Nigel Palmer finds this new premium offering from the American manufacturer adds versatility to the mastering process.
I’ve been a fan of US-based Foote Control Systems’ products for a while – checking back for this review I was surprised to discover I’ve now owned their excellent P3S ME mastering compressor for three years. In that time it’s been in regular use for its clean signal path with some colour if required, helped by a Class A/transformer upgrade. Its stealthy style of compression, where it might not appear to be doing a great deal until bypassing it, is for me unsurpassed.
I therefore sat up and took notice when Roger Foote recently announced the advent of the P4S ME, also aimed at the mastering process but with a more ‘vintage’ sound, a superior detector and the use of premium parts (and pricing).
The Foote Control Systems P4S ME is a sturdily built unit occupying two rack spaces and measuring 205mm (8in) deep. The engraved turquoise front panel of the review unit – other colours, including the more usual black and grey, are available – sports six rotary controls, three pushbuttons and a gain reduction meter. From left to right the rotaries and their ranges are: Attack (0.15 to 15ms per dB), Release (15 to 150ms per dB), Threshold (-8 to +15dB), Ratio (1:1 to 4:1), Gain (0 to +11.5dB) and a high-pass sidechain filter with rolloff frequencies at 240, 150, 120m 80 and 50Hz, plus ‘Off’. The first surprise is that all these controls are high-quality Elma switches with multiple positions rather than continuously rotating like a standard potentiometer – while adding significantly to the cost, this approach offers first-class resetability, a feature that’s especially useful in mastering.
The three pushbuttons are firstly A/R, which toggles between RMS mode (an auto time constant mimicking the way we hear) and enabling the Attack and Release controls (good for more specifically set gain reduction, as when you want the music to ‘bounce’ in time). Next up is Feedback, offering either older-style feedback compression that tends to ‘glue’ more, or the more modern feed-forward method with a tighter feel. The last button is a true hardwire Bypass.
The gain reduction meter is a responsive instrument measuring up to 5dB of GR in 0.25dB increments. I couldn’t hear compression occurring when there was no meter indication – a useful feature in a busy working environment and something I’ve found to be fairly unusual. Finally, a look around the back reveals a spartan rear panel with a multi-pin socket for the switched-mode power supply (the unit passes audio when switched off), I/O on XLRs and jack sockets for external sidechain access, such as with an EQ to tailor the frequency response of the detector for de-essing and other functions.
After a day or so of experimentation I let the P4S ME loose on some real-world projects. The unit is stereo, so single-ganged controls affect both sides; that’s my preferred way of working as it’s quicker, and although it does happen I can’t remember the last time I needed different Left and Right compression settings. A second surprise was immediately apparent in that, unlike the P3S ME, you can’t bypass the large Cinemag transformers – they’re apparently the reason the box had to be 2U – and neither would I want to. Without ever being too colored for my taste, the sound is rich and wide with just a hint of an old-school feel and offering commendable depth of field and a big low end response – in the latter case, it’s not so much that the Foote adds LF, it’s more that it preserves it in a most attractive way. While capable of being very transparent at low gain reduction levels, especially in RMS mode, the unit also benefits on occasion from being made to work harder and producing more attitude – the knee used is harder than in its stable mate, but even so I found that more gain reduction than I would typically use in mastering could be useful under the right circumstances.
A standout feature, especially for dance and bass-heavy music, is the high-pass filter’s ability to operate at different frequencies. The 80Hz setting made a good start point, but depending on the material I found a use for all the others, including bypassing it altogether on those occasions when I wanted the low frequencies to deliberately pump the whole track.
The Attack and Release controls were speedily set for tasks such as allowing more or less transients through, although much of the time I found RMS mode in combination with feedforward compression did what I needed, making this one of the easier compressors to operate that I’ve seen. The P4S ME was at home with any musical style I tried it on, with notably good results in the acoustic and electronic genres that can quickly reveal compression deficiencies.
While I’m probably among the first to say that compression in mastering is often overrated, I think the Foote P4S ME mastering compressor is an unusually good and versatile unit of its type. Easy and fast in operation but with the potential for great results on a wide range of music, it’s worthy of serious consideration by anyone (and not only mastering engineers) looking for a high-end compressor. The entry price may be relatively high, but in my opinion it’s a not unreasonable exchange for the generously classy performance you get in return.
Nigel Palmer has been a freelance sound engineer and producer for over 20 years. He runs his CD mastering business Lowland Masters (www.lowlandmasters.com) from rural Essex.