Many of the tone related questions I get is about how to use equalizers and compressors. Well, mostly it’s a matter of trying to locate a problem and the solution often lies in the EQs and compressors. Both can be great tools useful for shaping your tone adding that little extra but they can also do a lot of damage. Perhaps obvious to some of you but I thought I’d share my experiences on the matter.
Let’s not go into technical details but here’s some basic facts. Both equalizers and compressors as we guitarists know them are stompbox versions of the more common studio units. While the stompbox versions became available in the mid 70’s the studio equivalents has been essential tools for any studio recording for many decades.
Equalizers are used to increase and/or decrease certain frequencies of the tonal spectrum. They should always be placed after any distortions, overdrives and boosters and before any modulation effects like flangers and phasers. This way you can both shape your clean tone and beef up your overdrives and distortions.
The stompbox compressor is a simplified version of the studio unit with often just a volume boost control and a sustain control. The effect is used to smooth out the top frequencies, tighten the lows and sustain the tail of the signal. Some guitarists also prefer to use it only as a booster by rolling off the sustain control. Compressors should always be placed first in the chain. The only exception is if you have a vintage style fuzz unit in your rig the compressor should be placed after it.
The problem that often occurs with EQs is that one will try to fix a dull tone by adding some mids or bass or whatever and by increasing the frequencies too much one will try to add even more EQ to fix the problem. Of course this is not an ideal situation. The initial problem is often caused by having too many pedals on the board that both drains tone and conflicts with each other. The solution is often therefore to ditch some of the pedals and clean up the board rather than trying to fix it by adding more of everything.
A question that I get all the time is “how does David set his EQs?”. As with any setting suggested on this site or any other place they should only be used as guidelines for your own tone. This is even more important when it comes to EQs and compressors because the effects are used to enhance or “fix” a certain tone from specific elements in a rig. Unless you have the same rig as David you shouldn’t expect that his EQ labeled “RAT” will add the same effect to your RAT.
EQ’s should be used with care and I recommend that you assign it/them to specific effects or tones rather than using it for all your tones. The RAT often needs a bit more bass and adding a hint of mid boost to a vintage style Muff will make it sound more like a Sovtek or Cornish P2. A clean tone can often sound a bit flat and thin but it comes alive with a bit more bass and mids.
David’s ’94 rig included 4 EQ’s each assigned to individual pedals or frequencies. The reason for this was the scale of his rig and the need to boost the signal quite a lot. David’s latest more modest board that he used on the 2006 tour included only one modified Boss GE-7. He didn’t use it much but it was there in case he felt that a tone needed something extra or simply used it as a booster.
The problem with compressors is often that one adds too much by setting the controls too high and the tone appears to be slightly punctured or very sloppy. A different problem is that one keeps the compressor on at all times. This will most certainly add more noise to your tones especially when you’re using it with high gain overdrives and distortions. Again, the solution is to keep things simple. Don’t add compression just because David’s setup suggests it but consider if your tone really needs it or not. A golden rule is that cleans often needs compression, overdrives could do with some compression and distortions rarely needs it.
A tube amp will give you a natural compression from middle volume and up. The more gain you add from say a medium cranked Tube Driver or a fully boosted Big Muff will make the tubes start working really good and your tone gets nicely squeezed. Use it and make it a part of your tone and use the stompbox compressor to enhance the more climatic parts. If you look at David during a Muff solo he turns the compressor on and off depending on where he is in the solo. This adds subtle nuances that creates the dynamics that makes up a great lead tone.
Creating the basis for your tones
As I see it there are two ways of using EQs and compressors, – on a large tube amp based rig and on a smaller rig for playing at home. However, you should always start with just plugging your guitar into the amp and set it up for a powerful clean tone that’s gonna be the basis for all your tones. Don’t try to create your desired distortion tone by adding everything at once but get the best from your amp and pickups first. Then add one pedal at a time and try different sounds. Add only an overdrive to begin with and listen to how it responds with the amp at different settings. Do the same exercise with a distortion and also combine it with the overdrive.
Ideally you should notice that a loud tube amp like a Hiwatt, Sound City, Reeves or similar should give you all the character and compression you need for most of your tones. On a smaller transistor amp you should be able to hear exactly what you’re missing. In most cases it’s needed to add a bit bass and mids to the cleans and overdrives. You can also compensate some of the rich sustain you get from a tube amp by increasing the sustain control on the compressor. This will make your tone sing on a smaller rig.
I have both a Colorsound Power Boost and a BK Tube Driver on my board and one of them is always on creating the basis for my tones. Bright cleans or 70’s overdrive – Colorosund. Warm cleans and PULSE/Island overdrives – Tube Driver. Both works nicely with the Muff but the Colorsound is perhaps better for that classic Animals/Wall tone and the Tube Driver adds more dirt and warmth to the Muff. The two overdrives has the character and spectrum I want and I really don’t need the additional EQ.
The Gollmer Composus has a warm deep compression with tons of sustain and I use it mostly with the cleans and the milder overdrives. The heavier overdrives I get from the Tube Driver maxed out and the distortions with the Muff + overdrive combo gives me the compression I want from the amp so I rarely use the comressor on solos etc.