The MKII is the new refresh of the original Empress which was certainly a favorite among guitarists and bassists alike. Many consider it to be a gold standard in pedal board friendly compressors. In my review of the original Empress I described it as a compressor that sounds absolutely fantastic, doesn't alter your tone much and provides a whole lot of flexibility.
Now, based on our users’ valuable feedback, Empress says they have taken everything great about their original compressor design and made it even better.
Is the new MKII basically the same thing with a shiny new face or has Empress implemented improvements? If you have the original Empress does the MKII really offer anything more than just a smaller footprint and top mounted jacks? There have been a lot of stellar new compressor pedals released since the original Empress hit the market so is the MKII a contender in a crowded space? Read on. The MKII is available with either sparkle silver or sparkle blue design and I think both look are a win. The sparkle finish is quite attractive and it will look great on any pedalboard. The silver face with blue stripe being possibly a bit more subdued where the blue with orange stripe having a bolder look. I think the words might pop out a more on blue enclosure making them a bit easier to read.
Photo from Empress.com
People have been waiting for a new Empress compressor since prototypes were spotted at January NAMM 2020. Here's a couple photos I took of the MKII prototype at NAMM in the Empress booth. I was immediately attracted to the layout and form factor.
There are six dials and two switches on the face of the pedal.
Input: Sets the level entering the compression engine. Higher levels drive the circuit more which results in more compression. I tend to be a fan of compressors that offer this type of functionality because it allows you to adjust the sensitivity of how the compression circuit reacts.
Attack: Controls how quickly the compressor reduces the gain when the incoming signal exceeds the threshold at which the compression engine reacts. The attack time increases as you turn the knob clockwise. My preference was the dial at 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. The sweet spot for me was around 1:00. I'm a big fan of the dry mix.
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 MKII 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.
Tone: It's a ‘tilt’ style tone control centered at 500Hz. Turning clockwise will boost treble and cut bass. Conversely, turning counter-clockwise will boost bass and cut treble. There is a detent at noon. This control is definitely useful, especially with guitar. The tilt EQ somehow manages to stay relatively transparent sounding though it is altering the frequency. Sometimes a tone control on a compressor introduces audible color which may or may not be what you are really looking for. On that note, I compared the MKII directly to my Diamond Bass Compressor JR prototype and the Diamond definitely sounds fuller and more colored. This is true of the EQ voicing too. The Diamond Bass Compressor tilt EQ has more grunt and more robust mid presence. It's more of a bolt up front EQ curve. Of course the Diamond allows you to adjust the tilt EQ center point at 900Hz or 250Hz. I really enjoyed the MKII tilt function with my Fender Strat. However, I prefer the tilt EQ on the Diamond with bass guitar with one exception — the whole MKII circuit sounded fantastic with my Pedulla Pentabuzz fretless bass. The tilt EQ centered at 500Hz just worked with the fretless sound. I really like the MKII with fretless bass because it manages to stay out of the way but enhances the sustain and mwah in a natural way. Very nice.
The Side Chain switch: It's a high pass filter that cuts low frequencies going to the gain reduction control circuit which helps avoid excess compression, especially on bass. The HPF can be toggled off or set to 120Hz (left), off which is full range (center) or 240Hz (right). This is a huge plus over the original Empress compressor design if you are a bass player because you can adjust the circuit such that it reacts less to your E or B string, for example. I recently reviewed the Empress Bass Compressor, another new compressor design. That device offers a fully variable pass filter instead of a switch. As a bassist I can conclude that I prefer the fully variable dial over the 3-way switch but the switch on the MKII is certainly useful and a nice feature.
Ratio switch: 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.
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. The sidechain connector accepts a 1/8" TRS plug.
One of my favorite aspects of the original Empress design was the highly intuitive (and bright) LED meters for gain reduction and input signal. Probably still to this day one of the best LED metering systems available on a compressor. Just like the Empress Bass Compressor the LED metering on the MKII looks even better than the previous compressor. 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, OvniFX Smoothie 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.
So how does it sound?
Thankfully, Empress has maintained the transparent open feel of the original compressor in the new MKII design. If you are looking for a compressor that leaves your original tone relatively unaltered this MKII is a fantastic choice. That said, the MKII has tilt tone control which I do feel is a definite reason to consider unloading your original Empress in favor of the new MKII. Again, this is especially recommended if you use compression with guitar. I wasn't as impressed with bass guitar.
The MKII isn't for those looking or obvious fattening of the bottom end or obvious shimmer to the top end.
To my ear anyway, the Empress is more about adding presence than weight. There is certainly plenty of gain available which allows you to make your signal hotter easily. It is all about making your tone smoother, more even, and sweeter. If you are looking to make the bottom end sound noticeably fatter this isn't the best option but it does a great job of tightening up the low end. That said, the MK II is not sterile and it doesn't lose highs or lows.
I spent time with the Empress MKII 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. It's doing what a really good compressor is supposed to do.
If you are interested in the Keeley Bassist but want more control, I would definitely take a close look at the Empress MKII.
Is it easy to use? Don't let the extra controls scare you. Empress includes a nice full-color, multi-page manual that will give you some settings to dial in and start with. The robust LEDs will guide you and help you understand what each dial is doing as you tweak. Each is intuitive and can really help you dial in the perfect feel.
The Empress MKII has an excellent form factor and is much more pedal board friendly than the original Empress. In every way the MKII is a nice update to the original. Top mounted jacks and power input is nice. The LEDs are best in class. It is quiet and just plain works well.
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. There is room for a 9-volt battery inside the enclosure. Quality is excellent.
Empress MKII vs. Empress Bass Compressor
If you are a bass payer and read my review of the Empress Bass Compressor and now this review of the MKII you might be wondering which one to spring for. There are quite a lot of overlap between the two. Core functionality is the same. Both offer HPF functionality though the Bass Compressor offers it as a continually variable function and the MKII offers a more limited 3-way function.
Picture showing the Empress Bass Compressor, Empress MKII and Diamond Bass Compressor JR prototype.
On the other hand, the MKII offers a tilt EQ control vs. the Tone+Colour switch on the Bass Compressor. It's really these two functions that separate the two.
With the Tone+Colour switch on the Bass Compressor in the center position and the tilt EQ on the MKI in the noon position and all other controls set the same, both pedals sound identical.
The Tone+Colour function allows you to add a little harmonic content which I personally find very appealing. The switch in the left position which is mid range cut at 500hz with some audible harmonic overtones. It really is tasty. If you don't want that harmonic content but still like the mid frequency adjustments the Bass Compressor has two dip switches inside the pedal that allows you to eliminate the harmonic content but still benefit from the frequency adjustments. No doubt the tilt EQ of the MKII offers more variability but to my ear it sounds better with guitar than bass. Because of the Tone+Colour circuit and the continually variable HPF I prefer the Bass Compressor with bass guitar.
In summary, the Empress MKII is quite the contender. It definitely adds pressure on the competition. The MKII is so much more than just a sexy new look. It is better than its predecessor all the way around and is one of those compressors that will probably work with whatever you throw at it. That's commendable because it is certainly not the case with all compressor pedals. I call it another win.
The MKII is a lot of compressor and excellent form factor for the $249 price tag.
• Gain reduction and Input LED's are fantastic
• Side Chain HPF switch
• Tilt-EQ (especially with guitar)
• Sound quality
• Form factor
Cons: • Only three Ratio selections
• Possibly too transparent for some