I recently came across this compressor from Niche Devices while looking at compressors on Reverb and knew I had to try it. With parallel compression, preamp, and unique transformer option it certainly seemed like an interesting package and something potentially fresh amidst the sea of compression pedals these days. Not that it necessarily matters, but I think it looks great too.
Niche Devices products are made by the husband and wife team Jay and Megan Schreiber. Jay designs and builds the circuits and Megan does the graphic design work.
The Niche Devices Humbolt Compressor is all analog offering optical compression in parallel with a high-headroom pre-amplifier. On the face of the pedal are 5 dials, toggle switch, LED, and foot switch. There are actually two versions of the Humboldt — The SE and DE. Both have the same circuit but the DE uses upgraded components, different paint color, and different knobs and is priced a bit higher. Read more about the specifics at TheOfficialNiche.com. The version I have is the SE.
The Squeeze dial is there to set the amount of compression. Rotating the dial clockwise increases the amount of compression. It is a optical design with a fixed ratio but is dynamic based on your playing style. Think of it somewhat like when guitar players talk about "touch sensitivity" in a fuzz pedal. As you rotate the Squeeze dial clockwise it is turning up the max amount of light available in the optocoupler, but the whole effect is dependent on your touch.
The result is very natural and lively feeling compression.
It wouldn't make an ideal limiter per se. However, there is a fair amount of compression available but it never feels overly squashed. The Gain dial is for makeup gain to bring back the volume lost with increased compression. There is plenty of gain on tap. The Gain dial only affects the compressor side of the circuit. The Master dial is a passive type volume control. Setting this knob fully counterclockwise shuts output signal down to zero. Setting to full clockwise lets full signal through uninhibited. The Master dial is important to easily correct volume (if desired) after engaging or bypassing the transformer. More on that in a bit. The Treble dial only affects the preamp side of the circuit. Think of it as a shelving equalizer. Only frequencies at or above 650Hz will be affected by its use with all frequencies below that selected threshold pass through this stage unchanged. With the dial at noon the EQ is considered unity. Rotating more clockwise boosts the frequencies above 650Hz and rotating counterclockwise cuts those frequencies. It is quite useful for adding a bit more sheen or sparkle up top and sounds great with guitar or bass. The Mix dial is used to control the blend between clean and compressed signal paths. this is what is commonly referred to as parallel compression. Full counterclockwise = Compressor signal only. Full clockwise = Preamp signal only. Setting the Mix dial fully to either side will render one or more the other knobs inoperable. All are highly interactive. Parallel compression is one of my favorite features of a compressor design. For example, you could compress heavily with Squeeze and Gain set around 2 o’clock or higher and then blend your clean signal back in with the Mix knob. By doing do, you would be getting the best of both worlds. Enjoy enhanced attack and sustain from the compressor side without the crushed and lifeless sound of an overly compressed signal. Nice! It works very well. The Transformer toggle switch activates part of the secret sauce of Humboldt — The transformer. I reached out to the folks at Niche Devices to ask about the transformer. I was curious if every Humboldt used the same transformer type or if there was a variety used. I was told all devices use the same transformer to date because the designer has been collecting the specific type for a while now. The transformer used in Humboldt Preamp was reclaimed from the line preamp card of a vintage mixing console. It has a mu-metal core and a 1:4 step up ratio. It's not just a 1:1 transformer at the end of the circuit like most devices using a transformer. Each is tested via oscilloscope before being installed. You can see the the transformer in the lower right corner of the device in the picture below.
Engaging the transformer acts as a passive volume boost which means you'll likely want to use the Master dial to control this boost. Engaging the transformer does change the overall frequency response of the output signal and definitely adds some coloration. Use the toggle switch to bypass the transformer if desired (but I don't think you will want to).
To my ear, the transformer adds fundamental and punch. I would select words like "robust" and "power" and "lively" to describe the character of the transformer. I also hear a bit of harmonic content — Nice coloration.
Not using the transformer is real nice too though — Softer and maybe more modern sounding. It's nice to have the option to toggle on and off. The DE version of the Humboldt compressor has one additional toggle switch on the top of the pedal allowing you to bypass the high impedance JFET input buffer which Niche Devices says results in a vintage inspired 70k Ohm input impedance. The toggle switch down is 70K OHM and up is 1M OHM. It's only going to make an audible difference if a guitar is directly connected to the pedal. If you have the Humboldt further down in the chain it isn't going to make a difference. My SE version actually has this input buffer toggle switch and I am told by the folks at Niche Devices that the one I have is one of the last few to have the toggle. In the future, only the DE version will have this option. While testing a guitar or bass directly to the input, I can definitely tell a difference and I preferred the toggle down. Is it worth the extra price to have this impedance toggle? Maybe. It's nice to have but I suspect the majority of Humboldt's sold will be the SE version. I'd love to try one of the DE versions with upgraded components sometime. There is a two-color indicator lamp on the face of the pedal. It illuminates red to indicate the pedal is engaged with the transformer bypassed. I illuminates green when both the pedal, and the transformer are engaged. I like the fact that the LEDs are not blindingly bright like some other pedals. I am fond of compressors with gain reduction meters but there is none here.
A big part of what makes the Humboldt Compressor Preamp such a unique offering in the space is that it delivers effective compression in a simple and intuitive way.
It's the Mix dial coupled with the transformer, and stellar compression, and the way the whole circuit works together that creates the magic. Yes, it is a compressor, but it is also a preamp and has its own unique thing going on.
How does it sound? Well, pretty darn good. I consider the Niche Devices Humbolt to be a rare gem in the world of pedal compressors. Sometimes one compressor works better with one setup over another, or with one instrument more than another, but I found the Humboldt to be stellar with whatever I through at it.
On the one hand it can be quite transparent. On the other, it is capable of adding wonderful girth and polish to your tone. Your choice.
I found a real sweet spot with the Squeeze dial at 2:00, Gain at 10:00, Mix at 10:00 and the Impedance switch down and transformer engaged. Yummy! Marvelous tone. My playing felt lively and bouncy with more clarity. My tone was bigger, fuller, and more even up and down the fretboard. At the same time, the inherent tone and character of your instrument isn't lost. It's doing what a great compressor should plus a lot more. The Humboldt performs well with guitar and bass. You won't have any issues with distorting the input on this one — Even with high output instruments. Is it the most versatile compressor out there? Well, there is no individual controls for ratio, threshold, release, and attack. In that sense, no. But you know what? That's not the point here. I don't think the Humboldt was designed to be a utilitarian or clinical compressor. The whole circuit has a personality of its own. As mentioned before, if you are looking for a compressor to serve as a limiting device, look elsewhere.
If you want extreme versatility, look elsewhere. If you want tone magic and parallel compression, well, that seems like the goal here more than outright control.
Putting the Humboldt in front of various tube preamps had the effect of tightening up the tone and creating a sound and feel that would more readily cut through a mix. I'd say offering up a more focused sound. This is one of those devices you aren't going to want to turn off. Close your eyes and pay attention to how even your string to string playing sounds. Take note of how it feels to play through it and how your notes seem to pop more. You will immediately miss what it is doing when removed from the signal path.
Humboldt is an adept and capable tone shaper that can subtly and transparently sweeten your tone.
On the other hand, you can push it and it becomes more of an effect. It would serve as a fantastic clean boost pedal too.
I think the enclosure looks great and the whole thing is a quality piece. The foot switch is true bypass. Input and output jacks are top mounted. The power input is side mounted. If I had my choice, I'd prefer the power input to be top mounted along with the input and output jacks, but I suppose that is a matter of preference and not a deal breaker. Power requirements are 9 volt and 50mA or greater making it pedalboard friendly. It has an internal charge pump circuit that uses 9 volts of input to provide up to 27 volts of overhead in some amplification stages. Don't use more than 9 volts though. There is no room for a 9 volt battery inside the enclosure but Niche Devices supplies an adapter cable to use with an external 9 volt battery. I can confidently recommend the Niche Devices Humboldt and I'd encourage you to try this one because it really is a unique experience.
It's one of those devices that immediately put a smile on my face.
It sounds great, is easy to use, and well made. Everything about it is thoughtfully designed. It's a great piece of kit. Did I say you won't want to turn it off? Plus, the price is nice at just $179 for the SE. Remember, there is a Humboldt DE with even higher quality components at a higher price point too. Pros: • Unique functionality • Quality • Sound • Price • Easy to use and hard to make sound bad
• Fun to use
Cons: • Not the most versatile • No LED indicating gain reduction
• Side mounted power jack Price: $179 SE; $219 DE TheOfficialNiche.com View all compressor reviews