(click thumbnail)What if I told you of a levelling amp that claimed to be “really nice,” was only a third of a rack-space wide and sold for $250? You’d be skeptical, right…but check this out.
FMR Audio, manufacturer of the Really Nice Levelling Amplifier, builds the heralded RNC (Really Nice Compressor), known for its quality processing, clean transparency and bargain price. This review will address whether the RNLA, like the RNC, could be another FMR product destined to become a “best kept secret” for many budget conscious engineers.
Visually, the RNLA is of diminutive size and features striking orange knobs. The front panel, nearly identical to the RNC, has only one set of Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release and Gain controls. The RNLA borrows from the Valley People Gain Brain II with an additional control: Log Release Contour. This helps by speeding up the release curve acceleration under extreme attenuation. The RNLA is a stereo-only device; the two channels can not be unlinked or separately controlled.
Although sturdily built using extruded aluminum and steel, the RNLA saves money and space with an external (9 volt AC) wall-wart power supply. Potentiometer quality is not an issue here, as the front panel is only a control surface for the digital engine inside; this DSP in the sidechain path models an opto element and then feeds a Blackmer VCA. Specs are worthy with only 0.005-percent THD, a maximum output of 22.5 dBu (0.3-percent THD) and noise is typically -95 dBu over full bandwidth.
Studio, project studio, live, broadcast
Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release and Gain controls; true stereo operation; eight-segment gain reduction LED meter; I/O on 1/4-inch connectors with an unbalanced input and a non-differential balanced output on TRS; TRS doubles as inserts; a single TRS cable can connect the RNLA to an unbalanced insert point on your mixer/preamp. A sidechain I/O connection is also provided on another quarter-inch TRS; Blackmer VCA
FMR Audio | 512-280-6557 | www.fmraudio.comIn Use
Right on the money, the manual recommends applications with vocals, bass guitar and drums. I ran both my bass DI and mic outputs through and was quickly impressed. Smoother dynamics nicely brought all the notes closer together in volume, tempered occasional harsh note attack and added just a touch of low-end emphasis. This coloration is subtle, pleasant and very mildly distorted, much like some vintage units, but not exactly like any one in particular.
Drums, predictably, worked well with the box. I tried processing individual track outputs, but the RNLA’s stereo design and inherent sound made me prefer the whole kit nicely leveled instead (via subgroup buss inserts). The circuitry made cymbals heftier, less piercing and gave a nice low-mid punch to snare and toms that EQ cannot. The Log Release shines in this application, allowing more gain reduction with seemingly more responsiveness, less distortion and smoother attenuation recovery. I was compelled to try the “soup du jour” — slamming drum room mics — and got fickle results. After much tweaking I settled on approximately 3:1, with the Log Release, a low threshold, slow attack and quite slow release (leveling, one might say). However, these settings were extremely sensitive and were the slightest twist away from undesirable pumping or mush … so watch that release. The interaction between controls does provide much fodder for experimentation and unusual dynamic envelopes, if so desired.
Vocals are handled nicely by the RNLA, imparting all of the above mentioned characteristics, which are often desirable, especially with the common harshness of condenser mics. I really liked the RNLA on female vox, where dynamics were easily controlled with the added taming of sibilance and the chesty “filling up” of the low-mids around 200 Hz — a response that reminded of me of a dialed-in multiband compressor.
I found processing of melodic instruments to be sonically significant, but not always preferable. Electronic sources, such as synths and samples, often gained size and solidness, while guitars either got a bit too undefined and thick or nicely beefed up (depending on the nature of the source). Most acoustic instruments seemed to like the ride, particularly if they were scratchy or clicky up top. Use on the mix buss revealed too much coloration, inadequate top-end definition and too “soft” of a sound … at least with my analog mixing desk. Those who prefer to mix in-the-box with an analog compressor inserted on the mix buss might find those qualities to be perfect for the job. The RNLA’s true bypass feature, with a sealed relay, proved to be helpful in such comparisons.
I found this compressor to be an incredible value with an adequate build, a thoughtful design, useful features and that ever-elusive quality: a “sound.” My gripes are few and relatively minor; I could live without the wall-wart, balanced inputs would be nice (even though we’d lose the “insert” ability of the input) and a more thorough legend with attack and release times would be quite helpful. But at this price point I’m not complaining, especially for a “Made in the USA” product. (For the record, I’d pay twice as much for a “pro” version with XLR I/O, an internal power transformer, more metering and two sets of controls.)
It looks like the RNLA really is really nice after all.