In my opinion there are very few mic preamps under $800 per channel that are any better sounding than an inexpensive console. Many of the "budget" mic pres are based on simple, cheap integrated circuit (IC) op amps. These circuits will work, but have low headroom, and the fidelity of the whole circuit is usually limited. Many of them might have tubes in them, but these tubes are always an adjunct to the op amp circuit (which does the real work) and just a way to add subtle distortion and call it "warmth". The Really Nice Preamp (RNP) is FMR Audio's long-awaited follow-up to their Really Nice Compressor, hands down the best compressor for under $200. (I own 3 and want more!) The RNP is very simple: Each Class A channel has XLR ins for mics, 1/4" ins for line/DI, a dual unbalanced 1/4" insert point, buttons for phantom power and polarity invert, a 12 position knob for gain, and three LEDs for signal levels. First I tested the RNP on a variety of sources, where it held up well on most. Bass guitar plugged in direct sounded better than many pres and DI boxes, though (just barely) not quite as deep on the low end as "high end" DI boxes. Testing is okay, but never tells you the real story, so I started tracking records with the RNP in my rack and really gave it a workout. The fact that this little preamp survived many sessions on guitar and keyboard amps, overhead mics, room mics, snare drum and more is ample proof that FMR has really pulled this off. If I had any doubt as to the sound of this preamp, I would have pulled it off the sources in question and not gone back to it. When overdriven the RNP warns you with a red light, but it has a cool distortion sound that I used on room mics a few times. That's better than I can say for many inexpensive preamps that offer a harsh clipping. Complaints? The RNP's 6 dB stepped gain control and lack of an output trim knob sometimes make it difficult to set optimum levels to tape. The insert points don't seem necessary when I could add a compressor after the mic preamp, but if you used the unbalanced RNC in the insert points instead of output you would retain a balanced signal. My biggest complaint is that the digitally-controlled invert and phantom power buttons revert to the off position when the unit is powered down, throwing me off during long tracking sessions. FMR is currently revising this however. I think home recordists would find this preamp to be significantly better than an inexpensive console, DAW interface or cheap outboard preamps. I also think many pro studios should check it out. Think of it as a hell of a deal at $500 - don't think of it as a cheap mic preamp! (

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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