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Thermionic culture celebrates milestone

Doing things differently and individually is one of the maxims of valve-based audio specialist manufacturer Thermionic Culture, writes Jim Evans. It's no surprise, then, that the company chose not to celebrate its 10th anniversary - opting for the 11th instead.

 “You could put this down to my quirky sense of humour,” suggests Vic Keary who founded the company with Jon Bailes in the late 1990s. “Seriously, though, we like to do things differently and anyway, all our knobs go up to 11.”

To celebrate its 11th anniversary, Thermionic Culture released the Culture Vulture Anniversary Limited Edition, all 99 of which promptly sold out (or were given to special customers and friends, such as Liam Howlett of The Prodigy). The Anniversary model is based on the company’s current standard Culture Vulture but it has “far more radical possibilities”.

Keary continues: “The valves selected for the anniversary edition are Mullard and Philips NV, which owned 50% of Mullard. Mullard has a reputation for producing the best valves in the world and Thermionic has also specified the ‘M’ or military version, which was Mullard’s top grade model.

“The two input valves are Mullard M8100/CV4010, these are very high-gain, low-noise versions of the EF95, and provide better coupling for guitar and bass inputs with an even warmer sound and were also used in the very first hand-wired Vultures. The distortion valve is different too, another two Mullards, the M8196/CV4011 which is a low-noise version of the 6AS6 distortion valve as used in the standard Culture Vulture. The last valve used is a single Philips ECG type 5963 double triode as the output for both channels, it’s a very high-quality American-made version of the ECC82.”

Thermionic Culture is focused on producing “the very best all-valve design audio products”. In this era of mass-produced solid-state audio equipment it’s a refreshing change for a company to constantly strive for the ultimate all-valve signal path. Keary is keen to stress that Thermionic’s success is very much down to teamwork. “There’s 11 of us involved – not all at the factory – and we all believe in what we do.” (Well, there had to be 11, didn’t there?)

The owners and key people involved at Thermionic Culture are totally dedicated to valve audio equipment, all having many years of experience in recording and working with valves. Vic Keary built his first studio in the late ’50s and went on to build Maximum Sound Studios, which was later bought by Manfred Mann and renamed The Workhouse, Chalk Farm Studios, and the valve-based studio Chiswick Reach.

Jon Bailes, Thermionic Culture’s co-founder, is responsible for mechanical design and circuit board design and visual appearance. He has a wealth of experience as a chiefdesigner in the electronic manufacturing industry.

Horse (Mark Phillips) is responsible for quality control, while Thermionic Culture’s product developer Nick Terry, who came up with the idea for the original Culture Vulture, recently engineered The Klaxons and Franz Ferdinand.

He says: “The new PK settings are nothing like a traditional EQ, it’s extremely effective and brings life to mixes like nothing else, I recently used it on an album project and it has just become indispensable for me. We also have new squash settings which are really exciting but difficult to describe.”

With around a dozen specialist valve-based products currently in its catalogue, Thermionic has established a substantial following worldwide, notching up some serious sales figures along the way. “Right now we seem to be doing particularly well in Eastern Europe,” says Keary.

Thermionic Culture’s circuit designs draw on proven and established technology from the 1940s right through to the ’60s, but they’ve been refined and updated to achieve lower noise and distortion. Other circuits are Thermionic Culture originals.

Modern components such as precision metal oxide resistors and polypropylene capacitors are used only where they can improve sound or reliability, and hi-fi gimmicks such as gold-plated XLR connectors are eschewed. Valves are mostly military or industrial grade, selected and matched as necessary.

“Audio amplification, compression, mixing and equalisation took a backward step when solid-state technology was introduced,” continues Keary. “Valves are much more real and natural when amplifying and processing audio. We use no transistors or ICs in the signal path.”

“I’ve always believed that valves sound better than anything solid state,” concludes Keary, who prior to his involvement in the recording world, worked for the government – testing transistors for guided missiles. “There was a 95% rejection rate which really confirmed my beliefs.”

Thermionic products are exclusively distributed on a global scale by Unity Audio. There are a number of products in development, including new versions of the Phoenix, a mono version of the Vulture, and the Eagle which will be “a bit like a Fairchild 670 but quicker, brighter and better”.

Two further limited editions are on schedule to debut at AES in New York this month – anniversary models of the Phoenix master compressor using all Mullard valves and the Culture Vulture MV, which has five new PK settings and three squash settings as well as the T&P settings as on the standard model.

“People keep asking us about making equalisers – and we will be obliging with several models in the pipeline,” says Keary, who says at 71 he has no plans to retire. “I can’t stop now,” he declares.