The Culture Vulture, fun and useful.
As you know we really are into hardware/analogue sound here at No Dough, but we try not to be snobs when it comes to how we get that sound and in our modern world the possibilities are becoming endless. In fact when we refer to a Hardware or analogue sound, we are not just saying it HAS to come from hardware, no not at all. We use this terminology more as a shorthand for a nuanced, warm, musical sound and not even all hardware has that!! Continuing our mission to share some of the best new gear – whether it’s hard or software – or a mix of both – brings us to our review for the new UAD Culture Vulture. Once again surprise surprise this won’t be a straight forward review. What we are more interested in is showing you good people what you can really achieve with it – that’s why we are happy to recommend plug ins like the Culture Vulture, because it’s a tool that can give you something unique, special and super useful.
The hardware this new plug-in is based on has become a cult hit in recent years. The original Culture Vulture has a big following, especially in Rock and Pop music. The list of engineers using it reads like a Who’s Who? of top engineers, and its usefulness doesn’t just lie in Rock music. The flexibility and uniqueness of this unit mean it has fans and users in most genres of music. This is not surprising when it is packed with great sounding and varied valves on the inputs, outputs and also, of course, at the flexible distortion stages. This machine has become peoples’ go-to when they need to twist up a sound and change it in an interesting way. At around £1500 a pop they aren’t cheap and it’s testament to their flexibility and usefulness that I have to say they really are worth the cost, even to a project studio and especially for those working in a hybrid manner with software and hardware. This new software version from UAD gives you the same quirky drive and a hell of a lot of the character right from the box, for a fraction of the cost (that is: if your already packing a UAD card) Let’ take a look at what this beauty can do.
Technology marches ever onwards.
The biggest advancement in the world of VSTs over the past year or two has been the arrival of some convincing, authentic and musical distortions – something people who work inside the box have traditionally not had much access to, or at least what they did have access to was definitely in a different flavor put it that way. Every time you hear someone talk about running their synth out through something to warm them up, add a bit of life, when you hear people talk like that, what they are basically doing is getting bit of saturation or distortion on their crisp and precise digital sound. Why would they want do this? If the distortion is good, and the equipment well designed it can offer your sound extra dimensions, more weight, more bite, or less bite and more fullness to the sound; the options are almost endless with this bit of kit now available. It’s that wide variety of tones, drives and distortions that were missing before in the digital realm. We had a few options but they all sounded kind of the same and really were just not as good as we have in the real world (everything is subjective of course). With the Culture Vulture you are finally getting your hands on one of the more unique and riotous valve based distortion boxes out there but in VST form. This box can take you from subtle sound shaping and charactering all the way up to rock-your-socks-off ear bleed – all whilst retaining all the good tonal characteristics which made the original a hit with so many producers.
Why this is important ITB more than ever
This is important because it opens a new front in production for people stuck ITB. In the past they may not have attempted to drive and distort tracks so much as the results were often not really that musical. We now see more and more musically usable plug-ins created for us to play with and this opens up lots of options. Many people love the sound of older records and there was a lot of skill in moulding and shaping those records which was extremely difficult to do when you were working only ITB for all the tools you have at hand the toolbox was missing a few things. Now I want to talk through a few ideas on how you can make best use of the Culture Vulture. The uses are varied and you will be surprised as you can include it pretty much anywhere, and with a little care, get great results.
On the hardware as well as the plugin you get 3 choices of Tube distortion operation. I can’t argue with the choices: you get 1 triode mode and 2 pentodes which in simple terms give you choices between 2nd order and 3rd order harmonic distortion (Or both). It is this harmonic distortion that is especially useful in the mix, and I will go through some examples of possible usage later in the review. Harmonic distortion manifests itself as added overtones in your music, this can allow you to add an extra character to your sound which may be musical, unlike with digital distortion which can be random and utterly unconnected to the sound it’s distorting and therefore much less useful. Second Order harmonics are often called Even order harmonics – can be warm, round and mushy on the ear, even muddy at times (you still have to use your ears when working with these things), whilst Third order or ODD harmonics can often add a little more bite and cut. These are pretty subjective descriptors at best but if you want to take something away it’s that you get choices to take your sound in either direction and can also mix the two with your dry signal. That’s how you work with your palette of sound when it comes to distortion.
Drive and Bias
This is where the good stuff goes down! As you dial these in you change the sound in various ways depending on which tube setup you are using and often it can be a little bit wonky in operation just like the hardware giving you tonal changes and movement that can be unpredictable. There are a lot of different tones you can achieve just through these 2 controls. I found myself keeping the drive low and working with the bias which seemed to change the tone of the sound from thin to thick but just in the way the original unit was famed for its non-linear behaviour, it was a machine to experiment with and the plugin version captures just that. Playing with the bias on the real thing would change the current flowing through the tubes, starving them or letting it flow and the emulation is pretty bang on here. The function of the overdrive switch is to increase the range of both of these controls such that you can drive things a lot more.
Use in the mix
When I first got to grips with this plugin, I did wonder where I would find its best use especially in house and techno of the kind we make. Distortion is really important to a good electronic record and it was nice to see the sheer range you can get out of this machine. It is a box that is loved by people who like to take it to the next level – the overdrive switch caters for them quite well, but for our kind of music I found that to use it more subtly was the best option. I rarely engaged overdrive at all and the effect remained outstanding. In fact I would say the plug in did the more subtle things with more panache than the overdrive.
Let’s cover individual tracks first: if you have the DSP or the patience to bounce tracks you can get a really good sound by using this on just about everything.
CV on your Bassdrum
With your bass drum you want to have a nice deep but punchy tone, maybe a little bit of noise, but it’s really important to keep a nice shape to the sound so that your rhythm and groove doesn’t fall too flat. Keeping the drive low, start to pull the bias down, the sound will get a little mushed, as the plug in starts to bite on the sound a little. It’s important to make sure you have plenty of spare headroom as the level can increase quickly here. Now push the drive up until you start to feel the kind of warmth and distortion you like and you will notice that once you go past half-way things really start to get a little toasty – this is fine. Now use the wet-dry to back it off a touch to retain the transient and punch which is so important to a good bass drum sound – especially in house. I recommend you start in the first tube mode, which is mostly 2nd order distortion and this will keep a nice warm rounded sound. This works better for me but maybe you want a little more cut, in which case the other 2 modes might help. Always listen to the way your transients and dynamics are affected when working on your drums sounds, if you mush them up too much it could be detrimental to the balance of you mix so keep an ear on them.
Useful up top?
So when you are after those nice and sloshy hi-hats we all love from old records, distortion is one of several things you can employ to get a dirty sound. The watch word here is subtle – depending on the kind of distortion unit in use, you don’t want to overdo it, as hats can get harsh in an instant and there metallic tones will react quickly to being driven. Always listen out for that and know when you’re going too far. Keep things smooth and subtle, just try and change the tone slightly. However, if you’re willing to filter the hats a little by going crazy you really can get some full-on techno going here.
When it came to working on the bass, for me, this is where this plugin really started to come alive. Sounds with a nice solid tone really let it do magic. Bass is something that can always benefit from a bit of drive, be it subtly just to bring up some harmonics and make it sit in the mix a little better, or by hammering it and filtering after to make all manner of new tones. All modes really worked well here and offer a whole heap of possibilities. You can really get a good growl going, this is where is shows its heritage.
Synths are just as good a match to this as bass. If you can imagine: a lot of people use this on guitars for its tone, this is the plug ins forté. You can get a good fuzz going and then mix it, filter it and generally mesh it with your sound. I got a lot of cool changes by de-coupling the two sides of the stereo and having slightly different settings going on each sound to get some really wide sounding and unreal textures. Once again you can go from full on to subtle and you really SHOULD try both. When you turn the bias right up on the first and last tube mode you will find the sound sort of drops out and even gates in some situations, offering you some interesting choices. What you will find this excels at here is an ability to really sweeten a sound up, adding overtones whilst keeping enough control in the plugin to keep things in line.
Easy does it
Holding back and using this plugin in a more subtle way really opens up the many options and tones you can get out of it. A lot of people will like pushing it harder – into overdrive mode, but for me there is a lot of value in taking it a little easier, layering in the distortion with the wet dry control. This way you’re getting more subtle tonal changes which won’t make your sound or mix fall apart whilst having a huge impact on your tracks’ presence. Try tweaking the unit until you get a distorted tone that you really like and then backing it off with the control or the wet dry until you hear the original sounds shape become apparent again. This is a really good way to give your sound an edge and a designed aesthetic getting you away from vanilla digital sound, which is one thing that happens a lot ITB.
Keeping overdrive under control
When you are pushing this more in its overdrive mode, the high filters are absolutely vital, one thing I will say and it may be down to the way the 3rd order distortion is effecting the sound, the high end can get harsh so the high filters are essential to sometimes cut out that the harshness. Then you can push it harder to get some really crazy tones on the go whilst avoiding all the mess up top. Maybe couple this plugin with a moog filter or a filter you like for true tonal shaping goodness.
On the busses.
We have looked at what we could get out of this beauty on our tracks, now it’s time to look at using it on the buss. To be frank, that’s how a lot of people will get most use out of it, going off its quite high DSP usage, but hey you don’t get this kind of sound for free. On the buss you want to be careful and subtle with your controls, the bias is cool for really dialling up the warmth and can even start to choke out the sound at higher levels on some of the modes – which can be nice – but probably something for your tracks rather than the mixbuss. Once again clever use of the wet dry to keep the transients and dynamic of your mix is a good tool here just as it is on your drums. Think of the distortion – your tone machine and the wet dry is how you control how much of it is in the mix. At more subtle levels you can really achieve a popping sound and a lot of gel going on, you can start to chew it up and you can start to make it kind of fuzz depending on which tube setup you are using. Remember distortion is just a completely non-transparent compressor haha.
What the plug in does best?
This question is a funny one, with the hardware you would really say cranking up the gain and sending things into outer space, using the filters to keep the sound musical and not so harsh the hardware was a beast. Now this is still possible in the software but not quite with the same class, I think that is at the limits of where plugins are right now but offering you all the good things the hardware does. So when it comes down to what this plugin is best at I have to say it is absolutely nailing the lower distortion levels – here it really is amazing and worth every penny as a tone sculpting tool. Use this to warm up, fatten or give your sounds a more analogue feel and it’s going to give you some of the best bang for your buck in the software world.
Versus hardware: does it stack up?
Firstly, it offers a few extra features the hardware doesn’t. The addition of wet/dry is the most useful and notable addition. In terms of the sound, the plugin version does get a little more digital-sounding the harder you push it as we mentioned above, but only in a very subtle way. At more subtle usage levels there is plenty of beauty and tone to be got from it, but for the over the top, let’s-go-mental drive levels the hardware definitely still rules the roost. This is exactly what you would expect and how much important you put on the high drive levels is up to you. Remembering that the plugin is $300 and the hardware $1500. That said the plugin is super useful offering tones and refinements new to your toolkit and a lovely distortion sound that can really benefit your production. It captures the fun and unpredictability in use that made the original special, so to get a flavour of that in your DAW is always good news.
Is it time to throw away the hardware?
Possibly – you can run more of the software for the cost – but only just. DSP usage is starting to put some modern UAD plugs in the same price range as some lower priced hardware. In the original unit Thermionic Culture made a machine that was pure fun to use, this is not a clinical piece of equipment, this is one to experiment with, one to overdo it a bit then reign it back in. It’s fun and that’s what the plugin gives you just as well as the hardware does.