Reviewing Manley's Massive Passive Stereo Tube Equalizer
The following review is reprinted with permission from the April 2000 issue of The MIX magazine UK. You can find The MIX on the web at http://www.themix.net.
Manley Massive Passive stereo tube EQ
Outboard EQ has made a real comeback in recent years, mainly thanks to the new technology that combines valve warmth with solid-state reliability. Plenty of manufacturers have brought out valve EQ modules, but only a few really have that special 'something'.
The Manley Massive Passive is one of those 'special' units. It's not cheap, but it's one of the best units available, and has been causing quite a stir within the industry ever since it made its debut at the Recording Technology show last July.
The Massive Passive (or Massivo as it has become known) is a 3u 19" rack stereo EQ based around a 4-band equaliser as well as high and low-pass filters. The Teutonic-looking unit is very solid, weighing a hefty 2lb, and is finished in brushed steel and black. The rotary controls and switches are also large and very solid.
The connections on the back panel sit either side of the rather large power transformer. There are balanced ins and outs on XLR and TRS 1/4" jacks. The jack sockets also accept an unbalanced signal.
The unit is arranged with the filters and input gain in the centre and the two 4-band EQs on either side. There are 44 switched frequencies available to play with, and these are spaced roughly 1/4 octave apart, ranging from 22Hz to 27kHz. The cut or boost range is 20dB both ways and the Q range is 1.5 to 3.
Each of the band 'ranges' has a frequency selector, a bell-shape selector and a control to boost the amount of cut or boost. The switches at the top select whether you are cutting or boosting and whether you are using a bell-shape or a shelving EQ.
The filters are split into high and low-pass. The low-pass reaches from 18k to 5k and the high-pass ranges from 22Hz to 220Hz. Above the input gain switches are the channel 'on' buttons. These are lit in blue and have a bypass circuit that automatically kicks in when the Massivo is switched on to prevent any pops or thumps reaching your monitors.
One of the features that makes the Massivo unique is the fact that it is totally passive - there's no active circuitry here. Also, the four bands overlap, enabling extremely accurate tuning of troublesome frequencies. But the main feature that made us take notice was the fact that this EQ uses parallel symmetrical topology. In other words, if you apply a 10dB boost at 1k on all four bands on a standard EQ, you get 40dB of boost.
On the Massivo you get 10dB of boost. This means that you get a very organic interaction between the frequency bands, one that you have to hear to operate, rather than just looking at the front panel.
The lack of a cut/boost rotary control eliminates the inconsistencies associated with centre detentes, instead the 3-way switch is accurate and easy to use. Boost to hear the frequency you are working with clearly, then cut to the desired amount.
As some of you will remember, the old Pultec EQs have separate cut and boost controls, and some engineers would use both at the same time. Contrary to what you might think, they didn't cancel each other out; instead they created what became known as the Pultec Curve. This boosted the real lows and created a dip in the midrange, while the slope towards flat became steeper.
This all made for an impressive warm sound that so many engineers fell in love with. And coupled with the use of inductors, transformers and tubes, it gave a unique saturated sound that had plenty of headroom. Manley have designed the Massive Passive in much the same way, except, as mentioned before, it is wired in parallel, not in series as with the Pultec units. During the development stages, Manley tested it in some of the best mastering rooms available to get the sound just right. They stress that that it doesn't work (or sound) like any other EQ available.
The key to understanding the Massivo is that the controls are not independent. When you cut or boost at narrow bandwidths, you can get up to 20dB of cut or boost, but at the widest bandwidths you can only cut or boost by 6dB. That is the way the components work, and Manley have no desire to force them to do anything unnatural. The overall effect is very musical.
With quality equalisers like this, it's important to realise that less is probably more. In other words, if you can't hear what it's doing, it's probably doing a good job. That's definitely the case with the Massive Passive in a lot of situations, but not all the time.
To start off, the EQ was connected to a PC's main outputs, running stereo masters through the Massivo to see what it could do with the sound. The harshness of the PC's A/D converters was sorted out instantly by using the low pass filter set to 18kHz.
The plan from there on in was to just mess around. Boosting at around 1kHz and cutting at 820Hz sounded strangely pleasing to the ear. When all the bands were set to around 1k, then boosted, it yielded a very odd response - odd in that it didn't sound like you might think it should.
Using the Massivo to tidy up some masters for a CD production was easy. We made light work of a slightly dodgy mix by rolling off a little of the real low-end rumble with the filters, then tightening up the audible bass with a narrow-shaped bell EQ curve, followed by a slight boost at around 3k9 to give presence to the vocal. You really need to keep bypassing the Massivo when you're using it, because it becomes very hard to hear what it's doing at times.
As the manual warns, it's no good looking at the settings on the front panel to see what you've done. It'll never sound like you're expecting it to.
On a mixing session, we inserted the Massivo into two channels on the desk and tried it out on both the kick drum and the main vocal. Using some pretty heavy-handed settings, the Massivo really beefed up the kick, giving it punch as well as some nice, very low 'umph'. Boosting at 180Hz and 68Hz with a narrow bandwidth on both really helped. A little boost at 1k5 lifted the 'click' right out in the mix. This may sound like over-zealous use of boost, but remember, this ain't no ordinary EQ.
The vocal just loved the Massive Passive. With a little boost at 3k3 for presence and a shelving cut at around 120Hz, things sounded great. The filters got rid of the unwanted sheen from the digital signal, which becomes more apparent the more valve gear you use.
One of the great things about this EQ is that you can do some really strange stuff to the sound, but it always sounds musical. So much gear has loads of features or memory dedicated to making the kind of sounds you're never going to use in the studio, but the Massivo really comes across as a creative tool. The way it manipulates sound is inspiring.
Anyone using loops to create music should definitely check this out. You can filter out the crap you don't want, and boost the bits you do, and the result is always smooth, not harsh as with most desk EQs. You can turn a weedy kick drum into a cone-splattering monster with relative ease; you can even overdrive it and re-sample it. The ability to siphon off the parts of a loop you want is great. Because the frequency bands overlap, you can really go to town on the parts that you need to cut or boost. This does away with the need for chaining EQs together to get your sound.
A neat trick that will give a new slant to your mixing is to patch a couple of stereo EQs over some sub-groups. The Manley is great for this. If you sub-group the drums and bass together, and then the guitars and keys, or even a group of loops, you get much more control than you would if you used it over the entire mix. This often works if you have an over-busy instrumental track where you need to make some space for a vocal.
There aren't really any criticisms to make of this EQ. Some of the switches make an audible 'click' when used, but this has been noted by Manley and will be fixed in future batches.
Ok, we know the Massive Passive is an American product, but the basis of this EQ lies in its British sound. Back in the days when Rupert Neve was making his first EQs, maybe he didn't realise what he was creating. He says he just listened and used the frequencies and components that sounded best.
As most of you know, Neve EQ is now considered to be the standard by which others are judged: the Rolls Royce of EQs.
British console manufacturers acquired a name for themselves as makers of the sound. Throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, British desks ruled supreme, thanks to their use of what became known as 'British EQ'. Even American manufacturers advertise their EQ as 'British-sounding'. (This just goes to show that we are good at something.)
So what is it? It all lies in the frequencies that you are given to play with. Rupert Neve discovered that certain frequencies sound more musical and pleasing to the ear than others. There are some very accurate and well-specified EQs out there that will never compete on the same terms, simply because they work on different frequency ranges.
The best way to get the point across is to say that British EQ has a very rounded and organic sound, while American and Japanese EQs sound kind of clinical. This may be a very sweeping statement (pun intended), and some foreign EQs do sound cool these days, but they owe it all to the great British EQ.
So now we've all patted ourselves on the back, we can go back to marvelling at this American product.
If Neve is the Rolls Royce of EQ, then the Massive Passive is the Formula 1. It handles completely differently, but the results are awesome.
It's been a long time since an EQ really brought on a bad case of gear lust, but the Massive Passive has. The general rule of thumb these days is to not use EQ unless absolutely necessary, and then to use it sparingly. The Massivo contradicts all the advice and breaks all the rules, and it's a good thing to see. Greatness never came out of sticking to the rules or doing what we're told.
Its appeal is huge. The quality means it would be an excellent addition to a mastering set-up. Studios should make sure this is on their shopping list in Y2K, and purveyors of sample-based music should listen to what it could do for their sound. Even live engineers could benefit from the precise control offered by the Massive Passive.
The obvious downside is the price. Then again, there aren't really any alternatives. Massenburg and Pultec, although great and equal in audio quality, can't really compete in the creative stakes. The Massive Passive isn't really trying to compete with these anyway - it's another tool altogether. So save up, sell your granny, sell your body and buy one. You won't regret it.
- I/O - Balanced XLR, balanced/unbalanced 1/4" jacks
- Frequency response - 8Hz-60kHz
- THD & noise - -.06% (1kHz@+4dBm)
- S/N - 120dB typical
- High-pass filters - 22, 39, 68, 120, 220Hz
- Low-pass filters - 18, 12, 9, 7.5, 6kHz
- Low switched frequencies - 22, 33, 47, 68, 100, 150, 220, 330, 470, 680Hz, 1kHz
- Low-mid switched frequencies - 82, 120, 180, 270, 390, 560 & 820Hz, 1.2, 1.8, 2.7 & 3.9kHz
- High-mid switched frequencies - 220, 330, 470 & 680Hz, 1, 1.5, 2.2, 3.3, 4.7, 6.8 & 10kHz
- High switched frequencies - 560 & 820Hz, 1.2, 1.8, 2.7, 3.9, 5.6, 8.2, 12, 18 & 27kHz
- Cut/boost - 20dB
- Q range - 1.5-3
Sean Vincent www.themix.net 04/00