Under the leadership and vision of EveAnna Manley, Manley Labs has created and built some of the finest studio equipment (and high-end home audio components) over the last two decades. Studios across the world count on their mostly tube-based EQs, compressors, microphones, preamps, mixers, and more.
Your step father used to work for Ampeg in New Jersey.
He owned the company, probably with some other people. I'm not sure what the financial structure was at the time. He organized a buyout from Everett Hull. Les Paul told me, "Your father bought Ampeg in my living room!" That's how I got into the business, through old contacts of my father's. He married my mom in '76 after he had sold the company to Magnavox in '72. We heard all the stories: that he knew Johnny Cash, that the Rolling Stones used Ampeg, and all that. It all sounded very interesting.
So you got an idea of that world when you were young?
Sure. The rock and roll business sounded really glamorous to me. Through high school I was big into band and art, and I was torn between what I wanted to do. My mother was trying to push me into architecture because I was a very skilled artist. I went to interview at an architect's for a summer intern ship; everyone was dressed in suits and looked super uptight. I thought, "No, this is not going to be my world. No way." When I was going to college at Columbia, the great promoter Bill Graham's son, David Graham, was in my class. He brought Bill into one of the classes to give us a lecture. He was sitting there, right in front of us, telling us everything about the music business.
He was a bigger than life person.
Totally. I was so impressed with him. My whole plan was to take the next semester off from school, go find him in San Francisco, and talk myself into some job with BGP [Bill Graham Presents]. I drove across the country, but I stayed in L.A. and got a job at Vacuum Tube Logic with the Manley's at the time. I didn't go to San Francisco.
How did you end up getting a job there?
My dad gave me three names when I went out to L.A. I called the first guy who worked at Crate Amplifiers — he didn't answer the phone. The second guy worked at Fender and he knew David Manley. I was trying to get a job at Fender. He said, "Yeah, call these two crazy South Africans in Chino building tube gear." That's how I met David and [his son] Luke Manley. David and I got married, and I was running the factory. We split up VTL and Manley Labs. Within three years he took off and moved to France, and we got divorced.
You ended up running Manley on your own?
Yeah. I was already running the company anyway at that time. I was running the factory, as well as most of the sales, managing the dealers, directing customer service, and answering lots of questions for customers, which I still do. I bought David out. He was a bit of a renegade. He didn't like dealers, but if you want to be a real company, the traditional way is still the best way.
By the late '80s, people had basically stopped making pro audio gear with tubes.
Yeah, there was Summit and Tube-Tech, basically. There weren't a lot of boutique audio companies at the time.Today, if you're a person with an idea, you can put something together, start a company, exhibit at a show, start selling stuff, and make a nice little living doing that. Maybe it had to do with getting the word out back then. These days with the Internet, you can get the word out.
Your microphone line might not always get a lot of attention, but I know the Reference Cardioid Microphone is one of your top sellers.
It's our best-selling product. We started building those mics in 1990 and debuted them at our first AES show, also in 1990. We'd been working with David Josephson [Tape Op #48] during that time. He builds the capsules for the Reference Gold mic. The Reference Cardioid mic, which came later that year, uses a Chinese capsule. There's something very magical about it. It's basically the same tube stage in both mics, but the capsules and their voltages are different. That circuit was first developed by Steve Haselton; he used to work for Doug Sax and he designed a lot of the Mastering Lab gear. He was moonlighting with us. That's something not a lot of people know. David Manley didn't design that. Even our Variable Mu; originally the bulk of the circuitry came out of this obscure old Danish limiter called the DISA [91N02]. We had an engineer working for us at the time that re-engineered the side-chain and simplified some things.
You've also used tubes as a marketing idea.
Sure. Tubes rule! We say "tubes rule," but I want to be careful not to get forced to stay with tube technology all the time.
Your Langevin brand was solid-state and the Manley was tube.
That was the idea, at first. We've mothballed the Langevin brand just to keep things simpler, to just market the one brand. Some products, like the Manley
Backbone, are all solid-state. The new monitor controller we're working on is solid-state. You can play with a lot of other things around the circuit to make things sound a certain way. With analog circuitry, whether it be tubes or solid state, there are a lot of other factors, like transformers around the vacuum tube that influence sound besides just the tube itself. The topology determines whether it's even or odd harmonics. It's not just tubes versus transistors. You have to use your ears sometimes.
I hope so. Do you ever get worried about if tubes are going to be manufactured in the future?
Most of the tubes we're using these days are Russian that come from New Sensor under various brands, such as Sovtek, Electro-Harmonix, or Tung-Sol. Sometimes we get in Chinese 12AX or 12AT type tubes that are quite good. We put a lot of time into batching, selecting, and testing tubes. We try to find uses for most of the tubes, but we build up lots of reject stock. You just have to be fussy if your circuit is demanding. The microphones need a really low-noise tube. The circuit is high impedance and high gain, so the quietest tube has to go in the mics. But if you take something like ourTubeDirect (which we're not building anymore), those were just follower circuits and you could just about use anything in there.
How many employees work in your factory in Chino, California?
We've got 32 folks now. We've got a good crew. We build our transformers in house. We also do a lot of our polishing and line graining in house to get the faceplate finish really nice, because at our price point folks are really fussy about there being a little scratch and wanting a $200 discount. Then there's wiring, building, parts, shipping, R&D [research & development], testing, and QC [quality control].
Is there any sort of normal day for your job, or are you covering a multitude of angles?
It's mostly fighting fires, as well as a lot of correspondence. People ask me questions. I'm really a problem-solver. Sometimes there are so many problems around you that you don't see them all at one time. Sometimes it does take 20 years to realize that something's ridiculous.
Do you have a general manager who runs the business end of Manley?
No, that's just me. I've been really focused in the last year or so on running the factory and running the business. I've got a new lady in the office who's got an MBA, a Master of Business Administration, and she's taken me up a level financially where I'm looking at the numbers a lot differently now. It's great. There's a lot of boring stuff like reducing inventory and looking at profit.
A business like this has got to have a huge amount of inventory.
Well, we do. It can be a real challenge to balance minimum order quantities and low production runs. Sometimes we're only selling 20 of some model per year, so you don't want to buy a reel of 3,000 resistors that only gets used a few times.
Do you do a run of one item at a certain point and then move on to something else?
At the beginning of the year we look at sales forecasts. We get the annual numbers. Those all go on a list, and then we break them out into monthly things. With some products, where we're only selling 30 pieces a year, we're not going to build 30 divided by 12 per month. We might build 15 in February and 15 in August. I make a big spreadsheet and grid that out. I've also got a whole bunch of databases in FileMaker that'll show me my labor hours and QC hours. Then we schedule everything and figure out what people need, as well as what we're going to be doing. From there, it's just purchasing the supplies we'll need. Every week, we have a production meeting where we go over what's been kitted out, who's going to build it, and how many man-hours we need for this and that. Sometimes if somebody's not busy, we'll shift them around to testing or other little jobs to do, like pre-testing and pre-batching.
Is the Massive Passive EQ the only product that's been turned into a plug-in [via Universal Audio's UAD platform]?
So far, yes. It was scary at first, which was why I was one of the last holdouts to go into the plug-in world. The first fear was that we'd never sell a piece of hardware again. But with the processing power that's available today they can only emulate so much. There's still a sonic discrepancy between the real thing and the plug-in world. I'd like to say that the plug-in is maybe 88% of the whole thing. For $299 it is awesome and you can run a whole bunch of them. But it's been really good marketing for the whole brand to see that UA has Manley.
Customers get to try it out and get an idea of what that EQ does.
Right. Then they strive to get the real one. They save their pennies up. I wanted UA to make the tube go noisy over time, and like every 14 months you have to pay more money to re-tube your plug-in, just like real life. Oh yeah, and have a virtual biasing. You could have a little piece of hardware where you go in there with a screwdriver and turn the pots.
It's easy with audio circuits to end up with things that have been hybridized or added on to so much.
Sure. A lot of these products are evergreen or classic products, like the Variable Mu or the Massive Passive, and we'll probably keep building them forever. They're like standard staples out there -classics in their own right.
The Massive Passive is a great example. It's not cheap. Was it terrifying to put something out there at that price point and hope the market would respond to it?
That product was really clever, creative, and different from what anyone else had done. It wasn't just another Pultec knockoff. We were pretty confident at the time that we were going to hit a home run. Once we got through beta testing, we knew the product was good and I felt really confident we were going to do well with it. The Massive did great. It still does.
What's your latest product?
CORE. It's a new channel strip for half the cost of the VOXBOX, with tubes and a transformer. In the past, when we've designed things, we always said, "Let's add this feature," or "Let's use that capacitor," or "Let's put two of them in! That'll be awesome!" Then we add up the cost and it's like it's going to retail for $6,600. This new channel strip is like a baby VOXBOX. The mic pre and compressor section's tube, then you've got a solid state EQ with a sweepable- mid and shelves, and finally a real fast peak FET limiter. There are quite a few knobs on the unit. It's pretty flexible, but it's directed toward the musician who's not a recording engineer.
What drives new products for you guys? Do you get a lot of feedback from users?
We do. People ask us for stuff. Sometimes we have to decline because the market's going to be so limited. Like tape head preamps. Maybe I could sell three units a year at this point, so that's a product that got mothballed. We also put a lot of time into redesigning and improving our own products.