In my youth, the compression sustainer was one of those pedals you’d spot in the guitar shop, annoy the assistant into letting you try out, and then confidently announce to one and all: “Er… It doesn’t do anything!???” I first saw a compressor in action in a department store at the end of 1983. A mate was preparing to blow his Christmas money on a flash pedal, and was systematically running through the stock, guided by suggestions from the increasingly desperate salesman…
Salesman: “What about a Tube Screamer?!…”
My Mate: “Yeah, that sounds good!”... Twang, twang, strum, pick-scrape, etc… “Nah, it’s crap. Why’s it called a Tube Screamer?”
Salesman: “Don’t know.”
I think we actually laughed when he got round to trying the compressor. Not one of us, including the salesman, had the faintest idea what it did, and I think that after twiddling the knobs himself, the salesman actually declared that it must be broken.
A couple of years later, however, once I’d developed a real affinity with the guitar and gained an ear for its dynamic characteristics, I walked into a dedicated guitar shop to hear some older guy funking away on a clean Strat. It sounded brilliant. Like he was playing at high volume, with every little scratch of the strings leaping out of the amp, and such apparent power and evenness in each chord. But the actual volume was low. How was he getting that extra snappiness and uniformity at such a quiet amp setting? I moved closer, and there on the shop floor, between guitar and amp, sat a compressor. Finally, I’d ‘got’ what the compressor did, and far from being the most useless of effects, it was suddenly one of the most desirable.
Since then, I’ve always valued compression highly. Particularly in practice situations, with or without overdrive, I find it helps to simulate the feel of playing at much higher volume, and lends excitement even in an environment as emotionless as an empty lounge.
So, if it’s doing its job properly, a compressor doesn’t change the tone of the guitar. There’s no modulation, no distortion, no echoey-reverbiness… It’s the same dry, clean and pure tone you get with the guitar going direct to the amp. What does change, is the dynamics. A compressor compresses the guitar’s volume into a much smaller dynamic range. Hit the strings harder, and you get the tonal changes you’d expect, but not anything like the volume increase. Similarly, stroke the strings softer, and you get the tone of softer playing, but nowhere near the same decrease in volume. This is quite similar to the way a valve amp impacts on a guitar’s dynamics when you take it up loud, which in turn is probably why the compressor appeals so greatly to more experienced guitarists. Everyone loves the feel of a loud electric guitar, so a good compressor, provided people have an understanding of what it does, should have very widespread appeal.
The DOD FX80-B is one of the most subtle compressors I’ve owned. It doesn’t detectably colour the tone of the guitar, or remove top end sparkle. Neither does it permit such aggressive settings that it becomes obvious to the listener that the recorded tone has been electronically compressed. The characteristic ‘sucking, blowing and heaving’ sounds created by over-enthusiastic compression settings are simply not available on this unit. It’s called a Compressor Sustainer, and the sustain element is one I haven’t mentioned yet. Straightforwardly, reducing the dynamics of a sound’s volume creates an impression of increased sustain, because as the note naturally dies away, the effect artificially bolsters its volume, making it appear stronger and longer than is really the case. All compressors have this trait, so whether it’s called a compression sustainer or simply a compressor, it will increase the apparent sustaining power of notes or chords.
There are three paramaters to set – each adjusted with a standard analogue rotary knob. The first is a Level control. This merely tailors the output volume to suit the other settings. Next comes a Release knob. This adjusts the time it takes for the compression to tail off and allow the untreated sound to be restored. With the knob turned all the way to the left, there is no Release, which means the compression holds for as long as you hold the note. That’s maximum sustain. With the knob all the way to the right, the compression only really affects the attack of the note/chord, so sustain is essentially dictated by the guitar itself. Finally, there’s the Compression knob, which controls the actual dynamic squeezing. All the way to the left, the control gives very little dynamic squeezing, whilst all the way to the right, quieter volumes are heavily boosted, and louder volumes are heavily cut.
So this is a very simple effect to use. It’s relatively quiet in terms of hiss and extraneous noise, and whilst it probably wouldn’t do much to impress a beginner (on account of its subtlety), someone who appreciates the nuances of high quality clean or mildly overdriven guitar sounds will absolutely love it. If you want excitement in your bedroom, there are many options available. The DOD FX80-B is probably more reliable than most, and best of all, it won’t slap you round the face when propositioned…
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