A compressor can be one of the most important pedals in your rig if you want to help control your sound whether live, in the studio, or just messing around at home.
When compared to guitars, it’s far more likely that you’ll want to introduce a compressor to your fat-stringed friend for many reasons.
One of the most important reasons is that bass guitars tend to have extreme dynamic ranges. One string pluck harder than the one before can have a massive impact. This could end up standing out in a bad way and ruining a performance. When you use a compressor, you’re able to keep your sound present, focused, and controlled.
If you’re having a difficult time trying to find the right bass compressor for your style and sound, we’re here to help.
We’ve created a versatile list of some of the best compressors on the market, as well as a small guide as to what you should be looking for.
Tune up and drop in!
Top 5 Pedals Compared
The MXR M87 is a FET compressor pedal that not only sounds amazing but is also incredibly easy to use. Even with the FET transistors in this bad boy, you can still get the versatility of a VCA compressor with all of the controls.
Regarding the parameters, you have your attack and release knobs for adjusting your compression type, an input and output knob for adjusting the level going in and out, and a ratio knob for adjusting the amount of compression.
These pedals not only have a quality and sturdy feel, but they also allow you to dial in any sound you could think of.
At the top of the pedal is the unique gain reduction LED meter that gives you a visual representation of the amount of gain reduction that is happening. You will typically only find this feature on high-end pedals, so it’s pretty awesome to see it on one this affordable. Overall, the MXR M87 is transparent in tone and versatile in dynamics.
Bottom Line: From the pure and transparent tone to the vast array of adjustable parameters, the MXR M87 gives you everything you could want in a bass compressor pedal for a price that doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket. You might also love the fact that MXR was able to squeeze all of this into a pedal that doesn’t take up a whole landmass on your board.
Ampeg, know more for their bass rigs, which can be seen on stages around the world, have made a compressor that is both simple and effective: The Ampeg Opto Comp.
This optical compressor has only three knobs (compression, release, and output), making it a great pedal for those just entering the world of compression. With the compression knob, you can set your ratio all the way up to 20:1 for extreme limiting, while dialing in your release for a smooth or pumping sound.
The two onboard LEDs give you a visual representation of what’s happening. The purple one will let you know when it’s on while the green will let you know how much compression is taking place (hence the optical name).
Just like the MXR M87, the Opto Comp is both subtle and transparent in sound, squishing your peaks and valleys to help you achieve a better dynamic range without adding anything unnecessary.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a simple, transparent, and effective optical compressor pedal, look no further than the Ampeg Opto Comp. It sits at an easy price point and is perfect for those who don’t need tons of tweakability.
Not all compressor pedals have to cost you a day’s work. Boss is known for their inexpensive, yet reliable pedals, and the Boss LMB-3 is a sweet little stompbox pedal that has a helluva compression style.
Because it is technically a limiter, it’s not as flexible as those listed above and has a pretty high compression ratio. That being said, the attack and release, which are both non-adjustable, are pretty much on the in-between for a well-rounded sound.
There are four controls onboard. The level sets the output, the ratio can be set from 1:1 to infinity:1, the threshold sets the sensitivity, and the enhance, a word you don’t see a lot on pedals, essentially helps to boost your highs for more of a shimmery sound.
Do be careful though, as too much “enhance” boost and you’ll get a nasty digital hissing sound.
Bottom Line: If your priority is budgeting, we the Boss LMB-3 Bass Limiter/Enhancer is one of the best bass compressor pedals you can get for the price. It may not be as flexible as others on our list, though it is incredibly clean, simple to use, and will last you a lifetime.
The most unique thing about the Keeley Bassist Compressor is the integrated THAT Corporation 4320 chip, which you typically find in studio-grade compression units.
It utilizes only a few controls (compression, threshold, and gain), making it an incredibly easy pedal to get the hang of if you don’t feel like dealing with a bunch of extra parameters.
There is also a built-in indicator LED that will turn from green to red as your compression gets stronger.
From soft compression to full on limiting, this pedal can honestly do it all. It’s perfect for conventional use and can give you everything from that snappy reggae sound to that smooth R&B sound. The cool thing is, it does all of this very transparently without adding any unwanted color, tone, or sustain to your sound.
Bottom Line: Keeley is an extremely reputable brand, and even with all of the VCA compressors available on the market, we had to talk about their Bassist Compressor. It’s both simple and effective, all while giving you the ability to create a wide range of sounds.
If you have the cash to spend on a compressor, look no further than the Markbass Compressore Tube Bass Compressor. It’s definitely pricey, though has an insanely warm tonal character thanks to the included tubes.
It is built like an absolute tank and does have a ton of controls, though may be a bit large for those who only have a small amount of real estate on their pedalboards. It also requires 12V DC instead of the standard 9V, so you will have to consider powering it independently.
All that said, the controls onboard are very self-explanatory. You have your gain for input control, your threshold for sensitivity, your ratio (strangely unlabeled) for the type of compression, your standard attack and release with an LED light reference, and your volume knob at the end for makeup gain.
All in all, the tube adds some really lovely thickness and compared to the “harshness” of digital pedals, it’s a unique and sweet kind of feeling.
Bottom Line: This big, bad pedal may not be the cheapest or most practical in size, though it makes up for that by giving you the sweetest tonal character you’ll ever find in a bass compressor pedal. If tones are your jam, we highly recommend the Markbass Compressore.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Bass Compressor Pedal
The first thing that you’ll probably notice when you look at a bass guitar compressor is the number of adjustable controls that it has onboard.
We should preface this section by letting you know that:
just because a compressor has more knobs doesn’t make it a better compressor.
That being said, let’s dive in and see what the possibilities are when it comes to these types of controls.
Level (Makeup Gain)
Level is sometimes referred to as volume or output and is the amount of volume that your pedal boosts your signal by.
It’s pretty simple.
The higher the level, the louder your sound, and the lower the level, the quieter your sound.
Level parameters can be beneficial if you want to keep your clean and compressed signal at the same volume.
It’s also nice to be able to limit your gain with your level parameter or push it to the point where it distorts if you’re going for a heavier sound.
Most compressor with multiple parameters will have some sort of level section, even if it isn’t labeled “level” specifically.
Attack / Release
Your attack parameter is going to determine how fast the compression kicks in once you start playing while the release parameter is going to determine when the signal becomes uncompressed after it falls below your set threshold.
Being able to adjust these parameters can give your bass wildly different sounds. For example, a short attack time can help to decrease peaks that are more dramatic, allowing you to play a little harder without worrying about outlier notes.
As for release, you can get a sweet pumping sound if you’re able to set it long.
Having a ratio parameter allows you to pick the amount of compression that a signal gets when it passes over the threshold.
These are very typical on rack mount studio compressors, though some pedal companies, such as MXR, have added them to their bass pedals for better control.
The ratio is typically represented in numbers, allowing you to move from a 4:1 compression for example, all the way to a 10:1 compression, acting more like a limiter at that point.
There are a few different types of compression that you should know about before purchasing a pedal.
While the differences between them are far more prominent on studio units, even the subtle impact that they can have on your bass pedal is worth noting.
Here are the most common types of compression that you’re most likely to come into contact within the world of bass compressor pedals:
Optical compression uses a light source (essentially a resistor that is sensitive to light) to change the volume of the signal.
Out of all of the types of compression, optical is typically known as the smoothest. It’s got a very natural sound and is perfect for those who want their compression to be subtle.
They balance the volume between notes with a slow attack and release time, enough so that they do work, though are very transparent.
FET compressors can pretty much be found in all major studios. Some bass compressor pedal manufacturers drew inspiration from them and started installing transistors in their compressor pedals that emulated their vacuum tubes to reap the same benefits.
FET compressors are excellent for snappier types of sounds. If you’re playing anything from reggae to funk, to ska, or anything of the like, we highly recommend getting your hand on a FET compressor.
That being said, you can certainly dial in other types of sounds as well, as they are just as extremely versatile.
One of the most common and affordable types of bass pedal compressors is the VCA compressor. VCA, which stands for Voltage Controlled Amplifier, essentially converts and AC bass signal to DC voltage. That DC voltage helps to regulate the volume of the VCA.
When compared to other types of compressors, VCAs seem to have the widest range of attack and release times, allowing you to have more versatility in your sound and compression style. You essentially get the perfect mix between the snap of a FET and the smoothness of an optical compressor.
We recommend going for a VCA compressor if you plan on using your bass for many different types of music.
Valve compressors tend to be the most expensive and hardest to maintain, as they are made with vacuum tubes in the signal path rather than transistors.
While they are pretty rare because of the cost and difficulty in production, they can give you a warm and vintage tone like no other type of pedal can.
True Bypass or Buffered Output
A True Bypass compressor pedal is one that won’t have any effect on your sound when it isn’t turned on while a Buffered Output compressor pedal is one that will boost your signal no matter if it’s on or off. (Source)
A buffered output pedal can work wonders if you are using lots of pedals or if you are using long cables. This is because you tend to lose high frequencies in your signal the more cable it runs through. Buffered output pedals will help to reduce the loss by boosting your signal before it hits your amp.
That being said, you might not want to change your signal at all and keep it perfectly clean. This is where a true bypass can come in handy, as it keeps your signal pure when it’s not in use.
Time To Decompress
By now, you should have all of the information you’ll ever need to get the right bass compressor pedal.
Your choice will ultimately reflect how you work as a musician, though for all-around best studio and stage use, we have to recommend you the MXR M87. It’s so versatile that any kind of bassist should be able to find good use with it.
We hope that our guide has helped you in your search. If there’s one thing you can take away from all this, it is that a good bass compressor is the initial point of any quality performance.
No matter what kind of bass you play, we highly recommend getting your hands on one.