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Tech 21 Character Series – the Gig Savers

Posted by Six-String Samurai Gear Reviews on 5 July 2012

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:: Tech 21 Character Series – the Gig Savers ::

What happens if your amazing tube amp blows a tube or a fuse two minutes into your set, and you haven't got a spare? Don't fret (ha) - Tech 21 have got the answer.

Analog, baby!

Back in the day before we had things like the Line 6 POD HD500, the AxeFX, the Kemper Profiling Amp, waaaay back in 1989, a company called Tech 21 NYC introduced the SansAmp. It was literally that - a tool for playing sans (or without) your amp. Just like that, they kick started a range of guitar and bass DI boxes which featured modelling of famous amps, while being 100% analog.

Till today, that's still their design brief: make an analog pedal that models a classic amp sound, which you can use direct to a PA, into the front of an amp, into the effects loop of an amp, straight into a recording interface... pretty much anywhere really. However, while the original SansAmps only covered the general tonal palette of Marshall, Mesa and Fender style tones, the latest generation expands upon this idea and extends it to a host of equally classic amps. Enter the Character Series.

They've got Character!

Today I'm going to be talking about four pedals in particular - the Liverpool (AC30), Oxford (Orange), Leeds (Hiwatt) and Blonde (Fender). The first thing you'll notice is that these pedals each come in a nice little metal tin, which is a classy touch. The next thing you'll see is that the pedals are adorned with a printed grill cloth pattern that represents the amp that is being modelled. Out of the box you'll find an easy access 9V battery compartment on the back, or a DC power input on the top. Each of these is slightly bigger than a "standard" pedal, but they are still very compact and could easily be chucked into a backpack or guitar case for emergencies.

The controls on each one are pretty standardized - Level, Mid, Character, Drive, Low and High. Let's talk about some knobs.

Level. This is obviously, well, your signal level. One thing you'll quickly learn when you use one of these is that it's fully able to drive a line level signal to go direct to a PA, and as such it is capable of monstrous amounts of output. You need to be careful to match the output to the intended purpose - you can't slam the front end/effects loop of your amp and then wonder why you can't get a clean tone out of it.

Character. I like to think of this as the "era" setting. If you start low on the Character knob, you'll be in earlier, vintage tonal territories - Silver/Blackface amps for the Blonde, Britpop jangly cleans for the Liverpool, and so on. As you wind it up clockwise (and I find the Drive usually follows suit), you'll get into girthier, gruntier eras - super fat, compressed Tweed sounds for the Blonde, Brian May AC30-about-to-explode for the Liverpool, and Pete Townshend blowing the roof off for the Leeds, and so on.

Low/Mid/High. These three basically act as an active post-EQ. After everything else passes through the circuit, use these two to fine tune your tone to taste.

Being fully active, all of the knobs are highly sensitive, and a small adjustment can lead to a drastically different tone.
Alright... so let's get the low down on each one of these. The soundclips were recorded direct into a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface using a 2001 Gibson Les Paul Classic, with small amounts of reverb and compression added post.

:: Liverpool (AC30)
:: $299

That distinctive diamond grille tone is yours for the tweaking. From the jangle of mop-top pop to the top-boosted growl of mod rock, this amp style has a voice that shook generations. Tuned to deliver the growl of English Alnico Bulldog-style speakers, this pedal also gets thick with rich, even harmonics as the Character control is pushed harder. Push it to the limit and it will, it will, rock you.
The Liverpool has got to be my favourite of the bunch. On lower Character settings with the highs adjusted appropriately, you immediately get the distinctive chime that you'd expect from the Top Boost channel of an AC30. Dig in a little and it'll get a little grittier, but pull back and you can still get beautiful chime. Put a delay in front of it and you'll suddenly find yourself wearing a beanie and an Explorer and some Irish guy in sunglasses will appear from nowhere and start wailing away on the microphone.

Increase the Character and you start getting into Brian May territory - fat, sustaining rock tones but still retaining that Vox voicing. All the way up and you can easily achieve what usually takes an AC30, a custom treble booster, and some bleeding ears - arguable one of the most distinctive solo tones in the world, right there in a tiny stompbox.

That's not all it can do, though - monkeying about with the Mids control to scoop it a little, and pulling the Character controls back to suite, you can get a more modern, crunchy "chainsaw distortion" type of rock tone as well, reminiscent of The Edge on Vertigo (except I didn't use a Tele).

Let's listen to some clips:

:: Blonde (Fender) :: $299

Does a two-faced blonde sound like trouble? We hope so, when those faces are silver and black and this Blonde rocks pure American tone to the stratosphere. Sparkly, spanky cleans that overdrive with a satisfying low-end rumble become the punchy bark of hard-pushed tweed, maxing out in a fat sizzle of lead boosted tone. Take the reins and don’t spare the emulated Jensens®, this Blonde is a wild ride through American rock history.

Fender. The original big kahuna that ushered us into a new era of electrified instruments. No collection of classic tones would be complete without some Fender goodness. The Character knob on the Blonde takes you from Silver/Blackface style pristine cleans, to slightly overdriven blues licks, all the way to compressed, midsy Tweed roar. I don't think there's much else to be said past that. It sounds great, and is probably the most popular of the Character Series, most often seeing use as a clean platform to run a pedalboard into.

:: Leeds (Hiwatt) :: $299

We’re talkin’ ‘bout our generation of loudmouth yobbo tones. The massive headroom delivers the rich bell-like clean tones that drove the classic UK rock and pop bands of the ‘70s. Lean into high gain gear for a bare-knuckle growl that retains definition. Push it harder and you are live at Leeds. Laced with the aggressive punch of Fane®-style speaker emulation, this pedal is a windmill-inducing wizard.

Who's famous for using Hiwatts? Who? The Who! I must admit that I wasn't terribly familiar with their back catalogue, but I did my homework to absorb some of the Live at Leeds tone and have come out a convert! Pete Townshend fostered a generation of deaf rockstars by turning it all up to 11 and windmilling till the sun came up. This pedal is a tribute to that tone - balls to the wall rock done the old fashioned way. To me, the Hiwatt tone is almost more closely related to Vox than Marshall, but it's got it's own sort of chime, and a clear, articulate overdriven sound.

Now, Pete Townshend wasn't the only guy to rock Hiwatts. David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and Alex Lifeson of Rush have both been known to use them to great effect. The Leeds takes this into account, with the Character on low settings you can get a great Gilmourish clean, while on higher Character and Drive settings you can 70s prog all day long! It's especially cool at high gain settings because it retains a lots of clarity and note definition.

Check it out:

:: Oxford (Orange) :: $299

Get it on with this orange-flavored retro rocker. Experience T-rextacy with the greasy grit of ‘70s London glam, or take it deeper and darker into Paranoid vintage metal grind. Dime the gain to experience the sludgelicious roar of contemporary stoner rock pumping through a Vintage 30®-style 4x12 cab. From sweet cleans to crushing distortion, the Oxford is one juicy pedal.

Orange amps are cool. The other brand of "British" roar - with a characteristic girth and ballsiness in the lower mids making them sound a bit more hefty and grunty than a stock Marshall. Most world famously (within NZ) used by local boys Shihad. The Character knob here takes you from vibrant, deep cleans to grunty old school rock to sludgy doom riffs! Adjust the mids and Character accordingly and you can get a sizzling modern high gain tone too. Very cool stuff.

Get some:

:: Ins and Outs ::

So... more on application. Aside from running them straight into a PA, you can also run them straight into a clean amp, or into the effects return of your amp (basically putting it straight into the poweramp). The first thing to remember is that they've got so much output that this alone could overdrive your amp - so adjust the Level control accordingly!
The first thing I wanted to try was one of the Character Series with my Marshall AFD100. The AFD is basically a single channel, hotrodded gain monster, and as such doesn't have a clean channel. Want an AC30 tone as your clean channel at the press of a footswitch? No problem! I used a Radial Bigshot ABY to send the Liverpool's output straight to the poweramp when I wanted a clean channel, and it worked a charm! I'm definitely thinking of integrating this into my stage setup.

You can also run them into the front end of a really clean amp platform. The newer Character pedals come with a "Speaker Sim" defeat switch, but according to Tech 21 this is merely a high end roll-off, and to be honest I found at all times that it sounded best with the Speaker Sim button left engaged.

Okay, I'm off
Tech 21 Character Series - the ultimate gig saver. Keep one in your gigbag, on the floor of your car, in the hood of your hoodie, and when you most need it, it will swoop in and save the day, much like Batman. Or, if you're a hardworking muso and you're sick of busting your back carrying stuff around, you now have a great alternative which you can just stick at the end of your pedalboard, and go! And at the end of it all, when you have a song idea you need to get down in a hurry, just plug one into your recording interface, and Bob's your second cousin's uncle's girlfriend.


Samurai out, see you next time!

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