Without high-profile marketing, a sexy image, or slick product designs, how can a little audio company hope to survive these days? In the case of FMR Audio, the answer is simple; make a compact 2-channel, Class-A mic preamp and get it to engineers who are in-the-know for less than $500. Like FMR Audio's first product, the Really Nice Compressor (RNC), the RNP 8380 Really Nice Preamp ($499) has been largely a word-of-mouth success story based on audio-newsgroup raves. So what's the buzz all about?
Good Things Come in Small Packages
For a ⅓U box, the RNP 8380 is packed with useful features. Each of its two solid-state channels is independently controlled and offers a front-panel ¼-inch DI input, a polarity inversion (phase reverse) switch, +48V phantom power with indicator, and a three-LED (signal present/+18 dBu/clipping) gain display. The gain control is a precision 12-position Grayhill switch, ranged in 6 dB steps from 0 dB to a hefty 66 dB.
The rear-mounted connections are XLR mic inputs, ¼-inch TRS insert jacks, and ¼-inch TRS +4 dBu output jacks for each channel. Other “really nice” touches include Class-A amplification circuits chosen for low distortion and high output (+28 dBu), automatic output muting during phantom or mic/DI switching, and the ability to operate with balanced and unbalanced devices.
The unit's shortcomings — cheerfully divulged by designer Mark McQuilken in the humorous manual — are mostly cost-cutting measures, such as the wall-wart power supply. McQuilken also admits to a higher-than-average noise floor for the unit (-120 EIN), but states accurately that this spec is of consequence only for lab measurement, because the RNP 8380 is still much quieter than many sought-after preamps. The unit also runs very hot, but it doesn't pose any safety concerns.
The only real gripes I have with the RNP's design are that 6 dB steps in gain is fairly large and that there is no trim control for matching levels between the two channels. Given the unit's suitability for live and location recording, that is a disadvantage when one channel needs a minor adjustment in order to provide a balanced stereo image into a converter or tape machine. Of course, subtle level adjustments can be made by patching a device with a continuously variable gain control (such as the RNC) into the inserts or by feeding the signals to a mixing board or DAW before you record.
On the Job
Here at Guerrilla Recording in Oakland, California, engineer Bart Thurber and I became enthusiastic users of the RNP. In comparing notes, we discovered our mutual appreciation of this preamp's features, ease of use, and honest fidelity. In particular, Thurber applauded the RNP's muting protection and the inserts for routing signals to an outboard compressor or other device. He was especially pleased with the way the RNP 8380 warmed up the sound of his favorite vocal mic, an Oktava 219. Thurber also raved about the preamp for use on 2-channel electric-bass tracks, in which you are simultaneously miking the amp and using a DI — listing the RNP's full low end and its phase-reverse capability as major selling points.
In a series of loudspeaker listening tests, I used a single microphone in front of a monitor to feed the RNP 8380 and some of my favorite solid-state preamps. The RNP 8380 and a single-channel Grace 101 preamp were closely matched in these listening evaluations. At times, I heard the RNP 8380 as being a bit warmer, but on most music selections the sonic differences between the two were indistinguishable to my ear.
The RNP 8380 was sonically similar to the Langevin Dual Vocal Combo 2-channel preamp as well. I did notice a cleaner, more hi-fi quality to the high end through the RNP, as well as a more even, prominent reproduction of bass notes.
After using it on several sessions of my own, I found the RNP 8380 to be an excellent all-purpose preamp, providing unhyped clarity without artificially glossing the high end. The minimal yet intelligently designed signal path makes this preamp one that seems to open up any mic you put through it. I was impressed by the RNP's ability to extract an extra measure of realism and detail in ambient room mics, as well as its smooth handling of close-miked sources.
Give It to Me Straight
The ultimate compliment for FMR Audio is that it has found a way to make top-quality products affordable, without compromising on the essentials. Underneath its utilitarian, no-frills appearance, the RNP 8380 is an impressively transparent, straight-wire-with-gain-type of preamp, and one of the best bargains I've seen in years.