For many years, I’ve been running compression on my guitars. It’s never a right or wrong choice, as long as you take care in your settings and create a sound that works for the type of music you’re playing. In the hunt for more tonal improvements, I recently removed the compression from my signal path and found some surprising results.
I used my old compressor subtly—it was always
more of a sustainer than a compressor. It
allowed me to hold notes longer without having
to dig in and wiggle a little extra sustain out of
them, while also using vibrato. One of the problems
with the compression in my Roland GP-8
multi-effects processor was that it also added
a bit of distortion to the signal. Naturally this is
not true of all compressors, but it was a constant
issue for me. Another issue was that because
I was running my amp’s master volume wide
open and setting the individual channel gains to
the volume level I wanted, I was practically obligated
to use the compressor. I couldn’t run any
of my patches without it—my amp sounded thin
and flat without the compressor engaged.
A prime example of this can be found on the
Toby Keith mega-hit “Should Have Been a
Cowboy.” The settings I use on that song are
basic—just some chorus and compression.
I always felt like the compression was too
heavy on that song, but when I would remove
the compressor from the chain, it sounded
like I was no longer plugged into an amp at
all, but rather plugged straight into a direct
box going into the PA. It was an unbearable
sound, so I had to deal with the song having
too much drive and too much compression.
Another drawback of that particular song
setting was that it wasn’t a very natural drive
tone. It would break up the signal a bit, but
not give it any of the warmth or fatness that
you want from a tube amp. I just had to
accept that the world isn’t a perfect place and
that the song’s tone would just have to suffer
for the sake of the rest of the night.
Before embarking on this past summer’s
tour, I took some time to reassess my rig, its
wiring, and my amp settings. Ultimately, I
wanted to improve my tone and be happier
with my sounds. I knew deep down that overusing
the compressor, as I had been, was not
ideal for my tone. So one of the first things
I did was change my amp settings from 100
percent clean to natural, tube-driven grit.
It was an easy adjustment: I cranked the channel
gains up to about 3 o’clock, or roughly
75 percent of their total volume, and used
the master volume to set my output level. By
doing so, I was not only able to disengage the
compressors on each setting, but I was able to
remove the slight overdrive boost I previously
had on my clean settings. I was now, for the
first time in 15 years, using real tube drive for
my clean tone.
I was shocked at the difference in my sound. It
was not only warmer, but bigger and chunkier.
I couldn’t believe I was happy with my old tone
for so long. I was under-using my tubes—this
is what these amps were made to do. Don’t
get me wrong: My old tone was always good
and I loved the way it sounded, but my Kustom
Coupes were suddenly giving me that chunk,
chunk, chunk we all kill for. “Should Have Been
a Cowboy” now has every bit of the quality
tone that the rest of the set has. I’m now using
pure tube drive and a little bit of chorus on
that song—no compression needed!
One unexpected reward to come from this
change has been the increased dynamic range.
As you probably know, compressors even out
your signal by lowering your loud notes and
raising your soft ones, leveling out your volume
in the process. Without the compressor, I got
the opposite effect. When I dug in and played
louder, my signal got louder. The biggest difference
was when I laid back and played softer,
my rig responded without squeezing the signal
and my dynamics increased tenfold. I always felt
that my use of compression was understated,
but even that little bit added a tremendous
amount of difference to the overall sound.
Now on a lot of songs (particularly the “country”
stuff), I’ll work my guitar’s volume knob to
control the amount of drive I can get from my
Joe Barden pickups. I’ll pull the guitar volume
back about 50 percent when playing rhythm,
which allows me to deliver a strong rhythm
without overpowering the vocalist. Then, when
I’m ready to step out front for a lead, I open
the volume back up and get a killer tube distortion
using nothing but pure amp and guitar—
the way the guitar gods intended.
The one thing to remember before attacking
your existing rig is that you need to figure
out what will work best for you. For years I
was happy using a compressor to help me
get super sustain. I hated playing without
one. Now I’ve refined my judgment and feel
that going sans compression works better,
giving me greater dynamic range and a much
fatter tone. There may come a day when I
want that compressed sound again, but for
now it’s a change for the better, and once
again I’ve grown and learned something new
in my personal pursuit of ultimate tone.
Until next month, keep jammin’!
A sought-after Nashville guitarist who has performed with
singers ranging from Steven Tyler to Shania Twain, Rich
Eckhardt currently plays lead guitar for Toby Keith, and
also works as a spokesperson for the Soles4Souls charity
(soles4souls.org). His new album, Cottage City Firehouse,
is available at richeckhardt.com and CDBaby.com.
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