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Compression is often one of the most utilized effects in music creation.
Yet it’s also arguably the most misunderstood, or misused staples in songwriting.
We help you navigate through the world of guitar compressor/sustainer pedals, highlighting 7 of our favorites.
When poorly implemented, compression can have a dramatic effect on the overall sound of your song or instrument. It can leave behind lots of unnatural artifacts and make your signal feel almost lifeless.
Compressors were initially used as studio recording utilities by engineers. Today, they are a necessary addition to the pedalboards of the everyday guitarist, and there are plenty of options on the market.
While guitar compressor pedals generally operate in the same way as their rack-mounted studio brethren in how they process your signal, when used on guitars they are generally known for adding sustain to your signal (some people even call these pedals sustainers instead of compressors!).
The 7 Best Compressor & Sustain Pedals
The “best overall” compressor pick goes to the Deep Six…it’s lived on my guitar pedalboard and hasn’t been turned off since I got it, because it just makes all of my guitars sound better, no matter where you set it. If you’re on a budget, check out the MXR Dyna Comp. If money isn’t an issue, take a look at the Cali76.
With that said, I dug through a bunch of compressor pedals on the market today to bring you 7 awesome options you should consider adding to your own board…
Walrus Audio Deep Six (Our Pick)
MXR Dyna Comp (Best Value)
Origin Effects Cali76 (Best Premium)
Keeley Compressor Plus
Wampler Ego (Mini)
MXR M76 Studio Compressor
Prices are going to vary slightly from store to store. I recommend checking out each store to find the best price.
The V3 adds a tone knob, soft switch bypassing, updated components for improved sound, and top-mounted jacks. Polarity will never be an issue as it comes standard with a reverse polarity protection circuit.
Walrus Audio has been making a bunch of really cool effects for the last couple of years, and the Deep Six is no exception. It’s a compressor pedal that is designed to both emulate the sound and style of the legendary Universal Audio 1176 compressor, but also has the familiar controls and stylings of classic guitar compressors like the Ross or Dyna Comp.
Walrus recommends using the blend knob to set the compressor to react better to single coils or humbuckers, but as an owner of the Deep Six myself I find that it’s just a really great blend control to really tighten up your guitar tone.
The tone control is also an awesome feature that acts as a bass cut so that you can really help tighten up darker or muddy-sounding pickups, which is different from most other compressor’s bright focused tone controls.
The output level also has enough gain on tap that you can use this pedal as a super clean and focused boost for solos or hitting your amp harder.
To be honest, my Deep Six has lived on my guitar pedalboard and hasn’t been turned off since I got it, because it just makes all of my guitars sound better, no matter where you set it.
The MXR Dyna Comp is revered in the guitar world as being one of the “first” guitar pedal compressors.
It is known as being a “secret weapon” of tone enhancement for guitarists across many genres, but especially funk, dance, and country.
MXR Dyna Comp, (output for your overall level and sensitivity controlling how much your signal is compressed), the Dyna Comp is both an effective and musical compressor that can enhance your guitar’s sustain when playing a solo, and even out dynamic rhythmic passages.
There’s a reason it’s been popular with so many guitarists since its inception in 1970s, because it just works and sounds amazing. The Dyna Comp can be described as a one-way ticket to the “Nashville” guitar sound of clean country licks, so if you’re looking for a way to give your telecaster that extra “twang,” this is the box for you.
It’s also available in a mini version if you wanna save on pedalboard space, which also features a switch to control two different attack settings.
The Cali76 Compact Deluxe is an 1176-style studio-grade FET compressor, featuring high-current, low-noise, discrete Class-A circuitry and a dedicated parallel compression control… all contained in one compact, stompbox-sized package.
While most of these other effects skirt around the issue of whether or not they’re supposed to sound like the classic 1176, the origin effects Cali76 boasts its ability to be the finest recreation of it for the guitar.
Featuring studio-quality components that you would find in an actual 1176, the Cali76 also features the familiar layout of the studio compressor. It also features a dry blend knob so that you can process your unaffected signal as well as the squashed one, which adds to the pedal’s versatility.
Soundwise this pedal nails the character of the 1176’s super fast and aggressive attitude, while also being able to add sustain and sparkle to your guitar’s tone. It’s also made of an insanely sturdy metal enclosure with all-metal knobs, so you know it can take a beating out on the stage.
While it is the most expensive pedal on this review list, there hasn’t been a single review of it that I’ve found that really has any complaints about how great the pedal sounds and works. It’s quickly become the “new standard” compressor pedal for Nashville clean guitar pickers, but it also works great as an all-around sonic enhancement pedal for your entire chain.
The signal also features a two-way switch for use with single-coil and humbucker guitars, which adjusts the overall way the pedal reacts to adjust for the higher output of humbucker guitar pickups (which can commonly overload the input of a compressor and cause distortion).
This control also affects the way the release time works in the pedal, so you can also use it creatively with whatever type of guitar you are using for another compression flavor if you want.
The Keeley is also known for being a dead quiet pedal, which while still being an analog process, means that your signal won’t have any added noise due to the compression being applied. While the Keeley compressor is somewhat designed to act as a utility for your overall guitar tone, it’s a great enhancer for all of your other effects.
The SP Compressor has superb tone quality featuring a wide variety of compressor tones from vintage to subtle to modern and more. It's super flexible and features a dry blend knob, up to +15dB of boost and an internal dip switch for attack control.
The Xotic SP compressor is known for being a modern take on the classic vintage Ross compressor guitar pedal from the 1970s. The Ross was known for its simplicity and ability to add extra sparkle to your guitar’s signal while evening out your tone.
The SP picks up where the Ross left off with its two large controls controlling the output (or makeup gain) of the signal, and a blend knob controlling how much compression is blended in with the dry signal, meaning it works in parallel to your overall dry signal.
The SP takes its “more than meets the eye” flexibility even further by having an internal dip switch that changes the attack of the compressor. The fact that this pedal is a mini pedal also adds to it’s already long list of plus sides, so you won’t eat up any pedalboard space to throw this tone enhancer onto your board.
It’s got a blend feature which is great for processing your guitar in parallel, as well as controls for attack, sustain overall output, and tone control. Having a knob to control the attack of the compressor allows a lot more flexibility and variation in the types of compressed sounds you can get out of the pedal, and the onboard output gain and tone features allow the pedal to also function as a great clean boost as well.
This pedal is also available in a mini format, though that version has switches for attack and tone instead of adjustable knobs. The mini still boasts the same clean tone and rock-solid construction as the full-sized one, so no worries about them skimping on components to save space.
Constant headroom technology provides tons of headroom for clear, transparent performance that’s as dynamic as you need it to be. It’s all packed into a durable, lightweight aluminium-housing that’s the size of a Phase 90.
First and foremost, as the name suggests, the M76 is styled after the classic 1176 studio compressor, and this pedal in fact features the exact same controls that you would find on an 1176, including it’s 4 different ratio selections (although sadly it doesn’t appear that you can use the “all buttons in” mode).
This layout will make the pedal very familiar to engineers/producers, which also makes it a bit easier to understand its concept. It also features a nice LED meter to show how much gain reduction is being applied to your signal, which is something I wish more guitar compressors had.
While MXR doesn’t claim that the pedal is a true emulation of the 1176, anyone who’s used one knows that this pedal nails the character and feature set of the classic compressor while still being voiced best for electric guitar.
Compressor/Sustain Pedals: A Quick Buyer’s Guide
What Is Compression?
What exactly does a compressor (pedal or otherwise) even do? As the name suggests, it compresses the overall dynamic range of your sound source. Dynamic range is the difference between the quietest and loudest part of any individual audio signal.
Different compressor designs operate differently in order to achieve their desired gain reduction and ability to “clamp down” on your signal. There are 4 main “types” of compressor designs: Tube, Optical, FET, and VCA.
Due to the nature of the size needed for tube circuits, almost all guitar compressor pedals feature a FET or VCA circuit design, though there are also some optical compressor pedals out there.
FET and VCA are also usually preferred for guitar pedals because they have a much faster attack and release time, which is preferred for being able to grab the faster transients of a guitar note or strum.
Compressors On Guitars
Compressors for guitar tend to have a simpler set of controls than its counterparts. Guitarists generally use compressors to add extra sustain to their sound without adding distortion or overdrive, and to help even out and thicken their overall guitar sound.
Compression pedals will all still have the above factors in the circuit’s internal design, but many of the features are simplified or set at a fixed rate to help guitarist’s achieve their desired uses more easily.
With that being said, there are plenty of compressor pedals that are usually labeled as “studio” compressors that feature the more common controls you’d find on a compressor in a DAW or on a rack-mounted piece of gear.
While the things I outlined above are really only scratching the surface on how compression works and why it’s useful on pretty much any sound source, here’s a list of great guitar compressor pedals you can utilize to enhance your tone and increase your guitar’s sustain.
I Can’t Hear What A Compressor Is Doing. Is It Just Me?
One of the toughest things to understand about compression is that it is inherently a very transparent and subtle effect. A good rule of thumb is that you almost shouldn’t be able to hear the difference between an uncompressed and compressed guitar signal, except that the compressed signal generally just sounds better or clearer.
This is due to the fact that you’ve probably boosted the overall output of the signal after the compressor, which makes it louder than it was before compressing it (and louder is ALWAYS better!).
Since you have reduced the dynamic range so the louder sounds are closer in volume the quieter sounds, your signal is clearer because your louder sounds aren’t as attention-grabbing as the softer sounds because they are much closer together in overall level. This can also be described as the “smooth” sound of a compressed signal.
Due to their transparent nature, compressor pedals on guitar are sometimes a hit or miss effect (listening to walls of amps have ruined our sense of nuanced listening!). Many guitarists complain that when they can hear the compressor working, it’s become too dramatic of an effect to be useful, which is likely true because you’re probably squeezing the living daylights out of your tone with too much compression. The compressor could also have such a dramatic attack and release setting that you can hear the reductions in volume (which can be useful in some settings, called pumping the compressor, but generally not on a guitar or bass).