september 2010

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
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
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.

Street $169 - Tech 21 -

Download Example 1
Clip recorded with Schecter Jeff Loomis 7-string, Creation Audio Labs MW1 Studio Tool into Pro Tools HD3, no EQ, dry. 
U.S. Steel

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.
Buy if...
you want hulking, Recto-like muscle in a pipsqueak-sized box.
Skip if...
you prefer a high-gain option that lets your guitar’s voice shine through.

Street $169 - Tech 21 -

Download Example 1
SansAmp engaged
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
The Leeds pedal is designed to emulate the cool sonic characteristics of a Hiwatt head. The Mid control is voiced at 400 Hz—the lowest of the three pedals reviewed here—while the Low and High knobs are voiced identically to the Oxford. But tonally, this pedal has little in common with the Oxford, as it dwells smack dab in the middle of Hiwatt-land. The Character control has the widest tonal range of the pedals I tested. It not only cleans up significantly in the lowest registers, but it also goes far beyond what a typical Hiwatt would be able to serve up in gain. As the Character knob spins to the highest settings, it really sounds like a full-tilt stack with the bark and bravado we’re accustomed to hearing.

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.
Buy if...
you want Pete Townshend-style tone with more gain possibilities.
Skip if...
you prefer carrying a 100-pound amp to get that tone.

Street $169 - Tech 21 -

History and value of the Ampeg Portaflex

Hey Zach,
I’ve got an Ampeg B-15, serial number 0137XX, and I suspect it is from the mid 1960s. Can you tell me a little about my B-15 and what it is worth today? Also, do you know of where I could get a replacement Lucite plate?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Hey Art,
Ampeg’s B-15 is one of my all-time favorite amps, not only because of its fantastic tone and universal application, but also because of its unique design and versatility. While Ampeg founder Everett Hull didn’t reach the success that Leo Fender achieved, they were two of the most innovative men in the guitar industry between the 1940s and 1960s. Hull created an upright bass pickup by mounting a transducer on an extended peg that was inserted into the body of the bass. Hull received a patent for his amplified peg (Ampeg) design in November 1947 and began manufacturing them in New Jersey with his new partner, Stanley Michael.

Shortly thereafter, Hull and Michael went their separate ways and Hull moved Ampeg to Manhattan where he slowly began building amplifiers and developing the Ampeg name. Ampeg introduced a variety of guitar, bass, and accordion amplifiers throughout the 1950s, and in mid-1956, he hired Jess Oliver, who became Hull’s right-hand man through most of the 1960s and is mainly responsible for designing the Portaflex. Ampeg was always trying to perfect the tone of their amplifiers and Oliver began experimenting with designs such as a double-baffle porting system and a closed-back reflex cabinet. Oliver also borrowed a design from an old sewing machine where the unit would flip out of the cabinet.

The first Portaflex amp was formally introduced in 1960 as the B-15. The double-baffle porting system gave the amp what Hull described as “the creamiest tone.” At the time, combo amps were the norm, with all components housed in a single cabinet, but heat from the electronics often caused the amp to overheat and made the speaker fail. Separate head and speaker cabinet systems, often referred to as piggybacks, became a solution in the early 1960s, but it also negated the portability of the combo. The Portaflex addressed both of these issues, as the electronics were mounted on the top panel that could be flipped over. In transit, the electronic components were flipped down and housed inside the cabinet. For playing, the head was flipped up and exposed. Four latches secured the top to the cabinet and the top was entirely covered so it matched the cabinet regardless of which position it was in. With Ampeg’s Portaflex design, users didn’t have to worry about their amp overheating while they were still able to transport it relatively easily. In fact, Ampeg offered a heavy-duty four-wheel dolly for these amps that became standard equipment on later models.

Much like all of Ampeg’s amps, the B-15 underwent constant change, and the B-15 was replaced by the B-15N in 1961. In 1962, Ampeg updated the B-15N with a solid-state rectifier called the B-15NB and introduced their famous “blue check” vinyl covering to their entire amp line. Ampeg went back to a tube rectifier and changed to a printed circuit board in 1964 (B-15NC). This model lasted until mid 1965, when they introduced the B-15NF with fixed bias tubes and a single-baffle cabinet.

According to the serial number 0137XX, your amp was built in 1965, which would make it either a B-15NC or B-15NF. Your B-15N has either a 25-watt (B-15NC) or 30-watt output (B-15NF), one 15" speaker, a six-tube chassis with two 6L6 power tubes, and two channels with three inputs and Volume, Treble, and Bass controls for each channel. One of the coolest features of the B-15N was the Lucite Ampeg panel that illuminated when the amp was turned on. This panel sat in the middle of the head and it could be custom ordered with the user’s name engraved on it.

There are a few things to note about Ampeg production from this time. Hull was not a fan of rock ’n’ roll music and never designed an amp for this genre. Therefore, power ratings were very conservative and Ampeg discouraged users from increasing volume to the point where they distorted. In fact, most amplifiers had accordion inputs throughout the 1960s, and Ampeg amps were never really marketed to rock players until Hull left the company in 1968. Ampeg went through numerous ownership changes over the next two decades with Unimusic taking over in 1967, Magnavox in 1971, and MTI in 1980.

St. Louis Music bought Ampeg in 1985 and finally returned some stability and respect to the brand. The company also reissued the B-15N Portaflex with blue check covering in 1995. Ampeg was purchased by LOUD Technologies in 2005, and in 2010, they introduced the new Heritage Series that is produced in the US.

The B-15N has held relatively steady in the used market and is currently worth between $1200 and $1500 in working condition. Gregg Hopkins of Vintage-Amp Restoration reproduces these Lucite plates for the B-15 and can even personalize it with your name. Given its cool features and history, the Ampeg B-15 is definitely treasure.

Source: Ampeg—The Story Behind the Sound by Gregg Hopkins and Bill Moore.

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The lithium battery-powered tube amp has arrived -- but how does it sound?

Download Example 1
Clean1 - Neck Pickup, Reverb at 11 o'clock, Gain at 2 o'clock
Download Example 2
Clean2 - Bridge Pickup, Reverb at 9 o'clock, Gain at 12 o'clock
Download Example 3
Overdrive3 - Bridge Pickup, Reverb off, Gain at 2 o'clock
All samples recorded with a Gibson SG and a Shure SM57.
Thanks to the battery-powered wireless age and growing popularity of hybrid vehicles, mining of lithium has become a booming worldwide industry. Lithium, the lightest of all metals, is also used in medical equipment, fireworks, nuclear weapons, aircraft, and, at last, battery-powered, tube-equipped guitar amplifiers. Grid 1’s debut amp, the G1, is a revolutionary device. Based out of Vallejo, California, the company hopes to bring good guitar tone to areas unreachable by extension cords. In the G1, one could argue that they’ve started with one of the most difficult challenges—building a loud, battery-powered amp with a tube preamp.

The Big Picture
The G1 is a surprisingly lightweight (40 pounds), two-channel 2x12 combo with a preamp that uses a pair of unusual, mid- 20th century 1U4 portable-radio tubes. The 60-watt, class D digital power section is fed by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that will retain its charge for more four hours. This relatively small, lightweight battery rests in the bottom of the cabinet, nearly invisible, and it can accept anywhere from 90 to 240 volts—which means you could charge it anywhere in the world without hassle. A small LED on the battery changes color to indicate whether it’s charged or charging. The same idea applies to the power jewel light on the front panel.

The standard G1 comes with beige Tolex, brown piping, and tweed grille cloth. The amp looks sharp, though on the unit I tested, the piping was loose on a few cabinet corners. For guitarists who enjoy custom gear, Grid 1 offers a variety of grille cloths, as well as hardwood cabinet upgrades that include beautifully stained maple, elm, bamboo, birch, and mahogany. The amp’s lack of speaker output jacks means you’ll have to do a bit of rewiring to use your favorite extension cabinets. But here’s a handy feature: The G1 includes an effects loop, and its Send jack doubles as a direct out. This allows you to mate the distinctive 1U4 preamp tubes with an external tube power amp of your choice.

The Tones
Volume-wise, the Grid 1 was able to amplify my Gibson SG loud enough for small- to medium-sized venues—and with very little noise. The open-back cabinet comes loaded with two Eminence Red Coat neodymium speakers, and the included two-button footswitch allows you to toggle between the clean and overdrive channels, as well as switch the G1’s analog, solid-state reverb circuit on or off. I was only moderately impressed with the reverb tone, which tends to sound brittle and unnatural. However, each channel features an independent reverb level so you can set up contrasting sounds— like a thick, clean ’verb and a barely wet overdrive—and switch between them.

Each amp channel includes dedicated Gain and Volume controls, as well as Bass, Mid, and Treble EQ knobs. The EQ was a tad subtle for my taste and, in general, I found myself wanting more control over the frequency spectrum. Like many Fender amps, the G1 includes a Bright switch, and I found it very helpful due to the amp’s somewhat dark voicing.

My favorite part of the G1 is the complex and unique preamp voicing provided by the 1U4 pentode preamp tubes. This is where Grid 1’s engineers show their skills. When overdriven, these tubes have a soft, fuzz-like quality in the higher frequencies and a robust growl in the low end. The sound is not exactly like any other overdrive I’ve heard, and it totally works.

Though the 1U4 tubes provide the basis of the amp’s distinctive tone, Grid 1 chose them primarily for practicality. First used in the 1940s and ’50s in battery-powered radios, these tubes require little current and therefore conserve juice. When driven hard, they produce unique upper harmonics. And with the gain dimed on the overdrive channel, you can clearly hear the characteristic screeches and squeals of electricity traveling through a vacuum tube. Pick harmonics sound sharp and clear, giving every stroke a decisive attack. I found the G1 capable of blues, jazz, and rock, though not metal, and the tone remained the same whether it was plugged into its AC wall adapter or running on battery power.

The Final Mojo
It’s no surprise that the G1’s digital power section doesn’t really provide any sonic enhancements. So guitarists who require a tube power section should look elsewhere. But it shouldn’t all just be about tubes. The real burning question is whether a battery-powered amp with a tube preamp and a digital power section can give you pleasing, usable tones. And there are two answers, one for people who need a battery-powered amp and one for those who don’t.

If you have access to power, the Grid 1 may or may not be tonally compelling—it’ll just depend on your willingness to break with some traditions. But the battery does keep you disconnected from the grid and all the wonderful spikes and breaker problems that every gigging musician has endured at some point.

If you have situations where you could really use a battery-powered amp, then the G1’s open-back design will radiate plenty of volume with more than enough headroom in all directions—which is particularly important if you’re gigging outside or in other atypical venues. It tastefully executes blues, jazz, and other genres where the heavy lifting of a tube power section is not essential to the sound. I wouldn’t choose the G1 for recording hard-rock tones in the studio, but I believe it would perform capably in live hard-rock settings.

Considering that presently no battery-powered guitar amps come equipped with power tubes, I believe the G1 offers the best battery-powered tone you’re going to find, hands down.
Buy if...
you want to boldly play where no other electric guitarist has played before.
Skip if...
you’re dead set on a valve-only amp or you want an amp for studio recording.

MSRP $1795 - Grid 1 -