Versatile Character Series amp simulation pedals
By Phil O'Keefe
A while back, I reviewed the Tech 21 VT Bass V2 pedal, and I was impressed by its versatility and broad range of great sounds. This time we're having a look at a couple of the more guitar oriented pedals from the same "Character Series" -- The Tech 21 Version 2 Liverpool and Blonde pedals. Do they live up to the high standards set by the VT Bass?
Designed by Tech 21 head honcho B. Andrew Barta, the Character Series pedals were built to offer a range of sounds in particular amp categories. For example, the VT Bass has a decidedly Ampeg flavored sound, but the particular amp style that you're hearing depends on the position of the pedal's "Character" knob. On the VT Bass, it moves you from SVT flavors, to B15 Flip-top tones and on to even heavier and raunchier sounds as you really crank it up. Other pedals in the Character Series are designed to give you sounds from different families of amps from other companies. The graphics of the various pedals give them a distinctively "amp-like" appearance, with each being appropriate for the family of amps that they emulate. On the Liverpool, the faux "Tolex", gold "piping" and roughly hexagon shape of the pattern on the "grille cloth" call to mind the Vox family of amps and their distinctive diamond grille cloths, while the Blonde features a faux blonde (what else?) "Tolex" and oxblood "grille" graphic that brings to mind the classic cosmetics of some of Fender's early 60s era amps. Visually, there's no real ambiguity here -- if you're at all familiar with various amp brands, you'll have a good idea at a glance in terms of what amp family each Character Series pedal is trying to emulate.
There are some things that all of the Character Series pedals have in common. For example, all use buffered bypass switching with Tech 21's own quiet custom actuators. While the merits of true bypass vs buffered bypass are often debated, a buffered bypass makes sense for these pedals since it allows for a nice constant 1kOhm low impedance output that is suitable for use with multiple types of devices. The level is unity gain when bypassed, and I didn't notice any "tone suck" or other buffer related downsides that plague some other pedals. There's no "digitalness" to the pedals, because they're not digital -- they're 100\% all-analog circuits; while they're amp emulators, they're not using digital modeling. I should also say a little something here about the overall packaging, which is really nice. Sample settings cards are included to help you get started, and all-around, they have great documentation and manuals. You even get a Tech 21 sticker, and it's all packed in a spiffy biscuit tin type metal container. Classy!
Each of the Character Series pedals is designed to be flexible, and useful in multiple ways. For example, you can use them as a standard overdrive or distortion stomp box, but they also work great as a direct recording tool for going straight into your computer's audio interface or your mixing board. Additionally, they can serve as a preamp to drive a power amp or be fed directly into a PA system. This is a level of flexibility that most stomp boxes simply can't compete with.
The Character and Drive knobs are pretty interactive, and things tend to get heavier as you increase the setting of the Character control, but that can be dialed back -- or accentuated by the Drive knob, and its setting will also have a large effect on the amount of dirt and grit there is in the tone, regardless of what position the Character knob is in. The Character control not only affects the drive, but also the frequency response, so some EQ adjusting may be in order after making changes with this knob. The Level control sets the overall output of the pedal when it is engaged, and the range of this control is pretty broad, which allows the pedals to be used with a wide range of products with various ideal input level requirements; whether it be -10dBV line input on your DAW, or the 1/4" input on your guitar amp. Of the three EQ controls, the Mid knob is the most powerful in terms of tone shaping. It's not that the Low and High EQ are ineffective, but the Mid knob really has a large influence on the sound, and its frequency is tailored differently, depending on the particular Character Series pedal you're using. On the Liverpool, it's set at 500Hz, while on the Blonde, it's centered higher, at 1kHz. Unlike some amps, the EQ controls are not "passive", they're active, so you can not only cut with them, but also boost. Unlike earlier versions of these pedals which left the speaker simulation on at all times, the V2 models feature a switch to allow you to turn off the onboard speaker emulation, which is a welcome improvement that can come in handy for when you want to use the pedals as distortion boxes in front of your regular amp.
The graphics of the Blonde (Figure 1) practically shout "Welcome to Fullerton", but so does the sound. The speaker emulation is voiced to give you a Jensen-style speaker tone on this model. The Mid knob gives you +/- 12dB @ 1kHz, allowing you to further fine-tune the amount of midrange present; the amount of mids being one of the defining characteristics of various Fender amp models. The Character knob offers up "Blackface" and "Silverface" tones when set in its lower ranges, beefy classic Blonde era textures in the middle of its range, and when you bring it up past noon, things get very tweed flavored, with much more midrange emphasis than you'll find on the lower settings. Crank it to the max, and it sounds like you added a boost pedal in front of the amp to "hit it harder" and really make it break up. Juicy lead tones or sparkly clean rhythm tones are all in there, and I really have been having a lot of fun playing through this pedal, and it sounds especially nice as a overdrive with my Princeton Amp -- almost like I added a second channel to it.
Figure 1: The Tech 21 Blonde has classic Fender-inspired amp tones and cosmetics.
The look of the Liverpool (Figure 2) is decidedly British, but done in a way as to avoid an outright ripoff of the classic (and trademarked) Vox diamond grille cloth pattern. Although it shares the same +/-12dB of boost and cut as the other Character Series pedals, on this pedal, the Mid knob is voiced a bit lower, at 500Hz. The speaker emulation is also voiced specifically for this individual pedal, and is based on "British Alnico Bulldog-style" speakers. While purists will probably never be 100\% satisfied with anything other than a microphone capturing the sound of the real thing, it does a pretty good job of giving you some of the classic upper midrange kraang and chime of a blue alnico speaker. Lower settings on the Character knob give the Liverpool more of the early 60s Brit invasion AC15 and AC30 style tones. Moving the knob more towards noon gives the pedal more of a top boost model sound. I was able to dial some pretty darned convincing Tom Petty / Mike Campbell sounds in this region. As you go past 12 o'clock, the distortion increases until, when maxed out, you get highly saturated and sustaining Queen-esque tones that sound like a treble booster slapping the front end of a cranked top boost AC style amp silly. Very Bohemian!
Figure 2: The Liverpool has sounds that range from British Invasion jangle to heavily boosted "we will rock you" timbres.
Where do you put pedals like these in your pedalboard's signal path? It depends of course on personal preferences and on whether you're using the Character Series pedal as a preamp or as a amp replacement. Tech 21 recommends placing boosts, wahs, compressors and phasers / vibe pedals in "front" of the SansAmp pedals, and delays, flangers and reverbs after them, which makes sense and works well. These pedals do lack any kind of onboard reverb effect, and while it's probably asking too much to have it included, adding a touch of reverb and / or delay gives you a bit of the sense of room ambience that you can never get from a pedal that is running direct, and really furthers the illusion. The emulations are very good to begin with, but the sense of depth and space are improved with some ambience. Of course, if you're primarily using one as an overdrive or character pedal in front of another amplifier, then this is a non-issue. I really don't have much in the way of other complaints. As with the VT Bass, there is no labeling or position indication for the speaker emulation switch, but it's really not that hard to remember that when the switch is depressed, it's active, and when it's not, the speaker emulation is bypassed. Don't let the red LED next to the switch confuse you -- it shows the pedal's overall on / off status, and not the status of the speaker emulation switch.
I could see both of these pedals being really popular with home recordists. Most of us can't afford or justify a large collection of amps that include multiple models from multiple companies, but with two or three Character Series pedals, you can cover a lot of the same sonic territory and do it on a much more realistic budget, and without having to worry about where you're going to store your collection. Do you already use a Vox-flavored amp? I'd recommend getting the Blonde. It will give you the benefit of some alternative amp sounds on your recordings. Have a Princeton or other classic Fender-style amp? Get the Liverpool and add some new sounds to your rig. I could also see these being very useful as a back-up preamp for touring musicians who are out on the road. Did your tube head blow up during sound check? Grab your SansAmp and run it straight into the PA; have the sound person send some back into your monitors and to the FOH speakers for the audience and rock on.
I'm pretty darned impressed by not only how much of the flavor of the amps they are emulating they manage to get, but also by the range of amps within that family. Some pedals do convincing analog impersonations of specific amp models, but these pedals do really well with copping the vibe of entire amp ranges. Plus, they do so well in so many types of rigs -- straight into the PA or a recording system (and with speaker emulation) or running as a dirt box in front of your amp, their versatility is really cool. There are several other pedals in the Character Series, and while I have not tried them all, based on the three that I have tested, I wouldn't hesitate for even a moment to try any of the others. If the Blonde, Liverpool and VT Bass are any indication, then it would appear that the entire line are winners. These three sure are, and I remain very impressed. Whether your interests lie in recording or live performance, there's something here for you. Definitely highly recommended.
Input: 1/4" unbalanced instrument level (-10dBm / 250mV nominal), 1MOhm impedance