Manley Laboratories has been producing world-class tube gear for professional engineers since the late 1980s. Known for creating legendary studio equipment like the Variable Mu Limiter-Compressor, Massive Passive EQ and Reference Cardioid Microphone, Manley has become one of the music industry’s most revered manufacturers.
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with EveAnna Manley, the company's President, and chatting about the past, present and future of Manley Laboratories. Read on to learn about EveAnna’s journey from inventory manager to president, some sage management advice, and what sets Manley Labs apart from other pro audio companies.
Tell us a little bit about what it was like when you first started working at Manley.
When I first started working at the previous company, which was called Vacuum Tube Logic of America, I was working for David Manley. I was just a kid back then, maybe 19 or 20-years-old. I didn’t know a damn thing about electronics, nothing at all.
But I did have a little work experience. I worked for a picture framing shop in Atlanta when I was in high school and college, and I had a good sense about organization and inventory control.
At the time, all those kinds of things were missing from VTL. I created the first ledger for the company with a Sharpie and a piece of paper. Back then if you reached into the bin and there were no more resistors you would just write a note or tell someone; “Hey, order this.”
VTL wasn’t that organized at the time and that was something I contributed to greatly when I was younger. I handled documentation of all sorts, drawing out schematics, test procedures, those kinds of things. It comes from my own brain. I need to write stuff down or I just forget it [Laughs]. I think the company needed to write stuff down too.
Fast forward to the mid-90s when David Manley left and I took over Manley Labs. We had switched from paper systems into Excel. After that, one of my employees suggested we upgrade the database system to Filemaker and that’s what we still use internally to manage the company. Organization has always been my strong suit because I didn’t know anything about electronics.
What’s changed the most over the years?
The move from paper to computers was huge. It changed the way we all interact with each other. There used to be a lot more phone calls and face to face meetings, but these days it seems like our lives get absorbed by Facebook and emails and all that.
I just spend so much of my time in front of the computer and I really long for the olden days when things were a little more personal. I still remember pulling out a typewriter to type out business letters and faxing them to foreign lands like “Hi! We’re Manley Labs! We build this stuff… Would you like to sell it?”
The computer has definitely changed my whole brain. After we’re done here, I’m going to go out and take a run with my dog around the neighborhood [Laughs]. I need to be outside. I need the analog world back!
It’s the same with music collecting. We used to get so much out of collecting vinyl records. Even though I’m in the music industry, I’m really a visual person. I used to soak up the covers of these albums and look at all the credits like “Oh, George Massenburg recorded that. Oh, he also recorded this other record. That’s why they sound so good!”
When I was a kid I memorized all of these names of musicians and engineers, but these days with streaming being so much about musical exposure, we’ve lost a lot of the humanity. Who are these people creating these records? Who are the musicians? Who played trumpet on that track? It’s getting harder to figure that out. I yearn for these credits to come back. For me, it made me more involved with music to categorize and learn about the people who made this music.
How would you describe the company culture at Manley Laboratories?
Well, we try to get as personal as possible. I still answer all of the general sales emails. My service team has been one of the greatest strengths of the company for the longest time. You can always get ahold of somebody to help answer your questions, preferably using the service form on the website, that way we’ll have all the info we need to be able to help you best.
Today, anybody can buy our gear and work at home, but maybe they don’t appreciate some of the more advanced features of the gear. Like what’s the difference between unbalanced and balanced input? If anyone ever has a question they can get ahold of us and we can help them through these questions.
I think that the personal touch and excellent customer service has been one of the strengths of our company for a long time. That’s another part of our “Made in the USA” culture of Manley Labs, we’re here to help, and we’re happy to talk to you!
Tell us a little bit about a typical day at the office.
Wake up, have coffee and type emails for the rest of the day [Laughs]. My whole day is communicating with people. I’ve got a design team that I meet with once every week or two. I like to let them do what they do for the most part. I’ve been able to find really good people to work with. I’ve got an old-time saying, “Don’t hire a dog and bark for him.”
I let my production manager manage the factory and he does a great job. I’ve got good design people working with me. We work together on the designs and then I let them do their job and just check in every week or two to offer ideas and collaborate. That’s my philosophy these days.
One of your most popular products is the Stereo Variable Mu Limiter Compressor. What makes it so special?
Well, that thing is entirely vacuum tubes, except there’s one little transistor in the side-chain for amplification there. What makes the unit so special is that it is transformer coupled in and out and it’s a fully balanced circuit from start to finish. There are complexities in the way that distortion products are generated that creates its unique sonic flavor.
We’ve been building the Variable Mu since 1994 in its stereo form and since 1991 as a mono unit and there’s something magical about it. It’s best known for adding glue to a project where it sounds like a real, finished record once you send it through that circuit, even with just gentle limiting or compression. Over the years we’ve made nine major revisions to improve the heat management, power supply issues, the noise, the layout, the durability, but we don’t want to mess around with the audio circuit much. Don’t mess with success!
Sometimes people want to say, “Oh, the first 120 units you produced with the old transformers are the best sounding ones!” They might sound a little different, but they’re also on their last legs. The capacitors are dry now and those old units had heat and noise issues. The later units are definitely improved. The Variable Mu is a modern classic and it should be across most 2-busses in the world.
Since then you’ve released a lot of other amazing products, like the Massive Passive EQ. What inspired you to make a passive EQ when you were known for making all-tube gear?
The initial impetus for that design was, “Let’s make a Pultec EQ on steroids!” The classic Pultec is a passive EQ, which means the audio goes through a series of chokes and resistors and capacitors that filter and shape the frequency response, and then you’ve got an insertion loss after going through that passive network so you’ve got to reamplify to get back to normal level.
The passive EQ is funny because when you’re boosting, it’s like you never lost anything at all. So boosting 20 dB on the Massive Passive would be 0 dB of insertion loss to the circuit. Leaving it totally flat, you’re losing 20 dB, and when you make cuts you’re losing up to 40 dB. It’s a different way to think about things.
So the job of the tubes in the Massive Passive is to reamplify the signal that you lost going through the passive networks. Those passive networks can also get kind of squirrelly with their impedance when interfacing with the outside world, so the active circuitry also deals with that issue. It’s a very ambitious design that is not inexpensive to manufacture.
We’re updating it right now actually… We’ve got this awesome switching power supply design that’s a high voltage, high fidelity, high reliability 90-watt brick that can power up any of our boxes with six tubes or less. It’s really quiet, all the lines are regulated and super-low impedance. But beyond all the technology, every time we do listening tests with the linear supply versus the new switching power supply design, the switcher wins. The blacks are blacker and the high frequencies are faster sounding.
This power supply is a real leap for our vacuum tube technology. You can travel all over the world with it too. We don’t have to keep separate stock for 100v for Japan or 230v for Germany, so it’s a lot easier for us to deal with too. Plus, if something does fail, anyone can service it. It plugs in and it is simple to replace.
I’m working on getting this power supply into the Massive Passive to lower the hum level and make it easier to transport. The big existing power transformer in the back of the chassis makes it vulnerable to shipping damage unless you’re using the factory packaging.
More recently, Manley Laboratories has introduced some very successful microphones. Can you tell us how the Reference Cardioid Tube Microphone came together?
The Manley Reference Gold Mic was the first mic we developed in 1990. Few know this, but David Manley did not design all Manley products—not even close! Actually, it was Steve Haselton of Mastering Lab fame that worked with us at that time and developed that microphone.
We debuted the Manley Gold mic and the Reference Cardioid mic at AES 1990. Both of those mics have similar internal designs, but the major difference is in the capsule. David Josephson makes the Gold mic capsule, and the Reference Cardioid actually uses a Chinese capsule! We’ve been using the same one since day one and the Reference Cardioid mic is the most popular thing that we make. We sell hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of those each year. I dare to say it’s become to most popular vacuum tube high-end vocal mic of the modern age.
So, after 30 years or so we hadn’t come out with a new mic in a long time and I was thinking about David Josephson’s SONY C-37 capsule that he makes. He made that initially for Aspen Pittman of Groove Tubes back in the late 90s. I actually helped them get to know each other!
Anyway, I thought about doing something different with that capsule. Nobody except for David Josephson was currently making a mic based on that interesting capsule from the 1950s SONY C-37. It’s a clever design because it’s got a tunable port on the back, you use a little tool to open and close a vent that enables the capsule to change from omni to cardioid pattern. So I had David Josephson send us one of those capsules to play with and we developed a new circuit with a FET active current source on the bottom of the tube powered by one of our new switching power supplies.
It all came together to create this really creative and interesting mic with an awesome middle character and a very strong low frequency presence. The top end rolls off gently, although David Josephson reminds me that it’s really more flat than rolled off when compared to other mics with very noticeable peaks around 10 and 12 kHz in the capsules.
We’re super proud of that Manley Reference Silver Microphone. It’s been doing really well, people seem to love it!
What makes Manley Laboratories different from other pro audio companies?
Our attention to our customers and our concern in making sure that everybody’s happy. If anyone has issues we make sure they’re dealt with quickly and attentively. And we’re still made in the USA, we’re trying to do the right thing for the country.
This year represents our 30th year doing this. We actually started out with audiophile products and then got into the pro audio arena. These days we do way more pro audio but that’s something that I think sets us apart. We came from an audiophile background where we really learned to listen critically and listen to wires and listen to power cords and know that every single thing makes a difference.
Sometimes the audiophiles get a little snobby and think that recording engineers don’t care about these details,but they do. I remember reading stories about Doug Sax and George Massenburg listening to switches—“does the silver switch sound better than the gold-contact switch?” That real critical, detailed component level listening and concern for every single part that goes into the circuit makes us special.
Professional engineers keep us on our toes because if our mic goes down in the middle of a session, they’ve got to stop their whole world and wait for that mic while we change a tube or whatever. People are relying on our gear to earn their living, so that kind of customer service attention also benefits the nervous and worried audiophile culture.
What’s coming up in the future for Manley Laboratories?
We’re really excited about getting our new switching power supply into anything we can on our production line. We definitely believe we have the best power supply design in the vacuum tube world. I’m very confident in that.
The other thing that we’ve been working on for the last couple years is bringing out made-in-America equipment at a much lower cost. We’ve done that by being more clever with our production techniques and how we design the box. Just making the chassis a little smaller means less metal, less cost, and a more efficient build. We’re eliminating as much of the tedious wiring as possible.
We’ve taken our old early 90s design mic pre in a 1u chassis where all the tubes are lying down and there is seven or eight hours of hand-wiring, compared to the Manley Force which is four channels, tube mic pres in a very compact chassis with one hour of assembly labor to put it together. That’s where we can give you twice as many channels for the same price we were charging. It’s all the labor savings, and it’s still American labor at that.
That’s what we’ve really been working on is to come out with super high-quality products at far less production cost than they used to be with the same great sound so more people can enjoy them. It shows in our sales too. If we can come out with something at a lower cost, more people can afford it and we’ll sell more so it really benefits the whole chain that much more.
Any parting words?
I really appreciate everyone’s support for Vintage King over the years. You guys have been a really great dealer for us over the years and we’ll continue to rock the audio world together!