I see quite a few google searches about “boost pedals” pointing to this site and I have had several questions about them not having the desired effect, so I think a short post about their use is in order.
To put it simply, there are three cases:
The clean boost pedal is placed before your overdriven amp or your favorite distortion pedal: activating the clean boost will not increase the overall volume much or at all. This is because any overdrive or distortion is inherently compressed and levels the volume. It will instead increase the gain i.e the amount of overdrive/distortion. Before the arrival of high gain amps and pedals, a lot of guitarists used treble boosters or overdrive pedals to boost cranked amps in order to achieve big distorted tones. Brian May is a prime example.
The clean boost pedal is placed after the overdrive of your amp in the effects loop or after your favorite distortion pedal in your pedal chain: activating the clean boost will increase the volume but not the amount of overdrive/distotsion. I recently wrote a post about using a clean boost pedal and other solutions to boost the volume for solos in a live situation. For overdriven amps without an FX loop, it is difficult to increase the volume through a pedal. Any clean boost will increase the amount of overdrive and not the volume (see case 1).
The clean boost pedal is placed before a clean amp: it will increase the volume and might push the amp into “break up” which is a slight overdrive, depending on how much clean headroom your amp has got.
As I pointed out in a previous post, the only way to increase the volume for your solos is to somehow put some form of volume control (clean boost, volume pedal, equalizer, etc.) after your overdrive/distortion. It does not matter if this overdrive/distortion comes from an amp or a pedal. A clean boost placed before will increase the gain, not the volume so much whereas a clean boost placed after will increase the volume.
It is no secret that I am quite fond of my BOSS Micro-BR. I think it is an awesome tool for quickly recording ideas without having to fire up any (bloated) recording software. The only thing I was not fond of until now is the integrated Multi-Effect unit based on COSM (Composite Object Sound Modeling). This technology has been used in every BOSS Multi-Effect unit for the past decade including the newly released ME-25 or the top of the range GT-10.
Like everybody else, I jumped on the modeling bandwagon when the first Line 6 POD came out. I got a bit tired of it, probably from overusing it, and a few years later I went back to a real tube amp and some scratchy old analog pedals. Anyway, I was watching a recent Jeff Beck video interview the other day and it inspired me to try to program a similar tone using the Micro-BR Multi-Effect. After quite some tweaking I plugged my Stratocaster directly into the Micro-BR and ended up with this tone:
Awesome, isn’t it? This is a reminder that presets in Multi-Effects do not suit every player and should only be a guideline upon which you should build your own tones adapted to your playing, your guitar, your amp, etc. It also goes to show that the tool itself does not matter, it is how you use it that is important: I think you can get great tones form both modeling and old school analog gear.
To get this tone, the Micro-BR Guitar Multi-Effect settings are as follows (I suppose they would be easily translatable to any COSM based machine):
AMP: PREAMP ON, Type MS(1), Volume 100, Bass 56, Middle 25, Treble 43, Presence 74, Master 80
SP: ON, Type “ms stk”, Mic Set 6cm, Mic Level 100, Dir Level 0,
NS: ON, Threshold 40, Release 30
FX: Type Compressor, Sustain 7, Attack 100, Level 80
DELAY: ON, Type SINGLE, Dly Time 573ms, Feedback 16, E.Level 27
I also used quite some HALL reverb, the level was set at 42 on the Track. To access the Reverb settings, press twice on “Effects”. The settings were: Time 2.0s, Tone 0dB and Level at 50.
For reference, here is the Jeff Beck video which inspired me:
The compressor is often seen as a bit of a mysterious effect. I will try here to enlighten those of you who think “why the heck should I be using a compressor?”. You will also find below a video demo showing what a compressor does to your guitar tone.
Studio Compressors vs Guitar Compressors
You have first to understand a little bit about how a compressor works. Compressors originated in studios as sound reinforcement tools. They are probably the most used studio processors after equalizers and reverbs. What they do is “reduce the dynamics range of a signal” i.e. the difference between the softest and loudest volumes. In simpler terms, when you feed a signal to a compressor, be it vocals, drums, guitar or bouzouki and the volume of this signal is louder than a “threshold”, the compressor will make it softer. The amount of reduction is governed by a setting called “ratio”. In that respect a compressor can do what a limiter does, there is a quite loose difference between the two. The original use of compressors was to avoid distorting recordings or radio emissions. But a compressor can also have the effect of augmenting the sustain by increasing the volume as the signal fades out (this is very useful with a guitar, more on that later).
Beside “threshold” and “ratio” settings, there is also usually an “attack” setting (how fast the compressor kicks in) and a “release” setting (which can increase the perceived sustain). I will not really go into more details as this post is guitar oriented and studio compression is a very vast subject. Nevertheless, know that compressors are used in studios on almost every instrument as well as entire mixes to add punch, clarity, smoothness, more perceived volume, etc. If you are serious about making your own recordings, you will have to master the art of compression (see this MIX magazine article for further reference).
It is indeed quite an art to find the correct compression settings on studio compressors so that the sound does not appear too compressed i.e. so that the use of compression is transparent. On extreme settings, it will become more like an effect than a transparent sound reinforcement tool. It will generate a “squashed” sound which happens to sound pretty good with a guitar.
This is why effect manufacturers have put compressors into pedals, fortunately with simplified settings compared to their studio counterparts. They are also adapted to the dynamics and frequency range of a guitar and would not compare to their more versatile studio cousins in terms of sheer audio quality. The most famous of all compressors for guitar, the MXR dynacomp, has only two settings: output volume and “intensity” which controls the amount of compression. The more you turn it clockwise the more your tone will sound “squashed”.
Where do I plug a compressor in the effect chain?
It usually goes at the beginning of the chain before overdrive and distortion effects. You can refer to my previous post about effect placement. If you look at a multi effect unit, you will actually see that the compressor is often first in the chain. I have also written a previous post about the unconventional use of a guitar compressor at the end of the chain in a recording situation.
And what does a compressor do to my guitar tone?
Used with a clean tone, a compressor will give you a bit of a “clicky” tone with lots of sustain. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has been a long time user of compressors to get more sustain on his clean tone. He has used an MXR Dynacomp for a long time and is now using a quite expensive Demeter Compulator. Country guitarists make heavy use of compressors for their fast clean licks, adding an almost liquid quality to them. Funk and pop guitarists also use them to give some edge and volume consistency to their rhythm guitar runs.
Used before a distortion or overdrive, a compressor will be harder to notice as these effects already feature quite some natural compression. Nevertheless, a compressor can bring more sustain and fatness. Be careful about one thing though, by their very nature, compressors tend to add some hiss.
Here is an MXR Dynacomp compressor in action with my trusty Stratocaster and Fender Champ amplifier. I have set the OUTPUT and SENSITIVITY at 2 o’clock on the compressor which is quite high, the idea here was to exaggerate a little to demonstrate the effect. In the first part of the video, I show how it sounds with a clean sound. Note the “clicky” tone it produces as well as the increased sustain. In the second part, I show how it sounds used with a Tube Screamer placed after. Not so obvious to spot but it does fatten the tone and give it a little more sustain:
Short list of compression pedals
The MXR Dynacomp is a very common compressor and was used by almost everybody in the 70s/80s including David Gilmour. It is still widely used by pros today. MXR sells two different versions: the modern one and the 76 reissue. The latter is a limited run and is meant to be closer to the early Dynacomps (and also unfortunately lacks a LED). I personally own a “modern” one from 1995. The Dynacomp is neither the most silent nor the most hi definition piece of gear but it has real character which is why it is so popular. Mine tends to be a bit bassy also which means the tone gets quite fat.
The BOSS CS-3 is a quite clean compressor but does not have much character in my opinion. I had mine modified with the Opto plus Monte Allum modification and it has turned it in an almost studio grade compressor.
Electro-Harmonix has several compressors in their line-up including the tube based Black Finger and the compact Soul Preacher.
The Keeley Compressor is effect guru Robert Keeley’s most popular pedal. This boutique compressor has quite a following now.
The Analogman mini-Bicomprossor is another powerful boutique pedal featuring two compressors in one (I don’t have one but it is no secret I am a big fan of Analogman’s stuff so it must be pretty awesome).
The Demeter Compulator is another high end compressor pedal, notably used by David Gilmour after he ditched his Dynacomp.
This is not by any stretch an exhaustive list as virtually every pedal manufacturer has at least one compressor in its range.
Hopefully this post will encourage you to experiment with compressors.
Don Wrixon runs a site named Tone Secrets and has recently released a DVD full of tone advice and information. The website features this video which I wanted to share with you:
I know my website has a lot of information about replicating the tone of other guitarists but this should only be used as a guide towards finding your own tone and style. So I say follow Don’s advice and be a sonic rebel.