Review of the Empress Bass Compressor…
Compressor pedals seem to be contentious territory for bassists. Some players swear by them as the glue that helps keep their levels stable and consistent, while others feel they squash their dynamic range and limit their ability to play with nuance and touch. I like certain compressors for their ability to fatten up my sound and bring the bass forward, acting as a bit of a “fat boost” if you will, but I don’t want to hear coloration, or any pumping or squashing. So, for me, it’s critical to have control over the various compression parameters to ensure that I’m getting all the attributes I want, and nothing I don’t.
There are a lot of compressor pedals available that are suitable for bass, which can most simply be broken up into a couple of different camps: The simpler vs the more complex, and the transparent/clean vs the more voiced/colored units. I’ve owned a handful of compressor pedals over the years, bass-specific and otherwise, and it’s taken me a minute to figure out exactly what I like. When I first got into compression, I understandably gravitated towards the simpler ones, some of which sounded darn good. While the 1 or 2 knob comps are less overwhelming and typically harder to get a bad sound out of, the cost of simplicity is lack of control over individual factors affecting behaviors like attack, decay, threshold, ratio, etc. The flipside of course is that the more complex compression pedals require a working knowledge of how a compressor works. Thankfully, users who spend the time to learn how to dial in the parameters to their liking are rewarded with results that best suit their preferences.
As far as the ‘transparent vs. voiced’ question, I’ve gone back and forth over the years. There are some REALLY good-sounding compressor pedals with built-in desirable coloration that sound fantastic. Personally, my journey with compressors has led me to look for units that have studio-level transparency with a high degree of adjustability and some key features that allow me to indulge my very finicky degree of preference. My best results seem to come from getting voicing and coloration from other effects or preamps specifically for that purpose, so that color is not automatically tied to the compression effect. Others like to achieve both goals with one pedal. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
To that end, and to get to the point, I have been using the OG Empress Compressor for the last several years with great satisfaction. The original dark blue Empress is just a classic. It checks all the boxes for the versatility I want while sounding transparent and clean. The huge bank of LED’s is fantastic for level setting, and the whole package just plain works like a charm.
Naturally, when Empress announced they were releasing a new bass-specific compressor in a smaller chassis with top-mounted jacks and some bass-specific features, I was all in.
So too was the rest of the market it seemed, and the initial couple of runs went quick. It took me a while to finally get my hands on one, and I’m happy to report that it was well worth the wait.
Like the original Empress Compressor, the Empress Bass Compressor has an Input knob to control how hard you drive the compressor as well as an Output level to get the desired amount of signal coming out of the pedal. I like setting the input so that it is engaging the compressor but not slamming it and setting the output to roughly match the bypassed signal so that it plays nice with input-sensitive effects downstream. Like the original, the Bass Compressor has great LED metering: One set to show how much signal is coming in, and one to show the level of gain reduction (how much compression the unit is generating).
Dedicated Attack and Release knobs allow you to precisely control how fast or slow the compressor latches on to and releases your signal, effectively allowing you to sculpt how the pedal responds, and how long it holds on to your sound before letting go. This is where a lot of the character of the compression is controlled.
One of my favorite features of both the new and old Empress Compressors is the Mix knob, which lets one fine-tune how much of the sound is affected; perfect for the guy like me who doesn’t really want to hear the compressor working and ultimately wants a subtle effect. The Sidechain High Pass knob is one of two new standout features that set the Empress Bass Comp apart from the original. In a nutshell, as you turn this knob up, it allows more of your low end to pass through unaffected, with compression applying increasingly to the low mids and mids. This is great for those who want to tame their upper frequencies while retaining a full low end with less gain reduction in that register. Those who feel that compressors mess with their dynamics will appreciate this control, as it lets them feel the impact of the bass as usual but can help wrangle the transient spikes in the treble and upper mids. In conjunction with the Mix knob, these two controls offer a great way to increase the subtlety and transparency of the Empress Bass Compressor while still retaining the effect.
A 3-way switch allows users to choose between a subtle 2:1 compression ratio, a more standard 4:1 ratio, or a more extreme 10:1 ratio. I would prefer a ratio knob offering more granular control over ratio, but I’ve actually never found myself struggling to find the right choice with these 3 settings, as they’re very well chosen for light, medium, and heavy compression settings. The other 3-way switch controls the other new standout feature, the “Tone and Colour” setting, which essentially transforms the Empress into a more colored compressor on demand. While the middle setting offers the flat transparent sound I am used to, there are gentle mid-scoop and mid-bump settings, which are really well voiced and not too overt, but shift overall tonality in a musical and effective way. This makes the Empress Bass Comp compete strongly in both the “transparent” and “voiced” compressor camps. One could argue that because it does both very well, its double threat capability makes it a no-brainer.
Lastly, like the OG Empress comp, the Empress Bass Compressor features a 1/8” mini-input jack for sidechaining. This is the old studio trick of triggering your compressor not by your input signal, but from an external source. One classic application for this would be using the attack of the kick drum to compress the bass signal, sometimes used to create dynamics and space for the kick drum by ducking the bass signal when the kick drum hits. This is just one example though: the sky is truly the limit for all the creative ways this can be used on stage and in the studio.
Overall, the new Empress Bass Comp is a slam dunk.
It took everything I loved about the original, added some fantastic new bass-specific features, put it in a smaller, more pedalboard-friendly format, and gave it a sharp makeover. The build quality seems even better than the original, with more robust feeling pots and jacks and a wicked royal blue sparkle paint job (also available in silver sparkle). Kudos to Empress for taking something great and truly making it better for bassists. The new Empress Bass Compressor retails for $249.00.
For more info on the Empress Bass Compressor, visit online at empresseffects.com/products/bass-compressor