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August Issue
more... GearEffectsReviewsDistortionMiscOverdriveSeptember 2010Tech 21

Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series Oxford, U.S. Steel, and Leeds Pedal Reviews

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 Leeds models.

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 switched off.

Download Example 1
SansAmp engaged
Clips recorded with a 2003 Les Paul Historic R8, Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool, Pro Tools HD3 with Lexicon LexRoom reverb plugin
Oxford
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

Simulation button 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.
Buy if...
you want classic Orange-flavored tone in a compact pedal.
Skip if...
you need more modern tones.
Rating...


Street $169 - Tech 21 - tech21nyc.com