Throughout the history of effects, there have been several genre constants. In the ‘60s, every manufacturer had a fuzz pedal. Some companies that were barely guitar-adjacent even bought the scraps from OEMs and released them under a shell name—such was the nature of the great pedal gold rush. Overdrive and distortion pedals followed, as did—curiously—octave pedals. One thing that sat on the sidelines, quietly accumulating numbers, was the humble compressor.
Compressors fumbled around in the shadows for many years, but until MXR released the Dyna Comp (and thus Ross released their near-copy), nobody really cared about pedal compressors. Despite this, several were on the market, but they almost always suffered an egregious fault or two. One of the most prevalent was line noise.
Yes, line noise is the bogeyman when it comes to compressors. Roland, Maestro, Electro-Harmonix and a handful of others all served up offerings that were rife with hum and other undesirable transients. Try as they might, none managed to break the barrier into the category of “essential gear.” That is, until the Dyna Comp. But this isn’t about that. This is about the MXR Limiter—the rightful successor to the throne.
Noise is certainly a brutal detractor from these vintage compressor builds but another more understated aspect is that pedal compressors weren’t aware of their place in the modern guitarist’s palette quite yet. All of them—not some—mercilessly squashed the signal no matter where the knobs were set. And this was fine, if you happened to play in a band whose guitar work was primarily chicken picking. Some needlessly increased the low end, muddying one’s amplifier with a barrage of unwanted frequencies. Needless to say, subtlety was not their strong suit; they functioned very much as an effect rather than an element. But it wasn’t until the Dyna Comp was released that players knew they wanted a compressor that could be left on all the time. The Limiter builds on that and adds much more in terms of completeness and flexibility.
I’ve worked in almost every music shop in this city, and one of my favorite stories involves meeting the band Wire. This particular shop was across the street from the venue they were playing that night, so a stop in wasn’t all that far-fetched, but I was surprised all the same. What surprised me even more was that they bought both of our MXR Limiters. Members of the band explained to me that the pedal is one of their “secret weapons” and that they buy every one they sees. When they left, I kicked myself for having never tried it. I, of course, was living in the world of “all vintage pedal comps except the Dyna Comp are bad” when I should have amended that to include all MXR compressors. It was years before I found another, and I bought it on the spot. But I discovered something upon plugging it in.
MXR calls this a limiter; well, I wouldn’t go that far. If you feed it a signal that’s all over the place with some stiff peaks, the Limiter won’t really “limit.” But as a compressor, the Limiter is amazing. And as an “always-on” pedal the Limiter is—even in 2022—in a class of its own. Despite having an onboard transformer and a 15v regulator, this thing features a rather astonishing noise floor—that is to say, a lack of one. It also differs from its vintage peers in that it isn’t exactly an effect, but more of an always-on tonal sidecar. In stark contrast was Boss’s CS-1, a complete and utter squish machine that heavily compressed everything, even at its minimum settings. To that end, Boss’s unit also includes a “treble mode” which adds some brightness—another perceived concern for users.
Instead of dramatically increasing the lows or highs, the Limiter sits right in the middle of the frequency spectrum, a novel concept in that era of pedal compressors. Unlike the artificial squeeze of pedals past, the Limiter sounds like the natural sag and compression of tube amplifiers and consoles of years past. Wire was right, this thing rules; it’s one of the best pedal compressors you can get, at a price that won’t break the bank. So long as nobody pays an exorbitant fee on account of the age, everyone should own one of these.