Compression is a simple concept, but also a hugely complex process. The Empress Compressor offers tons of controls. Good for the tweakheads, but can everyone else also dial in great tones? Let’s find out…
Possibly due to size, many stompbox compressors are designed to simply offer two knobs – a somewhat similar approach to vintage rack compressors like the 1176 and LA-2A. However, more and more ‘full-fledged’ compressor pedals seem to hit the market these years. Pedals that offer all of the 5 ‘classic’ compression parameters: threshold, ratio, attack, release and (makeup) gain. The Empress Compressor is such a pedal. In case you are not familiar with these parameters, please take a few minutes and read this article on the topic before moving on.
The Empress Compressor is well equipped. Five knobs and a 3-way toggle switch let you shape the tone and a row of ten LEDs and another 3-way toggle switch offers you vital and instant visual feedback.
The INPUT knob controls the input level, but importantly, you should not use it to find the clipping point and then back off a bit, as you might be used to with input knobs (or ‘gain’ knobs at the input stage). Why? Well, the INPUT knob determines how hard you push the compression circuit and it affects the fundamental nature of how the compressor handles the input signal massively.
ATTACK and RELEASE controls allow you to set the range that the compressor should work within. The parameters are pretty self explanatory – turn the ATTACK counter clockwise for the compressor to kick in faster and likewise, turn the RELEASE knob clockwise to keep the compression going for longer, or turn it counter clockwise to release the signal faster.
RATIO is a key compressor parameter and Empress has decided that all you need is most likely three different settings – 2:1 (light compression), 4:1 (medium compression) and 10:1 (heavy compression almost at the edge of limiting).
The MIX knob is allowing you to create parallel compression by simply blending the dry signal with the wet, compressed signal, which can be quite useful for adding the feel of heavy, pumping compression, but preserve the natural, original tone and not least the attack as part of the new tone.
The LEDs are not really a control, but they help you set the controls as well as giving you valuable feedback during performances. The LEDs can be red, green or yellow. Let me explain. The toggle switch offers three different meter modes: INPUT, GR and BOTH. Set it to INPUT and the LEDs will be green lighting up from the left side and indicate the level of your input signal. If you choose the GR (gain reduction) mode, the LEDs are red and ‘light down’ from the right, showing you the gain reduction happening when you play. Finally, if you set the toggle switch to BOTH, you get green lights from the left and red lights from the right side. When there is an overlap, the LEDs turn yellow.
I divided the sound section into five parts. The angle could have been in a number of different ways, but I chose to make the RATIO parameter the main factor, so you will hear the Empress Compressor at the three RATIO settings in each of the first three rounds, but at four different settings of the INPUT in every round.
Then, I look at the ATTACK / RELEASE parameters and finally check out the MIX function in the last two rounds of sound examples.
NOTE! Please use headphones or ‘real’ speakers. You simply can’t judge low-end material on laptop, tablet or phone speakers…!
NOTE! If you are on a mobile device, please turn it to landscape mode to see the knob settings of the pedal for each audio clip.
The Empress Compressor is arguably one of the most flexible compressor pedals you can find today with dedicated attack and release controls as well a mix option.
One thing that makes it even more versatile – and that I haven’t mentioned yet – is the SIDECHAIN input. Essentially, you can tell the compressor which specific frequency area to focus on, but you will need a so-called Y-split-cable to insert an EQ device that sets the ‘focus frequency’. Note that your sound is not routed through the EQ device. You could also make your own filters by soldering a capacitor to a jack connector.
Finally, you can feed the SIDECHAIN input with an external source that triggers the compression circuit for you. An obvious example would be a kick drum that you should lock with in the groove, but of course you would need to have the kick isolated on its own track (recording) or mixer channel (live). Actually, the chaps at Empress explain the whole sidechain feature pretty well in this video.
Having the option of the SIDECHAIN is great, but it does require either external equipment (EQ device, Y-cable) or basic soldering skills, which may be a show stopper to some.
I have never really used the sidechain feature, but most of all I think that’s because the pedal sounds so great and natural even without deploying this option. Having said that, in a perfect world, this pedal would have had a dedicated knob to sweep through the frequency spectrum at a fixed Q that went directly to the sidechain. Of course, you’d still want the flexibility of the physical sidechain input, so perhaps another toggle switch could be used to define whether you wanted to trigger it from an external source or from the built-in knob.
One more thing that could have made the pedal even more versatile would be a dedicated RATIO knob going from 0 to infinity (limiting). That said, I think that the three modes Empress pre-defined work extremely well.
The general feel of the pedal is quality through and through. Firm knobs and toggle switches and solid jack connectors you’re not afraid of quickly pulling and inserting cables on the fly.
Design and usability wise, I have one issue that threw me off at first. Even though two nice little arrows clearly point out how the signal flows, in my head the controls are backwards. You have the input jack on the right side of the pedal, but you control the input signal starting from the left knob (INPUT). In fact I hooked it up in reverse at first and wondered why the pedal produced nothing by silence when kicked in (embarrassing, I know!). Well, you just need to know this and hook it up correctly, then I guess you’ll never even thin about that ever again.
Also, one little obstacle is that there are three input connectors on the left side of the pedal (input, sidechain and power supply in). If all of your cable have straight jacks, this is no problem, but most of mine (including the power supply) have a 90 degree angle, which makes it a challenge. Having the power supply input on the rear side and separating the jacks on the left side a bit would pretty much have solved this issue.
In terms of size, this pedal will take up a bit of board space, but controls require space, I guess. In comparison, it is roughly the same size as the Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI.
Finally, I’d like to add a few words about the LED meter. I am used to have some kind of visual representation of the gain reduction on rack compressors or plug-ins, but have never really missed it on pedals – until now. I mean, most of the time I use compressors with fairly subtle settings as set-and-forget kind of tools and once that sweetspot was in place, I never felt the urge to have visuals to back that up. That said, if you move just a hair or two above the very gentle, almost-only-tone-shaping territory and want some ‘real’ compression, having those LEDs show the gain reduction are great. And if you switch to BOTH mode, creating a light show on the floor, you’re sure to impress your drummer!
Today (2015), a new Empress Compressor will set you back $249. Quite a bit more than a standard MXR Dynacomp or Boss LMB-3, but only a little more than the EGO from Wampler or the MXR M87 Bass Compressor. Considering the amount of controls you get, the wise decisions for the controls you don’t get and the great sound, I find the value to be very high indeed.
At the end of the day, this is a great compressor that will solve most (if not all) of your dynamics tasks elegantly. And at the end of that same day, that is essentially all you need.
High build quality
Mix / blend function
Signal flow direction may confuse
A dedicated knob for the sidechain would have been killer
Crowded input section on the left side