Top to bottom: Really Nice Preamp, Really Nice Levelling Amplifier, and two Really Nice Compressors by FMR Audio FMR Audio is an Austin, Texas-based pro audio manufacturer that specializes in DSP-controlled, interestingly plain-looking, low-cost yet high-quality 1/3-rack space mic/line amplifiers and dynamics processors. The small company's playful nomenclature for its three currently available products—the Really Nice Preamp (RNP8380, $499), the Really Nice Compressor (RNC1773, $199), and the Really Nice Levelling Amplifier (RNLA7239, $249)—isn't just cute, it's accurate. These three boxes are great specimens of well-conceived studio gear at the most affordable prices possible.
The RNP8380 is comprised of the essentials needed in a flexible and professional studio preamp: two channels, two XLR mic inputs, two Hi-Z front-panel inputs, a 1/4-inch insert and outputs per channel (TRS/TS, balanced or unbalanced operation), slowramp +48V phantom power with LED, polarity invert button with LED, three LED-per-channel metering, and a 12-position/6 dB stepped preamp gain knob. The RNP offers high headroom (clip point of +28 dBu at unity gain) and is built around a fully Class A amp; its internal microprocessor controls and monitors power supply operation, source selection, metering, push-button control, and phantom voltage control.
Similarly designed (on the exterior, at least), the stereo RNC1773 and RNLA 7239 each offer five rotary knobs per front panel that control Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and Gain parameters underneath an eight LED Gain Reduction meter and bypass button with LED. The RNC uniquely features a "Super Nice" button and LED (see sidebar for more about Super Nice), while the RNLA has a "Log Rel" and LED in the same spot (according to FMR documentation, Log Rel is "loosely based upon the 'Log/Lin' control on the classic Valley People Gain Brain II"). Five 1/4-inch jacks reside on back: left and right unbalanced inputs, left and right unbalanced outputs, and a sidechain insert.
What Is Super Nice? "A clever technique to reduce compression artifacts is the use of multiple compressors cascaded serially," offers FMR Audio owner/designer Mark McQuilken while explaining the performance of the RNC1773's "Super Nice" feature. "In this way, none of the individual compressors has to work quite as 'hard' as they would if there was only one compressor doing the same amount of gain reduction.
"If things are properly adjusted, you can accomplish a good level of signal control without the usual 'choked' sound of the typical lone compressor. By the way, this technique works well with almost any type/brand of compressor(s)!"
Each component of the Really Nice Series uses a "wall wart" power supply and is built by FMR Audio in Austin.
In Use — RNP8380
During this evaluation period, I immediately discovered that the RNP8380 is an impressively clean and accurate preamplifier. Regardless of microphone, input, or source, the RNP simply gave me what it amplified with plenty of gain. While some users would understandably prefer to have smaller jumps than 6 dB in gain via its 12-position knob, it was hardly an imposition for me; gain settings for lead vocal tracks, for instance, spread over multiple sessions were easily repeatable. Also, the gain knob's switches feel higher-end than many pres costing far more. All in all, the RNP8380 worked very well in every application where we simply wanted to capture what was going on.
In Use — RNC1773 and RNLA7239
As someone involved in the recording of musical performances for nearly half of his life, I have grown to love and fear compression—especially on the drum kit. As most of us would agree, applied incorrectly, an engineer—within a few twiddles of a knob—can absolutely kill the fidelity of a mix with compression on, say, overhead microphones. More specifically, you can rein in the dynamics, sure—and you can cripple the high-end frequencies, squish, smear, and soil your transients, and create a completely distorted view of the source material. And it can all be good and bad—sometimes simultaneously, which gets confusing.
That's mainly why I would recommend FMR Audio's compressor, the RNC1773; it reins in the dynamics and does those other things only if you want it to. Matter of fact, the RNC does everything so "naturally" that it's hard to screw up a good performance, even with a heavy compression hand. In my own applications, the RNC held cymbal transients tight, but didn't smother them and even smoothed them a bit—all cleanly and unobtrusively, leaving them sounding nice.
And speaking of nice, the Super Nice feature is just that: On the aforementioned drum-kit overhead mics, it reinstituted the transients I first "smeared," accomplishing a rather aggressive (at least for me) compression scheme with its drum transients right back in front, where they were on the previously uncompressed and unequalized track. Elsewhere—on other acoustic instruments such as guitar and vocal—the Really Nice Compressor behaved similarly. To summate in other words, the RNC1773 works most naturally, and very well, when used for most sonically transparent goals in typical pop music applications.
Meanwhile, the RNLA7239 can provide comparatively unnatural, yet attractive sonic compression-based control and character to a wide variety of individual sound sources as well as stereo "room" signals. During my time with the RNLA, I liked it on kick and snare in mixdown, as well as on many electric bass guitar tracks I recorded during that time period and some vocal performances. The RNLA, when used alongside the RNC on drum overheads, it brought some depth, fat, and "glue" to kick and snare tracks, making the overall mix easy and pleasurable to both myself as well as the musicians I was working with during this evaluation period.
Is there a better bargain out there in microphone preamplifiers than the clean-as-a-whistle RNP8380 (priced at approximately $250 a channel)? I honestly don't think so. Are there similarly priced stereo compressors and limiters that perform as ubiquitously well as the RNC1773 and RNLA1773 (priced at $199 and $249, respectively)? I'll have to say no. Thus, I highly recommend the Really Nice Series to the widest variety of audio recordists — from ambitious hobbyists with good ears and small budgets to discerning professionals who buy gear based on performance rather than price, peer pressure, and/or image. You simply can't go wrong in buying an FMR product. They are really nice, indeed.
Strother Bullins is the reviews and features editor for Pro Audio Review and a regular contributor to Audio Media.