Cliff Cooper, Orange Founder and CEO

“I got the idea for graphic symbols on our amplifiers when I noticed the new road signs which suddenly appeared in the late 1960s. Instead of words, the signs used graphic symbols. In 1971, I suggested to the team that instead of using words we should use our own custom symbols, I wanted us to keep one step ahead. Years later, when we started manufacturing again in the 1990s, we decided to keep the graphics – these hieroglyphs were now a part of the brand.

The Orange logo on our amps is now near- perfect, whereas if you look at the original logo, it was hand drawn. The reason for this is simple – there weren’t computers in those days, and you had to engage an artist to draw it using French Curves.”

Thunderverb 50 Hieroglyphs 2007

Using comic strips in trade press advertisements was another first for Orange back in the early 1970s. Other companies were soon copying this idea. The cartoon shown below is just one of many that were devised by Orange.

Icons Comic

Adrian Emsley, Technical Director:

“The circuit of the Pics Only is markedly different from that of the first Orange amplifiers. Those early Orange amps like the OR200 had the volume in front of the EQ circuitry, whereas the Pics Only had the Baxandall EQ first, then the Gain, and then the phase inverter. What’s more, the DC-coupled ‘concertina’ phase inverter used in the first Orange amps was changed to a capacitor-coupled version in the Pics Only. This capacitor-coupled type of phase inverter drives the output valves harder and this creates a more overdriven and crunchy sound. In this way, the Pics Only was the start of the new sound that everybody associates with Orange.”

Pics Only Designer: John James

Mick Dines:

“The ‘Graphic Valve Amplifier’ was designed in-house by John James in 1971 and manufactured during the period 1972-75. It was soon nicknamed the ‘Pics Only’, a reference to the front panel graphics which were unique at that time. Earlier versions had Woden or Drake drop-through transformers, later ones had Parmeko. A four channel PA version was introduced [pictured left top]. Some Pics Only’s were made and sold right up until 1975 – especially Slave 120 Graphics [pictured left below] – in order to use up stock and components. There was often this kind of overlap when a new Orange series was introduced.

Early Graphic Pics Only’s soon became known as Plexis because they had a plastic reverse-printed Perspex panel secured on an orange steel backplate fixed to the chassis. The amplifier was secured into the cabinet with four front panel fixing bolts with plastic seating washers. The panels on later Pics Only amps were not plastic, but silk-screen printed metal plates with no visible bolts.

Graphic Combination Twin 2 x 12″ combo

In hindsight, the graphic icons were perhaps a bit too big and prominent on the Plexi. So in 1973, we went back to the drawing board and redesigned the front panel, as well as making other electronic modifications. The result was the Graphic 120 ‘Pics & Text’ amplifier. The Pics Only was the start of the new sound that everybody associates with Orange and it has influenced the design and sound of Orange amps ever since.”

Mick Dines, Bexleyheath Factory Manager:

In 1973, as we looked to move from Short’s Gardens, we found a place near James How Industries in Upland Road, Bexleyheath in Kent. James How was our UK distributor at the time, and the firm also manufactured Rotosound strings. During one of our visits to buy strings, we saw a ‘For Sale’ sign on a factory premises just two buildings along. We viewed the place and decided to buy it. There, we began a proper production line, and we employed local people in Bexleyheath to assemble the amplifiers – the output being about one amp per worker a day.

Staff at 17 Upland Road, Bexleyheath, Kent, circa 1976: Steve, John, Barry, Mary, Mick, Margot, Jan, Viv, Hillary (hidden), Olive, Pete, Chris, Michael, John, Bob

There was plenty of storage space which meant we could buy cardboard packaging in bulk and store it. Back in Short’s Gardens, we used to build one cabinet at a time, put it in its cardboard box and then start on another one. Now we could have twenty or thirty cabinets lined up on long benches that could all have speakers fitted and wired in sequence. We had the electronic workshop at the front of the building and the cabinet-making and finished packaged goods ready for delivery at the back. It was also, of course, useful having our UK distributor just three doors down the road. Bexleyheath marked the start of a different scale of operation for Orange. When we had a shipment going out to our American distributor, we would have a forty-foot container delivered to us at the end of the day. Most of our staff would work through the night to finish the production and then load it.

We’d go for a quick pint just before the pubs closed at 11 o’clock, and then go back to pack and load anything up to one hundred amplifiers and a hundred speaker cabinets into the container. The next morning the container was picked up, and we’d start another shift.”

The Alembic Report USA, published in the March 1975 issue of Guitar Player

Mick Dines:

“I can remember those early days before Cooper Mathias closed, Mat would drive down from the Cowcliffe factory in his new Ford Cortina 1600E with about five or six amps in the back. As soon as he arrived, the amps would get fitted into the Rexine-covered wooden sleeves, boxed and dispatched. I’d never seen a Cortina 1600E before. I was nineteen and had only just passed my driving test, I remember Mat gave me the keys and let me drive it around the block in the middle of London – unsupervised! I got in and put my foot down, and it frightened the life out of me…. the thing was so fast – it was amazing.

Short’s Gdns and Cowcliffe

After our amps stopped being made in Huddersfield, we began building an updated version of the Orange Graphic amp in the basement at Short’s Gardens. The building was an old derelict shop on the corner of Neils Yard and Short’s Gardens in the heart of Covent Garden, London. The idea behind moving into Short’s Gardens was to increase productivity, provide more room for cabinet-making, amp testing and storage. We made cabinets on the ground floor and amps in the basement. I have to say that the building would never have passed any modern day Health and Safety regulations!

Making an Orange Cab

However, John James our R&D engineer, never compromised on quality control. Everything was thoroughly soak tested before it went out. Orders just kept on increasing and soon we were bursting at the seams. By the end of 1972, it was clear that we had to move to larger premises – we urgently needed a proper factory facility.”

More than forty years on, many Orange and Matamp enthusiasts are mistakenly under the impression that ‘Orange Matamp’ was an amp manufacturer co-owned by Cliff Cooper and Mat Mathias. The black name-plates on the back of the very early amps probably added to the confusion, in that the wording on them implies that Orange Matamp was actually owned by Cooper Mathias Ltd.

Cliff’s amp company was initially called Orange Music. In autumn 1968, Orange Music appointed Mat Mathias’ company, Radio Craft, as the sub-contractor to supply their amplifiers. The first Orange amplifiers were branded Orange Matamp after Mat requested that Matamp’s logo be added to the front panel. Out of courtesy, Cliff agreed to this but In reality, there never was a manufacturer called ‘Orange Matamp’- that was a brand name.

As demand for Orange Amplifers rapidly increased, Radio Craft was unable to keep up with orders and was producing amps in very small numbers at the back of Mat’s tobacconist shop.

Cowcliffe Factory in 2007 Converted into offices

Mat couldn’t finance the move to the larger Cowcliffe factory in Huddersfield on his own. So, in August 1969, Cliff formed a company with Mat called Cooper Mathias Ltd, to replace Radio Craft as the sub-contractor supplying Orange Musical Industries, as it was now called.

Cliff explains the background to Cooper Mathias

“Because we were making a lot of money, I was able to bankroll Mat’s move to the Cowcliffe factory. I could have simply loaned Radio Craft the money for Mat to expand, but I had the feeling that a 50-50 partnership could work to everybody’s advantage.

Even forty years later, there’s still a lot of confusion about the first few years of Orange. A lot of people don’t realise the fact that Cooper Mathias Ltd was set up as a sub-contractor to OMI. When I first thought about forming the partnership with Mat, my vision was a manufacturing company based in Huddersfield which would benefit from having lower overheads than would be the case in London.

Initially, Cooper Mathias would handle all of OMI’s orders, but central to my plan was that the firm’s capacity and productivity would increase to a level at which we could then also manufacture amps for other companies. That was my intention for Cooper Mathias, but sadly it wasn’t to be…

The Cowcliffe factory opens: early 1970

The Cowcliffe factory opened for business in early 1970. By that time, business for us in London was moving very rapidly, but in Huddersfield the situation was much slower. When I drove up for a production meeting, the first thing I noticed was everything seemed to move at such a slow pace. It was extremely frustrating as we were so back-ordered. The people there were very nice, and it was therefore very sad that I had to pull out of our business arrangement. I had no choice but to do this simply because the operation was just not cost-effective. The Cowcliffe factory wasn’t turning out amps fast enough to meet our demand and it was not covering its overheads. Soon after that, OMI moved to Bexleyheath.

After the split

“The split was amicable. Mat and I always remained very good friends. He carried on making his black-covered amps and we became a main agent for Matamp and sold Mat’s amps and cabs in the Orange shops. Another thing I really liked about him was that he never copied our picture-frame speaker cabinet design. Mat was a real gentleman for whom I have always had nothing but the greatest admiration.”

BBC Radio 1 DJ Emperor Rosko Mat Mathias 1972

In December 1968, Mick Dines [pictured] joined the company as a salesman in the Orange Shop. He immediately became involved in the design of the Orange cabinets. As a young bass guitarist he understood how equipment could be so easily mistreated on the road. His first priority was to make Orange cabinets the most solid and robust cabinets available. When it came to choosing the speaker front cloth his main concern was durability.

Mick Dines

Mick chose a tough material called Basketweave. Orange speaker cabinets could now certainly take the knocks and were appreciated by the roadies. Guitarists loved the ‘thickened’ sound that the Basketweave helped to create. What’s more, the Orange 4×12 [a cabinet fitted with four 12” speakers inside] was 15” deep , until then, 14” was the norm. This extra depth also helped to define the distinctive ‘Orange sound’.

Cliff Cooper, Founder & CEO explains

“When I first noticed the Marshall 4×12, I thought it was made of very thick plywood, but then when I looked more closely, it wasn’t as thick as it looked –it had an extra wooden frame border fixed inside the front rim of the cabinet to create the illusion of thicker wood. I had the idea of having a picture-frame rather than a rim on our own 4×12 cabs. That design was a first for us. It made Orange cabs and amp heads look very unique. The design remains almost unchanged today.

The 4×12 was built to be very strong and featured a baffle centre post, 13-ply (18mm) birch-faced marine plywood and a tough orange vinyl cloth covering called Rexine. The use of Basketweave really helped to define the ‘Orange sound’. Instead of fitting plastic feet, or castors which we found tended to rattle and roll, we came up with the idea of having tough wooden runners – which we called skids. The original idea was durability, making loading and unloading out of vans, or onstage, easier. It turned out that the skids dramatically improved the sound by acoustically coupling the cabinets to the stage or wooden floor.”

PPC412 Cab

Cliff Cooper founder and CEO:

During 1969, we sampled the sounds used by a number of top guitarists – among them, Peter Green, Marc Bolan and Paul Kossoff, all of whom liked to spend time in the Orange Shop just chatting and playing guitars. We asked these and other professional guitarists to plug into our mixing desk, play around, and find the sound that they liked best. We were then able to measure the sound characteristics and decide what changes were needed to the Orange amp circuitry. We would then send these circuitry changes to Mat up in Huddersfield so that he could incorporate any modifications into our amplifiers. Basically it was a question of what our customers wanted.

As Orange became more established, we found that a lot of people liked our amps, but it wasn’t across the board. Many guitarists told us that our amps just didn’t sound as loud as some other makes, watt for watt. Using signal generators, oscilloscopes and other measuring equipment, we measured an Orange OR120 amplifier in our workshop. It gave out a true 120 watts RMS (Root Mean Square). We then measured another famous make of 100 watt amplifier, which gave 96 watts output – but it still sounded much louder than the Orange amplifier. We just couldn’t figure out why this was. At the same time, we tested the distortion levels. The other amplifier had a far more distorted sound than the Orange amp.

I arranged a meeting with a leading ear specialist with a practice in London’s Harley Street. He explained to me how the brain can register distortion as pain in order to protect the mechanism of the ears. The jagged harmonics produced by the distortion work the ear’s conducting bones harder, and this is perceived by the audio nerves as an increase in sound level. The original Orange amps were especially clean sounding with very little distortion and so it was, in fact, the clean sound that was the root of our problem. So thanks to the ear specialist we had solved the mystery. In order to correct the situation we gave the amp a lot more gain and modified our circuitry in a different way to the amplifiers we had tested. The main changes were to the tone stack at the front end and the phase inverter. These changes gave birth to the ‘Orange sound’ and were incorporated in the first ‘Pics Only’ amps – our amps with hieroglyphs. The sound perhaps is best described as ‘fat’ and ‘warm’ – more musical and richer in harmonics, with a unique saturation in the mids band. It also improved the sustain. That said, choice of sound naturally is a personal thing.

Cliff Cooper, Founder and CEO explains:
I remember the psychedelic lettering of the shop front logo taking forever to complete, but it was worth the wait. It truly reflected the Flower Power and Psychedelia era.

John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Paul Kossoff, Marc Bolan, Gary Moore, Peter Green and many other famous musicians would visit the store. They’d sit around chatting and play guitars for as long as they liked – most other shops wouldn’t tolerate this.

In late 1968, Fleetwood Mac became the first band ever to use Orange amplifiers. Around that time, musicians began to really prefer older, used or beat-up guitars, as they considered them to be of better quality and have much more character than the new ones available. The Orange Shop was first to cater for this new second-hand market.

Cliff Cooper, Founder & CEO of Orange Amps:

When we opened the shop, we painted it inside and out in a really bright shade of orange. Even from a distance you couldn’t help but notice it – the shop front had this luminous, really powerful aura. However, shop owners nearby complained and the council told me to change it back to its original dark brown colour. I wouldn’t agree, and after a plethora of letters had exchanged hands, the council decided to let it go. I think they took the view that it didn’t really matter because the shop was soon to be demolished anyway.

We opened the ground-floor premises as a music shop on September 2nd 1968. The basement studio wasn’t covering its overheads so I was forced to sell my band’s Vox equipment in the shop in order to pay wages. It sold the same day – we were now in the music retail business. The main distributors at that time for Marshall, Gibson and Fender would not supply us even when I offered to pay them up front, so I was forced to sell second-hand guitars and amplifiers. We began manufacturing our own amps at the start of 1969. That was also the year that Vox went into liquidation and so there was room for another amplifier company. My background in electronics proved very useful and, needless to say, I called the amplifiers Orange. That’s how it all started.

The shop was very cramped. You can see the stairs going down to the studio on the right in this photo which was taken after the Customs & Excise swoop [covered in a later post].

Cliff Cooper, Orange Amps Founder and CEO:

Whilst I was in The Millionaires – a name which Joe Meek himself gave us – we had a top twenty hit record ‘Wishing Well’, which I wrote with my brother Ken, and Joe recorded and produced.

The Millionaires

Joe was a very special talent who – like Phil Spector with his pioneering ‘Wall of Sound’ recording techniques – was way ahead of his time. Joe was completely dedicated to music, and with his company, RGM, was forever experimenting and trying to discover new sounds. It was a privilege to watch him at work in his Holloway Road home studio [pictured below].

Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he was beginning to get very stressed and was living more and more on the edge. I remember one particular incident at the studio. Our bass player, Staz, was coming up the narrow stairs into the recording room as Joe was coming down them. Really, Staz should have returned back down the stairs, but instead he tried to squeeze past Joe. Joe suddenly flared up and just threw his tea all over Staz!

At the time, I heard that the reason Joe was so stressed was to do with a copyright issue regarding his hit single ‘Telstar’ [performed by The Tornados, it reached Number 1 in the UK and USA charts in 1962].

Joe committed suicide in February 1967, which shocked everybody in the music business. We hadn’t had the opportunity to work with him for long, and he was planning a follow-up single for us.