Manley Labs Voxbox by Glenn Bucci
The Manley Voxbox® is a 3U channel strip that the company's EveAnna Manley herself was behind creating. She basically wanted to get some of the great gear they already had and put it all in one box. There was just one thing, she wanted to make it better. The unit comes with a mic pre, electro-optical compressor, a Pultec EQ and de-sser/limiter section. Trying to make something better can be a tricky thing, as you don't want to take away from the character of the original.
When I come across a new piece of equipment, I like to look at the back of the unit to see what options they offer. Starting from the back right side of the unit, there are XLR inputs for both mic and line ins. In addition there is a quarter-inch line input for balanced or unbalanced signals at +4. To the left is a preamp out that has both XLR and quarter inch outputs. This signal is from the mic preamplifier and compressor section before the transformer. It is designed to give the engineer an option of a cleaner output if so desired. Also included is an XLR and a quarter-inch "insert input" which only goes to the EQ section. It is intended as a return from a noise gate or other processor between the mic pre and EQ. Next is an EQ out section that has both XLR and line out. Having this feature allows the signal from the EQ and de-esser before the transformer. There is also a stereo link area that allows one to connect a second Voxbox. Interestingly enough, the signal is both an input and output. You can use a hi-fi RCA interconnect as long as it is no longer than six feet. There is then a fuse and ground terminals to help in finding or fixing a hum if one ever occurs. Manley likes to keep its customers well-informed, so a block diagram is included on the back of the unit which shows the signal flow. There's only thing I would like to have seen on the back of the unit: an A/D converter like the one the Manley Slam offers. (On the other hand, Manley tells us this would add about $2,500 to the cost!")
On the front of the unit, the faceplate is all CNC-machined and the black insert shapes are all laser cut. They use high end Greyhill gold contact switches, and when moving any of the switches from bypass to active the unit is dead quiet. This means when recording you can move the switches without worrying about hearing clicks. No shortcuts were taken with making the Voxbox. Some companies install a good transformer and advertise about its Class A design. However, to cut costs, they may put a cheap output capacitor in the unit. Manley decided to put two large Multicap, 30uf 200V rated electrolytic capacitors, which are expensive. These are used in the Massive Passive EQ as well. One additional feature included is the auto mute circuitry. This eliminates thumping when the unit is powered on or off.
Manley listens to its customers, and after the unit came out, the company made two improvements to it in late 2000. Some users wanted the gain to be increased on the unit as they needed more "oomph" in certain situations. So Manley changed the gain control from "40, 42.5, 45, 47.5, 50" to "40, 45, 50, 55, 60." The other change was to increase the limiter's sensitivity in the limiter.
The first thing I did was run my trusty Audio Technica 4033 through the mic pre and bypass everything else. In hearing my voice through the pre, with the gain at 40, I heard a clean detailed open sound that sounded pretty good. In switching the gain to 45, my voice came a little forward and I heard a little more smoothness. As I turned the gain up each click, the fullness increased, and my voice again came forward. This pre can add more or less color with the gain control. This makes the unit more versatile and gives it the ability to work in many different situations. In running a bass guitar through the 100 k Ohm line input on the front pannel, I preferred the gain control at 50 or 55 for a fuller, fatter sound. The pre gave a nice balance of the lows, mids, and highs. It certainly adds a pleasant tone that smooths the signal. Manly also included a passive bass cut at either 120 or 80 Hz as well as a phase switch. Once again, I noticed the dead silent operation of all the switches. Using a higher end Brauner Phantom mic through this unit brought even more delight on vocals for male and female singers. It adds a smoothness that does not scream "tube" but it offers a very pleasing charater to your signal.
If you are recording into a DAW and you want to warm up your sound, I can confidently say that Voxbox is a much better option that any plug in I have heard. Though the Voxbox adds warmth, it is not a strong negative tubey sound that some cheap tube mic pres can sound like. I have used tube mics such as the Rode K2 and Audio Technia 4060 into very clean mic preís. A big question on forums is, "Is it better to have a tube mic or tube mic pre to add warmth to your signal?" If the mic pre is the Voxbox, I can confidently say it would be no contest for me. Some tube micís really add a filtering type of sound to the signal in adding smoothness. The Voxbox does not do this. It gives you a clear sound, and with the variable gain control, you can control how much smoothness you want.
I was curious how this unit would compare to another popular channel strip with tubes, and was able to A/B it against the Avalon 737. I found the Avalon had a stronger top end and gave a crisp bass sound compared to the rounder and fuller sound of the Voxbox. In turning the gain setting on the Voxbox down to 40, I was able to get a closer sound in the low and mid, but again the high end on the Avalon was more pronounced. The 737 would be better for clean bright vocals, or punchy acoustic guitars. The Voxbox would be a better choice for a fuller sound to vocals or guitar. If you juice up the tubes with the gain knob, you can also get a thicker sound on the bass. While I don't usually like putting a bass guitar in the direct input of channel strips, it sounded pretty good through the Voxbox.
The next thing I checked out was the compressor. This compressor is an optical design like the one used in Manley's ELOP limiter units but with a much lower ratio and selectable ATTACK and RELEASE controls. The signal is compressed before it goes to the tubes. This helps prevent clipping and eliminates the need for additional electronics. I was told the unit's second limiter is about the same as in the Langevin DVC. There is no gain control on the compressor, but Manley has said that due to the unit's design a gain control would compromise the sound quality. If that's the case, leave it. The way to work around this is with the input and threshold control. The manual for the Voxbox states, "Most often you can expect needing 3-6 db of compression. The idea is use as little as possible." I agree with this philosophy and when you use this compressor around 3-5db just to keep the vocal signal even, it does a great job. However, if you need more than 5db and still want the compressor to be transparent, I would recommend using a good VCA compressor.
The compressor has attack and release controls with five different settings, as well as a threshold control. This allows you to get settings similar to an LA-2A with fast attack and medium fast release, and similar to an LA-3A with a medium slow attack and medium slow release. As with each section of the Voxbox, there are bypass switches which allow silent A/B comparisons. In the event that you want to use link two Voxboxes together, there is a link switch as well.
The compressor is very sweet, and a big plus on this unit. With its 3:1 ratio, Manley found a setting that sounds great on many sources. Using the compression on an acoustic guitar was amazing. It balanced out the signal, and by turning up the threshold a bit, the guitar had a little more punch to it. It also added a touch of fairy dust which made it sound a little better. I have tried to find some minor weak points on the Voxbox, but I had a hard time finding any. The compressor is very flexible, sounds great, and it will prevent you from using your plugin compressors .
Like all the Manley manuals, the Voxbox manual is very detailed and technical. Manley gives more information about its products than most, and includes great suggestions on recording techniques.
The EQ is a Pultec type design. It started out with the Mid Pultec EQ, but then Manely designer Hutch added six lower and six higher frequencies to it to extend the workable range. The Q is very narrow, which makes it more of a surgical EQ. Some may complain about the lack of a Q knob in this section. The Focusrite ISA 430 Mk II in comparison has a lot more flexibility in its EQ section. However, at the tracking stage, it is best to not use as much EQ and instead have the right mic, pre and mic placement. The EQ on the Voxbox is nice if you need a touch more high end, a slight reduction in the mids on strong vocals, or to add more to the bass. For these purposes, the EQ does an excellent job. I have not found a Pultec plugin EQ to sound as good as the one on the Voxbox. It sounds like this EQ is part of the original signal, while the plugin sounds like it's layered on top of the signal.
What many like about the Pultec approach is the passive components in it. This allows you to alter the frequencies without adding artifacts to the signal. Though it's not as in-depth as other EQs I find this approach appealing and helpful in many situations. The Pendulum Quartet is a tube channel strip with similar offerings. It also offers a three-band EQ, but it gives +/-10 db control on all bands. The Voxbox's EQ has the limitation of offering only boost on the high and low frequencies, and only cut on the mids. It is intended as a general sweetening or "smiley-face" EQ. However, while the Quartet only offers three frequencies in the high and low sections, the Voxbox offers twelve frequency choices per band. In addition, the Manley EQ has deep frequencies in the mids that overlap on the high and low EQ section. This will allow some reduction in the other areas if needed.
The de-esser section is useful for controlling the esses and tees. You can also use this section as a second limiter instead of a de-esser. Manley uses a filter and limiter in this section. I found it worked well in controlling sibilance. However, with strong sibilance, it was not as effective as the ISA 430 Mk II de-esser. But the stronger filtering gives more audible effect to your signal, since it is reducing the frequency on a larger scale.
There is a full-size Sifam meter. It has a five-position switch which shows three audio signals; the line input, preamp input, and output. It also shows the compressor gain reduction, and de-sser/limiter action. Though all these options are helpful, I would have preferred if they had a second meter dedicated to the compressor and de-esser section. That way you could see more of what the Voxbox is doing. With no LED meters on the unit, you also have to remember that the signal is moving a little faster than the VU meter is showing.
This box would be a joy in any studio. Anything this good could be hard on your wallet, but I concluded that the Voxbox is worth it. If you like the sound and want to save some money, Manley offers this mic pre without the compressor and EQ in either a single or dual mic pre box. The other option is getting the cleaner but very pleasant Langevin DVC, which also includes two optic compressors and shelf EQ. While no channel strip will meet your needs in every situation, this one does quite well. The unit is so good, the only things I could complain about (though minor) are what they did not add to it: a converter and an additional meter.
I found myself unable to resist the Voxbox, and aftering installing it above my Langevin DVC, it is one of the most use pieces of equipment in my studio. The only thing better than a Manley Voxbox, is having two of them in your studio. Hmm, now thats an idea.