Test Drive: The Really Nice Compressor and the Really Nice Preamp from FMR Audio

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by Steve Cunningham

Is it just me, or is our equipment getting better lately? I’m not talking about the latest 4,000 kHz digi-whizzy-oversampled bit of computer software; I’m talking about some basic hardware products that are really good. There are large diaphragm microphones that cost a third of what they did and sound great, small mixing consoles with total recall and programmability that are fast to use and cost about what a good analog console did a few years ago. And the effects boxes... great reverbs and delays and flangers for a few hundred bucks.

Yes, it’s a fine time to be alive and playing with audio toys.

I believe that part of what’s happening in America today is that there are small companies springing up in the pro audio industry — essentially garage shops — that fly in the face of the mega-conglomerated corporate model we see in other industries. These companies consist of a couple or three people with really good product ideas, and the Internet to get their word out to the public. There are not a large number of these shops yet, but by my reckoning, their numbers are definitely increasing.

FMR Audio is one such operation. Based in Austin, Texas, FMR consists of Mark and Beth McQuilken, and a very small support staff. But as longtime design consultants to some large electronic companies, Mark and Beth understand what it takes to bring an electronic product to market successfully.

Mark’s long-time interest in high-quality audio products bore fruit in May 1997 when he developed a do-it-yourself analog compressor kit and offered it to his students at Austin Community College. Word of that kit spread, through word of mouth and over the Internet, and by August 1997 the RNC1773 was in production. It has since become quite popular, in part because with a list price of $199 it competes well with $1,000-plus compressors.

This month we’ll look at both that flagship product, the RNC1773 Compressor, and their new RNP8380 two channel mic preamp. As an aside, you’ll note that RNC stands for Really Nice Compressor, while RNP stands for Really Nice Preamp. Besides being cute, the Really Nice part has meaning as we’ll see, but in any case we’ll refer to each of them using the acronyms.

NICE COMPRESSION

RNC front panel

The RNC1773 Really Nice Compressor is a two channel solid-state analog compressor that is packaged in an unassuming 1/3-rack space gray/beige box. It uses a wall wart power supply (as does the RNP). The RNC’s front panel consists of the customary knobs for Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and Gain, along with an eight-LED Gain Reduction meter and buttons for Bypass and Super Nice modes (more on the latter in a minute). Each button has a handy LED next to it to indicate its current state.

RNC rear panel

The rear panel consists of five 1/4" jacks for I/O and a jack for the 9VAC wall wart supply. The RNC is an unbalanced unit with a nominal operating level of 0dBu (0.775 VRMS), and it’s designed to be hooked up in one of two ways — the left and right inputs are TRS jacks wired with the tip as input and the ring as output. They’re meant to connect to the inserts found on many consoles using TRS cables. As an example, this means each channel can be connected to a Mackie board using a single TRS cable.

If you’re connecting the RNC to some other piece of gear, then you’ll need to use two 1/4" tip-sleeve cables for each channel, one for input and the other for output. FMR specifically recommends against connecting the RNC to balanced gear without appropriate cabling and perhaps transformers. Fortunately many consoles, including the smaller digital boards, have inserts that are unbalanced, so this shouldn’t present a problem in most production rooms.

The fifth jack on the back is the sidechain input, and it is likewise arranged for use with console inserts and a single TRS cable. The jack’s tip is the output, and the ring is the input.


SQUASH ‘EM IF YA GOT ‘EM

Once you’ve got it hooked up, it’s time to explore. With the Super Nice mode off (check that the LED is off, please), the RNC behaves like a good analog compressor should. The Threshold is variable from -40 dB to +20 dB, so there’s a good range. Compression ratios can be set from 1:1 all the way up to 25:1, for squashing the life out of program material. The Attack settings range from 0.2 to 200 milliseconds, and Release from .05 milliseconds to 5.0 seconds. Perhaps best of all, the gain can be set from -15 dB to a whopping +15 dB—that’s a huge quantity of headroom, and FMR claims a 3% distortion point of +22.5dBu.

At moderate compression ratios, 6:1 or less, the RNC is clean and unobtrusive. If you crank the Ratio control up higher, then it will pump and breathe with the best of them, especially with low setting for Attack and Release. In this Normal mode the RNC is a peak-detecting compressor, which is why you can get it to pump like mad.

But most of us don’t actually want pumping. That’s when the Super Nice mode comes into play. It’s a bit difficult to describe technically, and even the manual is somewhat vague. It says that the RNC uses three separate layers of compression in order to minimize audible side effects, while still providing plenty of dynamic gain control, and gives you “the smoothness of an RMS and average-responding compressors (some say even more smoothness) in tandem with the signal control of a peak-responding compressor.” Whatever.

Here’s what I can tell you from experience: Super Nice mode definitely smoothes out the compression, and makes the gain reduction meter sit more in one place rather than jumping all over. The compression is still audible, but much less obvious even at relatively high ratios. I can’t remember hearing any other compressor do as nice a job of “riding the fader” as does the RNC. Any artifacts that are audible in Normal mode disappear, yet the peaks are clearly reduced. Super Nice is not an “auto” mode in that you still have control over the five parameters. But it’s nearly impossible to get a nasty squashed sound from the box. Just can’t do it. It’s more like a loudness maximizer, but with a pleasant analog quality.

But in either mode, the RNC adds no additional noise to the signal path. This thing is REALLY quiet and very clean, especially considering that it’s unbalanced. Even the bypass is silent, as you can hear the faint click of a relay when you push the button.

The RNC is embarrassingly good and really shines when connected across the stereo bus. I’ve stopped using software limiting on mixes, and instead process them through the RNC in Super Nice mode, just to level peaks and give a bit of extra boost before burning a CD. The RNC doesn’t add any “personality,” just good clean compression.

And it’s less than 200 bucks. Yikes. There’s just no reason to buy anything else, except perhaps a $2500 Manley.

The only downside is the “manual,” which consists of three pages of 8-1/2 by 11" paper stapled together. It’s even titled “Quick Start Guide V0.50,” but it contains most of the information you’ll need to hook it up and get started. Besides, with a simple product like this, the best way to learn is by listening. So go listen already!

THE REALLY NICE PREAMP

RNP front panel

I probably spend too much time on the pro audio newsgroups and websites, but as a result I knew about the upcoming RNP8380 last fall. Based on my previous experience with the RNC, I called a dealer and put down a deposit to get on the “ship it to me now!” list. The RNP is brandy-new and still in short supply at present, but for a two-channel preamp it’s a bargain at $499.

The RNP8380 is a two-channel solid state analog mic preamplifier, and again it’s encased in that same 1/3-rack space beige enclosure. The front panel layout is duplicated for each of the two channels, and consists of a 1/4" unbalanced high-impedance jack for direct input, a twelve-position stepped gain control, a button and LED combo for +48V phantom power, another for inverting the phase, and LEDs for signal presence, +18dB level, and clip.

RNP rear panel

The back panel consists of the following gozintas and gozoutas: two XLR microphone inputs, one for each channel, two 1/4" TRS balanced output jacks which, according to FMR, automatically “adjust” themselves for unbalanced use, and two TRS Insert jacks that are wired like the ones on the RNC. (And by the way, the rear panel is labeled with “Gozintas” and “Gozoutas.” Dang, McQuilken is stealing my material!)

FMR has designed a couple of nice touches that production-types should appreciate. According to the company, the RNP is EMI-resistant and employs a third-order EMI filter at the front end to reduce radio interference. It also features a microprocessor and some clever software that mutes the outputs when phantom power is switched on or off and ramps up the 48 volts slowly to protect your microphones. In fact, when you first plug in the wall wart (that’s number two!), the RNP puts itself through a diagnostic dance that supposedly helps the circuitry stabilize.

Unlike the RNC, one can quibble with some features on the RNP. First and foremost is its use of stepped switches to control gain in 6dB/step increments. This takes some getting used to, and I don’t particularly like it. Setting the gain for a Sennheiser 416 was troublesome, since the 24dB setting was lower than I like it and the 30dB setting caused the clip LED to light occasionally. Mark McQuilken argues that pots are notoriously inconsistent, which can be a significant issue in a stereo device, and that the clip point of the RNP is high enough that you can use the lower position and still have plenty of gain. I suspect it’s also a trade-off with price, but I got accustomed to it.

Another quibble is the wall wart, but since this is a high-gain device I understand the need to keep AC out of the box, and the need to save money. Finally, the manual is at the same 0.50 version as is the RNC, although this one comes in at ten pages. That’s a trifling beef, as once you’ve figured how to hook it up and where to set the gain, it’s unlikely that you’ll need it again.

The RNP is all about clean gain and lots of headroom. The manual lists the clip point at +28dBu, which is over 27 volts peak-to-peak, so it should handle any microphone you want to toss at it. It is a solid-state device, so you won’t get any “tube warmth” here. On the other hand, according to FMR you will get “a full Class A self-biasing, fully differential, DC-servoed, trans-impedance 100MHz GBP instrumentation amplifier.” Alrighty then. I just know that it boosts my mic signal up to a useable level, and does it cleanly.

I have so far tested the RNP using an EV RE20, a Lawson L47MP, and a Sennheiser 416. The RNP sounded neutral and clean in all cases, and had the required gain to pump up the RE20 sufficiently without coloring it in any way. I also compared it with a Grace Design Model 101, the preamps in a Mackie 1604VLZ, and the preamp section of a Manley Voxbox. The RNP held its own against the Grace, which is notable since the Grace is $100 more and has only one channel. It body-slammed the Mackie — it was more open and detailed, without any harshness whatsoever. It also had less self-noise than did the Voxbox, but of course lacked the “tube” character of the Manley, which is pleasant. The RNP is just clean.

I can also report that the DI inputs are of equal quality to the mic inputs. With an impedance of 1 Megohm, they won’t load an instrument (or CD player) and suck all the life out of it.

SUPPORT

Technical support on both units is generally handled by a dealer, although FMR does sell direct. FMR has about a dozen dealers in the US, and they’re all competent pro audio shops, so support is good. You’ll also find that dealers will discount the product slightly, whereas if you buy direct from FMR you’ll pay list price.

I bought both of my units from Mercenary Audio in Boston (www.mercenary.com), and when I had a minor problem with the RNC, they sent another one overnight and call-tagged the existing unit. That’ll work for me.

Taken together, the Really Nice Preamp and the Really Nice Compressor make a fine signal chain for production work. If you’re looking to upgrade your room or your home VO recording rig, either of these units will make a noticeable difference without deflating your wallet.

Here’s what I want next from FMR: another 1/3-rack space unit, but this time with two channels of parametric EQ. That would round out a killer channel strip, and all in one rack space. Now all I have to do is figure out how to deal with three wall warts...

The RNC1773 carries a suggested list price of $199, while the RNP lists at $499. For more information worldwide, visit www.fmraudio.com. To order, contact a dealer or call them at (512) 280-6557.

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