Manley Labs CORE Reference Channel Strip
By Phil O'Keefe |
Manley Labs CORE Reference Channel Strip
Is this the Manley for the Masses?
by Phil O'Keefe
For tube-based studio electronics, few names in the industry are as widely respected as Chino California's Manley Labs. For over two decades they've been making some of the most highly regarded outboard processors available at any price - and yes, the price of their gear has typically reflected the exquisite build quality and high-end nature of their products, meaning it was a bit out of budgetary reach of many musicians. However Manley Labs have recently released a new channel strip that has the potential to bring Manley Labs performance and quality in at a price that is affordable to serious home and project studio owners. Let's dig in and take a look at the Manley CORE.
What You Need To Know
- The Manley Labs CORE is a two rack space unit that measures 7" D x 3.5" H x 19" W and weighs in at 8.3 pounds. It combines elements of several other Manley products into one unit that's designed to be relatively easy for musicians to use, while still offering the level of sonic excellence for which Manley Labs is so well known.
- In typical Manley fashion, the CORE features exceptional design and workmanship, and only high-quality parts are used throughout. Manufacturing is done by hand in Chino, California ("made in Chino, not China").
- The design prioritizes ease of use, which means that not every component of this channel strip has the maximum number of knobs possible. Instead, a somewhat simplified approach makes tweaking easier for the end user who doesn't have an engineering background.
- The most important processors a musician would need for professional-level tracking are all packed into the CORE, including a transformer balanced tube mic preamp, ELOP-style compressor, three-band EQ with sweepable midrange, and FET brickwall limiter.
- Even though it packs multiple processors into one unit, the attractive front panel is divided up into five discrete areas or sections, which makes it easy to see the knobs and their associated functions without anything being overwhelming or confusing.
- The first section on the left is for the Class-A tube mic preamp from the Steve Haselton-designed Mastering Lab mic preamp, which inspired the one in the Manley VOXBOX. A Manley-wound IRON input transformer with a 1:8 ratio gooses up the incoming signal and provides about 18-20 dB of gain, and contributes to the unit's opulent sound. An all-tube preamp follows, with a 300V rail voltage for the 12AX7WA (which provides gain) and 6922 tubes, which serves as a White Follower.
- A conductive plastic Input Level control acts as an attenuator, and is similar to a variable pad. You should start with this turned all the way UP, and then turn it DOWN as needed until your signal level is where you want it. Turning the Input Level knob fully counterclockwise turns it off, and turning it further clockwise decreases the attenuation and increases the level. This control acts on the DI, Mic and Line inputs.
- The preamp section includes five pushbuttons. The Mic/Line switch chooses between the rear panel-mounted mic and line inputs. You also get a high impedance (10 Meg Ohm) Direct In on a 1/4" TS jack, which is located on the front panel in the preamp section. Plugging into this jack automatically switches the input over to the 1/4" jack as long as you have Line selected on the button.
- The next switch is the high pass filter (6 dB/octave rolloff at 120 Hz). There's also a switch for engaging 48V phantom power on the Mic input, as well as a 180 degree Mic Phase switch.
- The final switch, located in the center, is a preamp Hi/Low gain switch. The low position delivers about 40 dB of gain on the Mic input, and about 20 dB of gain on the Line input with the Input Level knob turned up all the way. Kicking in the switch to the High position brings in an additional 10 dB of gain, which you can increase to an additional 20 dB instead by repositioning an internal jumper, although with an understandable increase in the noise floor. Maxed out by means of the High switch and internal jumper, up to 40 dB of gain is available to the DI and Line inputs, and 60 dB to the Mic input.
- The next section is for the CORE's compressor, which is an ELOP style unit similar to what you'd find in a Manley VOXBOX, or their SLAM! and ELOP limiters. What is "ELOP"? It stands for electro-optical limiter, and it's a really good one! With a fixed compression ratio of 3:1, it has separate knobs for adjusting the speed of the Attack and Release, as well as a knob labeled Compression that acts as a threshold control. Want more compression? Turn the knob further clockwise, which drops the threshold and compresses more of the signal. There's also a silent In/Bypass toggle switch for comparing the compressed and unprocessed signal.
- The Attack time can be set from 60 ms at its slowest (counter-clockwise) setting, to 30 ms at 12 o'clock on the knob, to about 5 ms for 6 dB of compression when turned up fully clockwise. The Release time offers a range of 1.5 seconds at its slowest (counterclockwise) setting, to about 1 second at the 12 o'clock position, and will release from 6 dB of compression in about 100ms when the Release knob is fully clockwise and in its fastest position. The CORE's ELOP compressor can provide up to 16 dB of compression, which is way more than you're likely to need for tracking - so if you want to go nuts and do a little creative crushing, the capability is there.
- The ELOP compressor isn't super-fast; you're not likely to use it as a go-to drum compressor, although I did find it useful as a gentle tracking compressor for sounds like hand percussion. What it excels on are sources that require a slightly less hyper-fast attack, such as electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar and vocals. And while the ratio is fixed at 3:1, that's a very useful ratio for a lot of situations, and I didn't miss the absent ratio control as much as I initially thought I would...although a make-up gain control would be a useful addition, especially when using heavier amounts of compression and lower threshold settings.
- The round section in CORE's center hosts the three-band EQ. This uses a Baxandall configuration for the low and high shelving EQ, which are centered at 90 Hz and 12 kHz, with +/-12 dB of boost or cut available for each. The Midrange EQ is a two knob (Boost/Cut and Frequency) sweepable type with a bell-shaped curve, and it functions in your choice of two ranges, selected by a toggle switch: 100 Hz to 1 kHz or 1 kHz to 10 kHz. This Midrange EQ offers up to 10 dB of boost or cut.
- This isn't a high-precision, surgical parametric EQ, but rather a great-sounding EQ that's well suited to broader tonal shaping and coloring when tracking.
- The next section to the right is where you'll find the Limiter controls for the Manley CORE's FET Brickwall limiter. This is a high ratio (18:1) limiter with a fast pre-set 155 µs attack time.
- A Release Time knob covers from 300ms (fully counter-clockwise), to 150ms at noon, to a speedy 2.3 ms (fully clockwise). Manley intentionally gave this knob a lot of range, and that's fast enough so you can hear audible distortion with some sources; for that reason, they've highlighted the highest range of the knob with what they call zig-zags, but what I prefer to think of as "teeth" - push the release too fast and it will bite back, which isn't something you'll always want, but it can have its creative applications - you won't hurt anything, so feel free to experiment!
- The final knob in this section is an Output Gain control with a 10 dB range. It comes after the Limiter in the signal path and can boost or attenuate the output. Unity gain is with the knob around noon, with 6 dB of attenuation and 4 dB of boost available from there.
- The final section on the CORE's front panel is where you'll find its large and lovely VU meter. A three-position switch selects whether the meter displays the Output 1 level, Output 2 Level, or Gain Reduction of the ELOP compressor section.
- Kudos to Manley for the well-written manual. It's full of great tips and easy-to-grasp information for musicians, while also including the calibration details and tech documentation that engineers need. They even include a Recall Sheet you can photocopy for writing down knob positions, although I prefer the modern-day digital camera version of the old-school "Polaroid Automation" for outboard gear.
- The rear panel has a usefulblock diagram that you'll want to check out before you mount the CORE into your rack. The rear also houses the IEC power receptacle, and the majority of the unit's I/O.
- You get the expected XLR Mic Input, as well as a Line Input, also on a balanced +4 dBm XLR. The CORE is wired Pin 2 Hot. The Mic Input impedance is 1250 Ohms, and the XLR Line Input impedance is 10 kOhm.
- The Manley CORE has two output jacks, labeled Direct Output (1) and Main Output (2). The Direct Output taps the signal after the ELOP compressor and the tube mic preamp, but prior to the EQ and FET Limiter; the Main Output (2) signal includes those processing stages as well as the final Output Gain stage.
- The CORE also includes an unbalanced Insert. This has both the send and return wired on a TRS jack, and comes right before the EQ in the signal path. Not only does this let you add other processors to the CORE, but also allows using the compressor and mic preamp separately, with their output feeding Direct Output (1). You could simultaneously use the insert's return to feed a second signal into the EQ and limiter, which would feed the Main Output (2).
- Inexplicably, there is no EQ in/bypass switch, making it much more difficult to compare the processed and unprocessed signal quickly.
- While the insert jack and dual outputs offer some multi-use possibilities, you're somewhat limited in the ability to use individual sections of the CORE separately, or to use them with multiple signals. You can, for example, use the mic preamp individually, and use the CORE's Direct Out to patch that wherever you need to send it while using the Insert's return to inject a different line level signal into the EQ and FET Brickwall Limiter sections, but that's about as far as it goes. The design does not allow using the ELOP compressor and preamp sections independently, because the ELOP voltage divider comes before the preamp's gain stage, and in fact, the preamp and compressor gain stages are one in the same, and performs both amplifying functions simultaneously.
Are you a musician who wants your tracks to sound like a recording pro waxed them, but don't want to get bogged down learning a ton of esoteric knobs and their associated functions? If so then you're exactly the type of person Manley had in mind when they designed the CORE. It offers truly pro-level build and sound quality in a box that's designed to be easy to use, without getting in the way of a musician's creative process. At the same time, this is a no-joke, fully professional channel strip that sounds fantastic, and because of that it will find a home in many professional studios, and probably in more than a few touring racks too.
My complaints are few, with the biggest one being the lack of an EQ in/bypass switch. You're also a bit limited with being able to use the various sections individually on different sources simultaneously, but many home users probably won't be looking to use the CORE in that manner anyway. I also wished for a touch more make-up gain post-compression, but that's really only an issue if you really slam things with it.
Outside of that there's nothing but good to report here - and much of it is really, really good. Manley Labs is world-renown for the quality of their vacuum tube gear, and the CORE's all-tube preamp in is the same as the one that inspired the preamp in their much-loved (and much more expensive) VOXBOX. The excellent DI, which is based on the one in the Manley SLAM! is also noteworthy, and more than up to the task of tracking your guitar or bass direct. The ELOP compressor also shares its lineage with other previous Manley products, and even with its fixed 3:1 ratio offers everything from gentle, quick and easy vocal compression to heavier-handed squashing while being super-easy to dial up. While it's not a surgical four-band full-parametric, the sweet-sounding EQ is perfect for the kind of tonal shading that is often desired when tracking, and although I wish it had a bypass switch, I can't complain a bit about the sound quality. The FET limiter is plenty fast and works great to keep the final levels in check; with this set properly, your worries about accidental digital "overs" are a thing of the past. Bonus points to Manley for allowing us the flexibility of making it distort if we want - even though that will no doubt lead to some complaints from users who try to push the release time too fast and want it to remain distortion-free. It's easy to keep it from distorting by simply using a slower release time.
Overall, the CORE is a very easy unit to use, and its operation will make sense to you very quickly - and it will also impress you with its sound quality just as quickly. Most importantly, it makes getting a great-sounding recording relatively easy, so you can spend more time making music and less time aimlessly fiddling with knobs. This is an outstanding channel strip that deserves your serious consideration if you're looking to take your home - or studio - recordings up a notch or two. -HC-
Manley Labs CORE Reference Channel Strip ($2,250 MSRP, $2,000 "street")
Manley Labs product web page
If you'd like to discuss the Manley Labs CORE or have any comments or questions, please check out this thread in the Studio Trenches forum right here on Harmony Central.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.