Anatomy of Guitar Tone: Swell Compression

[guitar plays — volume swells]

Today, I’m going to talk about using a compression pedal before a volume pedal. This is a great technique when you’re looking to create atmospheric sound effects.

Sometimes, when I approach atmospheric tones, I will use just a volume pedal into an amp, and I push the amp fairly hard so it’s not completely overdriven, but it starts breaking up. The reason I do this is as I push the volume pedal up, the sound naturally starts to compress.

Sometimes, this isn’t the best method because as the amp overdrives, it brings out certain harmonics and the sound is a little bit richer than a perfectly clean sound. One of the problems you’ll notice when you’re using a volume pedal or a volume knob on your guitar and you do the swells into a perfectly clean amp — by the time you start riding up the volume, the sound is already pretty heavily decayed, and so you don’t really get a lot of volume out of it.

This is why I put a compression pedal before a volume pedal, and I use a fair amount of compression on it, and what happens is if I have the volume pedal cocked all the way back, I hit the note — the compression pedal is going to grab it, and it’s going to hold on to that for quite a while, so as I’m pushing up the volume pedal, there’s still plenty of clean signal that I can use to push into the amp or the reverb, or in the case that I’m using today, I used a EchoLution pedal from Pigtronix.

For this example, I was using this Keeley compressor. It’s a very simple compression pedal. As you can see, I’ve got it set fairly high. I like it because it’s very simple, and it has almost a little bit of a Teletronix LA2A quality to it, which I prefer as opposed to a super clean compression.

Any sort of compression pedal will really work for this. It’s not so much about the color, but about how it’s grabbing the signal.

I was also using this Ernie Ball VP Junior Volume Pedal. It’s a pretty standard volume pedal. The last thing in my signal chain is this Pigtronix EchoLution 2 Ultra Pro.

I just used this to get a little bit more decay out of the notes. I had it set to a fairly slow — it was like a quarter note delay. That way, when I swell it in, you hear when I attack the note, but when I swell in, you don’t. It just extends the length of the note.

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at
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