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Manley VOXBOX® Combo
Reviewing Manley's VOXBOX® Combo - by William Wittman
Reprinted from the October 1998 issue of RECORDING Magazine with the permission of Music Maker Publications. RECORDING Subscriptions 1-800-582-8326, or http://www.recordingmag.com.

Manley VOXBOX® - An all-in-one high quality mic preamp, compressor, eq, and de-esser.

It all starts at the microphone. We all know that and we all pick and choose that mic carefully, especially when it comes to recording vocals. But what comes next?

Imagine that you’re recording an important vocal for a major project and you can put together your ideal signal path to tape. What might that be? The studio and the equipment hire companies are at your disposal. What will you ask for?

Well, you would no doubt start with a very high-quality mic preamp, probably either an all-discrete transistor type, such as an API or a Neve, or a vacuum tube design such as a Telefunken V-72 or V-76. And if your taste is like most discerning recording engineers, you probably want a great transformer on the input.

Next you are probably going to want a really great compressor. Here again you may opt for a famous name vintage tube compressor, something like a Fairchild 660 or perhaps the Teletronix LA-2A, with its ultra‑smooth optical attenuator—compressors you actually want to hear in the chain even if they are barely compressing; they just make things sound bigger.

Next, even though you’ve chosen that perfect microphone, odds are you may want a little eq. How about a Pultec MEQ, another famous piece of vintage all-tube gear? It’s a midrange-based unit, so you might want slightly wider ranges of frequency choice available. But it certainly sounds great and it continues our string of choices that only add to the sound quality.

Lastly, you may feel the need for a de-esser in some cases. So pick the best sounding one you can find and add that to the list.

Well what we’ve just put together is, in a nutshell, the basis of the Manley Voxbox.

Vox

The Voxbox is a mic preamp with transformer input and switchable phantom power, an electro‑optical limiter, an equalizer based on the Pultec MEQ-5, and an end stage de-esser that also can be switched into service as a peak limiter. And all of it is a pure vacuum tube design with transformers, military spec tubes, gold rotary contact switches, and conductive plastic pots.

In other words, it’s all done to a very high standard that blows away the input strip on all but the most carefully selected consoles. And that’s really what you have here: a single console channel from soup to nuts and then some, the idea clearly being that you run the mic into the Voxbox and the Voxbox to the recorder without watering down the signal any further.

It's a super-high-quality tape signal path that, even with its available processing options, is very hard to beat.

The pre

The Voxbox is a 3U rack unit that oozes class and quality right out of the box. It’s beautifully machined and put together, and looks every inch the expensive piece of serious gear that it is. It radiates confidence (as well as a certain amount of heat!) right down to its precision-calibrated multi-function meter.

Moving from left to right (as does the signal) the first thing you are confronted with is the microphone preamp section. Here one first finds a locking phantom power switch, a nice feature that lets 48V phantom be applied to those mics that require it while not having to zap ribbon mics or needlessly power tube mics with their own power supplies. A warning LED lights to indicate that phantom power is on.

Below this is a 1/4" input jack that allows the Voxbox to be used as a direct inject box. This is a 100 kOhm input that bypasses the rear (balanced XLR) line input when a 1/4" jack is inserted. Adjacent to this is a 3‑way toggle that selects Mic In Phase (labeled 0˚), Line, and 180˚ phase-reversed Mic. Obviously Manley realized that we might want to use this thing for instruments other than vocals, and that a phase switch might be required.

One very nice feature is that the 3-way toggle switch is dead quiet. That means when you’re using the unit for a microphone, you can switch silently to the Line position using the switch as a mute. No click, no pop, no screaming singer who’s just heard The Thunk That Ate Cleveland in her phones.

At the bottom of this section is a rotary control for Input Level and a 5-position rotary switch marked Gain. This isn’t, as you may assume, a pad on the front of the mic pre or a tap on the transformer. It’s actually a variable negative feedback on the mic amplifier, and it has an effect on both the amount of gain (obviously!) and, almost more importantly, on the character of the mic amp.

In practice, I found that I could vary the timbre of the amp from way clean through to a more noticeable edge in the sound. Manley suggests that this end of the spectrum is more “forward or aggressive,” and those are pretty good words. All I know is that the first time I tried clicking the Gain control up a notch and bringing the level down to compensate, the producer turned to me and said “Hey, that sounds better!”

Finally, there is a small toggle that selects low-end roll-off, selectable between flat (bypass) and roll‑off at 80 Hz or 120 Hz—another very useful feature that lets one tame the rumble factor in the room or just tailor the response to eliminate the boomy bottom.

As you can tell, just staying in the preamp section, this is a very full-featured device.

The Comp

But wait, don’t buy yet (as they say in the infomercials)! There’s more!

The limiter section is based around an optical attenuator, like the classic Teletronix limiters, the LA-2A and its solid-state cousin the LA-3A. The compressor is engaged with, again, a totally silent toggle switch; again, you can flip the compressor in and out all day while you A-B settings without driving the singer or yourself crazy with pops.

Unusually, the compressor is inserted in the circuit before the mic amp. But this takes only a moment to get used to and the effect is very smooth. The compressor features controls for varying Attack and Release. These are 5-position rotary switches that range from Slow to Medium-Slow, Medium, Medium-Fast, and Fast.

Some suggestions are made in the manual (which by the way is very extensive and well worth reading cover to cover, a few grammatical errors aside) as to how to emulate the sounds of various limiters and/or how to use the compressor for different purposes. In practice, I think one is best served by looking at the meter set to Gain Reduction and playing with the controls until the desired effect is attained.

In general, I found that the Manley reacted rather more slowly, especially as regards Attack, but Release as well, than the other compressors I would typically use (including the LA-2A) so I tended to lean to the Medium‑Fast or Fast settings. Your mileage may vary. Manley suggests that the Slow/Slow settings were picked to emulate a “good engineer riding a fader.” To me it seemed more like an engineer who fell asleep at the controls. I’d probably fire that engineer!

But this is nit-picking with the manual rather than with the unit. The controls work predictably, and I never had any trouble getting what I wanted out of the compressor. I suppose if Manley asked me I’d vote for adding a Very‑Fast Attack setting as well.

[Manley has two comments. 1. “The compressor is faster than the VU meter shows due to the ballistics adding to basic time settings.” 2. “Some Voxboxen seem a little slow for a few weeks {due to} electrolytic caps in the side chain settling into their designed value over time.”—NB]

The Voxbox also includes a toggle switch that allows linking two Voxboxes together (in both their compressor and de-esser sections) for stereo use with RCA to RCA cables in the back. One thing worth adding here is that because the compressor is before the mic pre, and because a transformer balanced Mic Pre Out XLR is provided on the back of the unit, it’s possible to go out of the mic pre/compressor section and straight to tape. If you don’t need the processing of the rest of the unit, this allows you to keep the signal path nice and short.

A Preamp Out phone jack is also provided that taps out before the transformer for you transformer-phobes. Why anyone would prefer this is beyond me, but some people have this (in my opinion) unreasonable aversion to transformers; my suspicion is that some of these people have been spooked by bad ones. Manley makes very good ones. Other people have simply been told that “transformerless” on a spec sheet equals better sound. Anyway, Manley gives you the choice. Choose wisely and be richly rewarded.

The eq

Then we come to the eq section, which is based on Manley’s Mid Frequency Equalizer, which is in turn a design based on the venerable Pultec MEQ. Here Manley left all of the original frequencies but also extended the ranges out of traditional “midrange” territory to make this be the only eq you’d “need” for a vocal or, indeed, for most uses the Voxbox might reasonably perform.

Frequencies range all the way from 20 Hz through to 1000 Hz in the Low Peak band, and from 1.5 kHz through to 20 kHz in the High Peak band. Both ranges are boost only, no cut. In between is a Mid Dip band (cut only, naturally, as its name implies) that covers the range from 200 Hz to 7 kHz.

The amplitude of boost or cut from 0 to about 10 dB is controlled with rotary attenuators but, happily, frequency select is done with stepped rotary switches—precise and repeatable. Again, no cheaping out from these folks at Manley. Of course the eq section also has a Bypass toggle (again dead quiet) and a 3-way toggle to assign input to the Equalizer section from either Mic Pre output, Line In, or a rear panel Insert. This allows use of the eq as a separate entity from the mic-pre/compressor section.

The de-esser

Above the Equalizer section is the De-Esser. This is another opto-limiter paired with a passive notch filter. The center frequency of de-essing is switchable (another rotary switch) between 3 kHz, 6 kHz, 9 kHz, and a position that turns the de-esser into a fast‑acting Limiter with a ratio of 10:1. Accompanying this control is a rotary Threshold pot and, of course, a Bypass toggle for the De-Ess section.

Lastly, the unit includes a nice looking and well calibrated VU meter that is switchable between Compressor Gain Reduction, Line In, Pre Out, Eq Out, and De-Ess—in short, anything you could possibly wish to meter is available. In practice, I found that I left the meter set to Gain Reduction most of the time, choosing to use the meter on the tape machine as a monitor of overall level to tape. I would occasionally switch to D-S if I was using the de-esser just to keep an eye on what that was doing.

So?

I was fortunate to have the occasion to try the Voxbox in a demanding real world situation as soon as it arrived.

I was in Electric Lady Studios in NYC to record double Grammy winner Shawn Colvin with her producer/co-writer and co-award winner Jon Leventhal. What better opportunity to test the Voxbox than on Shawn’s ultra-pure voice?

When we were ready to record vocals I asked the assistant engineer to set up three microphones for us to choose between: two Neumann U47s and a Neumann U67— all big-diaphragm tube condenser microphones. He ran them one at a time straight into the Voxbox, and we ran that straight into the Studer A800 24-track machine.

Shawn obligingly sang along to the track while I fiddled. Leaving the compressor, eq, and de-esser all in bypass, I brought up the input level with the Gain switch set to its middle position. The voice had a nice full quality but seemed just a bit toppy.

We moved on to the next mic; immediately both Jon Leventhal and I looked at each other and said “that one.” It was just enough warmer and fuller without losing any sense of presence. Shawn also noticed the difference in her headphones, and she too preferred this microphone. Just to be certain, we listened to the last mic, the 67, but again it didn’t beat number 2. So we removed the losers, positioned the winning 47 in a comfortable spot for Shawn, and I returned to fiddling. I might add that the ability to flip the phase switch to Line and cut the channel dead without making any pops was a real help in this A-B-C-ing process.

Now remember that the clock is running and no one wants to make a singer sing a song too many times—especially not without having the tape rolling; you never want to lose what may be the one. So with the machine in record now, I tweaked the level control trying to get a handle on just how loud she was going to get at her loudest. Once that felt right, I engaged the compressor, again silently (!), and tweaked some more.

Again, my original guesses of Med Fast Attack and Med Release just looked and felt too slow. So up we went a click to Fast Attack and Med Fast Release. This looked to me very much like what I’m used to LA-2As looking like and I was very comfortable with the setting. The compressor was taming the dynamics and adding that little bit of subtle feeling of release to the room tone that a good compressor adds to a vocal in a good room.

But being in front of the mic preamp and having no make-up gain, as an LA-2A would, I found that once I had the compressor set to a happy spot I had lost 2 dB or so of vocal level to tape. It took a bit of playing back and forth between the controls to get myself oriented, but by the middle of the song I think I had it just right, with the compressor adding that extra bit of something that made the vocal feel right but without it ever becoming noticeable in a bad or heavy-handed way.

The room at Electric Lady Studio A is fairly live for singing, and I found that using the low roll‑off at 80 Hz was helpful. But although I liked removing a bit of the room’s boom, I also missed a bit of the bottom on her voice now, so in went the eq section. I added just a tiny amount of 100 Hz (no more than a dB) after checking at 70 Hz and 150 Hz and her voice regained its size without the room rumble coming back. I also added a bit of high top, up at 10 kHz to give the vocal more “air.”

Here’s my very first real quibble. I probably would have been happier if the eq bands could have been switchable into shelving curves, especially the top boost, as this is more often what I like on the top of a vocal. in fact, most of my favorite equalizers have shelving top ends. Perhaps a hybrid of the MEQ and the Pultec EQP might have been nice. But this aside, the eq the unit did provide was inarguably very good sounding and flexible in most ways.

Lastly, I engaged the De-Esser and adjusted for a bit of de-ess at 12 kHz. Ultimately, although this worked quite well and it is a very, very good de-esser, I didn’t really need one on Shawn and I decided to leave it out.

Now the vocal was sounding really good and was sitting quite nicely in front of the track with lots of depth and substance to it. It was at this point that I decided to experiment with the Gain control and clicked it up a notch. As I mentioned earlier, Jon whirled around and said “that sounds better!” proving that a) the Gain control really does change the character of the preamp, and b) Jon Leventhal has very good ears.

It did indeed make her sound that much better. She seemed to step forward and get a bit harder and more 3-D sounding. Going up the last click, to my ears, sounded just a bit too gritty. All of a sudden I became conscious of it being a tube amp, like it was an effect rather than just the super high quality amplifier it is. And that should always be the measure of a device. Good tube amps sound like good amps, period. Manley is clearly trying to build great sounding stuff, not just trying to have people say “Hey look, tubes!”

After we had our vocal, I got the chance to try the Voxbox on some other instruments as well. It was an excellent choice for Shawn’s acoustic guitar, which took on a lovely sheen when the high end was boosted and with a fair amount of compression. I also got to try a synth in the control room, direct into the front panel 1/4" jack. It’s probably overkill to use it as a monster direct box, but it did sound great.

At a later date I was able to take some time and compare the Voxbox mic pre to some other classic pres. Next to Electric Lady’s Focusrite console there was no comparison for me; the Voxbox was much thicker, fuller, and more realistic sounding than the Focusrite IC mic preamps. If I’d had 24 or so Voxboxes I would have loved to have recorded everything through them; I suspect that would have been well worth hearing. (Not inexpensive, mind you, but worth hearing!)

I also compared the Voxbox to both a discrete transistor Neve class AB mic pre in an 8078 console and a Geoff Daking Class A discrete mic preamp (which is essentially a Trident A Range). I found that these were less clearcut a choice. With the Manley’s Gain control set at 45 dB (its middle position) or below, the sound was comparable to the transistor preamps, but each had its character.

The Neve sounded the “flattest.” I’m not saying it was in any way measurably flatter, but it sounded sort of “plainest,” the sound was full and clear but just sort of “there”—as though you might have been right in the room with it. By contrast the Voxbox had a more “recorded” quality to it; you were aware that the sound was being amplified somehow, but if anything it added an air of “super-reality,” like the real thing only better in some intangible way. The Daking had the verisimilitude of the Neve but with an additional hardness and feeling of presence, as though the Neve took a step forward—in the room, but in your face!

All of these sounded pretty damned good, and I’m not passing judgment on any; I’d be more than happy to make a record with 24 or so channels of any of them, and the differences I am trying hard to convey with words were in fact rather subtle and highly subjective. The ultimate point is that the Voxbox holds its own with some other very high‑quality, well respected mic preamps.

Just for fun, I compared the Voxbox to a Telefunken V76 tube mic amp. The Telefunken had a much more obvious hyped quality—that factor that I described in the Manley but in spades. It made you really like the sound, but at the same time you’re keenly aware that it’s not sounding just like what it sounds like out in the studio. The Manley started to enter that territory more when its Gain control was cranked up, but it always sounded more true to life than the V76.

And?

Bottom line on this thing is that it does what it says it does and it does each thing really well. It’s beautifully built and is clearly in every way a highly professional and well thought out piece of gear—right down to its relay-controlled On/Off switch, which doesn’t let it pass audio until it’s warmed up and then kills audio before it powers down.

The Voxbox is also not at all inexpensive. But one would be hard-pressed indeed to assemble an equivalent all‑tube signal chain from individual vintage components without spending even more. And you’d more than likely end up with a hodge-podge and a maintenance nightmare trying to put everything together, make it work quietly enough, and keep it working.

My overall preference, and my advice to most people, is always to record as much of a record as possible through the same mic preamps. To clarify, I’m not a big fan, for example, of guitars through API’s, drums through Neves, Vocals through the Manley, and so on. Most of the time this is only asking for more trouble blending things together than it’s worth. And blending things together is what good recording is really all about. Of course sometimes one has no choice!

That said, it’s hard not to love the Manley Voxbox. It really does sound great, and it really does give you just about everything you could need to record one microphone to one track—on anything, not just a vocal. And especially if this is going to be your only mic preamp/compressor/equalizer/de-esser through which you’re going to record everything (one thing at a time), you really can’t go wrong. A truly excellent piece of audio gear.

Price: $4000


William Wittman is a freelance Engineer/Producer based in New York. He was formerly a staff producer for Sony/Columbia Records and BMG/RCA Records. His credits include Joan Osborne, Cyndi Lauper, Graham Parker, The Fixx, The Outfield, Patty Smyth and Scandal, and Too Much Joy.
Awards
We are so very proud to announce that the VOXBOX was awarded a 1998 "TEC" Award by Mix Magazine! This was Manley's 4th TEC award nomination in a row and our first winner! Thanks to all the folks who voted and to everyone who supports and shares our vision and commitment to the pursuit of innovative, uncompromised design.
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Memorable Remarks
The Manley VoxBox might be the finest mic preamp / multiprocessor combo ever built. If you can justify the cost, do not shudder. Run, don't walk, to a Manley dealer or the Manley website and get one of these suckers pronto.

Rip Rowan
www.prorec.com

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