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Manley SLAM! Stereo Limiter and Mic Pre
Reviewing Manley Labs Newest Offering: SLAM!
Manley SLAM! 8/2002 First review! - by Lynn Funston @ 3D Audio Inc.

The First Tube Gear Review in History that does not contain the words "warm" or "fat."

I recently had the privilege of using the Manley SLAM! while it was here at 3D Audio for the 3D ADC CD listening party. The SLAM! (Stereo Limiter And Micpre) is the latest wunderkind from Manley Labs. If you've ever seen or used Manley products, you know that they are "no compromise" designs which are built extremely well and to a very high sonic standard, not built to a “price point." Units like the Manley ELOP and Vari-Mu compressors and Massive Passive EQ are highly regarded and have become standards in studios around the world. I believe the Manley units are the "future classics" that will join the prestigious ranks of today's legends, like the LA-2A, the 1176, Fairchild 660 and the Pultec EQP-1A equalizers. I believe the SLAM! is destined for those ranks also. In this day of cookie cutter variations on the latest "theme du jour," the SLAM! stands out for its unique feature set that was obviously designed from scratch. The SLAM! takes a completely different approach to the trendy "recording chain in a box." Eschewing the traditional "pre/EQ/compressor" route, it offers a tube preamp (X2), an ELOP limiter (X2) and an FET limiter (X2) with optional ADC/DAC card, all in a single two space unit. But this unit does a lot more than you might think.

The Styling

All Manley's designs feature a classic "industrial age" style with metal knobs and thick, etched face plates. The SLAM!'s front panel follows that trend, featuring large VU meters but adds a new touch: multicolor LED meters. The VU meters are switchable to monitor input, gain reduction or output (at 0, -3 or -6 levels, necessitated because you can easily run the unit up to where the meters aren't moving at all, and with a maximum output level of +28 dBu, you can output all the level you'll ever need). The LED meters offer an ingenious combination of 8 colors and 4 modes that allow displaying all manner of data. (You'll have to read the manual for the specifics. And a fine manual it is. If you have questions about digital recording or conversion or levels or compression/limiting or "hypercompression," then you should get a copy of this manual. It is intelligently conversational and informative, not “dubbed in English” like a Godzilla movie.)

Getting Connected

For each channel, the front panel controls include Input Gain, Output Gain, Source (DAC, Line, DI, Mic, Mic-Polarity Reversed, and Mic with 100 Hz high pass), ELOP Limiter Threshold, FET Limiter Threshold, and FET Release Time. There are also switches for a side chain hi-pass filter on the ELOP limiter (Flat, 100, 200) and Attack for the FET limiter (Very Fast, Fast, and Medium). There are Limit in/out switches, a power switch, and a Stereo Link/Dual Mono/Both & External switch which allows each channel's controls to be active simultaneously or you can use the back panel linking jacks to connect several SLAM!s together for linked surround processing.

The back panel is where it really gets interesting. You realize when you look at the back, it would have been easy to make this a three or four space unit and the challenge of fitting it into a 2U space must have been enormous. The first thing you'll notice is the (quoting from the manual here) "seriously humongous 16-pin connector" for the external power supply that looks like it was designed for use on World War II tanks. There are balanced Input and Output connectors, and Instrument input, a DAC output and an Unbalanced Out and a Phantom on/off switch as well. (I want to hurry through all this mundane stuff so I can tell you how it sounds.) The digital section includes AES IN, AES OUT, WC In (on BNC), ADC Sample Rate select (44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, AES In Rate, Word Clock In, or Super Clock) and switches for Noise Shape, Dither and ADC Word Length. Another unique thing about the SLAM! is the inclus ion of a bantam patch bay on the rear panel, which gives the user access to the side chains of the ELOP or the FET limiters. (Know that for every feature I mention, there are 3 or 4 more that I am skipping over. This box has lots of options.)

The Sound

Enough about the knobs. The real story here is the sonic magic that goes on inside this box--straight from the inspired mind of Hutch Hutchison. After talking with Hutch, I got the idea that the SLAM! is his dream box, a "go for the gold" design that compromised on nothing. If you don't hear me mentioning negatives about the SLAM!, it's primarily because EveAnna and Hutch considered all the options, got lots of feedback, and made sure they were completely satisfied before this unit ever graced a studio. Since I had a final preproduction unit, any complaints or questions I raised about the design or functionality were carefully considered or explanations offered about the reasons it was built as it was. Some of my observations resulted in last minute changes to the SLAM! as it moved into production. That kind of responsiveness and openness to input from customers is not something that you see every day in this business. I believe it separates the "almost great" equipment from the classic gear that will still be in use for generations to come.

The Preamp

Let's start with the preamp. This hybrid tube design is unlike any other preamp in the Manley line. For starters, it offers 60 dB of gain. Add that to the 20 dB of gain available in the output stage and you have 80 dB (!) of gain--enough for even the lowest output ribbon mics. I was very curious about the design so I asked Hutch to elaborate on the finer points. "Yes, it is not like the Dual 40dB Mic Pre or any of our previous preamps. One goal this time around was to offer LOTS of gain (80-85 dB) for all you guys using ribbons, and to do it with less noise, less feedback and a fresh sound. The gain stage is technically called a FET/Tube cascode gain stage. Imagine a tube standing on a FET, with the FET's drain connected to the tube's cathode so that the same current is going through both. Voltage gain is the combination of the FET (1%) and tube (99%), and we get the benefits of the low noise FET, and the huge voltage swing of the tube, and lower distortion without feedback loops. It also self-corrects for drift and tube changes. The trick is that the FET and tube have complementary characteristics that cancel each others weaknesses, and accent each others strengths." You may understand all that, but let me offer a translation for those technically challenged. This preamp sounds amazing.

In my time with the SLAM!, I used it on vocals (solo and group), a Hammond B-3, on strings, sax and trumpet. I was unable to find any application at which it did not excel. One of my first experiences with it was when I was recording one of the sources for the upcoming 3D ADC CD. Anyone who knows my reputation knows that I am an experimenter of the first order--my insatiable curiosity keeps me searching for better sounds, better mics, better preamps, etc. I try to not let it stand in the way of musical expression, but I'll always have at least five mics up in front of a singer anytime we're starting lead vocals. And if you've heard either the 3D Mic CD (featuring 49 mics) or the 3D Pre CD (featuring 34 preamps), you know that I can get carried away with exploring options. This recording was to be a purely analog, simple signal path example that used one acoustic guitar and one vocalist. After fine tuning the acoustic guitar sound, it was time to get a vocal sound. Because of the simple instrumentation, it was critical for the sounds to be right, since there wouldn't be any drums, keys, or background vocals to hide behind.

For the vocal recording, Jonell Mosser ("One of the greatest singers in the world," according to Don Was) stepped up to a press conference setup with five mics: Neumann U-67, Neumann U-87, A-T 4033, A-T 4050 and a Sennheiser 441. I decided to audition them through the Manley SLAM!, since it was here for the ADC evaluation. We ran the U-67 through DH Labs Silver Sonic cables straight to the SLAM! and then from its output straight to the 2" machine.

Jonell stepped up to the 67 and started singing. "Well," I thought, "that sounds good. REALLY good." After a verse and chorus, I was in love. It sounded perfect. There was nothing that I wanted in her vocal sound that was not there. If somehow it could be better than this, I didn't care. It was magic.

I leaned over to the second engineer and told him to strike the other mics, without even hearing them. He looked at me incredulously, since we've worked together for years and he knows my penchant for auditioning options. "I don't know how it could be better. I can't imagine what I would change."

This microphone through the SLAM! on her vocal was incredible. I dialed in a bit of the ELOP limiter and we were making music. It was that easy and the vocal sound was amazing. In the mix you’ll hear on the ADC CD, I added 1 dB of shelving at 9K coming back from the 2” and that was it, no other processing at all. The ELOP was pulling sometimes 10 dB off the top, but I was surprised when I saw how hard it was hitting the meters because otherwise I never would have known it.

I don't mean to sound like a commercial, but I have spent many hours over the years in the studio looking for that "perfect" vocal sound. When "that perfect sound" comes out of the speakers like a bolt of lightning, you don't forget it. I can honestly say that I've never ever experienced the "first mic / first preamp” perfection phenomenon before in my 25 years in the studio. It's nice when it happens.

The other source on which I found the SLAM! without equal is saxophone. Sometimes I find a box that does what no other can, and I think "if it only does this one thing THAT well, it would be worth having." I used it three times on Mark Douthit, the best of Nashville's session saxophonists. I used either a Neumann U89 or U87 on the sax and used the SLAM! alone to record it. I was shocked at what I heard. Typically if you get the presence of the sax at low or moderate levels, it will cut your head off when the player starts really blowing. It will singe your eyebrows because of the edge and bite when a sax is played hard. I've experienced this for years and have never been able to satisfactorily overcome it. The Manley SLAM! did what I thought was impossible. It gave me all the presence and power of the sax (both tenor and alto) without the obnoxious bite that you hear when a sax is played hard. I was truly amazed. After recording saxes for over 20 years, I have never heard a richer, more appealing sound on saxophone than I was able to get with the SLAM! I experienced similar results with trumpets, both solo and ensemble, with mics as diverse as an AKG C12-VR and an RCA 77DX.

The Limiters

Since most people are familiar with ELOP limiters and Manley's ELOP is among the best, I won't spend any time describing the way it works. The SLAM! ELOP sounds like an ELOP and is wonderfully smooth and transparent until pushed to extremes. One nice touch is the addition of a high pass filter in the side chain (which was also added to the Manley ELOP).

Although I realize that it may spell career suicide to admit it publicly these days, I'm not a fan of most limiters, especially the 1176 variety. That will turn some heads I know, but I like "not" limiting. It's easy for me to go a whole day in the studio without touching a compressor or limiter. Heresy, you may think. Sometimes I feel like Al Schmitt and I are the "lone rangers" of dynamic range. (Well, Al's the Lone Ranger and I'm just Tonto.) That said, there are some very interesting things you can do with the ELOP/FET combination. You can make it hot and you can make it stop, right up to 0 dB FS. If you're into making waveforms that look like 2x4s on your DAW screen, you've found a new ally in the SLAM!. Having both these limiters together in one box opens up a huge range of possibilities.

The Digital Section

That brings me to the final stage of the SLAM!, the optional digital board which allows conversion and processing in both directions, ADC and DAC. This section also offers some unique interpretations on digital design. The digital section uses 128x oversampling with all internal sampling at 192K. "Using proprietary adaptive linear phase FIR (SHARC DSPs) and 40-bit floating point math" (yes, that last phrase was straight out of the manual), the unit does an outstanding job of both AD and DA conversions. Hutch and I talked extensively about digital issues such as jitter and time smear and filters--both digital and analog. This unit features analog and digital filters in the ADC and analog 20K, 40K and 80K filters in the DAC. Regardless of how much techno-speak went straight over my head, the results of the digital design speak for themselves. After auditioning over 30 ADCs for the ADC CD, I will say that the SLAM! is one of the most musical ADCs that I've heard. While it is far from a "straight wire" design, the tubes and transformers impart a welcome sheen to all things digital. What it lacks in absolute accuracy, it more than makes up for in the sheer pleasure of listening. (Hutch did show me a trick for "going in the back door" and bypassing all the sonic enhancing components and getting straight into the very accurate ADC section. In this mode, it performed very capably at the straight wire approach.) There is jitter reduction software utilized in this box that supposedly makes it very "jitter immune." That and always upsampling to 192K for internal processing are techniques I have not encountered before.

Why You Need One

Other than the sturdy build quality of the box and the brilliant sonic execution, there is another reason you should get a SLAM!. The "Covet Factor." Of all the units that we auditioned at the ADC listening party (over 30 of them, several costing over $5,000), the SLAM! definitely registered highest on the "You KNOW You Want Me" meter. Everyone who saw it had to touch it. The look and feel of the unit just radiates quality. It looks like it should sound amazing. And it definitely doesn't disappoint.

I have to say that I was not prepared to fall in love with the SLAM!. When it showed up at 3D Audio I was going to audition the ADC section, nothing more or less. I'm not a "super-loud, hypercompressed" audio kind of guy, so a piece called the "SLAM!" held little interest for me. I was very pleasantly surprised at how much more than slamming it can do. I think you will be too.

Fair and Balanced - The Flip Side

After rereading my final draft, I realize now that I sound a bit like an infomercial. "It slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries!" The truth is that this box does a LOT of things. And it does all of them exceedingly well. I'm not very good at hiding my enthusiasm for products in which I believe.

There are only two things that I don’t love about this unit. The first is the down side of designing a compact, all in one box. There is so much control, and so many different signal paths and so little front panel space, many of the things you might want to regularly access have ended up on the back panel, like output data rate (Fs), dither, phantom power and other things you may need on a daily basis. I mentioned earlier that this box could easily have been twice the size and it is an engineering feat that it all fits in this tidy 2U box. But you will have to get to the back of the unit on a regular basis. (Trust me.)

The only other issue is the price. As I was writing this review, the original "target" price, announced at AES 2000 when Manley showed a working SLAM! prototype, of $3500 ($5500 with digital card), went down in flames. Over 170 units were ordered at that price while the design phase and goals were still developing. Then in mid July of 2002, the SLAM! development team decided it was finished (Right, Hutch?) and sat down to figure up the cost of all the components and features they had kept adding on to this, their dream box. When the numbers were tallied, the reality was that the box could not be sold for $3500, unless they were just feeling philanthropic. The new, more realistic price is nearly double the original estimate. Retail price will be $6600. And the optional digital board changed from $2000 to $2500. So now the full featured box like the one I reviewed will list for over $9000. That's a lot of money for a 2U box of any pedigree. I mentioned before that the design goal was a "cost no object" box of impeccable sonic quality. In that regard, I think EveAnna and Hutch have clearly hit the mark. The SLAM! is an amazing unit, offering a symbiosis of function and style unlike anything else on the market.

Is the market ready for a preamp/dual limiter/converter that costs over $9000? That depends on "where you put your eyes." If you are one of the market majority who is looking for "more, better, cheaper," then the SLAM!'s price may dissuade you. If you are looking for an "all-in-wonder" box for under $3K, then obviously you'll have to look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you consider that this box has an ADC that is the equal of other standalone stereo A-D converters which cost more, and then add in a free DAC and a free ELOP limiter and a free FET limiter and a free preamp, you'll realize it is an absolute steal. If you add up the cost of individual units that do the same things that this box does, you'll see the price is very appropriate. In the high end market which Manley has always targeted, I think the SLAM! is an incredible value. Will everyone else feel that same way and embrace a unit where no compromises were made, where quality manufacturing and sonic excellence were not discarded by corporate accountants? Time will tell. Actually there’s a positive side even to the pricing. You won't have to worry about all your neighbors getting a SLAM! right away. It will be your secret weapon. And with the waiting list as long as it is, it insures you can keep your competitive edge even longer. (There are people who think it’s a “must have” even at the new price. I just heard that a mastering house ordered three for surround. Must be nice!)

One thing is for sure. Whether you can afford to buy one now or not, the Manley SLAM! is one of the year's most unique offerings and will be worth every penny you pay for it. Oh, did I forget to mention that it has tubes in it? That's because I simply don't care what's inside as long as it sounds great.

Assets:

  • Superlative tube hybrid preamp with loads of gain
  • Two great sounding classic compressors in one box
  • Gorgeous "gotta have" styling that will turn heads
  • World class ADC and DAC section
  • World’s smallest patchbay
  • Ability to "musically" pummel waveforms into dynamically-challenged rectangles
Liabilities:
  • Rear panel controls
  • Price

For info about the 3D ADC CD, go to www.3daudioinc.com
For details about the SLAM!, go to www.manleylabs.com
For info about Jonell Mosser, go to http://sirensongs.com/jonell.html

Lynn Fuston
3D Audio Inc.
Home of the 3dB Recording Forum http://www.3daudioinc.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi


This review was reprinted with kind permission from:

Lynn Fuston
3D Audio
Music Mixing and Mastering
On a scenic hilltop outside of historic Franklin, Tennessee

Awards
The MANLEY SLAM!® won the 2003 TEC award! Thanks to everyone for voting for us. We are really honoured. Thanks to Lynn Fuston for the lovely roses!
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Memorable Remarks
From: Bil VornDick
Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002
Subject: Boxes and boxes

The Manley Slam is the most incredable box I have heard. Used the 96 k for mixes as well as analog 1/2 inch, pretty close. " It's getting better all the time" John Lennon.


The SLAM is just great ! We love it - beats everything we have ! And the ADA ist the BEST I've ever heard - and its so loud and clear - !!!! Just great.

BME Records / Studio
Dietmar Barzen
COLOGNE, Germany

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