What to do if your compressor seems to kill the "energetic tone" of your dynamic peaks
This question was sent to me recently, and even though I sort of answer it with other acticles here, I felt this one specific situation deserved to be highlighted:
"I've found that when I go from a heavy hand to a light hand it is a really effective tool to draw out the nuances of the light hand. My style is to normally play with a reasonably light touch ...and then when I want to get a more extreme sound, I dig in. Having a compression level set low enough that it effects my standard playing seems to kill my 'extra' that I give. I've yet to find that balance where I can hear the difference without feeling squashed."
There are actually a myriad of possible answers/approaches to this. One thing to listen for, and experiment with, is the actual sound of the "extra" that you give. For one example, theoretically if the only thing that really changes is the level of the signal, with no clipping anywhere, then that "extra" effectively has no distinguishing sound. It's just louder. If that is (or is close to) the case, and you find that the extra burst of loudness is really what you miss, then the best solution is to get an amp with more headroom, and speakers that can handle higher wattage. That way you have greater dynamic range with no clipping, and a greater ability to use the louder peaks cleanly and without fear of speaker harm, with little or no compression needed.
If you want the compression benefit of increased articulation of your lighter playing, without the penalty of excessively squashing your heavier playing, then unfortunately you are battling against the physical realities of most of the devices available to us--it's a very tall order. Your best bet is a comp with a very low ratio (2:1 or 3:1) and a low threshold. This is where a pedal like the Diamond BCP-1 really shines. It allows you to spread the benefits around your whole dynamic range, yet it is not capable of squashing. Another option would be to combine any comp with a product by Toadworks called the "Enveloope". What it does is blend your clean signal with your effected (compressed) signal, in dynamic response to the levels of your playing. In "reverse" mode, it would blend in more compression when you play more lightly, and reduce the amount of compressed signal when you dig in. At least, it should--I haven't actually tested that idea.
If you use an amp that overdrives nicely, and gives you a gritty or crunchy breakup whenever you hit those big peaks, and if you want that sound; then you'd probably benefit from either turning up the output gain of your compressor so that your overall signal is closer to that breaking-up point at all times, or you'd want to use a line-level peak limiter after the preamp section of the amp. A lot of amp heads have such a thing built in, but those usually don't sound very good. Or you might be in one of those cases where you really don't benefit from compression at all. That's completely legitimate.
Another (very common and likely) scenario is if the biggest tone change from that "extra" digging in is actually from the strings themselves, or the fret buzz and general clatter of a moment of heavy playing--in other words all in the bass itself, rather than the amp. A lot of that zing, grind, clatter, and buzz is in the upper frequency range--so if the comp you use happens to attenuate the highs when compressing heavily, then yep, it "kills" that extra tone. This is very common, especially from dbx rack units and cheap pedals. There are three main solutions:
--Use a comp that doesn't attenuate the highs so much, under heavy compression.
--Use a dual-band comp, so the highs aren't necessarily attenuated at all when you hit a big slap or pop or pluck with a lot of low-frequency energy;
--Use a comp that naturally enhances the high frequencies. Some of my reviews mention a particularly "zingy" or "bright" or "cutting" tone, and those would probably suit you.
Another angle is to use a setting that I use more often than not: a high ratio with a very high threshold, and a very fast release time. That's a peak limiter, and if you dial it carefully, your signal is not affected at all until you hit peaks that you do not want to pass. A "better quality" pedal or rack capable of this setting should be able to do it without much noticeable tone loss. If there is still some amount of amp overdriving you want to achieve, you just set the make-up gain so the limited peaks still get up into the drive range you need.
Remember that many comp pedals have a relatively low ratio, so you only get peak limiting or an audible "effect" from them if you crank the "sustain" or "comp" knob up high. In those cases, that usually results in your whole signal being squashed badly. Since so many comps tend to roll off highs when compressing heavily, and since it is squashing your whole signal all the time in this case, the net result is that your tone sounds dull, dark, lifeless, or crappy. To avoid this, you must take care to observe the threshold and ratio of the compression; observe the tone "behavior" of the comp when it's working heavily; and try to keep your signal from being overwhelmed and abused. When all else fails, you may just have to try a different compressor--one that doesn't kill tone.