If you've been around compressor pedals for any length of time you are probable well aware of the original Empress Compressor. Launched in 2011 it quickly became a favorite and for good reason. It offers a ton of control, is highly usable, very transparent, has superb gain reduction and compression metering, and is built to high standards. The original Empress performed well with bass and guitar and many consider it to be a gold standard in pedal board friendly compressors. I'm a fan of the original.
Now, Empress has brought two new compressor pedals to the market: The Empress MKII and Empress Bass Compressor.
In this review we will take a look at the new Bass Compressor, obviously targeting bassists. How will it stack up? What's been changed from the original design? Read on.
True to form, Empress continues to offer the full range of features and controls normally found in high end studio compressors.
You still get input and gain reduction metering, independent attack and release controls, a mix knob to blend dry and wet signal (referred to as parallel compression), and an external sidechain insert. Don't let all of that confuse you or cause you to write this one off. All controls are highly useful and intuitive, once you've spent a little time with the Empress Bass Compressor.
But now Empress has added a few more goodies to the mix. There is a variable sidechain high pass filter, and a two position 'tone+color' circuit (which is more than just EQ shift points). The tone+color circuit adds gentle tone sculpting but also a little harmonic distortion. This is not a gimmick — it is real and definitely yummy.
In my review of the original Empress I described it as being more on the transparent side of things where it does not significantly alter your tone. That is true for the new Bass Compressor as well, with the exception of the tone+color circuit.
Let's take a look at the controls.
Input: Sets the level entering the compression engine. Higher levels drive the circuit more which results in more compression. I am definitely a fan of compressors that offer this function because it allows you to adjust the sensitivity of how the compression circuit reacts. Think of it like how much signal you are shoving into a pipe that is forced down stream.
Attack: Controls how quickly the compressor reduces the gain when the incoming signal (coming down that pip) exceed the threshold at which the compression engine reacts. The attack time increases as you turn the knob clockwise. I found my sweet spot to be around 1:00 to 3:00 for noticeable compression but still allowing some transient attack through. The full range is 50 microseconds to 50 milliseconds.
Mix: Controls the level of blended dry signal (your input bass signal) and the wet signal (the compressed signal). All the way clockwise is fully compressed signal and all the way counterclockwise is fully dry signal. This parallel compression allows you to include as much original unaffected signal as you would like. One use case for parallel compression is to dial in a significant amount of compression but then blend back in a large amount of your original dry signal which can restore some of the natural feel. So you benefit from added sustain and the benefit of compression without the feel being overly squashed and lost dynamics. I found my sweet spot to be around 1:00.
Ratio: This is a three way switch, just like the original design, offering 2:1, 4:1 and 10:1 gain reduction. A ratio of 2:1 is very subtle and is good for gentle gain control and a transparent feel. A ratio of 4:1 is an all-around general purpose setting. Not too much and not too little. It can still be relatively transparent but delivering obvious compression. In this 4:1 setting the rest of the control functions become obvious in sound and and feel. 10:1 should be selected if you desire heavy compression. It is worth noting that even at a 10:1 ratio the Empress is not really acting as a true limiter but I suspect it will satisfy anybody looking for high levels of compression. That said, if you desire a true limiting engine you might be better off looking at other devices like the Keeley Bassist/Compressor Pro, Becos Stella, Suncoast LM-1, or Yellowsquash Ironfist.
Output: Set the output level and has no effect at all on the compression circuit. It is to be used to compensate for any lost gain due to compression. There is a ton of gain on tap making the Empress Bass Compressor a candidate for an amazing boost pedal.
Release: Controls how quickly the compressor returns to its initial level. The release time increases as you turn the knob clockwise. Think of it like how long the compressor circuit is clamped on to the audio signal and effecting it. The full range is 50 milliseconds to 1 second.
Now here's where the fun begins.
The new side chain high pass filter function is a variable pass filter that filters low frequencies from the side chain. Basically the side chain is the compression engine's level detection circuitry. Based on the signal sent to it, the circuit will determine how much gain reduction to apply. The filter frequency increases from 20hz to 400hz as the knob is turned clockwise. Think of it like this. As you rotate the dial more clockwise the compression becomes less effected by the lower frequencies. By turning the knob more clockwise the compression engine does not get triggered by these lower frequencies. Bassists sometimes do not want their lowest notes to become overly clamped or squashed and this type of side chain function addresses that. This is especially true for bassists playing 5-string bass guitars who do not want the B string to aggressively trigger the compression circuit. Of course this is not always the case and there are use cases for balanced compression across all of the dynamic range of the instrument. That's why this type of functionality is so great because it allows you to dial in exactly how you want the compressor to respond to the low end. Nice!
I had a ton of fun playing around with the SC HP control. It is one of the most useful side chain high pass filters I have experienced on a compressor pedal. Compressors like the Origin Effects Cali76 CB offer this functionality but for some reason, the Empress is just easier to dial in. Not sure how else to describe it other than you can hear (and feel) how the Empress reacts to the twist of the dial more than the Cali76 CB. On the Empress Bass Compressor I found my sweet spot at about 11:00.
There is also a sidechain connector jack on the back of the pedal that allows you to alter the sidechain signal by inserting some other device. For example, you could insert an EQ pedal to have it trigger the compression circuit. It is outside of the purpose of this review to analyze how and why you might want to do this but know that the function is there if you want it. Th sidechain connector accepts a 1/8" TRS plug.
Also new on the Empress Bass Compressor is the tone+colour switch. The left position is a mid range cut at 500hz. The right position is an upper mid range boost at 2khz. The center position is off, or neutral. Both the left and right positions engage what Empress calls the 'colour circuit' which adds a subtle touch of harmonic distortion. It does. It really works and it sounds delicious. I really like the position in the left position where my sound become more 'alive' in a really good way. At first I was concerned about introducing a mid cut but after about 30 seconds of play time I was convinced I would probably never turn it off. The harmonic content is subtle but there and so pleasing. With this compressor in front of a preamp or amp and the tone+colour switch to the left it is as if a blanket has been removed and your tone becomes open and present. I realize that analogy is not new but it is true here.
One of my favorite aspects of the original Empress design where the highly intuitive (and bright) LED meters for gain reduction and input signal. Probably still to this day one of the best LED metering system on a compressor. But I am just going to come out and say the new designs looks even better. The LED's are smaller but just as bright and look modern and oh so very cool. Other best-in-class compressor pedal LED systems include the Becos lineup and the Darkglass HyperLuminal but the Empress wins for a few reasons.
You get gain reduction metering and input gain metering. Nice!
You get 10 levels of gain reduction metering.
It just looks so very cool.
I'm a fan of the metering on all of the aforementioned pedal designs and each are much better than no LED meter or single LED form of metering like you find on the Diamond Bass Compresor, Union Tube & Transister Lab, or Doc Lloyd Photon Death Ray, for example. Note: we are only talking about LED metering here, not the function/performance of these other compressor pedals.
The footswitch is the soft switch type and I like it. There is a white LED that illuminates when the pedal is activated. Empress allows you to set the bypass state at pedal startup. You can set it to start turned on as soon as power is applied or in a bypassed state. To select, hold down the footswitch while powering on the compressor. The first red gain reduction LED will flash letting you know you are in advanced configuration mode. Press the footswitch again to toggle between the bypass states. Gain reduction LED 1 = bypasses startup and gain reduction LED 2 = engaged at startup
Power requirements are 9 volt DC and at least 100ma.
Input and output jacks are top mounted as is the side chain insert and power input. The enclosure itself is definitely pedal board friendly and the same size as the Diamond Bass Compressor JR and a bit longer, taller, and wider than the Becos Stella.
The Bass Compressor comes with a very nice glossy print user guide, a nice tough when so many pedals these days don't come with any printed manual.
How does it sound?
Like the prior Empress Compressor, the new Empress Bass Compressor remains on the more transparent end of the compressor spectrum. That is until you engage the tone+color circuit where you definitely gain a bit of color. This isn't the type of compressor that you turn on and suddenly you are met with a darkening or 'fatter' sound. It is a device that I suspect would work well with just about any setup and with any bass. I spent time with the Empress and four different basses and found each experience highly satisfying. I used it in various settings and in front of various amps, preamps, and pedals. In each case the Empress made everything, well, better. If you turn it off, you want it back on immediately.
I love the tone+color switch in the left position. Did I say that already?
The pedal that comes to mind as the closest parallel might be the Becos Stella which offers full control of ratio (not just a three-way sitch), threshold, attack, and release as well as dry/wet blend and a switchable side chain HPF feature. The Becos also has a few other cards up its sleeve including a control for soft/hard knee, a tilt EQ, and timing control. It too offers nice gain reduction metering and also has some saturation functionality. With the pedal side-by-side I found I could dial in both to sound and perform quite comparably. I prefer the top mounted jacks and power input on the Empress. Whether the extra controls found on the Becos are important is for you to decide. The Becos might be inherently a touch warmer but the tilt EQ quickly adjusts that.
Photo from empresseffects.com
Empress has also released a MKII which offers a tilt EQ instead of a sidechain high pass filter knob. Instead of the three-way tone+color switch it offers a three-way sidechain high pass filter (similar to the Becos design). I'd like to try this new Empress MKII and plan to at some point in the future. With the three-way HPF I suspect it would be an excellent device with bass guitar (and guitar of course). The tilt EQ would allow for more tweaking of tone which may or may not be something you are looking for in a compressor pedal.
You can get the Empress Bass Compressor and MKII in a sparkle silver or sparkle blue design and I think both look great. I opted for the silver. The sparkle finish is quite attractive and it will look great on any pedalboard.
People have been waiting for a new Empress compressor since prototypes were spotted at January NAMM 2020. I saw what is now the MKII at NAMM and was immediately attracted to the layout and form factor.
Since NAMM, Empress has been busy further refining the pedal and adding the new Bass Compressor to the lineup.
The Empress Bass Compressor is a fantastic device.
It looks great, sounds great, and offers a lot of functionality. I am a fan and it lives up to my expectation. The folks at Empress knocked it out of the park with this one and I recommend it for any bassist looking for a compressor that effects tone in a good way but stays out of the way in the important ways. Everything you put into it comes out better. With the Empress it is as much about the feel as it is the sound and the feel is addicting. It simply works with whatever you throw at it.
At $249 the price is nice considering the quality and functionality.
• Gain reduction and Input LED's are fantastic
• Side Chain HPF • Tone+colour circuit
• Sound quality
• Form factor
• Only three Ratio selections
• Possibly too transparent for some
Retail price: $249