Manley Variable Mu Stereo Tube Compressor / Limiter
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The Manley Variable MU® Limiter Compressor has been Manley's best selling product for many years. It is one of the very few compressors that has become a real standard in studios and contributed to most hit records over the last decade and probably the next. "Mu" is tube-speak for gain, and Variable Mu® is Manley's registered trademark for this limiter compressor. It works by using the "remote cut-off" or re-biasing of a vacuum tube to achieve compression. The precious vintage Fairchild 670 also uses this technique and is one of few all-tube compressor to do so, that we know of. Even the side-chain has glowing rectifier bottles. How’s it work? The unique 5670 dual triode is at the center of the peak-reducing and compression action constantly being re-biased by the vacuum tube rectified side-chain control voltages which cause this tube to smoothly change its gain. Just like that.
The COMPRESS mode is soft-knee 1.5 to 1 ratio while the sharper knee LIMIT mode starts at 4 to 1 and moves to a more dramatic ratio of 20 to 1 when limiting over 12dB. Interestingly, the knee actually softens as more limiting is used. Distortion can be creatively used by turning up the Input and turning down the Output while using very little or no compression.
You might notice that the Manley Variable Mu Limiter Compressor has a ganged input control, but do not jump to conclusions that it is mono-unfriendly. Track away! There are separate threshold and output controls to make compensations with plus you can always adjust your individual source levels elsewhere, right? The advantage of the stereo input control becomes dramatically clear when you switch to LINK mode, and that’s what the Manley Variable Mu® Limiter Compressor does better than anything else: final mix, 2-track, or mastering limiting and compression. Like one reviewer put it: “It’s like pouring a bowl of sweet cream over the mix.” Mmmmmm. Yummy. Give your music a big hug.
The High Pass Side Chain mod comes stock on all Manley Variable Mu limiter/compressors since 12/2009, on both regular and mastering versions. This mod adds two switches to the front panel, one for each channel, so that when engaged, the side chain will not respond to frequencies lower than 100Hz. (Manley standardly use 100Hz as the -3dB point. Other frequencies can be custom ordered.) This HP SC Mod can be used with music with heavy bass lines or bass-heavy mixes where you don't want the bass driving the whole action of the compressor.
Which tubes should I use in my Manley Variable Mu Limiter Compressor? 6386? 5670? or 6BA6 TBAR Mod?
Yes, the newer units use the 5670 tube instead of the 6386. By now the availability of the original USA GE 6386 is poor; we don't have any left at all, and what we do have are not usable due to noise, microphonics, bad side-to-side match, etc.
Does the 5670 sound different?
Well, up to about 6db of limiting it's about the same. After that point, the 5670 version tends to sound more "squashed" than the original 6386 version. Some like it better, some don't-- depends on what you're trying to do. To solve all these problems, Paul came up with a really good solution: the T-Bar Mod which uses a pair of 6BA6 pentodes wired as single triodes to replace each dual triode 5670 (or 6386). the 6BA6 TBAR Mod is the preferred system to use in the Manley Variable Mu® for reasons of ability to perfectly match each phase-halve section and each stereo set, ability to select for lo-noise and lo-microphonic sets for a low cost, and because the action of the 6BA6's so closely resemble the smooth 6386 limiting curves.
What is the difference between turning up the INPUT level control to drive the unit into limiting with more level versus using the THRESHOLD control?
The limiting characteristics shouldn't change much, but the distortion characteristics will. The input control on these units is located ahead of the tubes, directly "behind" the input transformer. So as you advance the input control, you're hitting the input tube (which is the gain-varying stage) with more and more signal. Gain reduction is done by making the DC bias on this tube more negative (the threshold control determines how much). The tube has a limit as to how far it can be biased negative to reduce gain before it goes non-linear, and since your audio signal is obviously swinging both positive and negative, the big swings of the audio signal plus the negative gain control voltage will eventually push the tube into the red zone. Tubes like the 6386/6BA6/12BA6 can be pushed a lot farther before the THD builds than tubes like a 5670. Higher signal level also pushes the rest of the tubes and the output transformer harder, which will change the sound character as well.