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electronic MUSICIAN

The Thermionic Culture Phoenix dual-channel tube compressor

March 6, 2006

U.K-based Thermionic Culture specializes in no compromise all-tube (“valve,” as the Brits say) professional audio equipment. The company was founded by Vic Keary, who’s been into the whole tube thing since he built his first studio in the ‘50s. He went on to build Maximum Sound Studios, which was later bought by Manfred Mann and renamed The Workhouse. He also built Chalk Farm Studios and the all-tube Chiswick Reach.

Thermionic’s products, including The Phoenix we’re looking at here, use only tubes in the audio signal path. The only solid-state part of the design is in the power supply. The circuits take ideas from the mid-20th century and update them for lower noise and distortion.

The Thermionic Culture Phoenix carries a list price of $4,500, which puts it squarely at the top end for a dual-channel compressor. Is it worth it? If you’re looking for an easy-to-use, stellar sounding compressor, then probably so: XLR ins and outs for each channel. Each channel has its own Gain, Attack, Release, Threshold, Output Trim, and Bypass controls, and a huge mechanical VU meter. The only other control is a Link switch.

The Phoenix uses a “soft knee” or “variable mu” approach to ratio — so the harder you hit the compressor, the higher the ratio. The ratio ranges from 1.2:1 to 5:1 (at 15dB compression). Attack times range from 4ms to 120ms, while release goes from 60ms to 2.2 seconds.

Each Phoenix comes with a test report sheet documenting its voltage measurements, frequency response, distortion, and the particular tubes installed in it.

And I found The Phoenix to perform as well as its price would lead you to expect it should. It’s one of those boxes that everything sounds better for passing through. I enjoyed it as a stereo compressor for tightening mixes and gluing tracks together. There’s plenty of control for evening out stereo bus levels.

But I really enjoyed The Phoenix as a dual-mono compressor applied to individual tracks. It was simply stellar on vocal tracks, rounding out the highs and mids, and tightening the low end. It doesn’t have a heavy “tube” sonic signature; rather it leans toward the audiophile side of the tube equation, adding richness and subtly smoothing the top end — basically it makes everything sound more pleasant and better. That isn’t to say it can’t punch the sound out when you drive it hard, especially with drums.

The Thermionic Culture Phoenix is one of those rare products that make everything sound better. The only real problem with it is the price — not that the price isn’t justified. But if you have the dollars to put the best in your studio, give The Phoenix a good hard look. It sits squarely among the “really good stuff,” and does its job perfectly. What more can you ask for?

So to sum on the upside: great sound, transparent compression, soft-knee ratio design; and on the downside: no sidechain and oooo, the price.

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