March 17th, 2023 | John Dines
We spend a lot of time talking about compressors. Rightly so – our Cali76 pedals are accurate recreations of the famous 1176 studio compressor, probably the most widely used studio compressor there is. Electric guitar and bass players know all about this already, and we’ve covered these uses in all sorts of ways in previous Tech Tips articles. But what about acoustic?
The 1176 owes its reputation to how it sounds on all sorts of instruments, not just electric guitar and bass. Frankly, a good compressor is only a good compressor if it works on a variety of sources, and that’s why many think the 1176 is the best. Also, acoustic guitars benefit from compression arguably more than electric guitars or bass, when it comes to recording. What starts off as a rather quiet sound with a big dynamic range can need a fair bit of encouragement before it’s in-yer-face enough to sound prominent and engaging in a mix.
Sure, miking up an acoustic and applying liberal amounts of compression in a studio is easy enough but, in a live context, this can be a lot trickier. Historically, DI acoustic guitar sounds have been a major compromise, with unconvincing piezo pickups and feedback issues to contend with. These days, however, internal pickup/mic systems available for acoustic guitars can be pretty darn good, and the trend towards “silent” stages and in-ear monitoring mean that getting a great acoustic guitar sound at the gig is quite realistic.
To get good results, you can’t just start from nothing – a good guitar and a good pickups system will be required – but you wouldn’t be reading the Origin Effects newsletter if you weren’t interested in having the best gear. So, let’s plug in a Cali76 Compact Deluxe and turn a good acoustic guitar signal into a great one. We are starting with a Furch Grand Concert guitar fitted with a K&K Trinity Pro pickup system. Our pickup system connects straight to the Cali76 Compact Deluxe, which runs directly to our audio interface. Some judicious EQ and reverb have been added in Logic, our recording software of choice. Here are three compression setting examples to suit different styles.
Setting 1 – Dynamic Fingerstyle: 00:00
For more natural sounds that suit more exposed playing, we don’t want to over-compress the tone, just bring it to life a little. Keeping the RATIO control set low ensures that any compression that is applied never gets to severe, slow ATTACK allows front-end transients to remain intact, and fast RELEASE lets the compressor recover quickly between notes. The Cali76’s IN control dictates how much signal is being pushed above the fixed compression threshold and, therefore, how much of the signal is being compressed. In this setting, the IN control is set so that the pedal is compressing fairly consistently across all the peaks, but not so much that the compression overwhelms the natural dynamics of the instrument. Even with these relatively subtle settings, the compression was a little obvious on the start of the notes, so a touch of uncompressed signal has been added in parallel using the DRY control, preserving some more of the guitar’s natural attack.
Setting 2 – Compressed Fingerstyle: 01:46
This setting is intentionally more obvious, reminiscent of the super-squashed acoustic guitar tones on ’70s records. Though the IN control has only been increased very slightly, the higher RATIO setting means the signal is subject to a lot more compression. The faster ATTACK setting also makes the compression more obvious, as the start of the note is clamped down quickly by the compression circuit. This makes for a less realistic, more exaggerated tone that never dies away, despite quite soft and dynamic player input.
Setting 3 – Pop Strumming: 02:44
Probably the most in-demand of these settings; an up-front, percussive strummed sound that needs to hold its place in a mix. Turning up the IN control and the RATIO gives us a heavily compressed sound, with a medium ATTACK time keeping dynamics consistent. To allow the percussive sound of the pick to cut through just above the rest of the sound, we have the DRY control adding a generous amount of uncompressed signal. After the initial attack of the note, the uncompressed signal quickly dies away – true to the natural dynamics of the instrument – leaving us with just the fattened-up compressed tone.
Of course, there are endless acoustic guitars, pickup systems and playing styles which require their own compression settings and approaches. These are just a taste of what’s possible. But, if you’re looking to take your DI acoustic signal to the next level, adding some studio sophistication to your stage sound, then you could do worse than the world’s favourite studio compressor – in a pedal!