Tech 21 has been pioneering the amp-in-a-pedal
concept since the late ’80s. The first
amp-emulating device I ever purchased was
a SansAmp, and I fell in love with it. The
combination of the SansAmp, a great guitar,
and a 4-track is indelibly etched in my best
memories of recording music and demos.
Tech 21 has applied their SansAmp technology
to a new line of analog pedals called the
Character Series. Each pedal in the line
is designed to emulate a specific make of
British or American guitar amp. Currently,
there are seven Character Series models
for guitar (and two for bass). I tested three
guitar versions—the Oxford, U.S. Steel, and
Like the original SansAmp, these Character
Series pedals are designed to be more versatile
than a typical stompbox. You can plug a
Character Series pedal into a guitar amp, or,
thanks to the pedal’s low-impedance output,
use it as a preamp to drive a power amp or
as a direct recording device plugged straight
into a computer interface or mixer.
The Once Over
I’m a sucker for good marketing, so when I got
a look at the “tins” each pedal is packaged
and sold in, it instantly brought me back to my
youth and reminded me of the days of “collect
them all” mania. In a smart move, Tech
21 uses a single, black tin box for the entire
Character Series line. Each box is wrapped in
a clear plastic slide cover that holds a card
with a picture of the pedal on the front and
tone settings on the back. The packaging
makes you feel like you’re buying a miniature
version of the amp each pedal emulates.
Of course, looks aren’t everything. Once
you get past the nifty boxes, the question
is, how do these pedals sound and, for the
price, can you really get great tones that
stand up to the classics?
First, let’s investigate the common features: Each
Character Series pedal is housed in a metal case
and sports the same six knobs: Level, Low, Mid,
High, Character, and Drive. As you’d expect,
Drive dials in the desired amount of gain, and
Level controls the overall volume to the input
of your amp or DI interface. Because the threeband
EQ controls are active, you can boost or
cut each pedal’s preset frequencies with great
precision. The variable Character knob moves
through different models in the emulated amp
line, and it’s this control that lets you explore a
pedal’s particular flavor. Each Character Series
model sports a Speaker Simulation button that’s
tuned to mimic the speakers and cabinet associated
with the amp the pedal emulates.
The pedals run on a 9-volt battery or optional
DC power supply. When running on battery power, the pedal’s “on” LED starts to
dim at around 6 volts—a handy feature for
gigging guitarists. Standard 1/4” input and
output jacks and a silent footswitch round
out the physical package. Like all SansAmp
pedals, Character Series models boast a
buffered bypass mode, which allows you to
run long cables and send your signal through
multiple pedals without incurring high-end
loss, even when the Character Series pedal is
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|Clips recorded with a 2003 Les Paul Historic R8, Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool, Pro Tools HD3 with Lexicon LexRoom reverb plugin
The Oxford is Tech 21’s take on a classic
Orange head. Whether they were going for an
OR-120 or OR-80, I won’t even try to guess.
According to the Oxford’s preset card, the
Mid knob is centered at 500 Hz with up to
12 dB boost or cut, while the Low and High
knobs are based on a ’70s British console EQ
and fixed respectively at 120 Hz (offering as
much as +22 dB boost or -12 dB cut) and 2.5
kHz (+30 dB boost or -12 dB cut).
The Oxford’s Character knob emulates the
famous F.A.C. (Frequency Analyzing Control)
midrange sweep that we know and love from
Orange amps. Turning the knob counterclockwise
tightens up the lows and thins out
the sound a little, while going toward noon
thickens the tone quite a bit. Beyond that,
the sound becomes brighter and more present.
Cranked fully, the Oxford’s Character
knob admirably mimics the “just about to
blow” sound I know all too well from my
Orange. It’s a spitty tone that gets a bit flutey
and is classic Orange all the way.
Engaging the Speaker
turns on the Oxford’s Greenback cab emulation.
(Tech 21 didn’t specify if this is a closedback
4x12, but that’s what I hear.) Because I
spend many late nights in the studio, this is a
great option when you can’t plug into a mic’d
guitar amp. There still is a bit of that “direct”
sound, but for a pedal at this price, it’s a
bonus feature that certainly works well.
As far as plugging into the front end of a
guitar amp, the Oxford fared best with a
fairly generic clean tone, which allowed the
pedal to do the heavy lifting. That said, I
did have fun trying the Oxford with a
gained-out amp, too.
The Final Mojo
I threw a variety of guitars at the Oxford,
including Les Pauls, a Strat, a Hamer Korina
Special, and even a late-’60s Gibson EB-O
bass. In every case, I was able to get great
Orange-inspired tones with ease. The pedal
has a surprising amount of gain on tap,
and having a full set of tone controls really
allowed me to voice the pedal to each guitar.
The combination of active tone controls and
the Character knob actually yielded more
sonic range than the real thing, yet even in
the most extreme settings, the Oxford always
produced inspiring sounds.
you want classic Orange-flavored
tone in a compact pedal.
you need more modern tones.