The epitome of a serious combo pre/EQ.
Text: Chris Vallejo
There are certain pieces of gear that just shine from the moment you pass signal through them. The Manley Massive Passive is one such box, where everything that goes in just comes out sounding better. Moreover, the effect of the Manley EQ is immediate and apparent, and it feels like whatever you do, no matter how silly or crazy, it still sounds good.
Then there are those other more subtle pieces of gear that require a little more time, effort and familiarity to be able to utilise competently in a professional situation. The GML 2032, under scrutiny here, falls into this latter category, as I discovered while using it in tracking and mixing sessions over the course of the last two months.
To be frank, my initial impression of the GML 2032 wasn’t that positive, but my opinion changed radically over time in ways that surprised even me. The unit lost the early battle of an EQ shootout but eventually won the war in several real-world mix situations.
Funnily enough, back in the middle of 2008 I was trying to get my hands on a GML 2032 pre/EQ, but alas, at the time there were none in Australia to try out. Move forward 15 months and out of the blue I’ve been asked to review one. It’s funny how the world works, isn’t it? When I really wanted to test drive the 2032 I couldn’t get one for love nor money, and then after I’d given up the hunt, one fell in my lap. Maybe this will be my chance to try before I buy.
CHIPS OFF THE OL’ BLOCKS
The GML 2032 is a single-channel, 1U microphone preamplifier and equaliser combo, based on the venerable GML 8200 stereo EQ and 8302 dual preamp. Like all good ‘combo’ units, the two component parts of the 2032 can be used separately and can appear on a patchbay independently, reminding me of the fantastic Langevin Dual Vocal Combo (pre/compressor) also manufactured by Manley Labs (GML gear is currently manufactured at the Manley factory in the US). What’s so great about the Langevin Dual Vocal Combo is that the cost of the entire unit works out to be less than the component parts. Let me digress and briefly explain – if you take the two-channel preamplifier ($1950) and add the dual opto compressor ($2349) the total outlay is $4299. But stick the two items in the same box, make them share a power supply and you get the lot for $2649… $1650 off the combined price. I rave about this unit to anyone who will listen.
So does the GML 2032 compute with similar numbers, given that, in reality, a 2032 is more or less half an 8200 and half an 8302? Well, let me get my calculator out. An 8200 EQ retails in Australia for $7290 [tap, tap, tap], and an 8302 preamp for $3590. Divide this sum in half and you’re looking at a grand total of $5440 per channel. At $1550 less than that ($3890), the 2032 combo looks like a bit of a bargain.
Physically, the GML 2032 is a good-looking, reasonably heavy and sturdy little device, although admittedly I was expecting something a little heavier and sturdier. As previously mentioned, GML products are made by Manley Labs in its Chino (not China!) factory, so it’s no surprise to see that the build quality is on par with Manley/Langevin gear – my Massive Passive from the same factory looks and feels like it’s built to withstand WW3.
I am, however, a little disappointed to discover that the entire casing of the 2032 is littered with small, 6mm holes – presumably to ensure that nothing inside gets too hot. I’m not against holes as such; problem is, the holes are large enough to fit a small screwdriver through them, and there are uninsulated terminals on the back of the IEC connector inside. If you were to inadvertently stick a screwdriver in one of these holes, you could be the recipient of 240V AC if you pointed it at the correct pitch and angle.
Pop the lid of the GML 2032 (naughty me) and you’ll see a single large circuit board peppered with surface-mount resistors and capacitors, much like an Apogee AD16X or similar. Personally I’m a bit sceptical about surface mount stuff; not easy to fix when things head south. Like converters (and unlike most of the other stuff I own), when it breaks it will almost certainly require major surgery involving replacement amp cards, or worse, a trip back to the US. I did ask the authorised Australian repairer – AT writer and all-round good guy, Rob Squire – about his thoughts on servicing such a beast and this was his response: “SMD [surface mount device] is not necessarily a negative in itself. I replaced an SMD chip in an RNC compressor only last week. Lack of spare parts and service info is the main hassle usually, which won’t be a problem with these units.”
I’m also a little aggrieved to find that all the pots and switches on the 2032 are soldered directly to the board, and have no direct fastening to the case via washers and nuts. This design approach, although very common these days, can lead to a ‘cold solder’ joint, where the lead blob in question is not only required to pass signal but mechanically hold the component in place – as anyone who has ever had a PCB-soldered patchbay will attest. Turning the knobs and switches and watching the circuit board bend and flex made me groan and wonder why adding a few washers and nuts to the pots (which no doubt came with washers and nuts anyway) was deemed unnecessary.
I’m also surprised to see a huge toroidal transformer inside the box without any shielding or metalwork around it.
George Massenburg himself makes a point of stating how important the external 9015 power supply is for the 8200 and 8302 GML units, so presumably the design rationale behind the external supply for these devices isn’t relevant to the 2032. The onboard supply of the 2032 doesn’t seem to affect the performance of the unit one iota. Indeed, this is one super-quiet (–122dBu EIN), virtually distortionless (0.01% @ 40dB), and impressively thought out (0.5dB down at 90kHz) piece of kit. To that end the 2032 has no transformers or inductors in its circuitry – the components most susceptible to hum from a power supply – and toroidal power transformers typically emit far less hum than standard EI transformers anyway.
SHOOTOUT AT THE EQ CORRAL
Checking out the EQ section of the 2032 first, my initial thoughts were that it was very powerful indeed, befitting George Massenburg’s EQ legacy. Compared to a Massive Passive and an Avalon 2055, the GML EQ is tighter, more focused and more precise. Cutting sounded better on the GML whereas boosting sounded nicer on the Manley, and where the Avalon has detented pots, the Massive Passive has cut or boost (so fully CCW is flat), the GML’s central ‘0dB’ setting is only ‘approximate’. These ‘approximate’ zero settings, which are labelled with boxed regions rather than a single white line at 12 o’ clock on the dials, reflect the fact that pots cannot be truly accurate. This might make sense to a scientist, but it doesn’t feel very reassuring in the real world.
The Q control, on the other hand, is the sharpest I’ve come across to the point where it almost rivals plug-in EQ. Zooming in on hum, hiss, whistling or buzz is precision personified. This ability to cut unwanted narrow bands from an audio signal is unrivalled in the analogue domain. It’s precise, accurate, and borderline miraculous.
CRYSTAL CLEAR PREAMP
And the preamp? This is where transparency can be a real benefit – 75dB of the cleanest and clearest gain money can buy. Preamps are the one place where arguably colour isn’t always the best thing to have, particularly when tracking to colourising mediums such as tape or microphones like U47s or 67s, which impart a fair amount of distortion and harmonics off the bat.
How does the mic pre sound? In a word, wonderful. Other adjectives that come to mind are: fast, powerful, transparent, and honest. The other thing you could do with the 2032’s pre is stack up layers of vocals without suffering a haze or halo effect from a particular frequency or tone. I can easily imagine this pre being used on many pop records where copious layering is the key to the vocal sound.
2032 IN ACTION
I first used the 2032’s EQ in a mix situation on female vocals tracked using a Wagner 47 microphone, Telefunken V72 preamp and an AWA G58 compressor. I wished I’d used the GML preamp during the tracking phase too in hindsight, but at the time I was reluctant to spend too much time experimenting with new toys – vocals can be tough at the best of times.
Using the EQ during a mix session was a real game changer for me. It made me realise how totally useless ad hoc ‘shootouts’ can sometimes be. I’d always been sceptical of them generally, but this confirmed it beyond doubt. Where the GML’s EQ had seemed a little colourless and innocuous in the early shootout, in a real-world mix it took centre stage and blew the competition away.
The final vocal chain for the mix was as follows: GML EQ – Thermionic Phoenix – Avalon 2055 – Distressor. Don’t ask why this ended up being the chain; it just ended up that way after about four hours of chopping and changing. The GML was in place to sort out the nasties and try to bring out some of the nicer mid to upper frequencies in the vocal. I did notice that due to the possible overuse of tube stages, the vocal was a little furry and spitty, so I worked to remove these artefacts while retaining top-end and air.
Once I had the chain sorted out, flicking the GML in and out was one of those ‘wow, really?’ moments. It did so much more than I thought it was doing, to the point where removing it from the chain made the sound fall to pieces. The GML was precise, pristine… and it was at this point in proceedings that I started musing over the potential loss of the device from my studio. ‘I might not be able to live without this box in the future,’ I thought.
TRY & BUY
The GML 2032 is one of those ‘buy once, sell never’ pieces, which is probably why I’ve never seen one for sale. The other great thing about the unit is the fact that you could eventually get a second, to give you the equivalent of an 8200 for stereo duties for about the cost of a single 8200, ie., two free preamps. There’s nothing like being able to buy expensive studio nib-nobs in stages I reckon.
Like anything of impeccable quality, the true value of a device reveals itself over time. I was a little underwhelmed by the 2032 to begin with, but having had it for a couple of months now, I’m going to find it tough to part with and will more than likely shell out the money to buy it. I rarely rave about a piece of gear, but this is certainly one impressive preamp/EQ. Like a fine French wine, it’s just getting better and better …