While musical ability greatly helps, without reliable, sonically crisp equipment a talented musician's performance can soon descend into horror. With quality equipment and an experienced road crew, musicians usually avoid this. Used by Oasis on their inaugural two albums as well as other artists like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac fame, Stevie Wonder and a whole brace of others, Orange Amps are still going strong after their 1968 inception.
The Orange brand came to light in the basement of 3-4 New Compton Street in the early summer of 1968 where, equipped with little more than a Revox tape recorder and Vox reverb unit, Cliff Cooper
unveiled Orange Recording Studios. Later on, stars like Stevie Wonder
, Tom Jones
, John Miles
and Robin Gibb
would record there.
However, the studio wasn't a financial success and so Cliff, also a member of a group called the Millionaires, had to put the band's gear up for sale in the downstairs of the area which had a shop window. All the gear sold that very same day, it leading to the birth of Orange Amplification. Opening up the Orange shop, guitar manufacturers refused to supply Cliff, and so he capitalised on the growing trade in second-hand guitars. Also, using his electrical engineering background he designed an amp with orange-coloured vynide covering, picture-frame amp sleeves and cabs and 1950s retro sci-fi amplifier controls. Radio Craft from northern England supplied the first Orange amps, a thirty-watt valve guitar amp (the Matamp Series 2000). In the autumn of 1968, Cliff placed an order with the Huddersfield-based Matamp (named after founder Mat Mathias) to make some hundred-watt valve amps for Orange. In late 1968, Fleetwood Mac would take half a dozen Orange amps to America. Over forty years later, and the rest, as they say, is history.
On April 20th at 14:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Orange Amps founder Cliff Cooper to discuss the history of Orange Amps and its future.
Cliff Cooper: Hello?
UG: Hello. Is this Cliff?
Yes. Who's this?
This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com, calling for the interview.
Oh, right. How are you?
I'm doing well. How are you Cliff?
I'm fine, thank you very much.
Are you alright to do the interview?
Yes, of course I am. It's a beautiful day. Where are you based?
Is the weather nice there?
It is today oddly enough, yeah.
That's great. Oh, that's lovely. No, please... Go ahead. I'm fine.
Let's start with how it all began. Could you talk me through how you came to open a recording studio in the summer of 1968?
"Fleetwood Mac were our first endorsees, but I believe it was Stevie Wonder who really promoted our equipment world wide a year later."
That's right, yes. I had a small recording studio in Stratford which is in East London. It was very small, and I was looking for somewhere a bit larger. A property came up in London's West End, but it was only a short lease because they were intending to pull the building down. That was 3 New Compton Street, and we started building a studio in the basement. It took a long time and cost a lot more money than I had anticipated. Unfortunately it wasn't a huge success financially. The premises included a shop on the ground floor and because I was so short of money I decided to sell my own band equipment in the shop. I cleaned the windows and made the shop look presentable and I could not believe it when my gear sold on the very first day.
When you opened up the Orange shop, major music companies refused to supply you with stock.
I needed to buy more stock but nobody would supply us. This made life very difficult for me and I was forced to sell second hand guitars and amplifiers. My background was in electronics so I decided to build my own amps and that's how Orange really started, I suppose out of necessity. We designed an amplifier and we arranged for a company called Radio Craft to make them in Huddersfield. Matt was the name of the guy who ran the company.
Was there a reason why major music companies refused to stock the Orange shop?
The shop was situated by Charring Cross Road which lead to Shaftesbury Avenue, London. These two roads were the main walk around for Music Shops. Rose Morris was one of these shops and at that time were the distributors for Marshall Amplifiers. Then there was Selmers, who distributed Gibson, and Sound City, the main Fender Shop. I believe they didn't want any competition, preferring to keep the business to themselves, so I was forced to buy and sell second hand equipment.
Would you say that Fleetwood Mac were the first proper endorsee of Orange Amps?
I was a fan of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and I really enjoyed Pete's guitar playing and through my connections with him I was able to introduce them to our Orange amplifiers. They liked them and ordered a complete backline which they took to the States after their UK tour. Yes, Fleetwood Mac were our first endorsees, but I believe it was Stevie Wonder who really promoted our equipment world wide a year later.
So Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Wonder using Orange Amps introduced the amp to their respective music communities, Fleetwood Mac within the blues genre and Stevie Wonder within Motown and so on?
Yeah, and that gave us the exposure and enthusiasm to really move forward and expand.
How did Jimmy Page come to use Orange?
Jimmy was rehearsing with Led Zeppelin before their tour and asked to try Orange Amps along with many other makes. Jimmy decided to tour with them which was great for us, as I was also a huge fan of Led Zeppelin. I know Jimmy often used his Orange Amp in the studio. He also used them at the Led Zeppelin reunion concert at the O2 Arena and when he toured the US with the Black Crowes.
In the early 1970s, how did Orange attempt to diversify?
We made a lot of money from the shop because we were one of the only shops selling second hand Gibson and Fender Guitars etcetera. Musicians in those hippy days didn't want to be seen playing nice, new, clean looking guitars... it just wasn't rock 'n' roll. They usually wanted heavily used guitars and in any event at the time I thought the old Gibson and Fender Guitars often sounded better than new ones. A lot of other people did as well, so we built up a big business on second hand guitars despite the fact the main distributors still would not supply us. I invested a lot of the money to upgrade the studios and we had some great legendary artists using them including Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Robin Gibb, Stevie Wonder, John Miles and lots of really famous bands. A number of bands were then asking if I could help them get a record deal and it seemed sensible to form our own record label which we called Orange Records. The first artist signed to the label was John Miles and his band The Influence. He was, and still is, an amazing all-rounder musician. Our first record was "I Want to Live". It was a success and we started signing other artists to the label. Shortly after we formed Orange Publishing and then launched Orange Hire. This became a big part of our business and the hire side gave us tremendous exposure as we were supplying backline and PA to American artists touring Europe and most of the big outdoor festivals. I later formed the Orange Agency which would book bands into venues all over the UK and arranging tours throughout Europe.
Could you talk me through the development of the OMEC Digital, which was the world's first patented digitally programmable amplifier?
"Musicians in those hippy days didn't want to be seen playing nice, new, clean looking guitars... it just wasn't rock 'n' roll."
Yes. When transistor amplifiers first came on to the market they were being sold very cheaply. In fact, you could buy a transistor amp for a third of the price of a valve amp, maybe even less. I don't think they were very reliable in those early days, so we started thinking about building something special ourselves. One of our technical team was a really brilliant guy and he came up with the circuits for a digitally programmable amplifier. It worked by being able to programme the sound of four different channels. It would remember the sounds that were programmed and could be recalled via a footswitch. The problem with it was that it was so very expensive to build, unless we were able to have our own custom chip made. The cost would have been over £100,000 but I was unable to persuade the bank to support me. Off the back of this we designed and marketed the OMEC range of amplifiers which were based on the OMEC Digital power amp. These were quite successful alongside the Orange valve amps.
What did Orange get up to in the eighties? Mentions of the eighties seem to be conspicuously absent on Orange's official website.
We were lucky that the lease of the shop lasted almost exactly ten years from 1968 to 1978 when the property developers decided they wanted to pull down the shop and others in the whole street. This happened and the shop closed. We continued to manufacture Orange amps for a few years after, but the market seemed to shift and became overcrowded with cheap transistor amps. Our amps were valve amps and were expensive to build and business was tough which led to the factory closing in about 1980, although we did continue to make small numbers. In about 1994 we licensed the Orange Amplifier name to the Gibson Corporation and in 1998 the name came back to us. It was then that I decided to start redesigning and upgrading the amplifiers.
Did the licensing agreement with the Gibson Corporation help Orange's profile?
It certainly helped bring back the Orange brand awareness. Shortly after, we were fortunate enough to discover Oasis had used the Orange Amps on their first two albums and were now using them onstage. This was excellent publicity for us and we were again back on track.
So a lot of the Britpop bands used Orange?
Yeah, loads. This new wave of music really helped push the brand forward.
Has the recession affected things at Orange Amps?
Strangely, no. I think music, like books, seem to be fairly recession proof and our business is increasing year by year. We won the Queens Award for Enterprise and International Trade twice, first in 2006 and then again 2009. I think we are the only music amplifier manufacturer to do so, but we can never rest on our laurels, as it appears the world banking sector still seems to be very much in crisis.
Winning the Queen's Award For Enterprise: International Trade twice indicates Orange produce high-quality products.
I think it's fair to say the build quality of our amplifiers is as good as it gets. One of the points in our mission statement is that we will never cheapen the quality of our amplifiers for the sake of cost cutting. On the contrary, as we make improvements to our amplifiers the cost often rises, although as our production is steadily rising year on year, we are usually able to absorb these costs.
Do groups from the newer generation use Orange Amps?
Surprisingly amplifiers don't seem to change that much with the newer generations of music. I think one of the things that we at Orange really wanted to achieve was for our amplifiers to appeal to each new generation. I believe with the new products launched over the last few years and based upon our increased sales, we have succeeded. Lots of new bands come on board with us every week and their standard of playing is so very good. The majority think the colour is pretty cool although there is of course now the choice of Orange being made available in Black Tolex.
Why do you feel Orange is a good choice of amp for guitarists? What advantage does an Orange amp have that competitors' amps possibly do not?
We spent years developing a new range of special transformers as we felt it was a weak link in the chain with regard to the sound of an amplifier. The output transformer is now interleaved to between five and eight sections (depending on which model) instead of the industry standard of three. This acoustically couples the transformer in a more balanced manner, which along with an extended frequency response, makes for a more musical sounding overdrive and transparency on the clean tones. Although these transformers are much more expensive to produce, they do give the amp more crunch and sound so much better, which I believe gives us the edge over our competitors.
What are the future goals for Orange Amps?
"One of the points in our mission statement is that we will never cheapen the quality of our amplifiers for the sake of cost cutting."
We have just launched the new Dark Terror which is specifically designed for the new wave metal bands. It's getting fantastic reviews and I think deservedly so.
We have also developed the world's first hybrid computer guitar amplifier for musicians, configured with music software for recording and emulating various guitar brands on a PC platform. The OPC is a one-stop recording studio in a very small amplifier case with a hard disk drive, DVD drive, Wi-Fi, Intel Technology and uses Stereo JBL speakers. It is an amazing piece of kit and a must have for singer / songwriters and musicians. Basically, you record the audio tracks digitally on the OPC which has modelling software included, click the mouse and it's straight out on the web. It's worth checking it out on www.orangeopc.com as I believe this product will change the way in which musicians record.
Orange are now a truly global company with offices and facilities in three major continents. This has helped enormously to promote our brand awareness. With our daily international video Skype meetings we are able to assist touring bands with their equipment and provide a good after sales service almost anywhere in the world.
We have also just released our first full colour coffee table book called 'The Book of Orange' with the flip side of the book 'Building the Brand'. This book tells the complete Orange story from the beginning. It's full of pictures from our archives and gives a complete chronology of all amplifiers we have ever made and their dates. Excerpts of the book can be seen on our web site www.orangeamps.com.
Looking forward, we shall continue to be innovative and produce our equipment to the highest possible quality and standards carrying on our tradition of working with musicians to achieve their goals.
Thanks for talking to me Cliff.
Thank you - you're very welcome. It was very kind of you to call, and it was a pleasure talking to you. If there's any more information you'd like, you can always email me.
I will indeed. You have a nice day.
You too, and do take care.
Interview by Robert Gray
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