Mick Dines – Production Manager

In the late 1970s the music world had moved on from the psychedelic, hippy 1960s. It was my feeling that our amplifiers and cabinets looked a bit dated and were in need of a facelift. I changed all the classic Orange livery. The psychedelic logo was changed to a modern typeface. The height of the amp sleeve was lowered to make the head look sleeker. I also changed the black plastic corners and replaced the gold strap handle with a black one. The chromium rack and roll over bars were replaced with black ones. The light-brown Basketweave speaker cloth was changed to a black material with a different level of sound transparency, and a stand-by switch was added to the front panel.

Series Two also saw the launch of our first dedicated bass amp – the 120 watt Orange Super Bass, which had similar cosmetics to the Overdrive Series Two head.

Orange Super Bass 120

 

 

The Hustler combos were a big success. There was the 60 watt 1×12 master volume combo, and the 60 watt Hustler Bass 1×15 combo, which had a ported cabinet.  As part of the major image makeover back in 1978/79, Orange divided its product range into Orange Sound Reinforcement and Orange Instrument Amplification. Sound Reinforcement included PA, mixing desks and solid state power amps.

In the 1990s the Series Two range was superseded by the Pics & Text reissues and then the new Oscillatory Transition Return (OTR) model. The retro look was back, and at Cliff’s insistence, Orange reverted to the original livery.

A 1979 Orange Hustler advertisement

 

Born out of the advanced technology and design of the OMEC Digital Programmable Amplifier, OMEC introduced an entire range of 150 watt transistor instrument and public address amplifiers.

ORIGIN OF THE OMEC RANGE

John James – Designer

“In the mid-1970s solid state power amplifiers were beginning to overcome their reputation for unreliability and distortion which had been created by early examples. By then Orange had a proven and reliable 150 watt power stage and it was fitted to a revolutionary new programmable digital amplifier – the OMEC Digital.

In those pre-computer days the concept of programming a sound with buttons and having the sounds hidden away in mysterious internal electronic memories seemingly was a step too far for the equipment buying public, and the OMEC Digital was probably unleashed a decade too soon. However, although the concept of digitally controlling the analogue sound was ahead of its time, the new low-cost, high-quality integrated circuit chips used in the OMEC opened up a wealth of innovative signal processing technology for us. So, in possession of a proven power amplifier design and these new integrated circuits we set out to design a high spec high tech series of solid state amplifiers both for instruments and public address, but one that still featured the familiar “front panel with knobs” operation. A high-tech black and silver design and compact size was conceived and I proceeded to design the electronics, all based on the new “chips” from the original OMEC Digital.

There were two basic models designed, one for instruments and one for public address. These were each supplemented by the addition of a 5-band graphic equalisation section, which was becoming popular as PA systems advanced and greater control of equalisation was required to compensate for room acoustics. At this time there were very few separate effects pedals around, and those that were available were expensively priced. We thought that buyers’ interest in our instrument amplifier would be greatly enhanced by incorporating the sort of effects that were being heard on record and consequently demanded by musicians. So we fitted reverb, phasing and overdrive facilities to the basic instrument amplifier. This added yet another model to the top of the OMEC Solid State range.”

OMEC 150 watt 4-channel PA Amp with 5-band graphic EQ

OMEC 150 watt Guitar Amp with Reverb, Phaser, Boost & graphic EQ

OMEC 150 watt Instrument Amp with 5-band graphic EQ

We were looking to design matching speaker cabinets for each model. The brief was…. light weight, compact and affordable.

Mick Dines – Production Manager

“To complement this new range of budget amplifiers we were looking to design matching speaker cabinets for each model. The brief was…. light weight, compact and affordable. The amp sleeve would be mounted on a base plinth which bolted into a three-sided housing. Rather than metal or plastic corner protectors, we chose an aluminium moulding with a black PVC inlay to wrap around the ends of the cabinets. For the guitar amp, a simple sloped front design 2 x 12 cabinet, for the PA Amps straight 2 x 12’s and for the bass amp a 1 x 15 ported cabinet. Each of the speaker cabinets were sealed enclosures with front loaded speakers. An open-weave black nylon grille cloth was sourced from Germany.

OMEC now had a competitive range of low cost 150 watt solid state effects amps. The products and price structure was well received by our dealers and bridged the gap with our high-end Orange valve amps.”

2×12” Stage Cabinet with 150 watt Guitar Amp

1×15” Bass Reflex Horn Cabinet with 150 watt Instrument Amp

Pair of 2×12” PA Cabinets with 150 watt PA Amp

OMEC stand at the Russell Hotel, Holborn, 1978 From left: Peter Dowsett (UK Sales Manager) John James, Mick Dines, Virginia Sundin, Cliff Cooper

The world’s first digitally programmable amplifier.

A world first. The OMEC Digital

Peter Hamilton – OMEC Digital Designer

“I designed the OMEC amp in 1974/75. Before that, I spent a few months as a student fixing amps part-time in the Orange Shop’s basement, and then worked with them full-time for about one year – my first job. The brief was to “design a computerised amp”. With some computers costing upwards of a million pounds and needing their own building and air conditioning plant, a few compromises were necessary.

Some weird new-fangled things called microprocessors were beginning to appear in the early to mid-1970s, but they needed a lot of “support chips” to make a useful system. Smaller single-chip microcontrollers existed for things like calculators, but they were permanently mask-programmed … the tooling costs were huge, and they were only affordable if manufactured in big quantities – hundreds of thousands.

The only sane way to do this job was with SSI and MSI [small and medium scale integration] logic chips. The choice was between TTL [transistor-transistor logic] which was power-hungry but easy to get hold of and well proven, or a new technology from RCA called COS-MOS, which used hardly any power but also had a habit of self-destructing due to static damage.

COS-MOS was too risky at the time, but that technology led to today’s CMOS microcontrollers, with built-in static protection, low power consumption and millions of transistors on a chip – one of those could handle the whole job for a few dollars. So, the OMEC Digital amp was really a digitally controlled analogue amp. Real DSP was a couple of decades away. The left-hand digital half of the board allowed numbers for each parameter [volume, bass, mid, treble, reverb, compression, and distortion] to be stored in memory for each of four “channels”.

Those numbers could be recalled by selecting a channel either from the front panel or the footswitch. The memory controlled the audio circuitry on the right-hand half of the board via analogue switches.
But there was a slight snag: TTL is so power-hungry the memory took almost an amp at 5V, so all the settings were forgotten if the power was switched off! A back-up battery was added to protect against brief power cuts, but it only lasted for half an hour or so.

Here was an idea before its time, I’m afraid. It was innovative, but there wasn’t a knob that went up to 11. I doubt that it was financially viable without investing a large amount of money. Months later the Z80 and 6502 microprocessors appeared and spawned the personal computer industry. The rest, as they say, is history.”

1975 Trade Press Advertisement for the OMEC Digital

Mick Dines – Production Manager

Jimmy Bean was Cliff’s idea – to create a guitar stack in denim and leather…

“At the time, everyone was wearing jeans, so we thought the Jimmy Bean idea might start a new trend in amplifier styling. I recall that trying to source the denim jean material and leather for the cabinets wasn’t so straightforward. We wanted the name-plate to look like the brown leather label on the back of a pair of jeans. But in the end we opted for engraved brass and real leather end panels.”

Jimmy Bean front panel

Cliff Cooper – Founder and CEO

“I’ll never understand why Jimmy Bean didn’t do well. The stack looked great and the amp was portable and very versatile. It was a twin channel model which featured a tremolo and switchable sustain circuits. I always had a gut feeling that we should have made it a valve amplifier.”

Jimmy Bean Head & 4×12 Cabinet

“The Jimmy Bean Voice Box was a big success, however; nearly everybody used them – Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton all used voice boxes. John Miles used the Jimmy Bean Voice Box on ‘Slow Down’ which went to Number Two in the Billboard charts. The Voice Box was connected between the instrument amplifier and loudspeakers. When the footswitch was pressed down, the sound output was diverted from the speakers to a high-powered transducer inside the unit that projected the sound up a clear flexible tube. The tube was attached to the microphone stand and inserted into the performer’s mouth. The guitar sound merges with the performer’s vocals and is then picked up by the microphone and amplified by the PA system.”

Jimmy Bean Voice Box

Cliff Cooper – Founder and CEO

“OMEC stands for Orange Music Electronic Company. We chose the word ‘electronic’ to suggest digital and transistorised amplifiers, as opposed to the valve amps that had established the Orange brand in the early 1970s. OMEC’s main products in the mid-1970s were the programmable digital amp, the Jimmy Bean solid state amp, and – most successful of all – the Jimmy Bean Voice Box. We sold thousands of those.

The OMEC Digital was the world’s first digitally programmable amplifier, which enabled musicians to key in four different, pre-set, instantly recallable sounds. There were seven sound controls that could be programmed into each of the four presets: volume, bass, treble, reverb, sustain, and two specified effects chosen from fuzz and tremolo. The amp’s power rating was 150 watts into 4 ohms. We spent a lot of time and money developing this revolutionary digital amp, and it still really upsets me to recall how we never really got the chance to market it properly. The reason for this was that the bank wouldn’t lend me the capital needed to develop this product in order to make it cost-effective.

Back then, bank managers were very Victorian in attitude and usually wore stiff white collars and dark ties. If you had long hair there was little or no chance of being able to borrow money, and if you looked young you were unlikely to get past your bank manager’s secretary. Before I went to ask my bank for a loan to develop the Digital amplifier’s chip I had a haircut and grew a sort of a beard in order to look older. Needless to say, it proved to be a total waste of time and my application was turned down. Had I been living in America I’m sure things would have been very different. There they judged you on the merits of your business plan – not your appearance.”

1974 – The Pics and Text

Adrian Emsley – Technical Director

“The big difference between the Pics & Text and what came before was that the Pics & Text had a DC- coupling concertina phase splitter, which improved the sound.”

Trade Advert from 1974

1975 – The Custom Reverb Twin

Mick Dines – Production Manager

“The Reverb Twin was introduced to compete with the Fender Twin Reverb. We were targeting that market, so we priced our version to be competitive with the Fender. The Orange Custom Reverb Twin also featured a Hammond spring reverb, a tremolo and a master volume. It was designed as a very versatile 50 watt studio amplifier – and, indeed, it proved to be. Later, a 100 watt version was made, both models came with a footswitch.”

The Custom Reverb Twin, designed by John James, had two channels: Normal Channel (One) had two inputs for Hi and Lo gain, as well as bass, treble and volume controls. Brilliant Channel (Two) also had the Hi and Lo gain inputs, bass, treble, middle and volume controls. The intensity of the reverb was adjusted by a depth control. The tremolo had separate speed and depth controls. A master volume and presence control operated on both channels. The Mk1 Reverb Twin combo [not shown] had a Basketweave front cloth, but very few were ever made during 1972. The Mk2 [shown below both as a combo and head] featured a black-with-silver-fleck speaker cloth.

1976 – The First Orange Overdrive

The Orange Overdrive featured Pics & Text circuitry with a master volume added. The H.F. Drive control was renamed ‘Presence’. It was launched at The Frankfurt Music Trade Fair, 1976. Note the larger tone control knobs.

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.”