The Canadian pedal gurus at Empress Effects are well-known for making exceptional products, a couple of their diverse offerings being the Vintage Modified Superdelay, a digital delay pedal of high regard, and the Empress Effects Heavy, a beastly extreme metal distortion pedal. Attaining to similar top tier build quality, the Empress Compressor is their take on a fully-featured, studio-grade guitar compressor pedal. It’s an FET compressor (think of rack mount compressors in the Urei 1176 vein) similar in design to Empress Effects’ own ECM-519 Compressor (a 500 Series module that expands upon the pedal). It also has a few surprises in its arsenal that set it apart from your run-of-the-mill compression pedal.
The Empress Compressor is an exceptionally well-rounded little unit feature-wise, offering a lot of possibilities beyond the OTA (Operational Transconductance Amplifier) based 2-knob compressors of old. It provides deep control over your compression with Attack, Release, & Input (similar to threshold) knobs and offers 3 different Ratio settings for mild to heavier compression. It even has a dedicated Mix knob for true “New York” style parallel compression. Surprisingly, the Empress Compressor also features a dedicated Sidechain TRS input for external fine-tuning of your compression via an EQ or filter; or you can feed an external audio source into the Sidechain to trigger the compressor. Handy LEDs for Metering let you monitor the gain reduction, input, or both at once.
All-in-all, the pedal looks very promising. Here’s a deeper feature rundown before we dig into our Empress Compressor review.
- All Analog Signal Path – no digitals in here!
- Extremely Transparent – Add dynamic control without altering the original tone of your instrument
- 3 Compression Ratios – 2:1, 4:1 and 10:1 ratios offer lots of flexibility
- Attack and Release Control – allows for ultimate control over the compression characteristics
- Mix – Blend uncompressed signal in with the compressed signal for parallel compression, New York Style!
- Metering – Meter either gain reduction, input, or both.
- True Display LEDs – Bright multi-color LEDs always let you know what the Compressor is doing.
- Bass – Works great on bass!
- True Bypass – The Empress Compressor employs true bypass, so you can be sure that it’s not affecting the signal when disengaged.
- Small Size – The enclosure measures approximately 4.5″ by 3.5″ by 1.5″, which is delightfully small when considering all the features packed into this unit.
- Beautiful Case – It has a sparkle you can’t deny!
- Powered by 9-18VDC power adapter (current draw: 100mA).
Sound & Performance:
The Empress Compressor evokes a sense of pristine sound quality from the moment you engage the pedal. It was intended to be as transparent as possible and delivers on that promise. If you’ve had issues with Ross style compressors that add too much of their own character to your overall sound, you’ll be pleased with how this pedal preserves your guitar’s tone. And it’s pretty quiet, too, which can make or break a compression pedal when it comes to studio grade performance.
The Input is the key to determining how much compression is applied to your guitar signal. It functions similarly to a threshold style control, but instead of simply adjusting a volume threshold, it increases the input level going into the compression circuit. At extreme levels you might notice a hint of saturation but without the added color that comes from transformer-equipped FET compressors. The Empress Compressor retains signal integrity even when applying massive amounts of compression.
Generally, you’ll stay with the lighter 2:1 or 4:1 Ratios for mild compression amounts and maybe kick it up to 10:1 if you’re going for some heavy country-style twang. The 2:1 setting is great for barely there compression; it’s mainly for nearly unnoticeable compression that just catches stray peaks here and there. The 4:1 setting is still transparent and unimposing while covering basic compression needs. It’s a solid default setting for evening out your overall level without losing too much dynamic range. The 10:1 Ratio gives you a more squashed sound that isn’t quite as extreme as limiting but still more than adequate for heavier squeezing. Of course, you can crank the Input on 10:1 and significantly flatten your signal if you have the twisted urge to do so.
I typically appreciate having Attack & Release controls on a compressor, and they’re especially useful when you have such an accurate array of Gain Reduction LEDs like the Empress Compressor’s Metering provides. The Attack knob goes from an insanely fast 50us (microseconds) to 50ms. The Release ranges from 50ms to 1 second. This is well within the musical range for most purposes, and even if you’re not too experienced setting attack and release times, the visual Meter indicator will help you achieve a solid sound for your needs. (I generally find Attack settings around the 10 o’clock area to be a good starting point. Fully counter-clockwise values choke pretty hard. Then set the Release to taste.)
The Mix knob blends the wet (compressed) and dry (uncompressed) signals for parallel compression. While this “New York” style of compression was typically reserved for studio use on percussion tracks, it’s been finding it’s way into guitar pedals more frequently. Essentially, the Empress Compressor’s Mix control allows you to achieve a fatter, less noticeably compressed signal with added sustain while ensuring that the original character of your source material (i.e. guitar) remains intact. That’s especially apparent with this pedal as the compression is already more transparent than most. It’s especially fun to crank up an extremely compressed signal (try 10:1 with a high Input!) and blend that in with your dry guitar sound. Extra versatility for the win.
Okay, this is a pretty big deal as the Empress Compressor is currently the only pedal I know of that offers sidechain compression which is facilitated by a dedicated jack on the left side of the pedal. The jack is actually a TRS input. One of the tricks this allows is to let you split your signal into another effect, like say, an EQ or a high pass filter, so that you can have the compression only be triggered by certain frequencies. Bass players in particular may find use for that handy feature.
You can also use a dedicated audio source to control the compressor. One technique is to use a kick drum to duck your guitar or bass whenever it hits. This helps to keep low-end frequencies from conflicting and mudding up your mix. This technique is very popular in certain styles electronic dance music, and now similar rhythmic pumping effects can be achieved in real-time by feeding your drummer’s kick into the Empress Compressor. You can even experiment with running a sidechain kick from a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Ableton Live into the pedal’s sidechain input. It’s a lot of fun. I’m also waiting to see a band use the Empress Compressor to split their singer’s live vocal to the sidechain to apply a little ducking to that lead guitarist who’s always noodling through song verses. A sidechain input happens to be my single most wanted feature in any so-called “studio style” compression pedal, and I’m glad the Empress Compressor finally fills this void.
Another nice little touch are the 3 options for LED metering that the Empress Compressor provides: Input, Gain Reduction, & Both. Gain Reduction is most useful, but it’s nice to set it to Both as well to see how the compression responds to the input signal. The green Input LEDs collide with the red Gain Reduction LEDS for yellowish orange hues when they overlap. And let’s face it… it just plain looks cool. Style counts for something, right?
The only minor thing I could wish for with this pedal would be a variable Ratio knob. The default settings are fine for most uses. It’s only when applying the sidechain compression function that I sometimes want to vary the compression with a Ratio setting somewhere between 4:1 & 10:1. But this is a minor concern as it’s a situation that most guitarists will never find themselves in. Besides, you can also adjust the volume of the audio source you’re feeding into the Sidechain beforehand. The 2 Auto Modes from the later released ECM-519 might have been handy to those who’d rather not fiddle with Attack & Release controls. But this pedal is very easy to dial in, so that doesn’t hurt it either. Other than those possibilities, this pedal is perfect in every other way and one of the best guitar compression pedals around.
The Empress Compressor is another standout pedal from Empress Effects. Let’s see the final result.
The Empress Effects Compressor is among the best studio grade compression pedals available, living up to its claims of pristine transparency and versatile functionality. The Mix knob offers parallel compression for blending in compression with your dry signal. The Metering LEDs give you an accurate visual cue of what’s happening. The Empress Compressor is also the only true studio grade compression pedal to offer a dedicated Sidechain input, certain to be put to creative use by some musicians. If your old 2-knob compressor isn’t cutting it anymore, this beautiful FET comp may be what you’re looking for. It’s an all-around outstanding pedal in all regards.
That concludes our Empress Effects Compressor review. Thanks for reading.
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