Big sounding vintage-style compression for guitar and bass from an ultra-small pedal
By Phil O'Keefe
One of the most influential compressor pedals ever released is the "grey box" Ross compressor from the late 1970s. This pedal was itself greatly influenced by the vintage MXR "script logo" Dynacomp. Both pedals have very similar circuit designs and have gone on to influence many other compressor pedals, including some very popular boutique models. Long a favorite of Nashville guitarists, and excellent for accenting the "pluck and cluck" of Chicken Pickin' guitar, the long-discontinued Ross is also well-loved for the coloration it adds to the sound; giving the guitar or bass that is being processed by it a sound that is often described as being fuller, rounder and thicker, with increased sustain. Of course, the dynamic range is also reduced and louder notes are reigned in by the compressor pedal, while softer ones are more audible, giving the sound more evenness and consistency.
The Comp (Fig. 1) is Malekko's take on the classic Ross style compressor pedal. While not an exact part for part clone, it is largely based on the old Ross compressor's circuit design, right down to the original, and relatively hard to find NOS CA3080 IC.
Figure 1: The Malekko Comp
As with the entire Omicron line, the Comp is a very small pedal that measures a mere 3.7" long and only 1.8" wide, which is a little over half the width of the typical stompbox. The overall build quality of the pedal is quite good, although it does have the same slightly wobbly feel to the two control knobs that I've noticed with the other Omicron pedals. On a positive note, they function fine and their response is smooth, and I've never had any issues with failure or breakage, even with extensive use.
Like most of the other Omicron series pedals, the Comp uses true bypass switching. Buffered bypass switching systems aren't without their merits -- using one allows reverbs and delays to decay and fade away naturally when the switch is depressed instead of abruptly cutting off as they would with true bypass switching, but on a compressor pedal, this is not an issue, and with true bypass switching, the pedal's electronics are taken completely out of the signal path when bypassed. You can always add a buffer pedal to your setup if needed, which I feel is generally a better approach than having buffers in every pedal, whether it's needed or not.
The Comp is powered by a standard 2.1 mm negative tip "Boss style" regulated power adapter. It can run on anything from 9-12VDC, with 12V giving a little more headroom, which can be useful if you have really hot pickups. As with all the Omicron pedals, the small size of the unit means there's no battery compartment -- the pedal is externally powered only. The power supply is not included, so you'll need to already have one available, or budget accordingly.
So just how did Malekko mange to fit everything inside such a small enclosure? Many of the components in the Malekko Comp are surface mount, which cuts down on the size of the circuit board significantly. (Fig. 2) Unlike some of the other pedals in the Omicron series such as the Fuzz and Phaser, there are no internal switches or trim pots inside the Comp, and all adjustments to the controls can be made via the two external knobs.
Figure 2: The obligatory "gutshot", showing the Comp's clean interior. The screws are long enough to allow for "bike chain links as screw-down bracket" mounting. Note also the red sparkle finish
Dialing up the Malekko Comp is about as easy as it gets. There are only two controls: Level and Sens. Level adjusts the output level, while Sens dials up the amount of compression. Just turn the Sens control up until you get the desired amount of sustain and squash, then adjust the output Level to taste. The Sens (sensitivity) control can provide anything from fairly subtle amounts of compression and gentle dynamics control all the way to some pretty heavy squash and sustain. As you turn the control up, the threshold level drops, and the amount of compression and sustain increase. When you crank the Sens control, you may notice the noise levels increase as held notes and chords sustain and slowly fade away - this is normal when using large amounts of compression with a Dynacomp / Ross type circuit. Unity gain is a bit past the 10 o'clock position on the Level knob, so there's plenty of make-up gain on tap; enough that you can easily use the Comp as a boost pedal for solos. It sounds really good slapping the input of an "on the edge" tube amp into full-on saturation, and adds sustain and excitement to the sound when it is used to bring out solos. Even if you're not a fan of compression on rhythm parts, or someone who tends to leave it on "all the time", the Comp is still well worth the asking price as a boost or solo enhancer.
The Comp works equally well with guitar and bass, and it retains good low frequency response and fullness, even at heavy compression levels. Tonally, there's all the great thickening and attitude of the original design, along with the increased sustain. As you would expect, differences in note volume levels and fluctuations in playing dynamics are evened out, with softly hit notes coming across much closer in level to more forcefully played ones, especially at higher settings on the Sens control. The note attacks are slightly accentuated, but not as drastically as with some other compressor designs, such as the original Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer and its descendants. The original Ross circuit had an attack time of about 4ms, and a release of about 1.2 seconds, and the Comp seems to fall into those same general time ranges, which should be fine for the vast majority of players. The sound works equally well for rock and other genres -- it's not "just" for country.
As I mentioned earlier, one thing that potential purchasers should be aware of is that the Comp does bring up the noise level somewhat, like all Dyna / Ross type circuits, and the further you crank it, the more audible the noise becomes. This is not due to the pedal itself being "noisy" - it really isn't. It doesn't add a lot of noise of its own to the sound. However, when you compress the dynamic range of a signal, the louder sounds get squished down. This reduction in peak volume level is often compensated for by increasing the output level until it sounds the same as when the compression is bypassed - this is known as unity gain. Because we're guitarists, and guitarists generally like to turn things UP, and because it sounds so good, many of us tend to goose it a bit (or a lot) past unity gain. As the level begins to drop and the compressor releases, the gain reduction is slowly "let off", allowing the signal to remain at a fairly consistent volume. This is how most compressor pedals make notes "sustain" longer -- the gain is reduced at the start of the note (when its level is loudest), then that gain reduction is gradually released as the sound dies away, making the quieter, sustaining part of the note more audible. The downside of this is that other low-level signals, such as the noise from other parts of your signal chain are also more apparent. Since a Ross type circuit can reduce the dynamic range by up to 40dB, the noise is brought up enough to be noticeable, especially when the pedal is cranked up towards its limits. The noise is normally not objectionable, but it is definitely something you should be aware of before purchasing any compressor pedal.
This is a pedal for those who want classic compression sounds and ease of use. It's about as close to "set it and go" as you can get. Dial up the amount of compression you want with the Sens control, set the Level control for the amount of output level you're looking for, and you're ready to rock. If you are looking for more extensive control over parameters such as the compressor's attack and release times, you should look elsewhere, but for many players, the pre-selected attack and release settings designed into the Malekko Comp will be just right. Fans of extra-large pedals will obviously want to look elsewhere, but those with minimal available pedalboard real estate will appreciate the space-saving design. Although the case is small, Malekko has placed the knobs and switch as far apart as physically possible, which helps to keep them out of the way of your foot. (Fig. 3)
Figure 3: The Comp's side profile, showing the 9-12VDC power jack, 1/4" input jack, and relatively small overall size. Note the distance from the switch to the knobs
The Comp is a real winner. The red sparkle finish looks cool, the small size takes minimal space on your board, and most importantly, the sound quality is as good or better than any other Ross type compressor I've tried. A welcome bonus is the price, which is among the lowest you'll find for this type of pedal. The Malekko Comp is a well-built and great sounding pedal at a very reasonable price, making it a terrific bargain. It's definitely worthy of your consideration if you're shopping for a solo boost or compressor pedal.
Dimensions: 3.7" L x 1.8 W x 1.95" H
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.