompany the “rhythm section”, so it’s a little easier to determine a “standard” preset.

But the MOST IMPORTANT parameter we will be looking at is the “attack” speed.

Basically, a FAST “attack” will catch “transients” (or “peaks”) while a SLOW “attack” will let them come through.

For instance, if our goal was to “level-out” a guitar player’s ARTICULATIONS, we would set the “attack” relatively FAST. 

 

how to use a compressor on a guitar

 

Using this setting on a “lead “ guitar track would “fatten” it up by making EVERY ARTICULATION audible.

 

  • Adjust the “threshold” to reduce about 6 dB of gain
  • Reduce by a “ratio” of 3:1
  • Set the “attack” speed to about 3 ms
  • Match the “input gain” with the “make-up/output gain”

 

When it comes to “rhythm” guitar parts, however, you may want to PRESERVE your “transients” by setting a SLOWER “attack” speed.

 

how to use a compressor on a guitar

 

This would essentially bring out the PERCUSSIVE elements of your track by reducing the HARMONIC elements.

 

  • Adjust the “threshold” to reduce  about 6 dB of gain
  • Reduce by a “ratio” of 3:1
  • Set the “attack” speed to about 25 ms
  • Match the “input gain” with the “make-up/output gain”

 

There you have it! 

The first “preset” will work wonders for “lead” electric guitar parts and…

The second “preset” will improve your “rhythm” electric and acoustic guitar tracks.

Did you notice how the “attack” speed was the only things we modified?

 

The Fundamentals of Compression on a Guitar Signal

You may be wondering if there are any other parameters you should be concerned with? I mean, it can’t be as easy as setting the “attack”, can it?

If you understand “transients”, then you understand 99% of what compression is all about.

 

  • Threshold | This parameter determines the “level” at which your compressor begins compressing. The LOWER you set it, the MORE your signal gets compressed. Set it to achieve about 6 dB of “gain” reduction.

 

  • Ratio | This parameter determines the degree of “gain” reduction above the “threshold”. The HIGHER your “ratio”, the more ARTIFICIAL your compressor will sound. For guitar, a “ratio” of 3:1 is FANTASTIC.

 

  • Make-Up/Output | This parameter is simply a means to compensate for the loss of amplitude. The objective is to use it to MATCH the initial amplitude BEFORE compression. If you reduced by 6 dB, you’ll most likely compensate with about 6 dB!

 

  • Knee | This parameter will determine the “curve” of your compression. A soft knee is “smooth” and hard knee is “aggressive”. You can experiment, but I suggest setting it to “soft” as it sounds more NATURAL.

 

  • Release | This parameter will determine how long your compressor will “hold on” to the signal. Setting it somewhere around the middle will give you the most NATURAL response. Some compressors even include an “automatic release”, so don’t worry about it.

 

SIMPLE AS THAT!

The MOST IMPORTANT parameter for you to consider it the “attack”, everything else is technical.

There may always be “additional” parameters on certain compressors (like the ability to mix your input/output signals), but stay focused on the ESSENTIALS.

Remember that different types of compressors (FET, Optical, Tube, etc..) will give you different results as well!

 

how to use a compressor on a guitar

 

Why Should You Use a Compressor on Your Guitar?

Out of all the instruments that get compressed, I feel like the guitar is the one that benefits the MOST. I actually believe EVERY guitarist should include a compressor on their pedalboard.

First of all, you could SIGNIFICANTLY reduce your amplifiers “gain” by using a compressor for a “clean boost”. Why is this better?

NO MORE FEEDBACK!

Compressors are essentially tools that allow us to achieve the impossible.

Especially in a “live” setting, we want to make sure that EVERY note comes out LOUD AND CLEAR.

And keep in mind that sound engineers are using them EITHER WAY, so you’re actually helping them make you sound better. That’s what STRATEGIC COMPRESSION is all about!

But what if you become “dependent” on your compressor?

You’re dependent on your amplifier for sound, aren’t you? And you know what, some amplifiers actually INCLUDE a compressor!

Don’t be shy, start using compression on your guitar TODAY, you’ll LOVE IT!

 

Are you “hooked” on any particular type of compressor? Let us know in the comments and feel free to share your own personal tips and tricks!

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