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Hands-On Review: Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series Pedals

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Vintage and modern amp tones without the amps

By Dan Day
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer

Tech 21 gave the guitar and bass amp world an extra vigorous spin when it introduced the SansAmp in 1989. The pocket-sized tube amplifier emulator made it possible to consistently get your desired amp tone without buying a lot of amps and speaker cabinets or enduring endless tweaking of microphones and settings. That tradition of providing realistic amp tones at the push of a button continues with the SansAmp Character Series pedals.

The five SansAmp Character Series pedals work both onstage and in the studio. They can be used as a preamp to drive a power amp, studio mixer, or PA. They can also be fed into your existing guitar amp—giving you a virtual wall of vintage and modern amp voices.

From England to California

Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series Blonde V2 Distortion Guitar Effects Pedal
Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series British V2 Distortion Guitar Effects Pedal
Tech 21 California SansAmp Character Series CS-CA Distortion Guitar Effects Pedal
Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series Liverpool V2 Distortion Guitar Effects Pedal
Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series VT Bass V2 Distortion Bass Effects Pedal

Each SansAmp Character Series pedal is handcrafted in the USA and housed in a rugged metal casing with mono input/output and powered by a 9V battery or optional AC adapter. The graphics emulate the grille cloth and vinyl coverings of the amps they evoke, for example, the Liverpool pedal’s graphics recall the VOX diamond pattern.

The 100% analog circuitry of each pedal is custom-voiced to provide the distinctive and full tonal range of revered vintage and modern amplifiers. This includes tuning the pedal’s circuitry to simulate the speaker of each amplifier. There are six knobs to build and shape your desired amp tone: Level, Low, Mid, High, Drive, and Character. The first five controls are self-explanatory. The real magic lies in the Character control. As its name indicates, it changes the amp tone characteristics—or distinctive voicing—produced by the pedal. Adjusting the Character also influences the attack and drive, which means you should also adjust your level and tone controls accordingly. Each pedal comes with a card that shows how to set the controls to achieve the legendary amp sounds.

The Blonde pedal is based on the famous family of amps from Fullerton, California that includes the models with the black control panel, or blonde covering, and tweed grille cloth. The Liverpool gives you a complete range of VOX AC-30 sounds from clean jangle through singing Top Boost, Class A crunch, on up to Dr. May overdrive. The British pedal can be tweaked to generate everything from Bluesbreakers overdrive to Plexi and metal high-gain tones. The California pedal is based on the Mesa Boogie line and lets you dial in sounds from classic clean to the Santana-like sustain of the Mark II on through to the high-gain crunch of the Rectifier series. The VT Bass lets you choose from Ampeg SVT, flip top, crunch, or progressive rock distortion bass tones.

Sound check

In my home studio I plugged the Character Series pedals into my computer’s soundcard to record guitar and bass tracks for a tribute to, and mini history of, rock guitar instrumentals. Come to think of it, it’s also a mini history of classic guitar amps. The tune is a pastiche of several well-known songs that I collectively dubbed “Surfwalk Jangle-Boogie-Bop Time.” The piece opens with a stately minor key slide guitar theme using the Blonde pedal’s Character and Drive knobs set below 12 o’clock to add a little bit of compression. This produces silky-smooth slide notes with just enough holdover to blend into each other resulting in a tone I describe as “ringing warmth.”

Rhythm guitars made jangly by the Liverpool Pedal kick off the next section. Shifting to a major key, the two lead guitars harmonize a theme at first using a clean California amp sound then switching gears to a grittier Mark II sound. The final section is full-steam-ahead boogie with rumbling bass courtesy of the VT Bass pedal and two guitars trading riffs: one using the Plexi roar of the British pedal and the other powered by the California cranked to its high-gain Rectifier crunch.

Live gig

I tried out the Character Series pedals while playing with my band at a 60th birthday party. We were asked to play songs from the ’60s. I put the Blonde and Liverpool pedals in my effects chain while the other guitarist added the California and British to his pedalboard. Both of us were using classic tube amps with single-coil and humbucker-equipped guitars.

The British pedal with Character set to 10 and Drive to 1 provided just the right amount of gritty distortion for the main sitar-like riff to “Heart Full of Soul.” Setting Character and Drive just below 12 ensured authentic-sounding London blues-rock tones. The 12-string sounded full and jangly on “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”—powered through the Liverpool pedal set to provide some compression with high-end boost. The Blonde was set just past 12 to churn out some percussive chunk for Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran rockers. The late ’60s were covered by the California and British pedals fueling power trio favorites by Cream and Hendrix.

After the gig, my co-guitarist enthusiastically ran down his reactions to the Character Series pedals. “I really got into the pedals, they did what they said they would do. The cards that show how to set the controls got me started with some familiar tones. Then I just started exploring, digging deeper. There’s so much flexibility and interaction among the controls that I couldn’t begin to count how many tones are possible. These pedals produce lots of gain—when I turned up the Character knob I brought the Gain down a couple of notches. As an owner of a Mesa Boogie, I especially liked the clean sound of the California. I adjusted Character and Gain to get the smooth sustain of Eric Johnson or Cream-era Eric Clapton. The British pedal produced a bright Marshall sound and a good AC/DC tone. Lots of grit with tones dialed in super-accurately. I got a compliment from the bass player who said I ‘sounded great.’ I liked the smooth feel and steady response of the footswitch. With some stompboxes you really have to nail it to turn it on or off. It’s tough to choose just one, but I would definitely buy the California pedal.”

I agree, except I would get the whole collection. No more amp envy for me. Now I can just plug in the Character pedal that has the exact amp sound I’m looking for whether onstage or in the studio.

Tech 21 Power Engine 60

The Character Series pedals sound great when plugged into the Tech 21 Power Engine 60. It’s a 60W powered extension cab that amplifies the tones produced by the Character pedals (or any standalone preamp) with no additional coloration. The cab is also designed to complement the Trademark 60 combo. Multiple Power Engine cabs can also be daisy-chained for more power onstage. Features include a special-design 12" speaker, level control, 3-band EQ, as well as 1/4" and XLR I/O. Also available in 2x12 and 4x10 configurations.

Tech 21 Power Engine 60

Features & Specs

All Character Series pedals (Blonde, British, California, Liverpool, VT Bass):

  • Knobs: Level, Mid, Character, Drive, Low, High
  • Speaker cabinet simulation – individually voiced for each pedal
  • 1/4" I/O
  • Power source: 9V battery (not included), optional Tech 21 DC2 power supply (9V DC 100mA minimum) 2.1mm female plug, center negative

Uses:

  • Stand-alone preamp can drive a power amp, studio mixer, or PA system
  • Plug into guitar amp
  • Plug into computer soundcard

Tags: Effects Pedals Tech 21

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