Charles “Bud” Ross built his fame on the Kustom amps he began creating in the mid 1960s. In the 1970s, he went on to launch the Ross Electronics stompbox company, and today his name is perhaps most famous for the number of clones that the company’s delectable gray Compressor inspired. Although Ross’s stompboxes were arguably B-list boxes behind the likes of MXR and Electro-Harmonix, many guitarists belatedly discovered how magical the unassuming two-knob Compressor could sound, while others stumbled upon the raunchy glories of its mustard-colored cohort, the Distortion. Not surprisingly, both effects have become highly sought after on the vintage market, and the high prices they’ve commanded have put them beyond the means of most players.
Now, some 35 years after production ceased, the Ross Compressor and Distortion have been reissued by Bud’s grandson, Cameron Ross, and his childhood friend and business partner, Ben Brazil. Together, they formed Ross Audibles to reintroduce these original-spec pedals to the guitar market.
Having grown up in Chanute, Kansas, where Ross Electronics was founded, Ross and Brazil re-established their company in Chicago last year and released a limited reissue of these pedals. The line quickly sold out, but the duo are now ramped up for standard production, making the oft-copied Compressor and its Distortion partner more widely available to the playing public.
To keep the pedals authentic, Ross Audibles has reverse-engineered each circuit precisely from vintage units, employing as many original-make components as possible while adding modern features such as LED status lights, DC power jacks and true-bypass switching. The real kicker, though, is the rugged, custom, die-cast housings, which are made to the original specs, with softly radiused edges and recessed knobs, a clever feature that was well worth retaining.
When they first hit the scene in the ’70s, compressor pedals were marketed largely for their sustain-enhancing capabilities. However, their revival in the ’90s came on the backs of some models’ ability to juice up your tone in a subtly magical way. Plug into a good one, and your guitar both feels and sounds better, even if it’s kind of difficult to define why. Once Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio began using a discontinued Ross Compressor to aid in his signature sweet, dynamic and pillowy tone, the game was over. These gray boxes soon defined the law of supply and demand, and prices soared on the collector’s market, while a plethora of boutique cloners stepped in to fill the void.
Despite all the fuss, the circuit inside the Compressor is based pretty closely on that of the MXR Dyna Comp, with just a few small changes (most obviously, the knob order is reversed). And yet, for some reason, the Ross pedal’s squeeze has always seemed a little sweeter. Its two knobs control sustain and level (compression and volume, respectively), and that’s it. For my test, I plugged the pedal into a tweed Deluxe-style combo and a Friedman Small Box head and 2x12 cab, using a Novo Serus TC with dual humbuckers and a Fender Telecaster.
I owned an original pawn-shop find many years ago before discovering what a profit I could make on it. Today, I have one of the better clones on my board. The Ross Compressor immediately delivered a familiar sound and feel. For those new to the format, the softening of your pick attack and the initial reduction in volume - unless you really crank that level control - can come as a surprise. Keep at it a while, however, and you invariably find it succulent and enlivening for tone and playing feel. There are swells of blooming sustain to be had from chords and single notes alike, but the Compressor’s beauty is in that euphonic je ne sais quoi. Turn it off and you really miss it.
The Compressor’s dual fortes are in the way it injects arpeggiated chords with more chime and jangle, and how it smooths and enriches overdriven tones - either injected into a Tube Screamer and the tweed-ish combo, or right into the lead channel of the Friedman - making them feel and sound like the great rock and roll riffs of your favorite records. Ultimately, it’s just that mo-better thing that helps this excellent reissue live up to the hallowed original so darn well.
The original Ross Distortion was based rather closely on the MXR Distortion+, which came out just a year or two before it. As such, it’s a similar op-amp-plus-diode hard-clipping circuit that delivers more of a medium-gain overdrive sound with some smoothness and softness amid the edge. There’s no tone control here (and most players agree that it really doesn’t need one), just the distort and output knobs that are, once again, reversed from the layout of the MXR (wouldn’t want to make it too obvious, right?), along with a few other little twists that make the Ross Distortion its own thing.
Tested using the same gear with which I put the Compressor through its paces, the Distortion immediately delivered the quirky yet characterful response of a classic ’70s overdrive/distortion box. Although it’s a hard-clipping circuit, there’s a softness and roundness to the overdrive that smooths out the jagged nature of the clipped notes, enhancing feel and dynamics in the process. Under the circumstances, the overall sound comes off about 60 percent overdrive and 40 percent soft fuzz.
Another quirk of the design is that the frequency response changes a little as you turn up the distort knob. Things are a tad fuller, yet muddier in the lower reaches of the dial (despite being less distorted), and dirtier, tighter and thinner as you turn the knob clockwise.
Another surprise is the fact that the output knob needs to be set at about 2 o’clock in order to achieve unity gain. As a result, there’s plenty of range below that where your pedal-on sound will be quieter than it is with the pedal off, and not much room above it with which to push the amp. That said, the Distortion still sounds its best into an amp that’s already on the edge of breakup, and it gave a tasty lead boost to each of my test rigs. Overall, it’s a fun blast from the past and will likely remain a viable flavor for a number of players today.
PRICE $225 retail
CONTROLS Sustain, level
KUDOS An accurate re-creation of the beloved original ’70s compressor, with a sweet, smooth dynamic sound that’s difficult to switch off
CONCERNS Control takes some getting used to, particularly for rebalancing usable output levels
PRICE $179 retail
CONTROLS Distort, output
KUDOS A fun ’70s-style overdrive with a smooth, juicy saturation amid the edgy clipping
CONCERNS Not a lot of output range