When guitarists think of exciting new pedals to add to their rig to get that perfect tone, a compressor is usually not their first consideration. And yet, compressors play a vital role in cleaning up and subtly shaping guitar tone.
Basically, a compressor pedal smooths out extremes in volume, flattening peaks and raising the level quieter sections, basically balancing out the sound in terms of volume. Set up correctly, it’s barely noticeable – unless you want it to be.
Different types of compressor circuits have unique sonic footprints, and all have a variety of controls for sculpting your tone. All these variables can be confusing at first.
So let’s explore how compressors work in our Best Compressor Pedal Buyer’s Guide…
What Does a Compressor Pedal Do, And How?
In a nutshell, a compressor pedal reduces your “dynamic range,” the difference in volume between the softest and the loudest notes. It enables you to play louder on average without overdriving your amp or sticking out in a mix. In other words, if you play twice as loud into a compressor, the output is less than twice as much.
A compressor pedal also has the effect of increasing a guitar’s sustain. As a note fades away, the compressor increases its gain, however, it also increases any noise that comes with it.
Typically, a compressor is the first pedal in your chain, other than a tuner. If the output is connected to an overdrive pedal, the compressor limits how much the overdrive saturates, giving it a subtly different sound.
All compressor pedals have some combination of controls to tweak the effect to your needs. Some pedals have a simple design with just one or two knobs, while more elaborate pedals have more.
All compressor pedals have a threshold control but often labeled “Sustain,” “Sensitivity,” or “Compression.”
It sets the minimum input signal level required to turn the compressor on. If you turn it up all the way, then all but the very loudest sounds will pass through unchanged. Set very low, the attack of most notes will be squashed. When trying out a new compressor pedal, setting this control straight up at 12 o’clock is a good place to start.
Compression pedals always have a volume control, sometimes labeled “Gain” or “Level.” Compression reduces the maximum signal, so you turn up this control to boost the overall signal to level it with your un-compressed volume. This makes quiet sounds louder than before.
Together with the Threshold control, it has the effect of increasing your guitar’s sustain; as a note dies out, the compressor volume increases.
You’ll find this control on some higher-end pedals. When turned all the way down, the compression ratio is 1:1, or no compression at all. Turning the control clockwise, louder sounds lose some of their volume. At 2:1 compression, the loudest sounds are half as loud, or -3 dB.
Turned up full, the compression is infinite, so playing louder makes no difference. This is called “leveling.” Instead of a knob, some pedals have a switch to select different levels of compression.
A Blend knob lets you mix the clean, uncompressed input with the compressed signal, essentially varying the compression ratio. Some lower-end compressor pedals have neither a Blend nor a Ratio control, in which case the amount of compression applied can’t be adjusted.
The Attack control determines how quickly the pedal reacts to a signal above the signal threshold. If you set this knob for a slow attack, then the initial attack of a guitar note will pass through unchanged, and the compressor will just boost the sustain. On the other hand, a very fast attack setting will make the compressor flatten the sound of the note being picked instantly.
A few high-end pedals also include a Release control. It determines how quickly the compressor lets go once the signal has dropped below the threshold. Attack and Release controls work together to let you precisely sculpt your guitar’s dynamic response.
Compressor pedals often include a Tone control to help compensate for perceived changes in tone from applying compression. Generally speaking, settings lower than 12 o’clock cut treble, while higher settings boost it.
Finally, some compressor pedals include front panel toggle switches or internal DIP switches that change how they work in various ways. We’ll explain them as they appear in the reviews.
Another variable is the type of circuit used to compress the signal. The three most common circuits use Operational Transconductance Amplifier (OTA), Field-Effect Transistor (FET), or Optical (OPTO) compression.
This is the oldest and by far the most common compressor circuit. It acts on signal peaks and can provide a very fast attack and release time. As a side effect, this adds a certain coloration to the compressed signal that many musicians prefer.
FET compressors are also peak limiters. FETs respond much like vacuum tubes and tend to add a lot of warmth to a sound. The classic example of a FET compressor is the classic UREI 1176LN.
Optical compression circuits employ a light bulb to convert the input signal into light and a photo-resistor that registers the light intensity to control the amount of gain reduction. Because it takes time for a light filament to heat and cool, OPTO compressors respond more slowly and tend to compress the average (RMS) signal rather than the peaks.
This helps keep attacks well-defined at even high compression levels. Also, non-linearity inherent in OPTO compression help create a sound that many musicians perceive as being more “musical.”
True or Buffered Bypass
Finally, there’s the issue of “bypass,” or how the input signal is routed when the pedal is off. A true bypass pedal directs the input signal directly to the output jack, while a buffered bypass passes the signal through a buffer amplifier on the way to the output.
Without getting deep into the weeds over the benefits and disadvantages of either circuit, it’s useful to know which type of bypass a pedal provides. Some offer both options.
Top 10 Best Compressor Pedal For The Money 2021 Reviews
1 MXR M102 Dyna Comp Compresor Pedal
The original MXR Dyna Comp compressor pedal was introduced in the 1970s and has since been copied by many other builders. It became an immediate hit with Nashville guitarists because it thickened the tone of single-coil guitars like the Fender Telecaster. The original design was based around the CA3080 OTA chip.
The MXR M-102 Dyna Comp Reissue is based on this original design, but also offers some modern updates. The old CA3080 has been replaced with an improved OTA, but the sound remains remarkably close to the original. In other words, it adds the same tone coloration, particularly a slight bass roll-off around 60 Hertz. Nevertheless, the M-102 is found on the pedal boards of many notable guitarists.
In addition to the original output and sensitivity controls that made the original so intuitive, the M-102 adds an LED and now provides true bypass. The attack is hard-wired at 5 milliseconds and the release at 1 second, with a maximum of 36 dB of compression.
Construction is solid, with high-quality parts. The M-102 is powered by a 9-volt battery or an external power supply.
- Classic sound that’s great for fattening up single-coil guitar tone.
- Two knobs – straightforward to use.
- Colors the sound.
- Not as much control as some other models.
2 Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer Pedal
Another classic design is the Boss CS-3 Compressor/Sustainer pedal. The original CS-1 design was introduced in 1978, and the CS-3 in 1986. It has remained in production in Japan and Taiwan ever since, with virtually no changes. The Boss CS-3 is both an uncomplicated compressor and a sustain pedal.
Like all Boss pedals, the CS-3 comes in an iconic case that’s nearly indestructible. In place of a typical stomp footswitch, a large hinged metal panel act as the on-off switch. It can be powered by an internal battery or a 9-volt power supply.
It has a buffered bypass circuit. Since a compressor is often the first in a guitarist’s pedal chain, a buffer at the beginning helps minimize signal loss.
The CS-3 has four controls. Level sets the overall output volume. Tone either cuts or boosts higher frequencies. Attack determines how quickly the compressor reacts once the threshold is reached. And Sustain controls the time before the compressor releases. The maximum compression is -38 dB.
The sound isn’t completely transparent, but it’s better than most other pedals in its price range. Used as a sustain pedal, it sounds very natural, even at high Sustain settings.
- Built like a tank.
- Smooth compression.
- Not sonically neutral.
3 Behringer Compressor/Sustainer CS400 Ultimate Dynamics Effects Pedal
If you suspect that the Behringer CS400 Compressor/Sustainer bears a strong resemblance to the Boss CS-3, that’s because it does! Behringer has developed a reputation for delivering quality musical instrument products that often imitate famous musical gear, including guitar pedals to mixers and synthesizers.
With engineering based in Germany and a large manufacturing complex in China, they consistently produce faithful “clones” of famous gear at a fraction of the cost.
In fact, the CS400 pedal is based on the original Boss design, with the same features and specifications. Some musicians report that the bass response of the CS-3 is actually a little better. It’s also the cheapest compressor pedal reviewed here.
A common criticism of Behringer pedals, and part of why they’re so inexpensive, is the plastic case. It’s sturdy, but it’s definitely not as indestructible as a Boss pedal. This probably won’t matter if you’re primarily a studio musician, but regular gigging might cause it to break sooner. On the plus side, Behringer offers a limited 3-year warranty on the CS400.
Another consideration is resale value. Guitarists tend to accumulate a sizable cache of pedals in their quest for better tone. If you decide to clean house and sell it, a Behringer pedal probably won’t have the high resale value of many classic pedals.
- Sounds as good as far more expensive pedals.
- Almost identical to “that other” pedal company.
- Plastic case could break.
- Lower resale value.
4 JOYO JF-10 Dynamic Compressor Guitar Effect Pedal
The Joyo JF-10 Dyna Compressor is a Chinese designed-and-built pedal based on the classic Ross compressor design. But it’s not a clone. In fact, Joyo’s modern version adds several improvements.
Most significantly, the JF-10 adds an Attack control to vary how fast the compressor kicks in. It makes the compressor more variable, from smashing note attacks to acting more like a sustain pedal. This three-knob design has been used by several other models, many made in China.
Other JF-10 enhancements include an LED next to the stomp switch that lights when the compressor is engaged, a true bypass, and much less noise than the original.
The JF-10’s maximum compression seems to be less drastic than with some other pedals, though it’s certainly adequate. It also appears to roll off the bass response slightly, making it sound a little bright.
This very affordable pedal comes in a sturdy aluminum alloy case with a bright green finish. It uses a 9-volt battery or external power.
- Very affordable.
- Attack control.
- True bypass.
- Less maximum compression than some other models.
- Slight loss of bass response.
5 Donner Ultimate Comp Compressor Pedal
Donner is a relative newcomer to the guitar player’s market, producing affordable guitars, amps, and pedals in China. The Ultimate Comp is their compressor offering, and it works quite well.
It’s simple to use, with just four controls. The main Comp knob sets the amount of compression, and two mini controls adjust overall level and tone. Also, a toggle switch selects whether compression is applied to the entire range, or just to treble frequencies.
Sonically, the Ultimate Comp is quieter than classic pedals like the MXR Dyna Tone. And the original guitar tone comes through without significant coloration.
It has an aluminum alloy mini case. It’s too small to hold a battery, so it must be connected to an AC adapter or your board’s power supply. It offers true bypass.
While the case seems rugged enough, the pots and LED are surface-mounted on the internal PC board, not fastened to the chassis. So they could possibly be damaged with hard use. And squeezing those controls into a tiny space makes it a little harder to adjust at a gig.
- Transparent compression.
- Very affordable.
- Needs external power supply.
- Surface-mounted components can be fragile.
6 JHS Whitey Tighty Compressor Guitar Effects Pedal
JHS are an American maker of high-quality pedals with colorful names. Founder Josh Scott introduced the Whitey Tighty mini compression pedal in 2019. It’s built around a FET design, so it has a sonic signature unique to that kind of circuit. With only three controls, it’s very easy to use.
The Comp control sets the compression threshold level. Volume adjusts the overall output volume. And a unique Blend knob lets you mix the compressed signal and clean tone, which has the event of varying the compression ratio.
The Whitey Tighty is quiet and clean, and it really brings single-coil pickups to life. It provides a true bypass signal. Since it’s only 1 x 3 inches, so it needs an external power source.
- Transparent sound.
- Unique FET compression sound.
- Very useful Blend control
- More expensive than some similar models.
7 TC Electronic EQ Effects Pedal (Hypergravity Compressor)
The TC Electronics HyperGravity compressor is a customizable multi-band digital compressor designed to give you an analog sound. At the same time, it offers more options and controls, including two separate compression modes selected by a front-panel switch, and the ability to save and retrieve presets.
Guitarists often complain of “loss of tone” from traditional, single-band compressor pedals. Multi-band compression offers much greater control over your output. HyperGravity’s Spectra mode provides studio-quality multi-band compression using the same algorithm as in TC Electronics’ System 6000 master suites. The sound is amazingly transparent and “tone-sucking” a distant memory.
Optionally, Vintage mode gives you a more retro, single-band compressed sound. It’s based on the classic MXR Dyna Comp and Ross compressors and has the same colored sound of those vintage pedals.
In TonePrint® mode, you can use your iPhone to download HyperGravity presets developed by noteworthy professionals. And you can design custom TonePrints with reprogrammed knob functions using their TonePrint Editor software for iPad, Mac, & PC. In fact, Spectra mode is just the default TonePrint.
HyperGravity offers four controls that work as expected: Sustain (threshold), Level, Attack Time, and Blend. It can be switched for either true or buffered bypass. It’s very solidly built and carries a 3-year warranty.
- Dual-mode operation.
- Multi-band compression.
- Customizable presets.
- More expensive.
8 Xotic SP Compressor
The Xotic SP Compressor uses the same OTA technology found in the classic Ross Compressor but contains a host of enhancements. It’s a pedal that you set up the way you want, and then leave it alone.
The front panel has knobs for Volume, which provides up to 15 dB of boost, and Blend. Plus, there’s a 3-way switch that selects how much compression to apply (high-medium-low).
In addition, there are four internal DIP switches. Two of these switches set the attack and release time. Another switch controls high-frequency response, and the fourth is an input pad to prevent clipping and distortion from a loud input.
Xotic’s research R&D, manufacturing, and testing is based in California, although some components are sourced from Taiwan and Japan.
The sound is clean and quiet, and it works well with both single-coil and humbucking pickups. It uses a 9-volt battery or external power, and you can run it with the Xotic Voltage Doubler at 15 or 18 volts for more headroom. It offers true bypass.
- Simple to use.
- Not easily adjustable.
- More expensive than many other models.
9 Wampler Ego Compressor V2 Guitar Effects Pedal
If you’re someone who likes more direct control, the Wampler Ego Compressor might be the compressor for you. It’s designed to preserve your playing dynamics while not coloring your guitar tone at all.
Like many other pedals reviewed here, the Ego Compressor is based around the classic OTA design of the Ross and MXR Dyna Comp compressors. But Wampler has developed solutions for complaints guitarists have made about these designs, including tonal coloration, high signal noise levels, and a lack of parameter control.
The Ego Compressor has five knobs. Sustain sets the amount of compression, Volume adjusts the overall output level, and Tone adds or subtracts high frequencies. Blend lets you vary the compression effect all the way from a squashed Nashville sound to more subtle studio-style parallel compression. And Attack enables you to dial in exactly how much note attack to compress or pass through unchanged.
The Tone control is especially well-designed. Turning it up to boost highs doesn’t degrade bass frequencies or add any significant noise, even when turned up all the way.
Exceptionally high build quality is evident everywhere. Design and hand-assembled in the USA, the Ego Compressor uses premium film resistors capacitors, a silent stomp switch, and large knobs that are easy to read.
With version 2, input and output jacks were moved to from the sides to the top of the case, so you can mount pedals closer together on your board. True bypass is achieved through a relay switch for silent operation. And it’s backed up with a 5-year warranty.
- No loss of tone.
- Very quiet.
- Detailed control over compression parameters.
- Outstanding build quality.
- Not for a guitarist who prefers a simpler interface.
10 EarthQuaker Devices The Warden v2 Optical Compressor Guitar Effects Pedal
The Warden is another high-end boutique pedal, offering performance and features usually found only in studio compressors. Six front-panel knobs give you complete control over every compression parameter. It runs on 18 volts internally for greater dynamic headroom.
Unique among the products reviewed here, The Warden is an optical compressor. This provides an extra smooth response that’s almost invisible when set properly. Some guitarists used to the more dramatic “Nashville” effect of OTA compressors are disappointed by the subtle action of The Warden. For others, it’s exactly what they need to tame their signal.
The Warden provides six controls to let you micromanage your sound. A Tone knob boosts or cuts the upper-mid and high frequencies. Attack, Release and Level work as expected, adjusting attack and release times over a wide range, and the overall output volume.
Sustain controls the input gain, effectively adjusting the compressor threshold. And Ratio varies the intensity of the compression, from around 2:1 to 10:1 or more. Setting Sustain high and Ratio low, or vice-versa can create some interesting effects. The noise floor is excellent, even at higher Sustain settings.
Version 2 uses a soft-touch relay for silent switching true bypass and longer life. Hand-built in Akron, Ohio, overall construction quality is outstanding. And like all EarthQuaker pedals, The Warden features beautiful and intricate art design that makes it stand out on any pedal board.
- Subtle optical compression.
- Every parameter is adjustable.
- Solid build.
- Beautiful to behold.
- Guitarists wanting in-your-face compression may be disappointed.
Need More Pedals?
If you’re looking for something to go with your great-sounding new compression pedal? Take a look at our reviews of the Best EQ Pedals, the Best Tremolo Pedals, the Best Noise Gate Pedals, the Best Boost Pedals, the Best Phaser Pedals, and the Best Analog Delay Pedals currently available.
Plus, you may also need the Best Guitar Pedalboard to keep them nice and tidy.
So, What’s The Best Compression Pedal For You?
It’s impossible to pick a “best” pedal because every guitarist imagines a different ideal sound. Also, the price may be unimportant to some, while others need to get the job done on a budget.
So here are a few models we think are the best fit for different situations.
Best Compression Pedal At Any Price
With so many outstanding choices available, this is a tough decision. But we give the nod to the…
It has the sound of a classic OTA circuit for those who want it, but adds new features and technological advances to make it quieter, and if you want, more sonically transparent.
Honorable mention goes to EarthQuaker Devices’ The Warden, which is outstanding in every way. It comes in second only because its OPTO compression might not suit every guitarist’s taste.
Best Set-and-Forget Compression Pedal
Again, this is a close contest. Nevertheless, the…
…pedal stands out. Use three knobs to dial in the optimum compression for your rig, turn it on and never turn it off. It’s handmade in the USA, and the mini enclosure takes up little space.
For a little more control and a little less money, the Boss CS-3 is always a good choice. It delivers classic compression in a case built to withstand the constant abuse of a gigging guitarist.
Best Pedal On a Budget
If money is really tight, but you need a reliable compressor for your board, go for the…
It sounds good. And it’s so inexpensive you could even buy a spare, just in case.
On the other hand, if onstage durability isn’t a big factor, the Behringer CS400 Compressor/Sustainer is the way to go. For a very low price, you get the functionality of the Boss CS-3, but not the resale value.
Ultimately, your choice for the best compression pedal is a matter of personal taste. Hopefully, this review of 10 of our favorite models will help point you in the right direction.