To most audio engineers, Manley Labs is best known for its rack gear. But Manley also makes mics. The Reference Cardioid and Reference Gold are hand-built tube mics suitable for critical recording applications. The Reference Gold is available in Mono and Stereo variants, with the only meaningful difference being channel configuration. Interestingly, the second capsule of the stereo version can be rotated to adjust its angle relative to the first capsule. Note that the Reference Cardioid is not a stripped- down version of the multi-pattern Reference Gold; it's a different design with different qualities. Consequently, I'll limit this review to the Gold versions of the Reference line.
The Reference Mono Gold was Manley's first mic design. Developed in 1990, it features a David Josephson CK12-type dual-diaphragm capsule, similar to the original AKG CK 12 deployed across the classic C 12 family (C 12, C 24, old silver C 414 models). The first Reference Gold mics used a thinner capsule film than current models. The thinner material was more difficult to tension consistently, leading Josephson to switch to a thicker option. Owner EveAnna Manley commented, "I can't say that anyone noticed — except for us noticing increased longevity and reliability!" From my experiences, having quality film for the capsule is the first step to building a great microphone. A big factor is having a pro do the tensioning.
Steve Haselton (of The Mastering Lab fame) did the majority of the circuit design. Steve wanted to build a pair of tube mics so natural and neutral that they would be suitable for classical, orchestral, and scoring applications. Additionally, he wanted to impress Academy Award-winning recordist Shawn Murphy. Haselton was successful, and Murphy purchased the first pair of Reference Gold mics. Odds are good that you've heard orchestral and film scores that have been captured by that original set.
Speaking of tubes, Manley Labs is very picky. Buying in large quantities, Manley subjects every tube to a series of inspections and tests. Each specimen must meet stringent requirements in order to deliver the fidelity and consistency demanded by Manley. However, anyone using tubes knows a valve can last from one week to 100 years, so Manley keeps plenty of stock to support future repairs. As of this writing, the Tung Sol 12AT7 tubes from Russia have been winning the shootouts for this mic. Fully tested replacements are available from Manley should owners need them.
One last physical component worth mentioning is the shockmount. The apparatus is custom machined for this microphone. It provides support while affording access to any controls you need to reach. Sturdy red bands in a spoke-like arrangement suspend the mic within an outer frame, and extra bands are included. Seriously, there is no point having a mic of this caliber without an appropriate shockmount. By way of comparison, there is another respected American manufacturer of tube mics who pairs his mic with something a five-year-old would design. If you're going to shell out this kind of money, you want a mount that will give you precise placement and protect your investment. I applaud Manley for this detail.
So how does the Reference Mono Gold sound? As expected, the CK12-style capsule has an extended high-frequency response. But unlike entry-level condenser mics, it is not harsh or spitty — unless your source is harsh or spitty. For a muted acoustic guitar or a darker-toned vocalist, the Manley can bring the sound into balance. On vocals, it performed okay in shootouts against the typical German mics. But a few weeks into having this mic, it dawned on me while I was aligning the tape
machine: The CK 12 capsule was the king of the jungle when recordings were done on tape. Using the Reference Gold with analog tape became a revelation. The slight self-erasure of high frequencies common with analog tape combined with the gentle high-frequency lift of the Reference Mono Gold were the chocolate and peanut butter of vocal chains. You want to record a 1950s-style crooner? Forget the compressors. Get a singer who works the mic, fire up the tape machine, and sit back. Your work is done here. However, if you're like the majority who track to digital, you'll have to audition this mic to see if it's appropriate. It takes equalization well, so a broad British EQ will make a sensible partner.
If you are recording vocalists who are unsure of their performance, hanging the Reference Mono Gold in the room will let them know that they're "worth it" enough to bring out the big guns. Seriously, audio engineers are pretty numb to mics, but many artists are inspired when you set up a first-class mic like this. Any producer will tell you that a good headphone mix and a comfortable artist are the keys for getting good takes. Do not underestimate the wow factor of this mic. We had several people say it made them feel special. Part of our job is interpersonal, and this mic can really help in the confidence department.
After using the Reference Mono Gold as a room and distant mic, I can see why it could be a first-call mic for orchestral and scoring projects. It is difficult to explain, especially for a mono room mic, but the Reference Gold seems to reach into the distant sound field and bring out details that might be less evident with other mics. If you're doing background vocals, choirs, drums, horns, or strings, having this mic as a distant room mic can help you forgo artificial reverbs. And while recent advances in digital reverb implementations have been significant, using a mic of this caliber in your live room approaches a new level of convincing soundstage. (Of course, if you insist on stereo room mics, the Reference Stereo Gold features dual capsules in the same housing, ensuring phase coherence for stereo work.)
Quibbles? The polar-pattern control is located on the mic body, meaning it is difficult, if not impossible, to change patterns without moving the mic, especially if the mic is placed high. The pattern control is completely variable, which is nice, but small movements result in large changes. Fortunately, its pot is rather tight, so it's not likely to move if you inadvertently bump it. I suggest using a grease pencil to mark your favorite cardioid setting so you can return to it. The gold finish, while impressive in person, is highly susceptible to fingerprints, so avoid handling the mic by its body.
At just under $5000 street price, the Manley Reference Mono Gold is a serious investment. But it competes with other handmade microphones that start at even higher prices. And unlike a vintage mic, the Manley is still in production, is made with modern components, and has the service guarantee of an ongoing company. If you record to tape or want natural ambience for instrumental tracks, the Reference Gold mics could be unparalleled. If you are limited to recording all-digital in a small space, I still suggest you demo one of these mics, especially if you've never heard what a real silky top end sounds like.