Designer Talk : EveAnna Manley
EveAnna Manley is the President, CEO and owner of Manley Laboratories, Inc. I caught up with her to have a chat about everything valve, where it all started and where she sees the Manley range heading in the future...
KMR : I know you moved to California in your twenties, what made you travel across the country from east to west?
EM : Well I was 19 at the time and studying music at Columbia University in New York City. I wanted to be in the music industry but didn't want to be one of those who graduated without having a clue of what was going on.
I was inspired by Bill Graham the concert promoter and his son was in my music classes. Bill came to speak one day and I was sitting a few feet away from him. I knew who he was from my record collection and being a 60s music fan, I was super thrilled just watching him standing there telling us about music. So I was like ‘ OK screw everything I'm going to take next semester off and drive out to San Francisco and talk myself into a job working for him!'
KMR : So that was why you left?
EM : Yeah that was my plan. So in January 1989 I set off from Atlanta (where I grew up) after spending Christmas down there, said goodbye to all my buddies, got into my 1969 red VW Beetle and drove across the country by myself. It was a dream to be on that kind of voyage. I got to LA and looked up my old band director from high school who had moved out there a few years before, and I got a little job with him doing some inventory work in his sheet music company.
Then my stepdad – who, you may or may not have known, owned Ampeg back in the 1960s which was very cool - gave me three names of guys who were in LA who had worked for him twenty-odd years earlier. The first guy didn’t pick up the phone. The second guy was Roger Cox at Fender who said ‘ I know these two crazy South Africans out in Chino who are building tube amplifiers, you should call up David Manley’.
So I didn’t get to the 3rd number as I called David and drove over there and ended up just getting a job making tea and starting to learn about printed circuit boards. They were teaching me how to solder as I didn’t know a damn thing about electronics - I was a saxophone player!
But I quickly learned how to put the stuff together, and how to solder, and then I worked in quality control and learnt a lot there and worked my way through every part of the manufacturing process. So I ended up staying there in Chino and didn’t get as far as San Francisco.
I did go back and finish my degree as so many people supported me going through college, it was a big deal to be accepted at Columbia, so I went back and put in a year to finish that off.
KMR : Did going back to college give you a good break from what you were doing, or did it just make you want to get back to California sooner?
EM : I wanted to get back to it, but I realised I could really dedicate my last year to whatever I wanted to study for my career, so I had a clear direction. So I took an economics class thinking that was how I would learn how to run a company, which I found out later is so not true!
KMR : How did Manley get into pro audio?
EM : How the Manley Pro Audio stuff started was that the Scientologists asked David Manley to submit a mic preamp design, along with a few other designers like Mark Levenson, and David's mic preamp won the shoot-out. They ordered 60 of them! They had a GML console out there as well, really high-end studios. That mainly caused us to get into recording, so right after that mic pre, David was working on a Pultec EQ idea that I helped draw up the schematics for in those early days.
KMR : This was one of the first Pultec style EQ’s wasn’t it?
EM: There was never an actual original Pultec EQ that ever entered our premises. We borrowed a Tube-Tech unit from Coast Recording in LA and our engineer Richard took tracing paper to the circuit board and drew the choke values in between the pads on the paper - so the first one was a reverse engineering of a Pultec clone.
The passive EQ part was what we got out of that, and then David added a couple of extra frequencies, and a whole different line amplifier, and then a Sowter input transformer and a single ended cathode follower output at the time. I might even have that piece of paper somewhere!
KMR : I always preferred your layout slightly…it felt more natural to recall.
EM : Those ergonomics of it and linear grouping, with those little vertical lines on the faceplate to group the sections worked well. When I was at Columbia in that last year, David Manley flew out and we drove across to New Jersey and found Eugene Shenk (the Pultec's original designer) and I remember sitting outside this old place with a screen door and David talking to him about offering a licence fee for the name. Mr.Shenk wasn’t interested, as he had closed the company years ago.
KMR : At that time it was only the Tube-Tech or Summit versions available, unlike today where there are many versions like the Pulse Techniques?
EM : I’ve since become friends with Steve Jackson of Pulse Techniques, and he’s done a really great job, and I admire the dedication he’s put into the design. Steve spoke to Eugene, and he said he didn’t remember any of that meeting David had with him! But you know, I’m going to go to my grave remembering it happened that way, as I know that David did the right thing. We called ours the Enhanced Pultec, and we added a couple of extra frequencies. It was never trying to be a recreation of the original, starting with the fact that we never had an original! I really liked that line-stage and we used it in so many of our other designs as well.
KMR : Did you use that line-stage in the Massive Passive, for me that EQ is more of a tone-sculpture - it’s an instrument!
EM : Yeah pretty much so, but the Massive Passive is really a two-stage amplifying setup because it’s 4 bands. When we designed that we thought let's take this passive EQ thing, and let's make a “Pultec on steroids” !! The Massive Passive is a 100% original design - it’s a crazy cool unit!
KMR : So the Variable Mu is an incredible compressor, and one that I know has caused some confusion with the name, as the term Variable Mu is actually your trademark isn’t it?
EM : Well yes, and in the late 1990s, the Manley Variable Mu was becoming so popular that people were starting to call all tube limiters Variable Mu limiters, and we were like, no that’s our trademark! The Fairchild was never referred to as a 'Variable Mu' back in the day, it was just a big old tube compressor. So yes we’ve had to make sure that we protected our designs, as we license them to various companies like Universal Audio for their UAD software.
KMR : How did the UA collaboration begin? Was it something you embraced wholeheartedly at the beginning or with some trepidation?
EM : Universal Audio were at the Amsterdam AES show in 2001, and we popped a fuse on our stand, so I’m walking around looking for a 1Amp slow blow fuse, and I see an analogue company from America, so they gave me one of their spare fuses, and that was when I met Erica McDaniel and we became great friends.
Other companies would approach me about plug-ins at the beginning and then others would just model our shit and call it another name or something, and never offer royalties which was hard to enforce. We were kind of battling off all these other plug-in companies because I was wary and then UA approached us with a plan and a contract and said they also wanted us to be involved in the development program.
It was then I started to get my head around the idea that it wasn’t going to steal sales from us, instead it will demonstrate the Manley sound. UAD has expanded the marketing and brand awareness to people that may never have experienced Manley before.
KMR : These days a UAD card has now become an industry standard alongside say Pro Tools, it doesn’t replace all the hardware either, as most places are hybrid and they tend to supplement each other nicely in some way don’t you think?
EM : Yes I'm grateful that UA asked us to be involved in the development program. I wanted them to be very faithful to the actual hardware product because they serve as a ‘demo’ version of the hardware, which is like 12-15% better - I can’t really put a number on it!
KMR : I think everybody knows that hardware is always generally 'better' regardless of whatever plug-in company you use, but it's getting very close, isn’t it?
EM : Yes, it’s getting quite close, there's a frequency response limitation to the plug-ins that crop up with people trying to do HD certified things sometimes.
KMR : I do feel that it's a whole different experience though, sitting with a real Massive Passive you get to places you wouldn’t dream of with the plug-in and a mouse, as the hardware gives me that two-handed tactical thing...
EM : I also think for people who are experimenting in the computer, what I’ve seen is when they eventually get to the hardware they sure don’t have any questions about how to use it, that's been beneficial. There are quite a few who start with the software and then move onto the hardware, I'm super proud to be one of their UAD development partners.
KMR : Lets talk about the Mastering SLAM! - I remember the SLAM! limiter being hands down the best hardware limiter I have ever used, is that unique to this?
EM : Well don’t forget the SLAM! has two sets of limiters inside it in stereo. The electro-optical part (that comes originally from the LA2A style of limiting) we've been making since 1990 in our ELOP, and we’ve just revised this with the ELOP+.
The SLAM! has the Manley ELOP and a second FET limiter stage which works at the same time and has some very clever and subtle things in it. There's like 400 parts in the side chain of that thing - it's pretty complicated! Having the two limiters and using them together (and on top of each other) allowed us to get the loudness, with stunning fidelity.
The SLAM! is definitely one of the best stereo bus limiters ever made, but it's an overcomplicated bitch to build! It's definitely on my target list for a total update, with the challenge being to keep the incredible fidelity in a new build without messing up that formula.
KMR : I guess sometimes things just cost what they cost to make - due to the design?
EM : That's why we've made great strides in the last couple of years with the Core and the Force. The Core is half the price of the Voxbox, but that's because it builds for half the cost.
The Core is not trying to be the Voxbox on a budget - it’s it’s own thing. The Voxbox has transformers all over it, there's like 5 of them, made in Chino, not China, so for the Core we chose to just go with the mic input transformer - everything else is impedance balanced.
The sonic difference is pretty close - if you touch the EQ on the low-end on the Core by a hair you're pretty much there!
KMR : The Core also looks great! You do make some stunning looking gear, sometimes I think people can forget we’re in this tactical world and Manley dials and knobs always feel great as well?
EM : The first product I did after David Manley left was the Voxbox, and at that time we had the black inserts into the blue faceplates and it was always a rectangle. With the CNC milling we could make any shape we wanted, so I started the Voxbox with a V in triangles and D shape ovals which group each section uniquely, you don’t confuse the sections.
I found with having the different contrasting shapes helped with learning and becoming familiar with the layout. We've all seen boxes with like 30 knobs on a faceplate, and you can’t memorise them all. The ergonomics are really important to a fast work flow.
KMR : Do you think that has come from the fact you’ve experienced all aspects of the business? Sometimes the best audio designers struggle to market or make the best aesthetic appearing products? They can sound great but look awful!
EM : Definitely. The pots that we use are the Bourns 91 or 92 - these are conductive plastic elements that never go noisy or scratch. They're super frickin’ reliable, and we’ve been using them since the '80s. But I remember they also felt a little floppy and loose, and customers would come up at trade shows and turn a knob and be like 'oh cheap knobs’, and I'd be watching and thinking, well they're not cheap knobs, I mean they're not like the most expensive but they're not cheap knobs and they’re going to work for decades. The failure rate is very low.
So it got me thinking, ok they just want them to feel sexier, and I remembered my parent's radio receiver had a felt washer under one of the knobs, but I thought felt will probably wear out eventually. In the end Paul, my service guy, suggested putting an O-ring underneath the knob and apply some lithium grease to it, and that's why they feel a little better.
It does do fuck-all for the sound, but it feels a little sexier, and people do care how things feel, you know, it’s not a mouse!
KMR : Probably many of us play some sort of instrument which is tactile and this carries across to the gear we use. When Manley first released the Core did you have your other products lined up or was it just to see how it goes first?
EM : Well, we thought a channel strip that everybody can use would be good. I knew that we needed to modernise the range of our products and we couldn’t keep building stuff like it’s 1991. The Core and Force mic-preamp has a new power supply design inside it.
KMR : Isn’t this designed by Bruno Putzeys?
EM : Yes by Bruno. I met him at trade shows, and one day I asked him could you make a switching power supply for vacuum tubes, and what would it take for you to do that? We were able to locate the power supply quite near to the audio electronics, as it barely radiates at all. There's no hum in these units anymore as it works at 125kHz and is way outside the audible band. We can shield for that too in order to further bring down the noise floor down.
KMR : So this new power supply is in all the new Manley range?
EM : Absolutely, we start with that. So back to the Mic Pre, I wanted to do a 4-channel version, and we wondered how many tubes we could run off this 90watt power supply, because I don’t wanna' have like 12 different power supplies. We found we could run 8 tubes off it, but it was getting to the limits of that design. So we decided to experiment with replacing the output tube which is the less audible part of the circuit.
So it’s the same circuit but uses different devices, MOSFETs instead of triodes. It was a worthwhile compromise, to have 4 tubes, sound really good, and to work all over the world, it's very quiet. I love that box.
KMR : What did you change on the ELOP+?
EM : So we redesigned the ELOP into the ELOP+ and added a compress switch, did a new layout and made it way easier to build. The original had a big old board inside it, and took a long time to build, everything just added up and the cost started creeping up on the original. So on the ELOP+, the chassis is the newer short chassis, make everything pop together faster, changed the side chain and metering to surface mount design, that are all on the faceplate board where they should be, and make it more efficient to build and we could lower the price by $1000.
KMR : …and it looks better!
EM : Yes, we also improved the appearance, it looks like a little Zorro mask! It's a good looking unit, I'm very proud of it. That’s an example of taking something that’s like built in 1991 and modernising it and making it more effective to build, that's what we’ve been trying to do with these new products, without sacrificing any sound quality.
The other thing with the ELOP+ is we referenced Russ Hogarth's old great sounding ELOP, taking his and replacing the power supply with the new one. So we changed one thing at a time, and we would give him the new build, and recheck his old one and select the optical cells that have the same attack and release settings as his old one. That kind of thing.
The final thing when we got near to the final prototype he said, 'there’s something I still like about my old one better. Its just got a little more meat and punchier sounding.' So I took the prototype back to the factory, and I knew what it was, I asked our guys to take away the output transformers because his unit was transformerless. So then I didn't tell him what I changed and took it back and then he was ‘ok now I like the NEW one better!’
At a time in the '90s, everyone wanted balanced everything. Sometimes ‘transformerless’ is what you want.
We’re celebrating 30 years doing this, we’re 30 years old in 2018 and we’ll still service anything we’ve ever built. There's no reason why our gear can’t work for another 30 years. There’s no ticking time-bomb in any of our gear.
KMR : I believe the Manley Ref C (Reference Cardioid) Mic has to be one of your biggest success stories as well?
EM : The Ref C and Ref Gold have been out since 1990 when we debuted them at the first AES show. It was our Swedish importer who got both those mics in front of Max Martin. Max came to the USA, and he was doing all that excellent pop stuff with Britney, all with the Gold Mic. I also remember selling a Ref Cardioid mic to Dr Luke when he was a guitar player on Saturday Night Live, and he's used that mic with all kinds of artists as well.
A few years after that, my nephew Chris was working with me and he took that mic to his buddies in LA, and it just took off, Chris was instrumental in getting that out there. That's the most popular product we sell at the moment.
KMR : So how did the Silver Reference Mic come about?
EM : Well as you know the Gold Mic capsule is made by David Josephson, and as I've worked really closely with David for many years I remember he had designed a capsule that wasn't currently being used by any other companies, other than Josephson Mics. So I asked him to send one down and we got playing with it, and it had a really cool tonality about it. David has been making these for years, so they’re very stable designs and that's why we started working on a plan based on that capsule.
We did a different tube design to the other two mics, based on the 5670 dual triode, and importantly deployed another version of Bruno's switching power supply, so we don’t have to worry about changing voltages and also of course because this SMPS sounds better than the linear supplies!
KMR : This new power supply seems a modern solution for those that travel with equipment or use it around the world as well?
EM : Exactly! We’re in the process of putting them into the Massive Passive and the Voxbox pretty soon.
KMR : How do you go about sourcing valves and testing, how does that work for you?
EM : Well, tubes are a precious resource. I remember when I started working General Electric was still making valves in the USA. We also became involved with IE in Europe and David helped design the KT90 which was the first new vacuum tube for a very long time. I went over there twice and got to experience what it takes to build a vacuum tube. I remember walking into a room with 50 ladies just putting cathodes up heaters, there a lot of hand work involved and lots of places for variations to come in, as they’re still made by humans!
We were forced to design testing jigs for specific circuits for output tubes and power amps. Then the Manley Variable-Mu and all the plus and minus needed to match so that's where all the Triode to Triode matching is essential. So we made test jigs for all the different tubes which can tell us which is a good match for each other. Then we’d keep them and use them or keep them for somewhere else.
For the microphones, the most important parameter to test for is noise, so the mics get all the quietest tubes as a priority, and then the other tubes get evaluated depending on where it's being used in the outboard. But all the tubes that we use go through a whole battery of tests before they even get plugged into a unit!
You have to factor that in, you can’t just go and buy some 'new old stock' on eBay, you have to really plan ahead.
KMR : The Manley Nu Mu features the TBar mod inside it - who’s idea was that?
EM : The TBar Mod is such a great solution using the Russian valves that are available. It's a 12BA6 type, and it works so much better than the old 6386 did because we can match two different bottles, rather than being stuck with two triodes inside one bottle. So we can get this great match, and being able to select for the noise is such a superior thing. The curves of the 12BA6 lays up like a 6386 but it’s actually better because we can get a better match. The TBar Mod is much smoother the deeper you send it into compression.
KMR : The Nu Mu has that character of the Variable Mu, but for me, I think it sounds a little more ‘modern’?
EM : Cool, that's the point! When the Manley Variable Mu hit its stride as a stereo unit in 1994, digital converters were still harsh and the Variable Mu would tame all the harshness and make it sound big and heavy. But now fast forward 20+ years and converters have improved, and you don’t need to cover up everything especially working at higher samples rates. For example, Electronica music doesn’t require you to slow it down - so the Nu Mu can exist alongside a Variable Mu, we just have two different sonic flavours available now, one does not replace the other.
KMR : The metering is extremely neat on the Nu Mu as well, very easy to see...
EM : Doing the stereo metering like that was because on the Variable Mu the metering is so far apart, it’s tricky to watch them closely. So we ordered a reverse wound meter and designed the assembly to have the two meters facing each other like that so you can really see the two channels next to each other easily. We also improved it so we could monitor the reduction amount and the output level, as the Variable Mu just shows the reduction.
KMR : Any new products that you wish to mention?
EM : We’re just launching a new headphone amp called the Absolute Headphone Amplifier which includes the new power supply. It’s incredible sounding!
KMR : What's your fun outside of valves and audio?
EM : I’m really big into the motorbike community in LA. I like tinkering around with my cars and bikes...I guess if I had more time I think I’d be off on my motorbike travelling across South America!
KMR : Thanks very much for the chat!