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

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.

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