Jon Bailes and Vic Keary established Thermionic Culture in 1999 with a mission to enlighten the sonic alchemists of the planet (us) to the virtues of high quality valve circuitry.
Keary had a long and distinguished career as a producer/engineer building his own studios and gear. He designed the Culture Vulture in a pub, over a beer, and it soon became a unique and iconic chunk of hardware. Almost a decade later, thanks to the input of guitarist and circuit head Ricky Sharp, the Solo Vulture has hatched.
The Solo Vulture is a Black 2U high, six-inch deep rack unit containing three valves. Round the back is proper IEC mains and studio friendly ins and outs on 1/4-inch jacks. The front panel looks like it means business.
Four old-school 'chicken-head' knobs handle input levels and distortion and five regular round knobs handle EQ, filters and output levels. A 1/4-inch jack DI input for instruments is in the bottom left corner, and there's another 1/4-inch footswitch socket over on the right next to the Channel Select switch.
The power switch and a groovy big green lamp are on the right, and the meter sits slightly right of centre. This asymmetry looks great, and the unit feels dependable and roadworthy, and given the inclusion of an instrument input and channel select functions, it's clear that the Solo Vulture is intended to nest in a live setup of some kind.
It distorts sound with valves. Unlike other types of distortion, valve distortion can vary from a subtly warm, thickening effect that adds 'life' and 'colour', to destructive, barely recognisable filth. These effects are very useful in the studio, and employed with skill, can really make a mix jump out the speakers. There are Clean and Dirty channels with their own output level control.
Channels can be switched using the front panel switch or an external footswitch. The Solo Vulture is happy with instrument inputs on the front and balanced or unbalanced input at the back, and the input level selector has 5-25dB of input gain so you should be able to wang virtually anything through it with sufficient welly.
Thermionic Culture Solo Vulture Audio: Example 1 (Drums)
The Clean channel is clean. That's it. The Dirty channel is where the action is. The Drive knob goes up to 11 as does the Bias knob, which deprives the distortion valve of voltage to create different (and extreme) flavours of signal destruction.
The Drive and Bias control are the most influential, but the four position Distortion knob is also key to getting exactly what you want: 'T' (Triode) is smooth 2nd harmonic distortion; 'P' (Pentode) has added odd harmonics and more edge; 'SQ1' has a tendency to extreme 'sagging' or compression, possibly to the point of killing the sound completely; and 'SQ' is a kind of super-distortion that can almost add another octave to the sound.
There are three EQ controls to further refine your sound: Presence offers two levels of broad upper mid-range lift; Mid Lift is a notched, five position, high 'Q' mid-range boost around the 1kHz mark; LPF is a lowpass filter with three settings to filter out unwanted high end chaos caused by the distortion. It all makes perfect sense, but what does it sound like?
We immediately plugged our Telecaster into the front panel and plugged the low level output of the Solo Vulture into our AC30. The Clean channel is clean. Flicking the channels switch brings in the distortion. Within 30 seconds we had Drive set to 8, Distortion set to P and the Bias around 0.2mA. Without touching the EQs or filters our amp sounded seriously good. It had a thicker sound with more defined 'edge' than we've ever heard.
Thermionic Culture Solo Vulture Audio: Example 2 (Guitar - Wallace Amp)
We achieved similar deep-rooted satisfaction when using the Solo Vulture in front of a Kemper Profiling Amp. Our unique profile of a Wallace Redhead amplifier was made instantly better. We didn't want to turn it off. Vulturizing beats and basses was equally fun, and the Solo Vulture would sit snugly next to our Sherman Filterbank and guitar pedalboard for studio mangling duties.
Thermionic Culture Solo Vulture Audio: Example 3 (Bass)
Check out the audio files to hear the types of distortion on offer. It does subtle very well. It's fab for adding depth and edge to vocals - in fact there's nothing that goes through it that sounds worse. Overdistorted maybe, but that's your fault!
The Vulture sound is also great blended with clean signal. Keary tried out a blend control alongside the channel switcher but decided to leave it to the end user to decide on their own methods.
For most guitarists this would be a luxury purchase. Although the Solo Vulture sounds brilliant it does weigh in at over a grand - quite a spend considering the variety of stomp boxes out there that do a similar job. For the guitarist-cum-producer it becomes much more of a prospect, being something that would become an addictive studio workhorse. We fall into that category, and we're going to have to buy one.