FMR Audio''s Really Nice Levelling Amplifier uses a gain element that gives the unit a distinct sonic character.
FMR's Really Nice Compressor RNC 1773 has a reputation for giving high fidelity and transparent compression for a low price ($199). FMR's latest dynamics-shaping offering is the Really Nice Levelling Amplifier RNLA7239 ($249), a compressor built around a Blackmer VCA-based gain element that imparts its own color to the sound, unlike its more transparent sibling. Because of the tonal color, FMR decided to call the RNLA a leveling amplifier, both to highlight its different circuitry and to differentiate it from the RNC.
Really Nice Design
The RNLA retains the aluminum casing, dimensions, knobs, and connections of the RNC, although the RNLA's knobs are bright red. The Threshold knob varies the threshold of compression from — 40 dBu to +20 dBu. The threshold can be very effectively set thanks to the RNLA's excellent 8-LED gain reduction meter. I can't say enough good things about the gain reduction meter, which works better than the meters on any product more than five times the RNLA's price.
The Ratio knob offers a range of 1:1 to 25:1. As you would expect, increasing the input level both compresses the signal and adds more color. The Attack and Release knobs let you adjust how quickly the RNLA compressor will engage and how long it will hold on to the signal, respectively. I found the attack times to be fast enough for drums and guitar tracks with multiple transients.
A very nice feature of the RNLA is the tiny Log Rel button, located between the Attack and Release knobs. For signals with very fast transients (drums, for example), engaging the Log Rel attempts to restore some punch by accelerating the release time as a function of the gain reduction amount. I tested this by playing some drum loops through the RNLA with the Log Rel button engaged and was quite pleased with how it brought the loops' punch back. The output Gain knob varies from — 15 dB to +15 dB with a detent at zero, and the RNLA features a true “hard bypass,” so even without power, you can still get signal out of the RNLA.
The RNLA offers two inputs and two outputs, making it useful for either mono or stereo sources. Because it offers only one set of controls, the unit cannot operate in a dual-mono mode in which each channel is processed separately. The inputs are unbalanced, which I normally would complain about. However, in this case, I'll make an exception: the inputs double as TRS inserts, so you can connect them to the TRS insert jacks of mixers and interfaces simply with a TRS-to-TRS cable, eliminating the need for a Y-cable. I think FMR's input design is ingenious and definitely consider it an important feature, but nonetheless I wish an alternate version with balanced inputs were available for those of us with balanced-I/O project studios. I should mention, however, that the RNLA is a very electrically quiet device, and I didn't notice any noise or problems using its unbalanced inputs.
The RNLA does offer balanced outputs, as well as a sidechain insert. When the sidechain is in use, the RNLA will process its input signal only when sidechain signal is present, allowing you to use it as a program-responsive compressor. That is an unexpected feature on a device this affordable. The RNLA is powered via a standard 9 VAC wall-wart power supply.
Really Nice Sound
I ran audio of drum loops, guitars, bass, and entire songs through the RNLA, and it never let me down. It excelled at both very mild compression and full squashing of out-of-control material. When I was judicious with the Ratio and Release knobs, the RNLA sounded pretty transparent, and at higher levels of compression, it imparted a pleasant thickness and roundness to the sound.
It is difficult to find any fault with the RNLA. It's designed amazingly well and sounds great. Even the documentation is well written and helpful. As with any “color” compressor, you wouldn't want to rely on the RNLA when you want a completely transparent compressor. And as I mentioned, I'd love to see another model with balanced inputs. But if you're looking for an affordable and great-sounding compressor, you owe it to yourself to give this one a serious look.
Value (1 through 5): 5