When given the opportunity to review Thermionic Culture's Phoenix 2-channel compressor, I couldn't help doubting the necessity of another entry into the high-end tube compressor market. But after using this British box extensively on a variety of tracking and mixing situations, my indie-rock skepticism turned to audiophile enthusiasm. This is one lovely device.
The Phoenix's Vari-Mu soft-knee design is said to be based on the legendary Altec 436 circuit that Vic Keary modified for Pete Townshend back in the '60s. Vari-Mu (or soft-knee) compressors are somewhat of a rarity these days-surprising since this method of compression, which increases the compression ratio as the amount of input gain is increased, is incredibly smooth and can really glue sounds together with very few artifacts.
No expense has been spared in construction, save perhaps for its light-gauge metal housing. To be fair though, the housing is perfectly fine and scores points for its copious venting-always a concern with tube gear. Speaking of which, the Phoenix's signal path is based completely around hand-picked, semi-esoteric tubes: PCC85, ECC81, and EB91. (Less obscure tubes can be used for replacement/repair, according to the spec sheet that came with it.) Amazingly, the Phoenix uses neither printed circuit boards nor ICs-the inner workings are point-to-
point wired by hand-and popping the top off reveals a beautiful layout of top-end components.
A handsome, tasteful-looking 3RU-height black box, the Phoenix has the necessary controls and nothing more. The front panel is graced by pairs of knobs for input gain, attack and release times, threshold level, and output gain. Additionally, there is a link switch for stereo operation as well as two discrete bypass switches. Oh, and I should probably mention the two HUGE, square, mechanical VU meters. These meters are not illuminated, which surprised me at first, but their sheer size and plain black-on-white color scheme makes them easily visible from across any room. (And no bulbs to burn out and replace-bonus!) Other surprises included the fact that most of the controls were not marked in any particular unit of measurement (time or dB for instance), but rather with simple and easy-to-read digits. This struck me as strange until I started using the Phoenix on music. Its compression and gain stages are so smooth, adjusting parameters became sort of a "listen and feel" thing. Really, nothing that went into the Phoenix came out of it sounding worse. And I'm not talking about "total tube saturation" kind of goodness; this is more of a very high-fidelity kind of musicality. You kind of can't go wrong. Bass tracks took on a hugeness, electric guitars became thick but not ugly, vocals were creamy and glommy. Percussion and room sounds could easily be manipulated with high input gain and short release times to create a stylized pumping. And as a mix compressor, the Phoenix is just about unbeatable. I mixed songs from Bow Thayer's new album through the Phoenix with just 1 or 2 dB of compression and was very happy with the extra glue that it transparently imparted. Not an exaggeration to say it is Fairchild-esque as a mix compressor.
With its steep price the only scary aspect of the Phoenix, all I can say is that you do indeed get what you pay for. ($4250 street; www.thermionicculture.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.