First Impressions: Fender’s The Bends Compressor Pedal

I recently bought a new compressor pedal: Fender’s The Bends. It has a reputation for being a very boring compressor pedal. That’s good: I’m a boring guitar player, and I like boring gear. The question is: is it too boring?

Read on for my First Impressions.

What Did You Buy?

I bought a pedal called The Bends. It’s the original compressor pedal from Fender’s new (2018-onwards) line of guitar and bass pedals.

I bought it brand new from my local Fender dealer, AStrings.co.uk.

Why Did You Buy It?

I’m after a new compressor pedal for two reasons:

  • I’d like to use a compressor pedal in front of my amp / dirt pedals to give me a smoother lead guitar tone.
  • I don’t have a tonally-transparent compressor pedal.

I chose The Bends partly because it was in stock at my local store, partly because it’s a fraction of the price of the popular options, and partly because it has a bit of a reputation for being a very boring compressor pedal.

What Do You Mean, A Very Boring Compressor Pedal?

During my research in advance, I came across a lot of folks complaining that this pedal is a very boring compressor pedal, because it hardly does anything. In a nutshell, not only did folks struggle to get it to do anything extreme, they also reported struggling to get it to do classic compressor things like funky guitar and chicken picking levels of compression too.

I don’t need those things. I just need something to smooth out my playing, and help me get closer to a more liquid lead tone by knocking off the transients in my picking. As long as it can do that, I’ll be happy enough.

What Do The Controls Do?

A traditional compressor has: attack, release, threshold, ratio and gain controls. These decide how quickly the compressor acts, how quickly it stops acting, at what signal level it starts acting, how much it compresses, and what the output level is.

It’s not unusual for some of these controls to be missing from a compressor pedal. It’s a lot to fit on a pedal. Sometimes two or more of the controls are combined into a single control, or the ratio control is missing completely because the pedal has a fixed ratio (ie, just the one setting).

Many guitarists find compressors confusing and difficult to work with. I’m assuming that’s why Fender has decided to give the controls on The Bends somewhat unique labels.

  • The ‘Drive’ control seems to be controlling the threshold at which compression kicks in. Turn it up to compress sooner. I don’t know if it’s also changing the compression ratio at the same time, or if the pedal has a fixed compression ratio.
  • The ‘Recovery’ control seems to be controlling both attack and release. (It’s definitely controlling compressor release.) Shorter ‘Recovery’ keeps more of my pick attack volume dynamics, but can end up sounding a little unnatural. I prefer running this from 12 o’clock through to 3 o’clock.
  • The ‘Blend’ control is a dry/wet mix knob. I prefer to run it at 12 o’clock, which is a 50/50 mix of the original guitar signal + the compressed signal. That gives me a nice balance between dynamics and signal smoothness.
  • The ‘Level’ control is supposed to only affect the volume of the compressed signal. What it actually does is set the output volume of the signal that has gone through the compressor circuit. It will still boost the volume, even if the compressor hasn’t activated.

How Bright Is The LED Jewel?

When I was researching this compressor, I saw many people complaining that the jewel light (the LED that lights up when the pedal is on) is too bright.

All I can say is that I haven’t had a problem with it.

It’s nowhere near as bright or harsh as the LEDs on the MXR 10-band eq. It didn’t strike me as particularly brighter than the LEDs in Fender’s other pedals from the same series. Maybe it’s the ice blue colour that makes this particular LED catch the eye a bit more?

The LED Jewel Light Is A Missed Opportunity

The jewel light turns pink when the compressor is compressing the signal. While that’s very useful, I think Fender missed an opportunity here to make it much more useful.

The problem is that it’s an on/off kind of thing: the light is either pink (compressor active), or ice blue (pedal on but not compressing). The light doesn’t change shade to show how much compression it is applying. I really wish it did. It would be incredibly helpful to see the light turning deeper shades of red the more db reduction is being applied.

I hope Fender upgrades the jewel light in a future version of this pedal.

Is It Tonally-Transparent?

Compared to my Forest Green Compressor pedal, yes, it is.

It isn’t totally transparent. I am losing some treble content when the compressor is working hard. It’s not a big deal for me … partly because this compressor doesn’t like working hard.

A Compressor For Overdriven Rhythm Work, Not Lead Tones

This pedal suffers from the same quirk that other non-drive pedals from Fender seem to: all the usable settings seem to be squashed into a tiny part of the overall settings range.

In this case, the pedal doesn’t seem to compress at all until the ‘Drive’ control is up around the 3 o’clock mark. By 4 o’clock on the ‘Drive’ control, the compressor is distorting the input signal. That might be a useful feature if I used the pedal at the end of my signal chain?

Inside that range, it doesn’t compress most of the notes I play. It only seems to trigger when I’m digging in hard. I’m hitting this thing with Fender Custom Shop Texas Special pickups. These are very hot for stock Telecaster pickups. I can see why folks with regular pickups struggled to get The Bends to do anything useful at all.

(Most of the time, I’m playing humbuckers, which start to trigger The Bends around the 2 o’clock mark.)

Turns out, this makes it a very nice pedal for evening up rhythm playing. At least, it works great for me and what I’m playing. I’ve still got the full range of pick dynamics if I want to pick lightly to get a cleaner tone. It only compresses when I’m playing hard, which means it isn’t amplifying the noise floor when I’m picking quietly.

Final Thoughts

This compressor pedal can’t do what I bought it for. I’m going to have to look at a different pedal to help me with lead tones. That’s a shame, because the Cali 76 and Strymon compressors of this world are expensive pedals. I was really hoping to avoid that.

I’m still keeping it, because I think it’s going to improve my rhythm guitar recordings. I’m certainly going to hang onto it long enough to find out. I like what I hear in the room.

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