Light touch vs. Compression

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by jdh3000, Oct 6, 2019.

  1. jdh3000


    May 16, 2016
    I wasn't sure if I should post this under technique or effects.

    I've developed a light touch over the last few years, running my amp louder.

    I still try to find something to even out the sound of my bass. I just picked up the MXR M87 Bass Compressor. I've tried using it before but couldn't find anyway to set it that suits me.
    Anything I set it on squashes the sound too much. I like the roundness of the sound but kills my tone. I'm sure I don't really know how to really use it.

    I feel like maybe I'm looking at it all wrong. It seems like compression is really for those with a heavy playing style, hard thumping, slap and pick.

    I know there's a whole camp that eschew the whole concept of compression, to just use technique. Maybe I should just resign myself to thinking along those lines. I wasn't looking at compression as much as a crutch but as just something to enhance the sound, to round out the unbalanced nature of the instrument, just as someone might opt for a new speaker configuration or eq setup.
    Is there anyone who is using comp that has a light touch?

    I used to play heavier but always had sore fingers and my dynamics were terrible. Now my fingers seldom if ever get sore, I dig in for when needed and let the amp do the work.

    I like my sound but not completely satisfied with it...always searching.
  2. FunkHead

    FunkHead Supporting Member

    Mar 10, 2007
    I am not an expert with these but I find that lowering the input knob will help your situation.
    You really want to almost not hear the compressor working.
    Edited to add: I also find that it's important to compare on/off volume frequently while making adjustments. I try to keep unity gain consistent.
    My favorite settings in my studio(Bedroom) result in being lost in the mix with my band.
  3. Have a look into multi-band compression and side chain compression. Targets the offending frequencies without putting a blanket over all frequencies.

    Also look into the Motown sound using parallel (upward) compression. Adds more ‘body’ but maintains the note attack.
  4. chadhargis

    chadhargis Jack of all grooves, master of none Supporting Member

    Jan 5, 2010
    Nashville, TN
    Compression can be many different things depending on the type of compressor, the amount of compression, the attack and release times, and the threshold you set.

    I have owned a few comps, including the MXR and I prefer compressors that fatten and warm my tone. I don't really want my tone squished. I am currently using an FEA Labs DE-CL and even if it's not compressing the note, it still seems to fatten the tone quite noticeably. The Keeley Compressor Pro did the same thing.
  5. jdh3000


    May 16, 2016
    Thank you, I'll try that.
  6. jdh3000


    May 16, 2016
    Does a multiband compressor work like a parametric eq in that you scoop out a frequency and then compress it?
  7. John Bess

    John Bess

    Sep 2, 2019
    I prefer your idea of using technique over compression. I've developed a very light touch over the years, keeps me relaxed and allows me to play faster. I don't put anything between my bass and amp. Just me.
  8. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006
    I play with an extremely light touch. I also know how to use and am comfortable using compression in situations where I want to use it.

    There’s a good deal of misunderstanding surrounding what compressors are and what they do.

    One of the two most common misunderstandings, held by those who feel using compression is somehow “cheating” (whatever that means in a musical context) is that they’re only useful for limiting signal levels. Although that’s one use, it’s far from the only use or type of compressor out there. And even so, if you have bad technique or play with a very heavy hand, compression isn’t going to do anything to help you out. If anything, it’ll make you sound worse.

    The second misunderstanding, usually held by someone who either is using the wrong compressor - or - doesn't really understand how to operate the one they have, is that it squashes your sound and/or kills your dynamics. And while many compressors are perfectly capable of doing that, it’s not something a compressor has to do. And most times when it does it’s because the person using it has it set incorrectly for what they’re trying to accomplish.

    Compression isn’t something that’s always easy to get your head around or learn how to use effectively. But it’s well worth the effort IMO. Because once you do understand it, it’s a very useful tool to know how to use and have in your toolkit as a bass player.
  9. jthisdell


    Jun 12, 2014
    Roanoke, VA
    I play with a light touch and a little compression. I like my EBS Multicomp better than my Kelley Bassist. A multi-band compression will apply different compression to different frequency bands, typically little or none to lows and more to highs. The Bassist tends to go from barely there to heavy compression easily, at least for me.
    Low Down Brown and jdh3000 like this.
  10. jdh3000


    May 16, 2016
    I believe that's right, as I have had some success using compression as an effect on my Zoom ms60b, utilizing it just to give a little thump to accent notes on certain funk style songs.

    But as far as having an "always on" sound, I haven't found that, and may not need to. I may just need to experiment with more eq, hpf, etc.

    Overall I want a nice round, warm clean sound. I'll find it one of these days...then probably drop dead the next day...
  11. 40Hz

    40Hz Supporting Member

    May 24, 2006
    Compression can’t be taken in a vacuum. It’s part of a system composed of everything you’re using that’s part of your bass and rig. It doesn’t need to be always on unless it’s bringing some the table (e.g. tone shaping, thickening, boost, sustain, etc.) you always want to be hearing.

    Some players will engage it for a solo, or a heavy slap number, or tapping for example. But then leave it off for everything else.

    Another player may find herself in a very dry performance space and want to get some additional sustain without resorting to the spacier quality of a delay or reverb pedal to achieve it, and therefore leave it always on for that gig.

    Or you have a more midrangey (is that an actual word?) bass like a PB that sounds a little anemic in…oh, say a particular blues trio you work with. And you want a little more weight and authority in what you’re laying down without having to switch to another bass. The right compressor and settings can get that for you. So you use it always on when performing with that group.

    As you can see, it doesn’t have to be always on. And it has to work with whatever else your using too.

    For example, you’re using a triggered effect, or some other pedal that’s very fussy about the signal it’s receiving. Putting a limiting type compressor in front if it can regulate the signal going in so that your synth pedal or octaver is now getting exactly what it wants to hear to trigger or track more reliably.

    Or…you have a big pedalboard that makes up a lot of your personal sound. But cutting various pedals in and out alters your ultimate output level, sometimes causing distortion or feedback. A limiting type compressor at the end of the chain sets the maximum output level so you can set it to cut in just below the level causing a problem. Almost like a speed governor on motor. In this case, it’s aways on but doesn’t engage unless your predetermined max level that’s about to go out to the amp or board is exceeded.

    So it’s not an either/or thing, nor a single scenario tool. And that’s even before you get into the newer breed of hybrid compressors that also provide OD/Distortion (ex: JHS Pulp & Peel, Keeley Compressor+), OD+EQ+Boost (Dry Bell Unit 67), etc.

    Compressorland is a big place. Odds are pretty good there’s something useful out there for every player. So it’s definitely something worth looking into and not being too quick to dismiss.

    Or so I think anyway.

    But like everything bass related - YMMV. And a hands-on tryout with your own gear is everything. :)
  12. Robscott


    Mar 20, 2017
    Tonbridge UK
    I work on my technique all the time. The better it gets, the more the volume knob can go up, the less I need compression. Now I find I am hitting that bypass button all the time. Look out on e**y, one MXR M87 and one DBX160 coming up any day now!
    Brad Johnson and jdh3000 like this.
  13. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    What do you mean by "unbalanced nature of the instrument"? Perhaps EQ would be a better tool if different ranges of notes are speaking louder than others.

    The M87 gives you access to all of the compression parameters. This is a double edged sword. The advantage is you can dial in the sound exactly the way you want it, but for someone new to compression it tends to be frustrating.

    Do you have a good understanding of what all of the controls do? IMHO that is the place to start.

    I suggest you set the Ratio to 4, Attack to fast, and Release to medium. Next play some notes at your normal volume and adjust the input until you are peaking around 3-5dB on the meter. Adjust the Output so the volume is the same as when the pedal is bypassed. Now play a bit and tweak the Attack and Release so the notes sound the way you want them to sound.

    Note that I am suggesting light compression. Once you get the feel for how the controls work, you can dial in higher compression if desired.

    For the record, I don't generally use compression as a bass player, but I do use it a lot when I mix or play guitar.
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  14. Joony


    Aug 18, 2019
    I don't think you can use a single compressor to 'cheat' evenness without compromising your sound. Even in a studio, mixing engineers will most likely put 'uneven' performances through multiple compressors in series in order to not squash the sound. Generally speaking, compressor is a useful tool to make your volume sound consistent across your techniques which inherently differ in volume without having to ride a fader/volume pedal.

    You've said that you want to even out the sound of your bass a lot more. By the sounds of it, you're compressing the signal way too much if you're hearing your sound squashed. There's a very good chance that you're unable to hear the subtle difference of compression until you're slamming it down.

    I know that a lot of people use compressor pedals as volume boost pedals and some sort of 'tone shaping' tool. While you can use a compressor this way, its primary intentions were to make softer sounds louder and louder sounds softer.

    For example, using hi fi pickup basses and playing songs where you have to play fingerstyle and pop at the same time - there could be a massive volume difference between the fingerstyle and pop (e.g. Somebody else's guy by Jocelyn Brown). You would use compressor to clamp down just the popping such that you'd get a more even response across different techniques - something you shouldn't achieve via technique imo.

    Using the attack and release settings on certain compressors will definitely allow you to 'shape' your tone and you can affect the transient by bringing up the sustain, or boosting the transient but unless your performance itself is not dynamic at all, I can't see how you can use compressors this way on a pedal in a live setting - especially as a leave on effect.

    I feel like compressors are more useful for people with heavier touch in general because people who dig in tend to lose more of the bottom end and sustain when playing on the higher strings compared to the lower strings so they might want to compress the lower strings to sound consistent in volume.
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2019
    jdh3000 and Wasnex like this.
  15. MDBass

    MDBass Supporting Member

    Nov 7, 2012
    Los Angeles, CA
    Endorsing Artist: Dingwall-Fender-Bergantino-Dunlop-Tech 21-Darkglass-Nordstrand
    The camp that thinks you can use technique to emulate compression don’t understand what compression actually is.

    Every single recorded electric bass part that you’ve heard in the last 50 years has had compression on it, likely in multiple stages.

    Sounds like you had the threshold on the the MXR set too low, or the input set too high, if everything sounded squashed.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2019
    Vinny_G, Nevada Pete, DavC and 3 others like this.
  16. I play with a very light touch. I also almost always have 2 compressors running. I use a TC electronic Spectra and a Smoothie. For me the application of 2 light compressors give me an awesome tone.
    Socobass and jdh3000 like this.

    MYLOWFREQ Supporting Member

    May 13, 2011
    I set it up so when I'm playing forte (digging in) it barely kicks in and out. This way I know that when I do anything stupid loud, it won't get any louder. And I do stupid things like slapping, popping, hitting the bass etc. sometimes. It's just there as a limiter which makes everything under control. When I play softer the comp doesn't kick in at all.
    jdh3000 likes this.
  18. jdh3000


    May 16, 2016
    I say the nature of the instrument because I play several other instruments that do not tend to suffer from this.

    I eq to the best of my ability, parametric and band eq. If I manage to tame a booming note, I can still wind up with another note not ringing as loud.

    It's an issue I've fought with for years.
  19. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    So are you having a problem with a specific bass or bass in general?
    Last edited: Oct 6, 2019
  20. OptimalOptimus


    Jan 4, 2019
    In my quest, I refuse to play with a compressor for a very long time. especially since I'm from a classical music background and this to me killed everything by reducing how wide your dynamics can be.

    Then I played with 3 differents compression. I think they were great tools when playing slap or tapping.

    Then I bought a DI and there was what I was looking for. There some control on the DI that make me very clear without treble nor stupidly compress. So I sold those compressor.
    Vooter likes this.