REVIEW: Tech 21’s Character Series Pedals: Leeds, Oxford, and US Steel

REVIEW: Tech 21’s Character Series Pedals: Leeds, Oxford, and US Steel

Tech 21, established in 1989 by B. Andrew Barta, is a New York/New Jersey based designer and manufacturer of gear catering to guitarists and bassists. Proudly hand-built in the USA, the product line includes amps and cabinets for guitar and bass, effects pedals, and MIDI controllers. Within their pedal line is a sub category referred to as the SansAmp Character Series. Each pedal in the series aims to capture the essence of a popular American or British-style amp. Tech 21 sent over three of their latest offerings for a test drive: Leeds, Oxford, and U.S. Steel.


All three pedals share the same format: slightly wide aluminum casing (3-5/8″), standard 1/4″ input and output jacks, 9V DC power plug, 9V battery compartment underneath which is easily accessed by a quick-clip removable plastic door, red LED power light, heavy duty custom metal foot switch, controls for level, mid, character, drive, low, and high, and a push-button to engage speaker simulation. The casings are painted different colors and laminated decals on the faces define each pedal’s “character”. Reminiscent of Orange Amps, the Oxford is painted traffic cone orange and has graphics representing a wicker speaker cover and orange Tolex. Similar to a HiWatt, Leeds is black with salt and pepper basket weave and black Tolex. U.S. Steel is silver with diamond plate and dark brown Tolex graphics, like you might find on a Mesa rectifier.


I introduced myself to each pedal by way of an Ibanez Jet King 1 running through a Tone King Meteor II. As previously mentioned, the controls are common to each pedal, though how they react varies according to each pedal’s individual nature. Level controls the output. I reached parity in volume between on and off with this control set less than halfway. This left a whole lotta extra amp cranking boost available. Low, mid, and high provide EQ controls. As opposed to passive controls that cut frequencies, these actively cut and boost. The character knob, also custom-voiced to each pedal, sweeps along a tonal range particular to each pedal’s style. This works in conjunction with the EQ controls to tailor the perfect sound. Drive, as you might expect, increases gain similar to driving output tubes. Turning up this setting increases volume as well as “saturates the tubes” for more juicy overdrive. Lastly, a speaker simulation button emulates a multiply mic’d matched speaker/cabinet combination distinctive to the amp’s flavor. For the Oxford these are English Greenbacks, Fane-style for the Leeds, and Celestion-style for the U.S. Steel. This feature also works in conjunction with the EQ controls. The intent is to offer greater compatibility with an amp’s preamp – some are more compatible with the switch on, some with it off. In practice, I felt that more of each pedal’s character came through and the tonal range opened up with speaker emulation engaged. This is likely how you would set the switch when recording as well. With speaker simulation off, I experienced more of a natural feel and my setup sounded less like it was trying to mimic, or “characterize”, a particular sound.

The Oxford offers up a vintage British sound that covers heavy, driving Sabbath-like grunge to aggressive and electric overdrive. You can adjust the controls for a cleaner sound, but there’s always a feeling that this “amp” wants to unleash and rip. True to that nature, pushing its character and drive reveal more of its personality.

The Leeds goes for a different style of Brit rock. Just as heavy and hard-hitting, this pedal motivated Who and Zeppelin-style in-the-pocket riffs and Hendrix-inspired jams. A smoother rolloff of higher frequencies and greater compression results in a warmer, rounder, more contained sound, though the power you can generate is anything but contained.

Fashioned after amp design from the Yankee side of the Atlantic, U.S. Steel takes no prisoners with a character that comes to the party in full leathers, eats, drinks, and smokes what it wants, and walks out with no apologies, muddy boot prints well embedded in your freshly cleaned carpet. As with all the pedals in this review, the wide range of tonal adjustments provide much variety. When thinking about US Steel, think any metal band and you’re set: Metallica, Priest, Van Halen, Pantera…


Individually, each control covers a wide tonal range. Combined, there is tremendous flexibility in shaping each pedal’s voice even within parameters set to define specific amp styles. The voicings contained within each pedal are truly unique and promote a variety of inspiration. With speaker simulation on, I felt the coloring was a bit metallic and sucked some body from the dry signal coming in. With it off, I missed the rich quality that the emulation brought to the table. Perhaps a variable control would have satisfied my desire for a happy medium. Also, these are not the quietest overdrive/distortion pedals I’ve tried, though in the heat of battle, musicians and audience will be lost together in the bliss that is good ol’ ROCK AND ROLL!

PROS: Wide variety of tone shaping controls. Durably built. Each pedal truly unique in character. Hand-built in the US!

CONS: A bit metallic-sounding with speaker emulation and not as characteristic without. Noisy.

MSRP – $225 each

Dan Coplan is senior staff writer at SMG. Dan is a Los Angeles based cinematographer and self-admitting guitar junkie. Email:

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