Pro Audio Review: Talking Tubes with EveAnna Manley

Dining with Dr. Fred: The EveAnna Manley Interview
by Dr. Frederick J. Bashour
Dufay Digital Music
Leverett, MA 01054

Reprinted with kind permission from the August 1998 Issue of Pro Audio Review

In nine short years EveAnna Manley, who possesses a nearly genetic background in vacuum tube equipment, has risen from a sax-playing college music major, to head of one of the world's leading manufacturer of tube-based audio gear. As EveAnna and I have been close friends throughout this period, it seemed appropriate to launch Pro Audio Review's occasional "Dining with Dr. Fred" columns with an EveAnna Manley interview.

EveAnna Manley picked me up in front of my hotel in Woodland Hills driving her forest green 1974 Alfa Romeo convertible. The night was still warm, and we had a cool breezy drive over to Houston's Restaurant. EveAnna ordered the prime rib, seriously rare, while I chose what was labeled "The Best Pork Chop in Los Angeles." Our salads were scrumptious, as were the main courses. And the conversation was as fast-paced and exhilarating as was EveAnna's driving.

Dr. Fred: As a purchaser and user of many pieces of Manley tube gear, as well as being a good friend, I'm honored to have been a part of your network of friends and supporters over the years.


EveAnna Manley: Yeah, you and I go back a long time-- 1990, I think.


Dr. Fred: That's right. Makes me feel old; that was some time ago-- just before I quit my job ay MTSU in Tennessee. Tell me EveAnna, you've been quite successful in pro audio, which seems typically dominated my men. How can other women be motivated to pursue careers in audio?


EveAnna Manley: Glad you asked me that. I think the general answer here comes from observing how girls are taught and encouraged in school. Girls are generally steered towards language and arts, while the guys are pushed to excel in sports, math, and science. This is a general statement, but one which seems to keep proving itself true, with a few exceptions of course. 

I was the total exception growing up, building tree houses and riding big-wheels-- a complete tom-boy-- I didn't play with dolls. I was seriously into math and sciences and also studied art and music. And my mom threatened me with death if I should ever bring home a "B" in any class. I was a bit of a renaissance kid and a total over-achiever (remember I was threatened with death). And I sure as hell stood out for this. It was plenty awkward for me, let me tell you. And it still is when guys call up and ask to speak to a technician and I have to tell them that they are speaking to one. They think that's a pretty wild idea.

So it was no wonder that I found myself in the technical world of audio gear manufacture-- good combination of art, music, and science. I'm glad I did. It was a total fluke and total luck-- maybe fate. I feel cheated sometimes because my folks didn't encourage me to play with electronics growing up. That would have been a real "boy's hobby" and God knows I had enough of those already. This is probably where it starts. How many parents encourage their girls to play with amplifier kits? Think about it. 

Well, at least I was playing records... and playing saxophone. And later, after a music degree and some college physics under my belt, it wasn't too late to learn about vacuum tube technology, which isn't taught in schools anymore anyway.


Dr. Fred: Maybe women are just smarter, and know that it's a dumb idea to get into a mostly unlucrative industry, just because it's "cool."


EveAnna Manley: I don't know about this, maybe women *are* just plain smarter, but I might also believe those old-fashioned values that if one works hard at something, and does really good work, backed by solid achievement, and combines that with a little self-promotion and maybe the luck of some good connections, then one can make a decent living out of whatever one chooses to do.


Dr. Fred: So, how did Manley Labs get started, and when did you come on board?


EveAnna Manley: Well, David Manley had started this microscopic English Hifi company called Vacuum Tube Logic (VTL) back in the mid '80s. He soon found out that to meet Asian demand for these little tube amplifiers, the logical place to have a factory would be in the Great Republic of California. So, joined by his son, Luke, they had VTL already decently rolling in Chino, CA when I met them back in February of 1989. I was out in California on a 9 month sabbatical during my junior year at Columbia University, looking for a gig in the music industry so I would know what to do when I graduated. So I had pulled on my dad's ex-Ampeg contacts, and by pure fate got steered into the oncoming path of the great David Manley.


Dr. Fred: Whoa, there-- Ampeg? You mean the company which built those great-sounding tube bass amps I lusted after during my bass-playing days in the late 60s?


EveAnna Manley: Yup. My step-dad owned Ampeg, Grammer Guitars, and the Dan Armstrong guitar companies back in the late 60's. Those were the glory days, all right-- SVT, Rolling Stones, etc. I was always jealous that I wasn't around to witness that stuff. My older step-siblings went to Woodstock, dated musicians, got free records in the mail-dang! Oh well, at least they all gave their vinyl collections to me in the end. 

Anyway, back to David Manley. I started at the bottom rung, building printed circuit boards and screwing chassis together-- but slowly, over the next few years, worked in a hands-on kind of way up through the whole company. In the meantime, David and I had hooked up and we got married in 1990 (after I went back to Columbia and finished my degree in music.) So David, Luke, and I were all working crazy hours at VTL, just about tearing our hair out with all the work and crazy explosion of this little company which now was building very secret Manley Pro gear, had built a studio and was running a record label, bought the Langevin name to put on a new line of solid state gear, and was producing what had to be over fifty products-- I lose count-- in both the hifi and pro markets. 

Now couple that with all of our different opinions and this family thing, and we were all just about going nuts. By 1993 it became apparent that something extreme would have to happen, so Luke bought VTL from David. David and I then started up a new factory called Manley Laboratories, Inc.

David then bought this huge empty building about, two miles down the road from VTL, and moved a bunch of stuff over there, including a newly purchased CNC machine shop and lots of people and then it's like, wham! Well, who even *knows* that we're here? In the infancy of Manley Labs, it was my duty to get on the fax machine and write to every business card I had ever collected at any trade show, call up anybody I knew, and get this big ball rolling. Like I said, Manley Pro gear had been a total secret-- I think we had about three dealers in the whole world. We had never advertised and it was like you had to know somebody to know we were building this wacky high-end recording gear and even wackier hifi gear. The pressure was on. All these hungry employees. When I got there I asked the guys what orders they were working on. They replied, "well, we sold a pair of speakers last week..." You just couldn't imagine the fear in my head! Anyway, we obviously did get it going. 


Dr. Fred: You sure did get it going. You've served in a lot of different capacities along the way. What are your current duties?


EveAnna Manley: I've done everything at one time or another: built gear, tested/QC, ordered parts , sales, customer service, layout/design, prototyping, got hum out of units, made coffee, mopped floors, etc. My official job now is running the company. This means I can delegate the aforementioned tasks to the capable people working for me, and oversee them carrying out my wishes. And because I have years of hands-on experience doing all this stuff, I can be a good leader because I understand what they are going through in these processes. It also means I've had to study accounting practices and tax laws in order to be sure all this stuff is financially adding up to positive numbers. Which it is-- so I guess I'm doing most things right. 

The two main tasks I still do myself are order parts and process sales. Spend money and make money. The sales job involves everything from keeping in touch with customers and dealers, making sales trips and trade shows, designing our ads, brochure layout, and getting orders in and out of the factory. I still hand-write all the serial numbers for some reason. All the rest I delegate, and keep a bird's eye view on everything.


Dr. Fred: It sounds like you work a 24-hour-a-day job.


EveAnna Manley: I'm trying to carry a slightly lesser load right now as I've been going through a lot of personal stress. David took off in 1996 in a bit of a fog-- just up and moved to Paris, just like that. The whole shebang got dumped in my lap. Emotionally I was devastated, but I stayed functioning by putting all my energy into work, reaching out to a supportive network of friends who came out of nowhere for me, and hoping that things would eventually work out for us. Now it's two years later and the company is doing really well, I've got more friends than I ever knew I had, but David and I are getting divorced. Heartbreak of my life. I'm buying him out of Manley Labs completely and will move on from there. It's a painful process to be sure. 


Dr. Fred: As Manley Labs is one of the leaders in pro audio tube gear, how many workers do you now employ?


EveAnna Manley: We've got 30 employees cranking away in our 11,000 square foot factory. As far as I know, I believe we took over the number one position last year in this niche market of high end (mostly tube) pro outboard gear.


Dr. Fred: How doyou and your team go about designing new products for Manley Labs?


EveAnna Manley: The best thing David gave us was what I call his "philosophy of design." This includes a set of "rules" which includes total belief in vacuum tube technology, the use of big thick ground traces, keeping the signal off the PCB-- treating it preciously, going for huge capacity in the power supply-- *Joules*, man, finding clever ways to make conventional circuits into "Oooh, here's an interesting twist!" But not overly-complicated. Less-is-more. Quality and over-rated componentry. Nth degree. Make it buildable. Make it reliable. Use great solder to hold it all together. Stuff like this. There's way more to building good sounding gear, don't worry, but I don't want to give all our common sense secrets away! You can *hear* the effect of each and every part in the whole picture. It certainly isn't just one thing which gives you a "sound." It's the harmony of everything working together. And yet it only takes one thing to wreck it all! 

We've also got a really great crew. First there's Baltazar, who was David's very first employee in California. The guy is amazing. For all this time he's been building the gear and helping keep stuff organized and generally being part of the "tidy-up team." And then when David took off, I already knew Balta's potential, so one Saturday we were both working away and I called him into the test room and said, "Here. I got a job for you. Take this friggin' bird's nest mess of a preamplifier prototype I've been staring at for three months, and lay out a printed circuit board." So he takes it home that Saturday all excited, and goddamn it if he doesn't bring in hand-taped double-sided PCB artwork Monday morning! We blast out a copper, he loads it up and it fires up first time. Talent spotted and proved! 

Then we've got Hutch, who I totally trust as "my ears." I'm not going to trust my own ears; I'm going to trust Hutch's. He always knows which is the "right" frequency and bell shape for this EQ position, or what is the best attack time to choose for that compressor. And then he figures out the best way to get there from here. Plus, he writes the best owner's manuals on the planet. I'm very proud of this now, especially considering the early days when we didn't even *have* owner's manuals!


Dr. Fred: I've been to your factory and have always been impressed by the employee "vibe"-- they seem very dedicated to the company and its products.


EveAnna Manley: The big thing is experience. Most of these folks have been with us since the VTL days. I'd say our employees have been with us for an average of seven or eight years. They're a superb crew: loyal, knowledgeable, and clever. I really appreciate their input to our products. They'll come up with a new way to mount that transformer or take it upon themselves to whip up a little PCB to hold a few wires in a neater way-- these guys *think* really well. Marcelino heads up the assembly crew. He started at VTL a few months after I did in 1989, wiring up our digital processors. He has a degree in Psychology from Mexico which I think helps him be a good leader and a patient teacher. I am really proud of him and grateful for his contributions. He keeps the team together. 


Dr. Fred: Speaking of design, tell me about your VOXBOX multiprocessor, which I happened to have reviewed and subsequently purchased since its introduction late last year?


EveAnna Manley: OK, here's the story behind the VOXBOX. David left in May 1996 after his most and almost overly prolific design stage. I got the company on an even keel rather quickly, and we took to the task of getting all our existing products really cleaned up and refined. I listened to our customers: Balanced ins and outs? You got 'em. Move that direct input to the front panel? No problem. Pull that noise down in the Variable Mu? We're on it. I want to make you happy! Stuff like that. But we finally had the breathing room to attend to these little details and also during this time we even managed to bring out a few products David had left half-started, like the MIC/EQ500 and the 300B Preamplifier.

So with that clean-up process under our belt, it was time for some new products (first things first you know). Our French agents had suggested we come out with a mega-combo-box and they dubbed it the "VOXBOX." 

I saw it in my mind the minute they mentioned it. David was at that meeting in France with our agents, and while he was sketching out what he thought it should be, I was like already déja-vu with it anyway. We'd take proven pieces of what we already had in production-- but what I wanted to do was, instead of cheaping out and throwing 'em all together, I wanted to actually make each piece of it *better* than its original separate counterparts. I also wanted to incorporate all the good tidy-ups we had come up with the year before. Take the "David Manley 'Philosophy of Design'" to the max-- that was my goal. 

I really did want to make David proud of what I had learned all these years, as well as show the world that I would be capable of continuing Manley Lab's tradition of bringing out fresh and good-sounding products. Inspire some confidence. in retrospect, it certainly worked.


Dr. Fred: So you were pretty hands-on in its development?


EveAnna Manley: I stepped back and used my power of delegation to dish out the assignments step-by-step. "OK Hutch, I want you to take the EL-OP limiter and figure out some new side chain drive which provides for variable attack and release. Five positions each using these Greyhill switches. Figure it out." So after about a month, Hutch emerges with this prototype banged into an ELOP; we alpha-tested it and it was good. We then take this prototype into L.A. for some beta testing at Fox Studios and it's a hit there. Great! "OK, now using our MID EQ, I want to add six more frequencies on the top and six more on the bottom. Follow similar curves. Pick frequencies you like." Blam. Done. "OK, now add an L-C circuit to ground to make the ELOP notch out and be a De-esser. Four frequency selects and turn it off for the 5th position." Cool. So I sketched out a front panel layout, and how the thing would build and go together, and we handed all this over to Baltazar who had just learned our CAD drafting program on the Mac and whammo, he put all our pieces together. Perfectly. I'm really proud of this piece. I'm proud of our teamwork. 

The faceplate is all CNC machined and the black insert shapes are all laser-cut. I did all the engraving programming (took me all night, dammit! And I had to fly to Singapore with the first one for the PALA show the day after!) while Elias made the PC boards and did the silk screening. Marcy heads up our assembly crew. We usually keep three guys doing only VOXBOXes all day long and nothing else. It's been a real strong product. We've got a great test crew too, so the gear goes out and mainly stays out. Good careful test, burn in, and re-cal finds most infant-death-syndromes. The bottom line is: we got the VOXBOX into production within four months of the original idea. That's still damn fast ain't it?! 


Dr. Fred: Sure is; I remember when you faxed me your original drawing last summer. Just a few months later, I picked my unit up from you at the NY A.E.S. Convention in the fall. Recalling my many experiences with Manley Labs over the years, I have always found you folks to offer great customer service. Is this still a priority?


EveAnna Manley: Mainly Paul and Humberto head up our quality control (QC) department. Because they are testing production all day they're also the best ones for customer service.

Repairs go through the QC line like a new unit does. Our repair turn-around is rocket-fast. Same-day repair is not unusual-- one or two days is normal for us. We'll do what it takes. I think our reputation for attentive customer service is pretty well known out there these days, and is probably a deciding factor for some folks when considering our gear over somebody else's. They know we'll take good care of 'em. I've made this apriority over the last few years. I mean, the first thing is to get the gear built right in the first place so it *won't* break down, but hell, unexpected shit happens sometimes, no matter how careful we are. So the attitude is don't worry, we'll get you back on-line fast. And I mean fast!


Dr. Fred: How many dealers do you now have?


EveAnna Manley: Over the last few years, we have built up a damn good dealer network. It all comes along with greater visibility, word of mouth, etc. We have around 50 dealers worldwide these days. Eighty-five percent of our sales are in the professional market and about sixty-five percent of those sales are through our USA Pro Dealers. They're a loyal crew!


Dr. Fred: Enough about business. Let's get personal. I notice you're quite a fixture on the newsgroup. It's enjoyable to read your comments, both serious and humorous. How do you find time for all that involvement?


EveAnna Manley: I religiously dedicate a block of time in the morning to it, as I'm waking up with a pot of coffee to do the Internet thing from my home computer. Most of my communication with customers and dealers is done by e-mail these days. As for, I enjoy the camaraderie of the group-- nice bunch of folks. I learn a lot from them.


Dr. Fred: I know you're also into cars and motorcycles. What's with that?


EveAnna Manley: I do like mechanical things. And it seems I like cars that need to be at the mechanic's all the time! Well, just say, I like vehicles with "personality." So yeah, I have a VW Bus & a Bug, an Alfa 164L, '74 Spyder, and a Lancia Fulvia. The most cool bike I have is a 1961 Benelli I picked up with 5 miles on it (new old stock), but I have to admit that recently I was getting very tired kicking that bike and it kicking me back, so I just bought a 1989 Honda Hawk. Yeah, I know, you're saying it won't be long before I'm driving a reliable no-brainer Japanese car like your Acura, but actually with anything, if you keep an eye and ear on things, do a little preventative maintenance, you can keep these goofy cars going for a long time. I like the feeling of being in-tune with my car, and I like riding in style!


Dr. Fred: You told me you are also a photography buff?


EveAnna Manley: Yeah, I've been big into photography for the last year, taking classes at the local college. Chaffey has a tremendous photo department. Photography has been good therapy for me. Once I started learning again and getting those creative juices flowing again, and met some new non-audio friends, my whole brain started working better. I saw results in all areas of my life. Cheaper than a shrink!


Dr. Fred: Well, you seem pretty well-adjusted to me. It's been a pleasure dining and talking with you, EveAnna-- thanks!


EveAnna Manley: Thank you, Dr. Fred; you've got to come out to California more often! But I tell ya, if I don't stop gnawing at this huge "moo-ing" prime rib, my modelling career will be over!


Dr. Fred Bashour holds a Yale Ph.D. in Music Theory, and currently performs as a jazz pianist and church organist, in addition to working as a classical music producer/engineer. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.

Article courtesy of Pro Audio Review. Call 703-998-7600 for subscription infomation.