Studio Review: Universal Audio Thermionic Culture Vulture for UAD-2 and Apollo by Rich Tozzoli

The Thermionic Culture Vulture is one of those pieces of gear I’ve heard about for years, but never actually had in my hands.
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Rich Tozzoli
PAR Software Editor

rtozzoli@nbmedia.com The Thermionic Culture Vulture is one of those pieces of gear I’ve heard about for years, but never actually had in my hands. The hardware is a hand-built, 2U rackmount valve unit made by Thermionic Culture that produces varieties of harmonic distortion. With EF86, 5963 and 6AS6 tubes, transformers, capacitors and filters, as well as the ability to adjust bias and drive, it can go from subtle to screaming. [Read PAR Contributor Rob Tavaglione’s full review of the hardware Culture Vulture here: http://www.prosoundnetwork.com/article/review-thermionic-culture-culture-vulture-/15370.-Ed.] However, with the release of Universal Audio’s V7.8 software, the Culture Vulture is available on your desktop for UAD-2 hardware and Apollo interfaces.

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Each channel (1 & 2) features Drive, Bias and Distortion Type with choices of Triode, P1 (Pentode 1) or P2 (Pentode 2). Below that resides a switch for Overdrive and Filter (OFF, 9 kHz, 6 kHz). There are dual VU meters, a Master Power button, On/Off switch, Control/Link switch, and a Mix knob for wet/dry control. There is also an Output level knob (1-11) and a Bypass switch for each channel.

In general, Triode mode is for gentle warming. Pentode 1 has more edge and Pentode 2 even more. The Drive knob and Overdrive switch hit the 6AS6 tubes for up to 20 dB of nastiness. The only real difference between the hardware and software versions is the addition by UA of a wet/dry Mix control and the Link function for stereo imaging.

Since I like to add grit to my bass tracks, I thought that would be a good place to start when checking the software out. I jumped into the presets, which are actually all named for engineer/producers. The first one was the Chris Coady > Better Bass. On my ’69 Fender P, I loaded it up. Sure enough, it was just that—better bass. A few quick clicks on the cool blue ‘Power’ knob confirmed it. I like this thing! The Drive and Bias were up around 4 and the Distortion Type was Triode. I lowered the Output just to make sure that "better" wasn't just "louder." No, it wasn’t. The bass had a touch a grit, presence and thickness that worked immediately in the track. Pushing up the Drive even a few numbers gave it even more sack but added more gain, so I lowered the Output level to compensate. By pushing up the Bias a bit, you can get almost a sense of compression happening; it sounds like tubes are being squished. It reminded me of the old James Jamerson Motown sound and I just left it as is—when it works, it works.

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Next I tried it on kick drum, recorded with an AKG D112. Loading up a preset called Clearer 808, the Kick got a bit mushy, but it did sound like smacking analog tape, that’s for sure. I dialed back the Drive and Bias a bit and then played with the Mix for Wet/Dry control; that definitely added more attitude. I thought this might work great in parallel mode, so I placed an instance on a stereo Aux track and loaded one up. I put my usual Pultec EQP-1A back on the kick and sent some to the Vulture. I put the Mix knob up to fully Wet, and dropped it into P1 with some Bias and Drive. This gave the kick some good analog thump on the bottom and a bit more forward presence. Doing it this way let me retain my original kick sound, but bring in some extra juice.

Since the track I was mixing had acoustic guitar that was doubling the electric, I figured, ‘why not try it there and go for an effect?’ I loaded it onto the track, a Martin O15M recorded with a Miktek C7 large diaphragm mic. I checked out the preset called Even Harmonics, which sounded like Pete Townshend playing through a Hi-Watt. At this point, I realized the Overdrive switch has to be down to be ‘on,’ which is the opposite of what I expected. Now I played again with the Mix control until the acoustic had just a sense of grit to it, and once again, I saved a preset—I’ll use this again for sure. So in order to get a nasty distorted sound, just dial the Mix up higher; to lessen the effect, just dial it down until you get what you need.

Now to a vocal. On a male lead, tracked with a Neumann U67, I loaded in a preset called BG Vocals Excitement. It was a bit aggressive with the saturation, but bringing down the Drive just a touch nailed it. The before and after actually made it sound like he stood a few inches closer to the mic. It has a real in-your-face thing that I didn’t expect to get from this plugin. It brought up the bass response of the voice a bit as well, but in this case, it was a good thing. I then experimented with the Filter, checking out the 9 and 6 kHz settings. While I clearly heard it working, as expected it sounded better with the Filter Off (which unlike the Overdrive is marked OFF when set to the up position). Once again, I could hear this working great in a bus/send configuration on an Aux for parallel processing.

Finally, for this test, I placed a stereo instance on the Master Bus, and just played around with Distortion Type and Bias controls, as well as the Output Level. Here’s where the Bias makes sense to turn up high, because as you do, the Drive has less impact. So you can turn the Bias up, add a touch of Drive, and get a nice tape saturation effect going.

Overall, the Thermionic Culture Vulture is undoubtedly a useful tool. It added something to every instrument I put it on, especially when used sparingly, but you can also use it aggressively if you want that effect. To warm up your tracks and give them thickness and attitude, take this baby for a spin.