The outboard processing world is populated with specialists. A particular preamp for this, another EQ for that and a favourite compressor for something else. The VOXBOX by Manley pulls off the rare feat of being everything to everyone and doing it damn well.
The rationale behind the VOXBOX is to be the ultimate vocal channel strip from top to bottom. There’s a preamp, EQ, compressor and even a de-esser on board. This combination of innovative technology with a familiar and classic sound proves that you really can have a one-stop-shop when processing vocal tones.
Who says multitasking can’t be done well? The Manley VOXBOX is a modern classic, offering up a sophisticated range of tools for sculpting vocal tones and controlling dynamics.
Manley Laboratories is a relatively new addition to the audio hardware landscape, emerging in California in the 1990s. Founder EveAnna Manley applied an old-school pedigree to the manufacturing of the firm’s pro audio and hi-fi range – vacuum tubes have been at the core of the Manley story from its origins until now.
Thus, it comes as little surprise that at the top of the VOXBOX’s signal flow is tube-powered preamp – a clone of their renowned standalone Mono Microphone Preamplifier. Standard phase controls are on hand as well as a high pass filter, with corner frequencies at 80 and 120Hz.
The input control is an attenuator only. This means that the default position is fully clockwise. This might look alarming, but when you realise that it’s meant to bringing down hot input signals, it makes sense. Once this has been tailored for the appropriate headroom, then the gain can be adjusted to taste. Getting this delicate balance right is key to extracting all the tonal colours that this preamp can offer. And that’s just the introduction to the VOXBOX’s bag of tricks!
Not Just a Preamp
Continuing with the greatest hits theme, the compressor section takes its cues from another of Manley’s standalone classics – the ELOP (electro-optical limiter). There’s a slight adjustment in the form of a 3:1 ratio and attack and release controls, which gives the engineer more control when shaping unpredictable vocal transients.
Interestingly, the compression stage comes before the preamp tube circuit. This can be useful in the prevention of mic pre clipping. Also, being an opto-compressor – like the iconic Universal Audio LA-2A – the style is smooth and capable of maintaining the nuances of vocal performances, while gently keeping it within the bounds of sensible dynamics.
The EQ section borrows from another classic of the outboard world. The Pultec EQP-1A set the standard for smooth, passive equalisation since its advent in the early 1950s and it’s a technology that Manley adopted in their variety of standalone EQ units.
Part of the Pultec’s enduring allure is its simplicity – two frequency band selections, cutting and boosting and that’s about it. The VOXBOX EQ maintains this elegant and streamlined approach, featuring a boost for a selection of bottom end frequencies between 20 and 1,000Hz and a top-end band that can boost between 1.5kHz and 20kHz.
Manley has added a crucial mid-band however, that is dip only. The bandwidth for this section of the EQ ranges from 200Hz to 7kHz, crucial for controlling unwanted resonances in the mid-range that can be the bane of vocal performances. With such generous scope for frequency selection available on the VOXBOX EQ section, ample options are available for sculpting custom tones.
Dynamics and EQ coalesce in de-esser and limiter section. The notch frequencies have been selected at various problematic points (between 3kHz and 12kHz) where frequencies can unintentionally spike. Beyond the de-esser is another 10:1 limiter position. This allows for a low-ratio subtle compression before the EQ plus a little more dynamic control post-EQ – which may come in handy if some frequencies have been boosted.
Though the VOXBOX is contained in one big chassis, it can essentially be treated as a series of modular units. The line input can be inserted beyond the preamp and compressor sections, making the VOXBOX handy as a specialist outboard EQ. You exit the device via balanced or unbalanced outputs straight after the preamp section and before the EQ.
If you’re lucky to have two of these epic devices, you can link the compressor and de-esser sections to make the mother of all stereo pairs or using the compressor as an insert if you’re working on an analog desk. That’s even before mentioning the instrument input – which can pass the instrument signal through the entire signal path, making for possibly the classiest bass DI ever conceived.
But why all the extra connectivity if it’s only meant to process vocals? Well, it’s safe to say that Manley knows that most engineers are liable to throw out the manual anyway. Yep, it could well be the last word in the all-in-one vocal chain game, but the very fact that they put an instrument input on the front panel, included stereo linking and multiple ways to incorporate it into any signal path would suggest that this is an all-round studio pro that can flatter any sound source that passes through its circuits.
In a world full of specialists, the VOXBOX wears its versatility on its sleeve. It takes a lot of confidence to claim expertise in a whole range of processes, but this device does it without breaking a sweat. In bringing together various inspirations from a few heavy hitters of yesteryear – all while providing solutions for a 21st-century studio workflow, Manley’s VOXBOX can lay claim to being a true modern classic of the studio.