Created when amps were huge and men were men – or at least had roadies to carry the gear – this 1972 Orange OR80 2×12″ combo veritably screams bell-bottomed rock style and attitude, and wails it out with eardrum-shredding power.
Range amps are known for being loud and brash, with a raw, raucous tone. It’s a sound we might call “classic alternative British,” and like many seminal brands from across the pond, they are very much children of the age into which they were born.
The concept of English entrepreneur Cliff Cooper’s Orange retail outfit dates to 1968 and the very heart of swinging London, though the origin of the design and manufacturing of the amps goes back much further. Orange began to forge a reputation in the wider rock world around the time this “pics only” OR80 2×12″ combo hit the streets.
The hulking amps that carry the name (and color) are the best-remembered representative of the brand, thanks in large part to popular reissues over the past two and a half decades, but Cooper’s would-be empire was founded on even broader ambitions. Established in a store on New Compton Street, Orange initially was a music-publishing operation, record label, music agency, and recording studio – in other words, a one-stop-shop for the aspiring rock star. With each enterprise struggling for a foothold, however, Cooper found that what London musicians most needed was quality gear – loud amps, in particular.
With no facility to build amps, Cooper sourced them from Matamp in the northern city of Huddersfield. The brand had debuted in 1964, but the electronics company behind it, RadioCraft, was founded by Mat Mathias in the mid ’40s. In its early years, Matamp was a regional brand, so the Orange deal provided a way to get product down south, though Londoner Peter Green had already taken Matamps to the big stage with Fleetwood Mac, so they were a known commodity.
The story of why Orange separated from Matamp in 1971 varies according to the source; from Mathias’s perspective, the supplier tired of turning out mass-manufactured amps and decided to part ways with the London operation.
To his credit, Cooper appreciated the value of a quality product from the start, and endeavored to maintain that standard while moving to a local facility that would be overseen by Orange itself. High-end details included chassis that weren’t merely painted orange, but coated in baked-on enamel for a long, corrosion-free life. Other touches included oversized transformers designed for a lifetime of service, and components that were of a good pedigree. Even so, the aesthetic remained their attention-grabbing element, and constituted a full-on visual assault of the highest and hippest order.
Far more than a description of the color, the Orange ethos included bubbly hippy-chic logos, computer-graphic-inspired control legends, and the piéce de résistance, the oddly braggadocious Orange coat of arms. The full crest includes “rule Britannia” imagery in the form of a roaring lion and bare-shouldered, Union Jack-swathed maiden to the right, a world-crowning orange tree, and a figure described in the 1970 catalog as “the god of nature and hypnotic music” to the left. At the top is an overflowing wine cask, while the bottom contains the ambitious legend “Voice of the World.” Uh-huh.
Arguably a little too on-the-nose, the heavy-handed styling was primed to leave Orange products looking dated just a few years down the road, but it has served well throughout their revival via the reissue line, appealing to an audience consistently appreciative of retro-minded aesthetics.
The rare “pics only” Orange series, of which this is one, ran for just a few years. The descriptor names the control panel’s rather obvious feature susing graphic illustrations to depict functions, with no text whatsoever. These graphics include a jack plug above the two inputs, sound wave icon above the F.A.C. (frequency analyzing control), a bass clef above the bass control, a treble clef above the treble control, a fist above the H.F. Drive (high-frequency), a speaker pumping air above the Volume control, snow-capped mountain peaks with reflected sound wave above the effects loop’s send and return (often dubbed “echo” in the day), and a cartoonish electrical “zap” above the power switch.
The enigmatic F.A.C. knob is a six-position rotary switch that accesses a variety of coupling capacitors of descending value, setting the preamp’s overall voicing much like the six-way “click switch” used on many amps by Matchless, 65amps, Bad Cat, and others. The other uniquely Orange control, H.F. Drive, works somewhat like a presence control by adjusting the high-frequency content within the output stage, but also adds gain as you turn it up.
In addition to these features, the Orange circuit reveals the amp to be far more than just a brightly dressed clone of others that were popular at the time. The preamp uses just a single ECC83 (12AX7) tube with a Baxandall tone stage positioned between its two gain stages, and the Volume control immediately following these. A second ECC83 forms the cathodyne phase inverter with a driver stage preceding, a variation of the PI used in many amps from a full decade before, including the majority of smaller to mid-sized Fender tweed combos. Finally, a pair of EL34 output tubes pushes 50 to 60 watts through two “blackback” Celestion G12M 25-watt speakers, an early ’70s variant of the classic Greenback. It adds up to an amp with tons of raw, driving power and a certain “Orange haze” in texture and tone. It’s not a high-gain amp by today’s standards, but roars with a toothsome overdrive when pushed, and is loud when you get it there, considering its lack of a Master Volume.
The owner of this fine example, VG reader Collin Whitley, concurs.
“The OR80 combo is a fairly rare amp, especially the early ‘pics-only’ version, and they’re even harder to find here in the U.S.,” he said. “Orange amps are famous for throaty midrange, and the OR models are very much the archetype of that iconic sound. While pre-Master Volume models are painfully loud, the OR80 is an absolute rock machine.”
It goes without saying that this is a heavy machine, too. Between the massive transformers and the overbuilt cabinet, it’s a lot to cart around. Make the effort, though, and you’re rewarded with classic tones that suit a surprising range of genres and playing styles – along with a big, sunny smile, if legend-worthy British crunch is your jam.
This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.