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Manley Dynamics - Which limiter should I buy?
The Manley SLAM!® Stereo Limiter and Mic Preamp

SLAM! stands for "Stereo Limiter And Micpre" and it pretty much describes what it will do to most VU meters. We had to put a switch on this limiter to drop its internal VU meters down 3 & 6dB to keep the poor little needles from bending– it'll get LOUD fast (hence the exclamation mark). And on top of being an amazing pair of (actually four) Limiters, and Class A tube mic preamps, it also has masters degrees in DI, AtoD and DtoA, VU and PPM but that was too much for an acronym. More...

Manley Stereo Variable Mu® Limter/Compressor

The MANLEY VARIABLE MU® LIMITER COMPRESSOR has been our best selling product for many years. It is one of the very few compressors that has become a real standard in Mastering studios and contributed to most hit records over the last decade and probably the next. More...

Manley Stereo ELOP® Limter

Set it and forget it! Our ELOP® Limiters make your job easy. The principle of operation is based around using a rectified sample of the audio to shine an LED (Light Emitting Diode) onto an LDR (Light Dependent Resistor). The photo-resistor in combination with a fixed resistor simply act as a changing voltage divider to attenuate the signal-- like a smart volume control. More...

Which limiter should I buy?

These days more and more we get asked: You make the Manley Variable Mu®, the ELOP® and the SLAM!®, (and the Langevin ELOP®, and the Langevin Dual Vocal Combo, and the Manley VOXBOX®, and the…) so which compressor should I buy? And do they all sound the same? And will the one I buy do everything I need it to do?

Well, let’s talk about the SOUND first since we’re all supposed to be SOUND ENGINEERS here… Even though you’ll find tubes and transformers in all of the MANLEY-branded units, each unit definitely sounds different from the next model, but those differences might be more subtle than dramatic. This is because these MANLEY boxes are pretty much designed to fit in that tasty middle ground between “character pieces” and “transparent mastering pieces.” In fact, most of the differences sound-wise are related to how the gain reduction is done and how they are intended to be used.

For example, the Variable Mu is largely intended to be used for mixed tracks where a few dB of smooth and gentle compression is desirable. It does excel at introducing a tasteful amount of color or character, depending on Input and Output Level settings. It is usually at a disadvantage when used for deeper than 6 dB of gain reduction or if really fast attack and release times would be a better call. So it might be considered a sweet & gentle “color box” more than a text-book dynamics processor. Those who understand this tend to love the box, those who try to make it “pump” or “get aggressive” or distort like a guitar pedal tend to be less satisfied. Of course, many do use it for adding a little something special on vocal and guitar tracks. The Variable Mu will do a lot of things, but none of these dynamics processors are going to pull off every trick in the book.

The SLAM!’s limiter, on the other hand, while also intended for mixes, is closer to a text-book limiter (while, yes, the unit has a host of other functions too, like the micpreamp, DI, etc.) Limiters (as opposed to lower ratio compressors) are typically used for 3 purposes: 1) to make things louder, 2) to prevent the signal from accidentally causing the next device to clip, and 3) to mangle the music dynamically. This is because “limiters” by definition, have steep ratios and fast attack times. The SLAM! contains two different gain reduction methods that can be used separately or together, mixed together at the same time. There is a FET limiter that can be set “fast” which tends to be “crunchy” and can lop off transient peaks well, but when set slower tends to be more transparent. In some ways, it can sonically resemble an 1176 in terms of aggression and drama yet is well enough behaved for mastering. There is also an Electro-Optical (ELOP) limiter in the SLAM! which has more moderate attack and release characteristics and also a more moderate ratio or slope than the FET limiter. Traditionally, optical side-chained dynamics units like the revered LA-2A tend to be favored for vocals, bass, and many tracking duties where less obtrusive gain reduction is what is called for. The dynamic reduction happens fairly naturally and, well, best put, “it just works”. In the SLAM!, the the combination of the fast and aggressive FET limiter with the familiar ELOP allows for an interesting range of gain reduction blends and colors. Also of note, the SLAM!’s vacuum tube + transformer gain stages are very transparent, especially compared to most other “tube” gear, or what you might expect of tube gear. Very clean is the SLAM tube circuit.

So, while both the Variable Mu and SLAM! are intended to be used for tracking and mastering, they are to be used to do different tasks. The Variable Mu is more of a “color-box” to add a subtle richness and vibe. The word “glue” is perhaps the most appropriate word to describe the Variable Mu’s effect on a mix. It makes that record sound “like a real record”, cohesive and balanced. While the SLAM! on the other hand is a “go-louder-box” which can get angry and nasty on command. Both units can be rather transparent with tame settings, and both can sound “wrong” with silly settings. Broadly categorized, the SLAM! is more of a dynamics machine while the Variable Mu is more of a harmonics machine.

And to further confuse you with more options, we also make a variety of other electro-optical-based limiters, some with tubes and some solid state, mono, stereo, combos, lower priced, mid-priced, etc. So remembering what we just read about in the SLAM! description of its ELOP section, you’ll find that function and action again in our other electro-optical-controlled units.

The Manley Stereo ELOP has a unique sonic character due to the different tube stage and transformers employed. Folks say that it is a “better” LA-2A type unit than the original. It performs better than you could manually ride the gain on a fader and importantly does not lose the high frequencies on a deep dig like many classic units did. If you are looking for an LA-2A type box, stereo, and at a friendly price, the Manley ELOP is the one.

Our flagship VOXBOX® combo unit contains an ELOP limiter hiding in the DE-ESSER section on the “LIMIT” position which is basically exactly the same as having a Manley ELOP in the box. AND it also has a new flavour of ELOP, a lower ratio compression ELOP, with selectable attack and release making the dynamics control ability of the VOXBOX really flexible for tracking all day long. As the name implies, if you want a dedicated vocal tracker, the VOXBOX is our primo offering, but the bass players scream at us that we should have called it the BASSBOX ‘cause it totally kills on bass guitar plugged into its ¼ Direct Input. We’ve also seen racks of VOXBOXes controlling lead vocals on big world-wide tours too. It’s built solidly, as is all our gear, tubed or not.

All of these electro-optical type limiters are great for tracking and mixing vocals and excel at smoothing (or levelling) sounds that might be too loud or quiet at times. What these ELOPs do best is make your life easy because “2 knobs only” makes it simple & fast to get a good setting that works. All of these models sound a bit different overall, with the Manley ELOP having a bit more richness by virtue of its tubes and transformers as compared to the Langevin discrete transistor-based units with (surprise!) the stereo SLAM! unit being the most transparent of these models!

Which one is right for you? Depends on what you do, what you have already in your gear racks and what your priorities are. And if you are sometimes tracking, sometimes mixing and sometimes mastering, then be prepared to pick 2 or 3 units because each excels at different jobs and you’ll need to perform different tasks depending on the needs of the day. One box ain’t gonna do it all for you. We might choose a VOXBOX or SLAM! for tracking, especially for vocal and instrument tracks, but would require a Variable Mu for mixing sub-groups or for polishing the main buss just to get that magic that it is famous for. And ultimately we’d like to see a SLAM! as the final guardian on the stereo mix buss (especially if it has the converter option) to make it competitively loud (and safe -- no overs). Maybe the next session might be acoustic jazz played with world-class musicians where you would want to preserve as much liveliness as possible by using very little dynamics control, which is fine. And the following session, here comes that loud rock band again, where “loud” is the operative word and every compressor-limiter you can possibly borrow within a mile radius gets used on every track chained into each other even. Needs vary from day to day and track by track. You gotta have as many tools in your arsenal as possible. You’re not going to get a sports car that goes 200 mph around mountain curves with your 6 month old kid in the rear seat flanked by his three siblings to also haul a quarter ton of pea gravel and a half-dozen ten foot long 2 x 6’s for your patio remodel… ya know? You need a Ferrarri, a mini van, AND a pick up truck!

And lastly…… lots of you guys ask us for “standard settings” for these units but in all honestly we have to reply, “There aren’t any.” There are too many variables with players, instruments, levels, surrounding gear, musical styles, and expectations to be able to predict YOUR results by giving you some knob settings. One thing we can say is this: Traditionally, recording and mixing are NOT “paint-by-numbers” and so if that mind-set is dominant, the process is neither fun nor is the result going to be very good. Experiment, listen, make choices, master the gear, take chances – this is part of the challenge and fun of being a creative engineer. This was probably how the recordings that you love were made. Maybe it is ironic that people desire gear labeled “vintage” hoping to replicate sounds from bygone eras. These classic recordings were made with only 5 to 10% of the gear found in a typical modern project studio. These classic recordings relied not on gear but on creativity and fresh ideas, arrangements, musicianship, the art of the song, space……. We do build gear, yes, but we really love music. Let’s not forget what this is all supposed to be about.

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