Not too long ago we did a rundown of the best compressor pedals for electric guitar. A compressor can be a very important tool in helping you sound better whether at home, in the studio, or live, and that’s especially true for bass players. In fact, along with EQ a compressor is often thought of as an essential bass pedal, and one that should be purchased before any others. In this guide we’ll talk about compressors, give an overview of the effect, explain why it should be part of a bassist’s rig, and make recommendations to get you the best bass compressor pedal for you out there today.
What Does a Compressor Do?
Before talking about compressor pedals specifically for your bass guitar rig, it’s important to understand what exactly a compressor is and does. Knowing what a compressor does and understanding its basic controls is also massively helpful when shopping for one, that way you’re able to tell which functions a pedal you’re considering chose to include and exclude.
To keep it simple, a compressor is like having an assistant with their hand on a volume knob as you play. You tell your assistant, “Hey, if my playing is a bit uneven and I play any notes that are any louder than this (this being the threshold level), can you please turn just those notes down?” When you’re playing, your dynamics (the quiet bits and the loud bits and the relation between them) tend to be all over the place. This is affected by your skill level, and things like playing with your fingers, a pick, or slapping. The compressor will take the peaks and squash them down. The thing is, a human with his or her hand on a volume knob could never react fast enough or be exact enough. A compressor is basically a robot that does the job we described. You set the attack level (how fast do you want the reaction of turning down when you exceed the threshold), the release (how long do you want the compressor to remain engaged after you dip below the threshold), and the ratio (to keep it simple this how much the signal gets compressed).
So, in essence a compressor evens out your playing, and “brings down” anytime you get too loud and unruly. An unfortunate side effect is that you kill some of the dynamic range of your playing, which is what makes certain types of music more interesting. You might be thinking, “Wait, so a compressor makes me more quiet and lifeless overall?” Quiet? Technically, yes. Lifeless? It depends. For a very nuanced vocal and acoustic guitar solo performance, or classical music, you don’t want to compress too much because preserving the dynamic range is important. For bass, it can be very advantageous to apply subtle (or even harsh) compression to your signal. To combat the fact that compression technically makes your signal quieter, most compressors have an output level, also know as “make-up gain” since that’s the gain you’re making up for what the compressor takes away.
Why Use a Compressor for Bass Guitar?
For bass players, a decent compressor pedal should be one of the first few pedal purchases (perhaps of equal importance would be an equalizer pedal). It’s an effect that you and your audience will feel, rather than hear. And that’s a good thing. Your playing will sound smoother and more even, and though this might be a slight exaggeration, you’ll sound like a better player (more experienced bassists have more control over the evenness of their own playing).
This explanation from a user on reddit sums it up better than we ever could:
Compression makes the bass sound fuller. Without one my very lows and very highs sound outside the range of normal hearing. With one my bottom end comes up from the depths of hell to cause earthquakes while my highs descend from heaven in angelic chorus. Basically, makes the low end of my bass fatter, beefier, meatier, etc. without turning the bass knob to 11. With highs it's easily noticeable when I play harmonics; they sound like clicks and whistles without and screaming sustaining banshees with compression.
Remember, you don’t have to compress the $ht out of your playing. If you set your threshold setting to something high, most of your playing dynamics will remain intact, but the compressor will help tame the wild note or three that you’ll play when you turn up the aggression, like when you go from finger plucking to all-out slap.
How We Made This List
Just like with the rundown we did of the best compressor pedals for electric guitar, we spent days browsing forums where bass players hang out, and reading up on all of their compressor pedal recommendations. This gave us a rough tally, which gave us pedals to do more research on, read reviews, watch videos, etc. Finally, we took a couple of bass playing friends with us to our local guitar shops and demoed the top pedals.
Since “best” is so subjective, we feel like this is a good approach, because between what bassists across the Web are recommending it gives us an interesting mix of boutique pedals, and more affordable choices.
The 5 Best Bass Compressor Pedals
MXR M87 Bass Compressor
The most recommended bass compressor pedal out there is the MXR M87 Bass Compressor. It’s often the first one mentioned in “What’s the best bass compressor?” forum threads, and once you spend a little time with it it’s easy to see why.
Simply put, the MXR M87 is studio-quality and sounds great, it’s easy to use whether you’re a veteran or new to compressors, it’s compact, and it just works. It’s an MXR pedal so you know you’re getting a quality product that’s built to last. On your pedalboard it has the versatility of being powered by a 9V battery, or a standard 9V DC power adapter (if you don’t have one, this one will work). You have ATTACK and RELEASE knobs which are going to be the ones you play with most often, a handy INPUT knob to adjust the input level, and an OUTPUT knob so you can bring the compressed level up however much you please. The middle RATIO knob lets you set the ratio to 4:1, 8:1, 12:1, and 20:1 (the latter two being pretty heavy compression). As an added bonus the knobs have a great grip and feel really nice to turn. As simple as it sounds, perhaps the most praised feature of the M87 is a GAIN REDUCTION LED meter at the top of the pedal, which provides a visual cue of just how much gain reduction is happening. Not many compressor pedals have this (especially at this price point), as it’s a feature more commonly found on very expensive rack mount studio compressors.
Sonically, the MXR M87 is a very transparent compressor. In other words, it won’t color your tone and you’ll feel it more than you’ll hear it. This is considered one of the best best bass compressor pedals for beginners since the instruction manual is massively helpful, and guides you through getting some decent settings within a few minutes.
Here are a few quotes we came across from owners of this pedal:
IMO it's my most useful pedal in my rig and couples really well with the MXR 10 Band EQ. Total control of all tone is a good feeling. Also it's got a lot of blinky lights which makes it even better.
It has a ton of control for a pedal that uses up so little real estate on my board. It is pretty transparent though, so it doesn't add a whole lot of color.
Lately I have been using my Mxr as volume boost pedal by using it in parts that are intricate like tapping. The compression makes everything sound even and boost my bass in the mix.
The MXR M87 comes extremely highly recommended for good reason. Just about the only drawback (and we use the term loosely) is that if you want something with more tonal character, this is not the one (stay tuned for the next pedal on the list, the Markbass Compressore). The M87’s transparency is great and means that it’s one of those pedals you can always leave on, and count on your tone being improved. If pedalboard real estate is an issue, you’ll also appreciate that the MXR M87 has a relatively small footprint compared to other bass compressor pedals out there. All in all, Best of the Best
A very close second place for the most recommended bass compressor pedal out there goes to the Markbass Compressore. It’s a bit pricier and bulkier than the MXR M87, but it has a special tonal character since it’s a tube compressor, as opposed to digital.
In the look and feel department the Compressore truly excels. This Italian-made pedal is built like a tank, and is quite large. This might put you off if you’re low on pedalboard space, as it takes up the same amount of space as two Boss pedals. Another downside is the hefty power requirement. Since it’s a tube pedal, your average 9V power supply won’t do; it needs a 12V DC power supply that can supply 500 mA (batteries are not an option). The controls are fairly intuitive and are laid out in a single row above the on/off true bypass footswitch. GAIN adjusts the input gain, and THRESHOLD basically adjusts the sensitivity of the Markbass Compressore. If you set it low, all your playing is compressed. The more you turn up the Threshold, the harder you’ll have to play before the signal is compressed. The RATIO knob is the compression ratio, but unfortunately the ratios are not labeled. ATTACK and RELEASE are standard fare for a compressor, and between them a yellow LED comes on when your signal is being compressed (the intensity of the light corresponds to how much gain reduction is happening, though we still prefer the LED meter of the MXR M87). Last but not least there’s a VOLUME knob for make-up gain.
Earlier when we said this has some character and tone coloration, it’s important to remember that this is still a compressor and not a more audible effect like fuzz or chorus. Any tone coloration comes from the fact that there’s a tube in this unit that actually does the compressing. It’s rare to find a pedal where the tube truly does the compression, and that leads to low noise and some nice “thickness” that you can sort of feel in the mids. Digital compressors like the MXR M87 can be a little harsher and more clinical (definitely not a bad thing, just different), whereas the Markbass is a little warmer. We love this description from an owner of this pedal:
It's got a tube in it, which warms the sound just a bit. I find that other compressors make your bass sound thin when they clamp down, but the Markbass keeps it nice and full. You can also get a little harmonic distortion (think grit, not dirt) if you crank the gain. I find that entirely clean sounds can get buried in the mix unless you have huge subs or a 4x12 or something... the coloration it does provide is pretty tasty. Really lends itself to a contemporary blues/funk/jazz style.
Bottom Line: The Markbass Compressore is a remarkable pedal, and bass players looking for a compressor would be hard-pressed to find something markedly superior. With its low noise and smooth compression, this pedal can go toe-to-toe with sophisticated studio-grade rackmount units; It really is that good. If you can overlook the size of the pedal, the non-standard power requirement, and the high price tag, this is the one to splurge on.
Boss LMB-3 Bass Limiter/Enhancer
Let’s face it - quality bass compressors don’t exactly come cheap. Luckily, there’s a pedal that’s inexpensive and good, and it’s called the Boss LMB-3 Bass Limiter/Enhancer. Don’t be put off by the word Limiter; that’s just a compressor with a very high ratio. While it’s not as flexible as the MXR M87 or Markbass Compressore, it’s a solid little stompbox that will definitely do the job.
It’s become cliché to say it, but Boss pedals have legendary reliability and build quality, which is part of the reason there’s seldom a stage around the world without a Boss pedal on it. This pedal is nice and compact, and a 9V battery or standard power supply will get you up and running with it. This compressor has 4 knobs to play with. LEVEL sets the output level (you cannot set the input gain on this pedal). ENHANCE will boost the highs for some “shimmer” and “sparkle,” but anything past about 9 o’clock will amplify hiss and noise. In general we recommend not using the ENHANCE feature. RATIO can be set anywhere from 1:1 to infinity:1, and finally THSHD is the threshold to set the sensitivity of when compression kicks in. Unfortunately, the attack and release is fixed, which is something we wish was adjustable. From a user review:
You CANNOT adjust those parameters on this pedal like you can on some of the more expensive pedals and rack units. Even so, the Attack on this pedal is very short but long enough that your attack (string pluck, pick, slap, or pop) is allowed through and you get a nice punchy thump on your note attack. The Release is factory set at a good, short time frame also allowing the compression to die quickly enough for you to play fast and still have each note get that fat, punchy attack.
Bottom Line: The Boss LMB-3 is a pretty straightforward and functional compressor. It’s clean and introduces very little noise, and overall just does what a compressor should. Lack of attack and release controls might be a deal breaker for some, and there’s no meter or indicator light to show the amount compression occurring, but the fact is it’s nearly impossible to find a bass compressor pedal of this caliber and build quality with the LMB-3’s budget-minded price tag. Best Bang for your Buck.
Aguilar TLC Bass Compressor
Another bass compressor pedal that gets numerous recommendations from the bass player community is the Aguilar TLC Compressor. This boutique pedal is extremely intuitive, built well, and offers transparent compression with very low noise.
This pedal has a very minimalistic look and feels extremely well built. The power supply jack, input, and output are all at the top of the pedal, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your pedal layout (in theory it saves width on a pedalboard). Powering the pedal is easy, as it takes a 9V battery or standard power adapter. Operating the Aguilar TLC is done via 4 knobs, which should be familiar if you’ve read this guide up to this point. The LEVEL knob sets the output signal level, the THRESHOLD is obviously the threshold of the compression, and ATTACK is adjustable from 10ms to 100ms, and the SLOPE is just another name for ratio, and is adjustable from 2:1 to infinity:1. Overall, adjusting this compressor’s settings is very intuitive, though unfortunately there’s no LED light or meter to indicate the amount of gain reduction going on.
Sound-wise, this compressor is pretty great. It’s more on the transparent end of the spectrum, unlike the Markbass Compressore which adds some character and warmth. It’s very low noise, arguably less than any other compressor we tested. Our favorite setting is the THRESHOLD and SLOPE both set fairly high.
Bottom Line: With the Aguilar TLC, the name of the game is compression that you can definitely feel, and yet it really stays out of your way. You definitely get boutique quality out of this unit, and just about our only complaint is we wish there was an indicator of some sort to show the gain reduction that’s happening. Aside from that, the TLC is a worthy addition to any bass player’s setup, and a compressor pedal you’ll be happy with for a very long time.
Empress is known for making extremely high quality guitar and bass pedals, and the Empress Compressor is no different! It rounds out the list of the 5 most recommended bass compressor pedals, and were it not for the slightly scary price tag we think it would be in the top 3. This is boutique quality at its finest, and the Empress Compressor not only sounds amazing but it’s also very intuitive to use.
Aesthetically the pedal is beautiful, although be aware that it’s a large form-factor and takes up a bit more space on your pedalboard than a Boss pedal. A true bypass footswitch and indicator light are in the lower-right corner, and all the other controls are along the top of the pedal. A 3-way toggle switch lets you choose between 2:1, 4:1, and 10:1 compression ratio (basically light, medium, and heavy compression - easy enough to understand). The input knob sets the amount of signal that’s fed into the gain reduction circuit, so obviously the higher you set it the more compression you’ll achieve. The attack ranges between 50 microseconds and 50ms, and the release between 50ms and a full second. The mix knob is an interesting inclusion and lets you blend the dry signal and compressed signal (also known as New York style compression or parallel compression). As you might expect, the output knob adjusts the output level which you can use to compensate for the compression, or as a clean boost. One of the most interesting things about the Empress Compressor is the large row of LED lights along the top, which you can set to show gain reduction (red LEDs), input volume (green LEDs), or both (overlapping LEDs are yellow). This meter is even better than the one on the MXR M87, it’s easier to read and we’re huge fans of it since it really helps you see how the Empress is affecting your signal. To power this pedal, you’ll need a standard 9V DC adapter (internally the voltage is boosted to 16V), but you can also power it with an 18V DC adapter if you’ve got one handy.
This is a studio grade compressor and the sound quality is fantastic. The website onvilab sums it up nicely:
There is almost no noise, at most settings. The tone is clean enough to satisfy people who want transparency, yet warm enough to satisfy people who want to avoid "clinical sterility".
We like this sound bite from another review:
It has an almost indescribable quality- it adds thickness and warmth and a cleanness of tones and note definition. Warm sustain without being a noisy buzzsaw about it.
Bottom Line: Comparing the Empress to the MXR M87 and the Aguilar TLC, if price isn’t an issue and we have room on our pedalboard to accommodate it, we would choose the Empress. None of these compressors are bad options, but the Empress is just a cut above in everything from look and feel to tone. The large LED meter across the top seals the deal, as it’s massively helpful to be able to see exactly how your knob adjustments affect the gain reduction in real-time. If the price is prohibitive, go with the MXR M87 for a similar experience. Otherwise, get this one if you can.