FEA Dual Band, Comp-Limiter and SMX: FEA developed a really nice dual-band optical pedal that I reviewed when it first came out. In response to customer requests, he now has two new versions. Both of them have upgrades in the audio path and the threshold range. One has all the features of the original, plus a peak limiter on the low band. The other was designed to offer the same type and range of controls as the venerable Trace Elliot "SMX" dual-band pedal.
The limiter version is a knob-tweaker's dream. Every function can be dialed in exactly how you like it for both bands. The low band has a switch to select either hard peak limiting or normal low to medium ratio compression. The limiter function is very clean and effective, with none of the clicks, pops, fluttering, or distortion that many limiters are plagued with. The only downside to it is that such a high ratio (as with most other limiters) can remove some of the energy or resonance of a big low note. So it will be an individual judgment call whether it's more useful to have the peaks hard limited or if you need more boom and energetic tone. I actually find that for normal, non-extreme playing, the maximum 7:1 ratio of the regular "comp" setting is sufficient for handling most peak spikes, with plenty of energy and fullness in the tone. But it's nice to have the "limit" setting for times when the peaks would be more extreme or uncontrolled.
The SMX model is not a clone of the actual circuit of the Trace Elliot, it is FEA's own design put to functional goals inspired by the Trace. It features only three controls per band: threshold, ratio, and make-up gain. The crossover point and the attack/release are pre-set. The nice thing there is that the values chosen by FEA are quite ideal. As I played through the SMX version with a variety of basses and playing styles, I never once wished any of those settings were different. I also found that it was very quick and easy to find a natural, clean, effective setup. I recommend this version very highly to anyone who wants the versatility and articulation of a dual-band, but doesn't want to spend time fussing around with the knobs.
The occasional noise problem I mentioned with the first version has been eliminated in these new versions. His latest edition (May 2010) is almost completely noiseless. There is no loss of highs or lows, although the lows get "tightened up" enough that they will sound less big and boomy than a reggae player (for example) would like. The tone overall is quite transparent and articulate. All frequencies above 5 KHz actually bypass the compression circuit, uncompressed, for better high end detail and lower noise. The limiter version has enough control over the signal that it can be tweaked into more obvious audible qualities if you want; however even then it doesn't do "effecty" types of squishy compression. Both versions can also be used as a crossover, with separate high and low band outputs.
In addition to the true bypass footswitch, there is a footswitch for bypassing just the high band, which can be useful if you want the maximum of dynamic articulation but still need the lows to be kept under control. The pedal runs off a normal Boss-type 9VDC supply, but like the Maxon CP9Pro+ it has a "charge pump" inside which raises the internal voltage to 18V for greater headroom (less distortion). Comparing these pedals to the Maxon, it's a close match in terms of quality and functionality, however the FEA's do have some notable advantages. The fixed attack on the Maxon is a bit too slow for my tastes, and the fixed attack on the FEA SMX is just right (and of course the limiter version has fully adjustable attack). The FEA's have much greater flexibility and versatility overall. I also like the tone of the highs through the FEA better than the Maxon. If you don't need all the extra flexibility though, the Maxon CP9Pro+ will get you pretty close.
For what it's worth, the FEA is now my personal favorite choice of pedal for clean non-squish-effect compression. Its greatest strength is in improving articulation and clarity for cutting through a mix.
Update: Early ones of these may have occasional trouble when powered off a daisy chain supply with certain other pedals. FEA has solved this problem, so if you happen to have any issues with daisy-chain powering, contact FEA to have them update your pedal. The same is true if you have one of the very first editions that does not have the comp/limiter switch. Also, he has recently come up with more improvements for even lower noise and even smoother response, so do check in with him about upgrading any earlier unit you may have.
Here is my favorite setting:
• LO band--threshold 3:00, ratio max (7:1), attack and release both 7:30, gain 3:30, comp/limit switch set to comp.
• Freq around 10:30.
• HI band--threshold 1:30, ratio 1:00, attack and release both 10:30, gain 2:00.
Note however the thresholds for both bands will be dependent on your specific instrument and how you play it. The main thing to take away from the settings I show here is that I like a high threshold with a high ratio on the LO band, and a more moderate threshold with a fairly low ratio on the HI band.