FEA OPTI-FET: This new pedal from FEA combines optical and FET signal processing, inspired partly by one of the designer's favorite high-end Avalon compressors. It's the same size as his other pedals, with more knobs than the SMX but less knobs than the Limiter.
The tone is dark, warm, and round, and the action is a bit syrupy (in a subtle, non-effect-y way). While the SMX and Limiter have a bright, dry, snappy quality, this one is closer to the Markbass and Effectrode in terms of tonal character and action. One of the recent updates to this pedal is the addition of three internal dip switches that can be used to select just how fat and dark you want the tone to be. With all switches "off", it is relatively clear and bright. One switch engages a certain amount of thickness and warmth; the second switch engages another, stronger level of fat coloration; and the third switch engages a 12 KHz filter, for a darker, more "vintage" tone. Very cool, very versatile. There is no loss of lows, and in fact it has a fuller low end presence than the FEA Dual-Band. The highs can sometimes seem to get turned down a bit by the compression, similar to a dbx comp; but this can be corrected by using the sidechain, which I'll explain shortly.
There is zero noise. When I first wrote this review, I noted an issue with the pedal being sensitive to picking up noise and hum from certain other pedals and power supplies; however Frank then dedicated himself to solving that problem, and he succeeded 100%--it is no longer an issue at all, for the units he's selling now.
The main controls include threshold, ratio, attack, release, and gain. The threshold has a useful range for most instruments, but if you have a very high-output instrument you may end up with the threshold maxed out. There is a helpful LED that indicates when your signal has crossed the threshold. The ratio control range is also very broad; it can theoretically go high enough to act as a limiter, but in reality I found that it is not that great at hard peak limiting. It's much better at the range of light and medium compression. The attack knob goes from 2 mS to 150 mS, and you can hear the difference as you adjust it (which is a good thing).
The really unusual feature of this pedal is the sidechain. A sidechain is a system that allows you to control the compression action with a different signal than your instrument. Normally a compressor "hears" your instrument and reacts to it, and the effect is applied to that same instrument signal. With a sidechain, you can do things such as control the compression with a different instrument channel like a miked kick drum; or run your instrument signal out to an external processor (EQ, filter, etc.) and use that processed signal to trigger the compression--without EQ'ing or filtering the signal that is heard at the other end. Many rackmount comps have this feature, but I think this is the first pedal to have it. It's a subtle function, but an interesting one.
This sidechain has a 3-band EQ built in, so for example by turning up the lows and turning down the highs, the compression will react more strongly to low notes and less strongly to highs; and again, the output signal of the pedal is not EQ'd, so there is no boost of the lows or cut of the highs in what you actually hear. All the EQ does is change the relationship between different frequency ranges, and the amount your signal is compressed. However it's not a multi-band compressor--there is no crossover, and the signal is not split and recombined. The sidechain is "normalled" so that you don't need to plug anything into the sidechain jacks in order to apply the built-in EQ to that chain. But you can put any sort of processor in the send/return loop, and experiment with the results. The sidechain has its own on/off footswitch.
The construction quality here is excellent and sharp-looking. It runs on standard Boss-type 9 VDC, and the footswitch is true bypass. I absolutely love the warm, smooth, mellow tone quality of this pedal, and honestly I think it's one of the very best pedal-format compressors on the market today.