Manley TNT Mic Preamp Review

Brandon Drury —  May 25, 2009

This part of my Recording Equipment Reviews For Humans series. I’m gonna get straight to the point.

First off, I want to start off by thwarting away any potential tech support that Manley may have to deal with. Even though this is a Manley preamp, you can record girls with it too. In fact, it may even work better on girls. (I didn’t do that shootout).

Sorry. It’s a terrible joke. No one laughed the 14 times I told it during shootout times either but I insist that somewhere out there someone will laugh.

The Idea Behind The Manley TNT

First off, Manley makes some high-end junk. In fact, I can’t even call it “junk”. I guess I need to search the Thesaurus for something a bit more eloquent. Done! Manley makes high-end stuff. They target big boy studios with their gear and they strike me as the kind of company that worries little about hitting a price point. They have one goal in mind (domination) and they don’t seem to be overly concerned with how much you have to pay for it.

Manley set out to create the single most versatile 1U rack space preamp on the planet. They tossed a tube design on the cleverly named “Tube Channel” and then snuck in a solid state design on the boldly named “Cool Channel”. (Manley’s reputation is stout enough that they don’t have to bore us with another abuse of the word “warm”.) On each side they included an array of impedance options. I won’t bore you with the actual impedances, but there were at least three on each channel. They included a DI (which also contains an array of unique impedance options…VERY COOL!), a smart high-pass filter on the Cool Channel, an average intelligence high-pass filter on the Tube Channel, a thing called “Iron” on the Cool Channel, and a switch called “Color” on the Cool Channel.

For those of you who read the high-end audio recording fantasy publications (which IS essentially porn without all the drugs or pony tails) you may be up on the Manley SLAM! Limiter. The preamp on the Manley SLAM! is the same thing as the Tube Channel on the TNT.

Blah blah blah…You can read about the features and all that junk in the Manley TNT Manual or on the website. Let’s get down to my views on this damn thing.

Features In Action
Smart High-Pass Filter – Okay, it’s not THAT smart. It’s not an auto-detect gadget or anything stupid like that. I just like the fact that The Cool Channel gives me a choice between 60Hz and 120Hz for the high-pass. 120Hz is a bit extreme for some applications and that’s why I want it. There are many sources that have absolutely no need for anything up to 120Hz and for those I can say “See ya!”. When we want to be subtle, we can leave quite a bit more in. This may not seem to be all that life changing, but it came in handy more than I had realized. 85HZ is a common high-pass frequency and seldom do I consider it ideal.

Note: The more I do this music recording thing, the more I prefer to solve problems the second they arise. I don’t want to have to reach for a high-pass filter when mixing. I want it to be right from the start. I feel this “smart” high-pass filter is a good idea.

The Tube Channel has the usual dumb high-pass filter, but it’s set at 80Hz. I found this useful because the tube side is generally used for meatier sounds anyway. We’ll get into that.

Mega Impedance Options – I loved having the option of selecting different input impedances on the Manley TNT. The character of the recorded signal can change dramatically by varying the impedance. I could tame brittle sounds by selecting lower impedances and I could make signals that were a touch low-mid heavy a bit more aggressive by increasing the input impedance. This is all Engineering 101 stuff, but it worked exactly like it should have with the TNT and better than most.

Apparently, Manley designers went out of their way to create an impedance switcher that doesn’t affect gain. In a lesser circuit, switching to a higher impedance would usually increase the level. It’s clear that Manley has no qualms with going the extra mile.

Iron – Everyone always talks about the Lundahl transformers. Apparently they ain’t cheap. Many of the Cascade ribbon microphones double in price when you add a Lundahl transformer. I don’t get too deep into that side of the equation often, but basically the TNT Cool Channel lets you decide how much of the transformer you want to use. This is not a simulation. This is not a plugin. This is a real world splitter gadget that lets you run the signal through a real, “iron” transformer. The result is a possibly outstanding increase in harmonics.

Manley Guy Interjection:

We use Lundahl INPUT transformers, so you’re dealing with them when you adjust the input impedance. However, the IRON control is affecting the OUTPUT transformer, which is a custom Manley design (and built here in-house). We had to specially design this transformer specifically for the IRON function; using a stock one from someone else (or from us!) wouldn’t have cut the mustard. We mention this on page 9 of the manual – the last paragraph on that page has a little blurb about it.

I have this view on recording gear that if you can’t make something sound crappy when you overdo it, it ain’t good enough. I like bold, obvious gear that I have to restrain myself from going too far with. This may be why preamps often bore me a bit. I’d rather play with a compressor with attitude ( I LOVED playing with the Complimiter 610, for example) By cranking this transformer up to 10 you can easily add way too much harmonic content to certain tracks. It sorta reminds me of sending a low end heavy track to a Distressor with the the release on zero. It adds sort of a distortion. It’s not something I’d ever imagine using on 10 often, but using it on 3 does some great things in my opinion in a way where the singer would never ask “Do you hear a distortion sound?”. They’d only notice their voice cutting through the mix a bit easier. I’m always looking for harmonic content. That’s why I like the SPL Twin Tube plugin so much, for example. This iron knob is only found on The Cool Channel.

The reason I’m always looking for ways to sneak in harmonic content is fairly straightforward. Harmonic content has a way of making a track feel brighter without EQ. When we blend in just the tiniest amount of distortion underneath the signal, some great things happen to the way that track sits in the mix all at levels that are essentially indistinguishable.

Color – It’s a shame they couldn’t label this “Cock N Balls”. I’m guessing it wouldn’t fit on the label. Maybe they could have named it “Blacks”, “Whites”, and “Hispanics” but that wouldn’t be fair to the Asians. Regardless, I love this color thing. Never has racial integration been so fun!

Again, I want knobs and switches that knock me on my ass. I want to hear BOLD differences….the kind you need to type in caps. (HINT! HINT!) While I thought 60s and 70s were time periods and not parts of the rainbow, I have to admit that these mods have some BOLD color. The default setting is “clean”. As you can imagine, it doesn’t do anything. It’s very useful in those times when you simply want the TNT to do its job (which is excellent on it’s own).

The 60s color immediately made me say “DAMN!”. I wasn’t expecting such an obvious difference. They didn’t hold back any punches. The character immediately leaped into this Janis Joplin vocal sound kind of thing. Okay, so it’s not 100% Janis and my idea of “leaped” is based on high end gear companies that should label their buttons “placebo”, but it’s definitely a big step in that direction. I’d love to record a whole record with the 60s color. Some of my clients would be pissed. Some would kiss me.

I hate the 70s. (With notable exceptions) That was my mom’s era. I come from the school that says that parents are supposed to hate your music. (Listen up, 16-year old wuss boys trying to impress Dad with your Eric Clapton t-shirt!). The 70s color sounds like you spent the previous decade with too much drugs and too many The Who concerts. It sounds like they took an impulse of Pete Townsend’s hearing and applied it here. Okay, not really. Let’s get serious.

I didn’t feel like The Partridge family or Skynard when I used this setting. I’ll tell you what it did remind me off. It just SCREAMED Melloncollie and The Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins. I’m probably way off base on this and some high end jerk bag is going to tell me they used the same console as was used on The Night At The Roxbury soundtrack. Regardless, every time I hear tracks done with this, I felt that way.

To describe it, it’s a relatively dark setting but with a bunch of harmonic content WAY lower than that of the 60s. It’s like instead of putting harmonics at 2k and 8k like in the 60s mode, they put them at 400Hz and 800Hz (without sounding “tubby”, “boxy”, or any other scary words that can come from those frequencies). Note, I’m guessing 100% on where this harmonic content lies. I have no intention of making an entire album with this setting, but then again, that may be a good reason to do it. At least Manley has the balls to include a mode that I don’t want to use all the time. Awesome!

Real World Color Application
I was doing a session for a chick who had a sparse arrangement in the verse and a mega dense arrangement in the chorus. When I got the vocal nice and thick in the lower midrange on the verse, it didn’t cut through enough in the chorus. Normally, I’d reach for EQ and get a headache with this one. Instead, I found myself switching from clean mode in the verse to 60s mode in the chorus. It gave me exactly the cut I needed without sounding EQ’d. Bad ass! It was as if they built this feature for me.

Of course, don’t label the “color” setting as gimmick or effect only usable in specific situations. Not even close! This color setting is a real deal problem solver. While it is a bold sound, its usefulness in a real world mix is absolute. Check out Preamp Shootout #3 in Killer Home Recording: Vocals and it’ll be immediately obvious to you just how valuable this color button is AND how impressive the “iron” knob is..

The Sound – Regardless of what source I used this thing on, the Manley TNT is a freaking winner. On bass DI, it really did something incredible. It was much like taking Ron Jeremy’s Extendz….or maybe it reminded me more of the dog in Van Wilder. The Tube Channel of the Manley beat everything I had in the preamp shootout with either bass DI or micing a bass amp and The Cool Channel came in second. When it came to acoustic guitar, The Cool Channel won, in my opinion. It had the most upper midrange “sparkle” without getting clicky in the top end. On vocals, the variety of options is bad ass and extremely useful. The Manley TNT scored very high on every vocal shootout and clearly won one of them (at least to me). I really break all of this down on each shootout but I have to say that I was always pleased with the Manley TNT. It’s the kind of thing that makes me re-question my deprecated views on preamps I’ve had in the past.

Tube VS Solid State
This dumb old war will be going on longer than our dumb old US Vietnam-style wars. They’ll still be arguing about tube vs solid state when the US is busted into 7 regions who all hate each other because of Jesus somehow. Is there a difference between tube vs solid state? Yeah, there is a difference. The tube thing seems to have lower frequency harmonics. It’s a bit meatier. Is this subtle? Sometimes. Sometimes it hits you in the head with a frying pan.

The Tube Channel is a BIG sound, but it’s also quite a bit darker than the Cool Channel. It doesn’t do the sparkle thing as well and it certainly doesn’t have the air that the Cool Channel does in the mega top end. However, it’s got great low mid harmonics and it’s low end sounds gigantic. When you need something to sound BIG in a mix, the Tube Channel is THE way to go. However, I wouldn’t want to track everything with the Tube Channel. I think things would get a little too far out of hand. In fact, for most tracks my initial inclination would be to reach for the Cool Channel.

The Cool Channel does pretty much everything right. It has this “near Neve” style aggressiveness to it however, it seems impossible to get The Cool Channel to sound boxy particularly when employing the 60s color. I find my Vintech 1272 had a similar aggressiveness but it would get boxy the first sign of trouble. This is a turn off to me and now that I know better I can see why I’ve not been overly thrilled with the Vintech 1272 over the years in certain applications.

The Great River EQ-1NV had a character that was at least from the same city as the Manley Cool Channel and had a very similar accent but the Great River didn’t have the 60s color switch to engage when recording a truly problematic singer. I don’t mean to take anything away from the Great River. In fact, I really liked that preamp too…a whole lot! However, I wanted to point out that Manley went well beyond the call of duty by packing in additional color. They could have just put a damn volume knob and a high-pass filter and called it a day. Instead they’ve created real solutions to real home recording problems. Yes, I’m impressed! Yes, I feel like they catered to me exactly!

The Dark Side
Alright, so I’ve told you about “the force”. Now for The Dark Side. There is only one thing that this thing completely sucks at (literally)….the wallet! It’s not a cheap box. However, there is a bright side to dumping this much cash into 2 preamps, particularly for studios that are mostly overdub style studios. Investing this many Ben Franklins into the TNT is going to provide you with more tonal colors than any other preamp I know of. If there are even 2 preamps out there than can pull off the big tube sound and pull off a very Neve-style sound and have all the flexibilities when it comes to transformer saturation, impedance, and the color thingy I want to see them. I’ve never encountered it. I know the Focusrite Liquid Channel could be an option but I’m a little apprehensive of the emulators by instinct alone.

Basically, it goes like this. It’s gonna cost you a lot more than $2,700 (street) to get this many preamp colors. Of course, none of us are engaged in color collecting contests. However, I’m convinced that, especially without additional gadgetry, no preamp is perfect all the time. It seems that when one preamp brings out the good stuff on one source it brings out the bad on the next source. For those of us who need to track everything basically through the same 2 channels I think the Manley TNT is a total freakin’ winner!

If you are an experienced recording dude, you know where the preamp sits on the totem pole of recording junk to think about. Preamps don’t make up for crappy instruments, crappy songs, crappy performances, or crappy room acoustics. PERIOD. So if you are recording at home with a 2 channel audio interface with crappy studio monitoring and $7 in your bank account, don’t bother. If you’ve got the cash and nothing else to do today, the Manley TNT is WAY cooler than buying a high end riding lawn mower….then again, so is paralysis. (That joke isn’t meant to make fun of people in not-so-ideal physical conditions or professional lawn care dudes. It’s meant to be a sledgehammer in the face of suburbia USA.)

I’m buying the damn thing. Enough said!

Audio Clips
Want to hear the Manley TNT head to head against the following preamps? Check out Killer Home Recording today! You can hear the Manley TNT go head to head with the following preamps on male vocals, female vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass amps, bass DI, and drums.

Martech MSS-10
Truesystems P-Solo
Great River MEQ-1NV
Presonus ADL600
Trident S20
Vintech 1272
Presonus Studio Channel
Presonus Digimax D8
M-Audio Octane

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

6 responses to Manley TNT Mic Preamp Review

  1. Thanks, good article.

  2. Whow! Nice detail in the review.THx very informative.

  3. As an owner of a GML (manufactured by Manley) 2020, and former owner of a Martech MSS 10, comparing the MSS 10 to ANYTHING as radical as the TNT is odd, to say the least., Those who own/owned a Martech MSS 10 were looking for NO COLORATION. NONE. ZERO, BUPKIS.
    This is NOT to say the Manley isn’t a fine box IN IT’S OWN RIGHT.

  4. I thought the Martech MSS10 was quite colored actually. I didn’t feel it was attempting to be neutral. I’ve used straight wire preamps in the past and the Martech has a bigger low end and more upper midrange harmonic content than any of them.

    I come from the camp that straight wire preamps are boring. That’s my personal view anyway. I didn’t feel the Martech was boring in any way.

    Calling the TNT radical seems strange to me because the unit has so many variations and possibilities. While cranking up the Iron and utilizing 60s or 70s mode results is extreme color for a preamp, the clean mode isn’t all that far from what the Martech did. At least this was my experience when playing with them.

    The Manley feels a hair closer to the British preamps (Neve) than the Martech to my ears, but not exactly.


  5. Hahahaha…
    “but you can record girls…”