Three amp-emulating pedals from Tech 21
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|
|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
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.
you want classic Orange-flavored tone in a compact pedal.
you need more modern tones.
|Download Example 1|
|Clip recorded with Schecter Jeff Loomis 7-string, Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool into Pro Tools HD3, no EQ, dry.|
The U.S. Steel clearly borrows its inspiration from a Mesa/Boogie Dual or Triple Rectifier. Much like the Recto series, the U.S. Steel’s real strength lies in heavier music. The tone controls are voiced as follows: Mid at 450 Hz, Low at 125 Hz, and High at around 3.2 kHz. You can boost or cut these frequencies by 12 dB. The Character knob adds thickness to the Drive control settings, but also brightens up the sound—an effect that gets more pronounced as you turn the knob clockwise. Once again, the Speaker Simulation button mimics a Celestion-loaded speaker cabinet, and my ears tell me they were going for either Vintage 30s or 75s. You can’t be too literal about this, as it’s an emulation circuit, but it does a fine job of getting your tone in that ballpark when you’re going direct into a mixer or computer interface.
For me, Mesa/Boogie’s Rectifier amps have always worked really well for metal, and they particularly excel in the rhythm department. No doubt, there are legions of fans of this tone, which is why we’ve heard it on so many records. The U.S. Steel doesn’t disappoint in this respect—in fact, it covers it in spades.
Inspired by the look of the U.S. Steel sitting next to my Schecter Jeff Loomis 7-string, I plugged directly into Pro Tools through a Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool and threw up the devil’s horns. I was immediately hit with that ultra-subsonic low you can only achieve from this type of amp. Chugging, detuned riffs flowed easily from my hands and felt very natural and inspired.
However, I was surprised that, when I played a Schecter Hellraiser with EMGs through the U.S. Steel, it sounded very similar to my Les Paul with Sheptone PAFs. There was a slight difference in the gain, which was easy to compensate for, but the overall sound was clearly that of the pedal, not the individual guitars. So, while the Character knob brings in more thickness and heaviness as you crank it, the basic sound of the pedal is always very present.
The Final Mojo
If you’re after a mammoth, Recto-inspired sound but have to record direct, you could easily track with the U.S. Steel and few listeners would be the wiser. The pedal delivers an effective plug-and-play tone that effortlessly channels the spirit of the American metal amp.
you want hulking, Recto-like muscle in a pipsqueak-sized box.
you prefer a high-gain option that lets your guitar’s voice shine through.
|Download Example 1|
|Clip recorded with 2010 Godin Passion RG-3,, 65Amps Tupelo mic’d with SM57 into Chandler LTD1 no EQ into Pro Tools HD3 with Lexicon LexRoom reverb plugin|
To explore the Leeds, I plugged in my ’74 Les Paul Custom and brought the Character knob to about noon. This instantly transported me into ’70s Pete Townshend tone. With just a little movement of that knob, I could clean up the sound to get that jangle and percussive attack Townshend is so well known for. Though my ’74 has humbuckers, it was easy to dial back the Low knob a little and bring up the High control to mimic the mini-humbuckers on Townshend’s guitar.
The Final Mojo
I spent a great deal of time with the Speaker Simulation button engaged, and while it did create a little of that direct tone, it was still very usable, if not quite as explosive feeling. Plugging into a Krank Rev Jr. Pro driving a 1x12 cab with an Eminence Governor and disengaging the Speaker Simulation feature, I felt like I was playing through a mini Hiwatt. It was really that good. The Leeds’ preset card states the speaker emulation is based on a Fane cabinet, but since I’ve never actually played through one, I can’t verify the emulation’s accuracy. However, given the flexibility of the 3-band active EQ, we’d be splitting hairs to make a judgment on that. Once again, the pedal offered far more voicing control than an actual Hiwatt head. The effect reminded me of dialing in the tone of a mic’d amp using a good outboard mixer.
you want Pete Townshend-style tone with more gain possibilities.
you prefer carrying a 100-pound amp to get that tone.