The general purpose of a bass compressor is to level out the dynamic range of your bass. A compressor attenuates the instrument signal down when it is too loud and boosts it up when it is too quiet, thus making your volume more even throughout your performance.
Is there a reason 5-string basses have a special need for compression? A 5-stringer deals with sonic challenges that don’t apply to a 4-string bass.
Achieving a consistent timbre across 5 strings, especially the low-B, is a vital aspect that compression can address.
A compressor built for guitars, or any generic comp, will completely kill the low B because the unit isn’t designed for the extended range. They will also produce a lot of self-noise and squash the signal at high-comp levels.
The Low B hangs out at 31 Hz and requires a lot of mass and slow vibration to ring out. This will trigger the threshold sooner. Most compressors with a high-input and high ratio will respond to this by killing the lows.
Of course, the reason your B-string sounds dead or muddy isn’t necessarily an issue of compression. The amp, EQ, pickups and other factors will also influence the clarity of your low B. Try working with the mids on the EQ control panel first or upgrade your instrument/pickups.
Neither can this issue be solved by ‘perfect technique’ or by ultra-high-end bass builds with custom scale length and fanned frets. None of these will yield a consistent sound across strings as you play fast passages and use the entire range of your instrument.
Though some bassists believe an active bass eliminates the need for compression, a compressor has nothing to do with active or passive circuits. It is a valuable pedal in your rig, regardless of build and electronics.
What to look for in a good compressor for 5-string bass?
There are many compressor options, but they can generally broken down in two types:
1) Simple compressors where you rely on the tone coloration and pre-set compression parameters of the unit and can only dial in the ‘amount’ – which typically dials in the ratio and threshold at specific levels.
2) Multi-band, ultra-versatile compressors with multiple knob controls that allow you to tweak multiple aspects like threshold, ratio, attack, release and blend.
The first type is quick, easy and beginner-friendly, a good way to get into the world of compressors. In contrast, multi-band compressors are harder to get a good sound out of, but once you learn how to use them, they allow you to totally (re)shape your tone and dynamics.
In general, a good quality compression unit will allow you to hear the Low-B string when you have a low ratio with medium-to-slow release and a high attack setting.
LED metering is a desirable feature in a comp unit. It’s hard to know exactly how much of your signal is compressed just by listening. The LED acts as a visual aid to understand the amount of compression and to dial in the changes. This is particularly helpful for new compression users.
A row of metering with easy to read modes is even better than a single LED with changing brightness and colors, as is the the case for most pedals.
5 top compressors for 5-string bass
Now let’s take a closer look at some of the best compressor pedals for a 5-string bass out there.
#1: Empress Effects – Empress Compressor
Empress offers a highly tweakable five-knob box with LED metering and side chain input. The compressor works equally well with every kind of bass but is decidedly great for a 5ver.
It also gets a lot of love for its flexible LED metering system that is possibly the best on the market today.
The toggle switch to the left allows you to select 2:1, 4:1 and 10:1 and the toggle switch to the right is to select what the LED meter will display. The other good feature is the side-chain access input.
The blend knob and sidechain input are sufficient for sorting out most low B and Low A string issues. 10:1 will come in handy in specific peak limiting situations (hello slappers) but other permutations and combinations with 4:1 and 2:1 ratios produce consistent transparency and satisfying results. At 2:1, with moderate release and medium-low attack, a 5-string bass sounds really transparent and smooth.
The most evident general effect of Empress compression on the tone is the low-end punch and resulting tightness. This is because the compressor rolls off some of the lows that add a very palatable low-end definition.
This compressor can be an ‘always-on’ part of your rig to keep this balance and punch. This will also keep a check on the low B when you get carried away and unconsciously start playing with a heavy finger/pick attack during gigs.
The ease of use (on the fly) is excellent on this unit; and you can always dial in additional hard compression settings when a song specifically calls for it.
Watch the Empress in action with an MIA Fender PV:
See the Empress compressor of their website here
#2: MRX M87 Bass Compressor
The M87, based on the design of the Urei 1176LN, is a cost-effective, sturdy, and reliable compressor. It is a moderately priced version that offers decent transparency and helps your tone sit well in the mix.
It offers 4:1, 8:1, 12: 1 and 20:1 ratios. The tone shaping possibilities aren’t as versatile as the other units in this list but this is one of those simple compressors that gets the job done.
Opt for the 4:1 if you want to fatten the lows and add definition (punch in the low end as described for the Empress). It works great for dialing in an even tone across all 5 strings on a 5-string bass with humbuckers.
You can experiment with the ratios, each of them is well-suited for specific situations. It does a nifty job as a peak-limiter for aggressive playing when set to 20:1.
It does not add any color and the TrueBypass ensures there is no noticeable loss of tone. Though it isn’t perfectly silent, the bare-minimum low-noise of the pedal is unlikely to bother you. This majority of tones are somewhat dry, coming close to the Urei 1176 sound.
While the MXR isn’t in the league of the other pedals mentioned, it’s also more affordable. This is a more pocket-friendly and “pedal board space” friendly option. It is a good all-round unit that will reliably get the job done better than the EBS Multi-Comp, Demeter or Boss pedals.
However, experienced bassists may not find it as transparent as Empress or as versatile as Opti-FET, nor does it have the ‘tone magic’ of the MarkBass.
Check out the MRX M87 Bass Compressor here on Guitar Center
#3: Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe
Unlike the M87, the Cali76 Compact Deluxe is a premium attempt to replicate the magic of the original Urei 1176LN FET compressors that were a staple of all high-end studios in the 70s. The pedal is available in ‘Bass’ and ‘Deluxe’ version, with the former being decisively better of the two for a 5-string bass.
On the Bass version, two main features work in favor of 5-string basses:
- The HPF knob
- The circuit’s inherent treatment of lows.
The HPF knob can manipulate the compressor’s response to the lows to get a fat and round tone. When activated, it only allows the highs to pass and stops reacting to the low-end peaks in the sidechain signal path.
The unit’s inherent circuit has a color that impacts everything below 50Hz and evens out the tone across the bass strings. This works well with the low-Bs that need some control in the lows or to eliminate unwanted subs to get a bright and punchy sound.
The end result is similar to the tightness of the Empress compressor.
You can control the Input, Output, Blend and Ratio via knobs. There is no threshold knob. Instead, threshold is connected to both the ratio control and input knob. The tone is transparent but not exactly colorless because of a distinct zing in the mids (low-mids) that is quite similar to the Diamond BCP.
The overall tone, functionality and quality is comparable to the Empress. It sounds dynamic and transparent with the Fender P5s for compression and limiting.
While the original Cali76 was simply huge in size, the Compact Deluxe version is perfectly sized and has top-grade construction. Check out all the variations of the pedal in action:
See the Origin Effects Cali76 Compact here on Guitar Center
#4: FEA Labs Opti-FET Compressor
The Opti-FET functionality is a yardstick in the bass compressor segment. It’s most important (and unusual) feature is without hesitation sidechain. With most compressors, you hear the sound of your bass as the pedal responds to it, and this ‘compressor reaction’ is applied to the bass output signal.
With the Opti-FET’s sidechain, you can link it to another instrument (like the kick drum) or into a filter, and you can use the modified signal to trigger the pedal. The sidechain signal is independent of the original signal. This feature is often found in rackmount units but very rarely in pedals.
Why is this important for 5-string basses? There is a 3-band EQ attached to the side-chain that can modify the sensitivity response of the compressor. Using it you can dial in a big and powerful low-B sound.
For example, if you cut the highs, the pedal will have more impact on the low notes and ignore the highs to a certain extent. The sidechain responds to its own toggle switch and the unit is undoubtedly ‘true bypass’ in every respect.
Other than that, there is some tone-coloration but it is most likely to make your bass sound better. The Opti-FET engaged tone is dark, warm, round, and fluid (think slurpy) tone that is similar to the MarkBass (but not quite there).
You can shape the tone using the three internal dip switches, or you can toggle them off to get a more transparent, bright tone. The third switch is great for a vintage tone, it toggles the 12 KHz filter.
There is no self-noise whatsoever. There is zero loss of lows and it adds punch and low end presence when engaged. If certain scenarios you might hear compressed highs but this can be fixed by adding an external EQ to the sidechain. Intermediate and advanced 5 string bass players who buy this are unlikely to ever need an upgrade.
The bad news is getting your hands onthe Opti-FET isn’t easy. FEA Labs is invariably out of stock and new customers are waitlisted. Wait times can range from six to eighteen months. Your best bet would be to look for these in the used market but they rarely stick around for more than a few hours.
Watch a video of the compressor in action:
Check out the Opti-FET compressor here on FEA’s website.
The FEA DE-CL and FEA Dual-band Compressor are also worth a look.
#5: MarkBass Compressore
One of the main reasons people opt for the Compressore is the tone color and its capacity to handle high instrument signal levels. We are talking tight low-end, rich & full mids, and a dark high-end.
With a 5-string bass it works great at everything from gentle compression to peak limiting. The full-range controls allow sufficient versatility. At the higher ratios it does a reasonable job as a peak limiter but very aggressive playing can still lead to some signal spikes.
The tube isn’t cosmetic or some gimmick, it actually does the compression in the unit with very little noise (tube compressors are notorious for self-noise). Actual True-tube compression instead of the usual gain stage use of a tube in a pedal is quite remarkable for the price.
This complements the extended range (especially the low-A) of the 5 string bass really well, even more so on modern basses like Roscoe and Sadowsky.
The tone coloration, somehow, does a good job at taming the growl on modern J-style bass guitars to make them sit well in the mix.
It is certainly superior in tone, functionality and construction compared to Maxon RCP-660 and T-Rex Squeezer, the other tube-compressors in the price range.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a sidechain feature. The other cons are that it is a chunky and heavy unit that is almost twice the size of the MXR87 and requires an awkward 12V DC supply. So it will take up a lot of space on your pedal board.
Check out this official video demo-ing the Markbass Compressore:
Check out the Markbass Compressore on Reverb
Addtional compressor options for 5-string bass
The following units also have proven to work well with 5ers:
Setting up your compressor for a 5-string bass
As mentioned earlier, a beginner-friendly compressor with just amount-dial capabilities won’t be as helpful for fine-tuning different aspects of your tone. Multi-band compressors, on the other hand, can be more challenging and will need a concentrated effort to find your ‘sweet spot’, but once you get there you can take note of the settings and use it as an ‘always-on’ effect.
Even if you have a lot of experience with compressors, each unit responds differently. Test out your tone with all settings at max and gradually reduce them (one at a time) to understand what they do.
Likewise, you can start with all settings flat and increase them one at a time to see what they do. Use your ear and the LED metering to notice what changes and how much of it changes. Try 10:1 blended at 100% and gradually reduce it then try the same thing with other ratios like 4:1. 10:1 etc.
As the simplest way to tame the low-B string, you can get more compression on the low-end if you set a high threshold for the high frequencies. This is a great ‘always-on’ tone with some subtle but pleasant low punch.
If you find a multi-band or dual-band compressor, set peak limiting on the lower band, tweak the threshold and output levels until it sounds ideal. This will keep an even tone across the 5 strings and also as you play high up the fretboard.
Very fast release can distort the lows on most units. Fast release combined with fast attack will lead to a rapid and sharp dip where these momentary distortions will become evident. If you can’t identify the offending frequency (usually around 100Hz), twiddle the knobs and fine tune the crossover point till you get the tone you want.
Using a bass compressor with other effects
Compression can be redundant when using other analog bass effects like fuzz, overdrive and distortion which already compress the signal.
If your compressor allows it, placing an EQ pedal in the side-chain can yield good results, as the EQ allows you to really tailor the threshold levels for different frequency ranges.
For instance, if thuddy lows from your B-string are squashing the tone through the compressor but you don’t want to (or can’t) cut more lows from your bass preamp, then you can cut the lows by inserting an EQ pedal into the sidechain. This will resolve the issue without reducing the lows from your instrument signal.