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Electric guitar - compress before the amp, or after?

Everyone knows that if you record a clean signal, you can process it any way you like later. Well no, in this case you can't.


Here is an excellent question sent in by a Audio Masterclass reader...

"I like to use compression on my guitar tracks and achieve this through one of two methods. I either mic the guitar cab and have my guitar running into a Carl Martin compressor pedal and then into the amp so the guitar signal is compressed before it reaches the amp, or I just mic the cab without compressor, and then take the recorded guitar track and compress it afterwards. Is one method better than the other? What would most pros do in this situation? Compress in the signal path or compress the whole track after the recording?"

Well you could do what most pros do, in which case you would be following the pack. Or you could do something different and stand out. Just do whatever YOU feel is best. That's that part of the question answered.

But should you compress the guitar before the amp? Conventional wisdom suggests that if you record a clean track, you can compress it later. If you compress first, you can never get back to that uncompressed sound, if you feel you need it.

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But there is a HUGE difference here...

If you compress the guitar before the amp, the sound is changed completely. Without compression, the amp will impress its character most upon the peak levels of the signal. But with compression, the average level going into the amp will be higher, therefore the amp has more to chew on. This is VERY different to the sound of compressing after the amp.

I used to have a strange recording chain of my own a while back...

I would connect my Fender Stratocaster to an Alesis Microverb, set to zero reverb. I was in effect using it as a high-impedance preamp and nothing more.

I would connect the output of the Microverb to a Drawmer DL221 compressor, the standard workhorse compressor over many years of recording. The output of that in turn connected to a tiny Fender Champ amplifier, which I would mic up. I can't remember which mic I used.

I used to love that sound, and the only reason I don't do it now is... Er, I don't know why, I just seem to have gotten out of the habit.

I would strongly recommend trying a similar setup though. Either use a compression pedal, or put the guitar into a high-impedance preamp then into any compressor you like. It's trickier to do with plug-ins. I guess that's going to be a 'Part 2' at some point in the future.

Try it out and tell us what you think!

By David Mellor Friday February 11, 2011