Tonal Vision: Compression Basics

It happens to every bass player: the engineer puts your instrument cable into a piece of rack gear with a light meter that bounces every time you hit a note.
By Juan Alderete ,

IT HAPPENS TO EVERY BASS PLAYER: THE engineer puts your instrument cable into a piece of rack gear with a light meter that bounces every time you hit a note. You notice that something is happening to your bass tone—nothing overwhelming like distortion or overdrive, but something subtle—and from the look of the lights, it seems there is a lot going on. You need to get to the bottom of it.

At some point in your career, you will be told to compress your bass tone. Compressors even out your dynamics by bringing up soft notes such as harmonics and bringing down loud notes when you slap or dig in with a pick. Too much compression can squash your signal’s low end and make it mushy, but the right amount will let it sit in the mix with focused definition.

The first time I began to hear the complex relationship between bass and compression was when I saw Billy Sheehan play in Talas. I was a huge Van Halen fan when I was growing up; I had seen them early on, and when they came to the Bay Area in 1980 for their Women And Children First tour, I bought tickets to both nights. People were telling me that the bass player for the opening band, Talas, was the Eddie Van Halen of bass, and sure enough, on the first night, Billy played a wild style of electric bass I had never seen before. He was doing two-handed licks, ripping fast passages, and popping harmonics and then bending his neck to give the harmonics a tremolo effect. His tone was overdriven but still clear, and when he tapped harmonics, they were very pronounced. I went home that night, picked up my bass, and tried to emulate what I had just seen. But as I sat playing in front of my bass rig, I realized that no matter how hard I popped those harmonics, they just didn’t ring out like Billy’s.

I decided that I needed to see his bass rig, so the next night, I got better seats and took binoculars so I could check out his gear. That’s when I began to realize that Billy was doing a lot more than just plugging directly into his amps. He had a huge rack of gear, and one of those rack effects had light meters that bounced crazily throughout his set. It dawned on me that maybe he was using a compressor, and after I confirmed it by reading an interview where Billy mentioned having one in his rig, I began looking for a compressor, because I thought that was what I needed to get harmonics to pop out. I was right—sort of.

The first piece of gear I bought was a rackmount Roland bass preamp with a built-in compressor. I bought the preamp primarily because it had a compressor, it was a rackmountable, and it looked like something in Billy’s rack tower. It was a decent unit, but it never sounded that great, and my harmonics didn’t sound like Billy’s at all. At that point, I turned to Boss and bought a CS-2 Compression/ Sustainer stompbox. It changed my playing!

The CS-2 compressed my signal, but it also added high end, and when I plugged it in, I was finally able to make my harmonics pop out at the same consistent level as my open E string. Most compressors are also limiters—great for wrangling high output levels, especially when using unpredictable effects—but the CS-2 rocks so hard because it’s a compressor–sustainer, which is why it adds gain (if you want it to).

I’ve used other compressor pedals over the years, and when I record, I use high-end rackmount compressors. But for the majority of my live playing, I have this compressor on my bass. In fact, when I chose one stompbox to be “My Number One Pedal” at pedalsandeffects.com, I chose the Boss CS-2 compressor.

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JUAN ALDERETE

A veteran of Racer X and the Mars Volta, Deltron 3030 bassist and Vato Negro founder Juan Alderete de la Peña is an effect-pedal supergeek who proudly displays his addiction at
pedalsandeffects.com.