There are two common questions asked by Guitar Players, "What is Compression" and "do I need a compressor pedal". Naturally the next questions to follow is. "what is the best compressor", but that is a question best left for another time.
So lets get into this!
What is Compression?
A compressor shrinks the dynamic range of your signal. That simply means it reduces the difference between your peak volume and your lowest volume. A good way to think about it is in the terms of a ceiling and a floor. A ceiling is set to the volume level you want. Once your signal goes over this point, or threshold, the compressor pulls is back down to the volume you want. At the same time it turns up the overall volume of your input signal. This if effect raises the floor and turns up the softer notes of your playing. This means your playing has a more even volume level overall.
What does this mean?
A compressor is like an extra hand that helps turn you down when things get out of control, or turn you up when the audience can't hear you. This is a good way to make sure what you are playing is always able to be heard by the audience. Another nice plus is that a compressor can help sustain your notes without needing to rely on an overdrive or distortion. Your notes won't seem to be fading because the compressor has raised your volume floor. Now you can keep your clean tone while still being able to cut through the mix. I have also found that this helps my delay repeats to sound more clear.
Who uses Compressor Pedals?
Anyone who likes them! This is a bit of a cop out answer, but a compressor can fit nicely into the sound of any genre. A lot of country players like them because of the attack they add on the front end of the note. This is especially nice for "Chicken Picking" which has lots of notes played quickly up and down the neck. The notes are all smoothed out and sound at the same volume even if the player is inconsistent in their picking. It also helps those hammer on's and pull off's ring through. A blues player may look for a similar effect in switching from full chords to single note runs.
To Compress, or Not to Compress
Really the answer is up to you. Lots of great players have compressors on their board, and lots of great players don't use pedals at all. The choice is yours. Spend some time experimenting with the different options out there. If you find that a compressor is helpful to you and enhances your playing then use one. If you don't like the effect than use that space for some other pedal you love!
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