Reviewing Manley's VOXBOX® Combo - by George Petersen
The following review is reprinted with permission from the July 1998 issue of Mix magazine. You can find Mix Magazine on the web at http://www.mixonline.com.
All-in-one vocal processors are nothing new; in fact, I reviewed the first such device--the Symetrix 528--11 years ago. And since that time, literally dozens of similar units have come out. However, when Manley Labs--a purveyor of no-compromise gear for distinguished audio palates--unveiled its VoxBox, I had to check it out.
Priced at $4,000, VoxBox is a single-channel unit combining a tube preamp, compressor, equalizer and de-esser, all in a sturdy rackmount chassis. The tube preamp stage is cloned from the company's popular Manley 40dB preamp circuit and offers a choice of mic, high-impedance (100 kOhm) instrument and balanced line inputs, plus switchable highpass filtering. An internal jumper may be used to bypass the transformer on the line and instrument inputs, making them unbalanced. The 3:1 ratio compressor is a passive photocell design and is placed in the audio chain before the mic preamp. The passive equalizer is based on the classic Pultec[[dieresis]] MEQ-5 but is "extended" with a total of 33 selectable frequencies--with plenty of overlap--for its high/low peak (up to +10 dB) and (-10 dB) mid dip bands. The unit's de-esser section is actually an opto peak 10:1 limiter that sounds like an LA-2A, with an added passive LC sidechain to handle de-essing chores. At the end of the audio pathway, a tube line amp ensures adequate gain.
The front panel is clean and to the point, but the real secret lies inside the VoxBox. All construction is absolutely impeccable, from the bomb-proof chassis and heavy, 1Ú4-inch-thick aluminum slab front panel to the use of military-spec JAN tubes (6072A, 5751 and dual 6414), gold contact switches, real LC and RC networks, quality transformers, etc. In fact, each VoxBox probably has more money invested in parts alone than the retail price of most competing products. Other small touches are also appreciated, such as the locking phantom power switch, five-way source switching on the illuminated Sifam meter and delayed power-up relays. Switching is absolutely silent, and any section can be switched in or out during recording without glitching. The feel and action of all the switches and pots is first-class throughout.
The rear panel has balanced XLR mic input, XLR and 1Ú4-inch line and insert inputs, and XLR balanced and 1Ú4-inch unbalanced preamp and EQ outputs. Let me explain: In "normal" mode, the EQ output is actually the main output. By routing through the preamp out, the user can access the compressor and preamp sections separately from the EQ/de-ess/limiter sections, which are accessible through the insert inputs. Actually, it's all simpler than this description, and using some creative patching and each section's bypass switches, almost anything is possible. And de-ess and comp link jacks allow linking two VoxBoxes for stereo operation.
I started out using VoxBox in Normal mode, recording jazz vocals using a Brauner VM-1 tube mic. After a few minutes of experimenting, I achieved a glorious sound: rich and full of detail. Well-versed in mic techniques, the vocalist needed only a touch of compression, rather than a heavy-handed dose. On the EQ side, a couple of dB cut at 3k and +4dB at 16k added just the right amount of air for a natural sound. Later, I was cutting female vocals using a R[[macron]]DE NT2--a great mic for the money, but not quite in the same league as the $5,000 Brauner. The results were excellent, with the NT2 suddenly sounding a lot more like a C-12 than a C-414--larger than life, especially with the compressor in and +2 dB at 200 Hz for warmth.
However, one of the drawbacks of VoxBox's +40 to 50dB gain circuit is that it doesn't provide enough boost when using very low-output mics--such as older ribbon mics--in low-SPL situations. On one session with a soft-spoken narrator who requested an EV RE20, VoxBox didn't have enough gain, so my Millennia Media HV-3 preamp handled the gain, fed into the VoxBox line input: Nice combo!
Perhaps what I liked most about VoxBox was the unit's subtleties. One can create different sonic footprints by using the input pot and various combinations of the preamp gain switch settings. (The latter doesn't work as a master volume control, but rather changes the slew rate and timbre of the circuit, producing sounds that range from mellow to aggressive, and everything in-between.) The de-essing section is best used for naturalizing rather than neutralizing sibilants. The compressor and limiter action is gentle and smooth, rather than sledgehammer, and the EQ--though sweet and musical--is no match for the clinical precision of a parametric or notch filter in hack-and-slash applications.
The VoxBox name implies a vocal tracking tool, but its Pultec EQ, de-esser and limiter are equally welcome at any mixing date. And besides being a lot of fun on miked instruments, the direct input was equally handy on bass, while my Gibson J-160E electro-acoustic never sounded sweeter. Hey, I could get to like this one--there's nothing like going first-class.