A new device from FMR? Nice.
Text: Brad Watts
FMR Audio has a pretty fine track record for coming up with sonically superior devices for a minimal cost. Its RNC (or Really Nice Compressor) is generally acknowledged to be a very handy piece of kit: a dynamics processor that can stand sonically alongside more esoteric and expensive compressors. Or, should your racks be devoid of the esoteric and expensive, it’s a great little compressor, full stop. You’ve only to take a quick glance at the specs of FMR equipment to realise these little boxes are capable of holding their own with some of the best. Following the success of the RNC, the firm doubled its product stable by offering the RNP (Really Nice Preamp). Now the FMR Audio range has extended even further to include the RNLA. Yep! It’s the Really Nice Levelling Amplifier!
Like all the FMR devices, the RNLA is a 1/3-width single rack device. FMR makes no bones about the fact that its units have a decidedly ‘DIY kit’ feel about them. The reasons behind this are obvious. In order to keep costs down, FMR prefers to spend money on the important stuff and skimp on the enclosure. The units all feature a screw hole on the underside of the enclosure to aid attachment to a rackmount shelf. To be honest, I can’t see the enclosure falling apart anytime soon. It’s constructed from aluminium, as opposed to plastic, and really shouldn’t present any structural issues.
LEVELLING AMP v COMPRESSOR
So why is this a ‘levelling amplifier’ and not a ‘compressor’? Surely they’re the same thing? FMR has decided to distinguish the RNLA from the RNC, as the RNLA is more of a ‘coloured’ compression circuit. Its intention is to provide a compressor along the lines of the traditional ‘levelling amplifier’ circuits of yesteryear – units such as the LA-2A and LA-3A that exhibit a strong sense of character due to their optical gain element design. So, unlike the RNC, this compressor is designed to impart a degree of sonic colouration to the sound. This doesn’t imply that the RNLA is an LA-2A emulation, because it simply isn’t. The unit definitely does offer a number of sonic similarities to these older style Class-A opto-compressors but achieves this using DSP coding and ICs.
Operationally, the RNLA offers considerably more control over your signal than older discrete designs. Often these devices merely provide input and output gain with no control over attack or release, let alone varying the actual compression ratio. Across the front of the RNLA you’ll find four ridiculously red knobs. FMR seem to take a perverse pleasure in making their gear as ugly as possible – which I kinda like. The philosophy being, ‘who cares what it looks like as long as it sounds great!’. Threshold, Ratio (from 1 through to 25:1), Attack, Release and Gain controls allow the setup of a multitude of levelling scenarios. Gain provides ±15dB, with the attack and release controls going all the way to ‘11’, a selling point gleefully broadcast in the manual. Pay attention to the front panel screen-printing and you’ll notice these controls actually start at ‘one’ (a quaint little ‘trap’ for the younger player). Gain reduction is displayed via an eight-segment LED meter which FMR claims to be free of any latency or lag – you can rely on the meter to give you an accurate representation of what’s going on. A bypass button does just that, but does it extremely well by utilising sealed relays for a completely true bypass. The unit will even function in bypass mode if the power is withdrawn! One final button switches in a logarithmic release contour: when the LogRel button is on, the release time is accelerated according to the amount of gain reduction happening at the time. This results in restoring punch to material that you may be limiting the daylights out of. It’s a handy tool for situations such as taming drum overheads without sucking the life out of them. Oh, did I mention?: The RNLA is a stereo device with mono controls. Use it as a single mono or stereo processor.
Connection to the RNLA is via TRS jacks. Out the back there are left (mono) and right inputs with the unit happy to operate in balanced or unbalanced situations. It’s a non-differential balancing system implying that the ‘cold’ portion of the signal isn’t driven. Consequently, the RNLA will provide better noise performance when used in a balanced system but will perform perfectly unbalanced. It also allows for connecting the unit directly to a console or computer audio card’s insert points using only two stereo patch cables. A sidechain insert appears for building de-essing circuits, next to the wall-wart power input. FMR apologises for using a wall-wart, and then again for using an AC power supply, but, as I said, costs are kept way down using this powering method, as is internally produced noise. By this stage you’re no doubt wondering if the RNLA really does sound nice. In all honesty, yes it does. You can easily tame a vocal, keep a drum submix under control or screw a bass line into oblivion. There’s ‘character’ to spare, and as a parallel drum or bass compressor I found the RNLA to be quite interesting. As a vocal tamer the RNLA does offer that syrupy style of compression that’s been used for decades. An LA-2A or Distressor it is not, but for the paltry asking price it’s a whole lot of levelling amplifier in a very tiny box. Worth the bucks if you can’t afford better, and worth it just for the flavour.