An interview with Adrian Emsley of Orange Amps

Adrian Emsley
Posted 07 January 2011   Interviews

Anyone who has been listening to Rock music or the past 40+ years has surely heard the untamed greatness that comes from Orange Amplifiers.  Over the past several years, Orange amps have absolutely dominated the stage and studio — especially with artists making all manner of heavy music.  Even if you haven’t been listening for them, you’d have to be blind not to notice the number of bands relying on a backwall of Orange amps and speaker cabinets with their stunning presence onstage.

The names are too numerous to mention, but artists who have relied on Orange amps include Boris, Clutch, DOWN, Kylesa, Mastodon, Queens Of The Stone Age…  The list is practically endless.

There is a proud history to this legend which began in London, England in 1968, founded by Clifford Cooper.  Today, Adrian Emsley is the man who has carried the torch as the lead technical designer for all of Orange’s tube amps and helped to keep the legacy burning as bright as ever.  Even if you’re not a musician, these magic machines are very much at the heart and soul of the music and we believe it’s important that their story is not lost amidst everything else that is a part of Rock and Roll.

This is why it is such an incredible honour for us to speak with Mr. Emsley.  Let’s do this!

TBR:  You’re on your way to the States for Winter NAMM.  Any new product announcements that you can share with us?

AE: A Rockerverb 100 MKII that biases it’s self, no matter what output tubes you put in it and a TH100 head.

TBR:  Backing up a bit, were you formally trained in electronics or did you just decide to jump in out of personal interest and go for it?

Sure, but I’d say that experience on the road as a guitar/amp tech and actually seeing how equipment responds to the road, were way more influential when it comes to designing guitar amps etc.  I also used to be a tape op and had a pair of heavily modified Pultec EQ’s.

TBR:  How long have you been with Orange?  Were you originally brought in as Lead Designer or did you come up through the ranks as it were?

AE: I’ve been with Orange for 14 years.

The first thing I did was the OTR (simply a modified overdrive head).  The next thing I did was the AD15 and AD30, so I guess I was (still am) the only one actually coming up with the designs for the all tube stuff.  Stuff normally starts out as a point to point prototype to get the design nailed.  I never had any involvement in the solid state or hybrid stuff though!

TBR:  What was your first deliverable project (amp) working as Lead Designer?  Was it at all intimidating knowing that you were suddenly at the helm of a company with such an iconic sort of sound and legacy?

AE: AD15 was the first (built from scratch) design I did for Orange.  Orange was a reasonably small boutique amp company based in Denmark St. London, at the time.  The amps definitely had a cool and distinctive sound and look.

TBR:  How do things work at Orange in terms of developing new products?  Do you have free rein to go in any direction you want or is there input from other areas of the company?  the Marketing Dept, etc?

AE: I always try not to stray too far from the original 70’s orange sound, but at the same time, have to try to include features that suit todays live and recording environment, when it comes to guitar players.

TBR:  One of the things I’ve noticed about the more modern Orange designs is that there seems to be more deliberate interplay between the preamp and power amp sections that with other amp manufacturers.  (eg. the HF Drive and the ability to bypass the Master Volume on the OR50, the built in attenuator on the Thunderverb, even the the “Natural” channel on the Rocker 30).  Is this relationship between the pre/power sections something that’s really fundamental to your thought process as a designer or was it more a matter of wanting to come up with something new and different at the time you designed each of these amps?

I always loved power amp/output tube overdrive and the way the pre-amp reacts with it.  I try not to mask the guitar being used or more importantly, the player.

TBR:  Watching your demo for the Rocker 30, I was really struck by your design approach and the straight explanation you gave of it’s Natural Channel:  “If you’re a good player and you have a good guitar, it’ll sound great.  If you’re not and you don’t, then it won’t”.  Obviously, there are inherent benefits to the design, but I appreciated the fact that Orange had the balls to take this approach and give players credit for understanding what it meant.  Did you see this as any sort of risk at the time?

AE: It’s absolutely down to the players!  The tone really starts with the player so I try to design amps that bring out the player’s magic as much as possible.

TBR:  Since it’s introduction, the Tiny Terror really turned the industry on it’s ear.  So many companies are lining up smaller, lower wattage amps these days.  Do you see the TT as being a key part of your legacy?  I hate to ask you to pick favourites, but if you had to pick one of your amps that best represents your work, which would it be?

AE: Yes, the Tiny Terror is a big part of the Orange legacy.  The idea behind it was for the player to make a call to one of the other three bands on the bill and blagg the use their 4 x12.  They then turn up on the tube or bus with the little TT, crank it up and end up getting a better sound than the dude who owns the 4 x 12 who’s using a 100 watt head on 1.  On a smaller stage, the TT is my personal favorite.  On a bigger stage, it’s the OR50.

TBR:  One of your newest amps, the TH30 has people (including myself) really excited.  It seemed like you guys really listened to what people were after and built it.  However some debate seemed to break out about the choice to go with EL84’s as opposed to EL34’s.  Not to say that one is better than the other, but it seems that some people have very firmly established ideas as to what each of them will sound like.  Interested to hear your comments — is the notion of assigning a fixed sonic character to these or any other tubes an overly simplistic way of looking at things and why?

AE: The TH30 has the same output stage as the Dual Terror because it worked out well in that amp so I wanted to use it in a couple more amps.

You can get:
7 watts, half power, 2 output tubes.
15 watts, half power, 4 output tubes.
15 watts, full power, 2 output tubes.
30 watts, full power, 4 output tubes.

It should also be mentioned that the impedance is always what it says it is on the back, even when switched to 2 tubes.  The 2 output tube switch position is also shunting over to a 4 ohm and 8 ohm output transformer tap in the background.

The TH30 has very little in the way of front controls because most guitar players I know tend to just set them a certain way and forget about them!  They could almost glue them in place LOL!

TBR:  Do you spend a lot of time considering the speakers that will be paired with each amp?  What is to be considered when you’re putting a new amp together as far as speakers go?

AE: I’m always paying close attention to the type of speakers used in the amps.  We keep coming back to either a Vintage 30 or a G12H 30 (the speaker found in many 70’s orange 4 x 12’s).  I love the GH12H 30 myself!  It’s my favorite of the ceramics.  I’m also a big alnico fan but they wouldn’t suit everyone.

TBR:  I’m guessing that the company’s decision to start manufacturing amps outside the UK happened during your time.  Was that a concern for you in any way?

AE: The Tiny Terror, Dual Terror and TH30 were all designed in the UK but put into production over there to enable us to offer more amp for the same money.
Most of the bigger, all tube stuff is designed and built in the UK though.

TBR:  Which is your personal favourite of the vintage Orange amps?

AE: Pics Only!

TBR:  Let’s talk a bit about music.  I assume you got into musical electronics as a result of an interest in music.  What are your musical roots?  Who were some of the artists that inspired you early on?  Who is doing it for you musically these days?

AE: Late 60’s stuff, Rock, Punk etc.

TBR:  A lot of artists that play heavier music seem to gravitate towards Orange amps these days.  Do you enjoy the heavy and if so, which of these bands are doing it for you?

AE: I like the alternative and the heavy!  Anything from QOTSA to Mastodon, etc.

TBR:  If you were able to design a “signature custom” amp for any one artist, living or dead, who would it be?

AE: That’s easy!  Billy F Gibbons!

TBR:  You’re obviously a pretty decent player.  Were you in many bands prior to finding your way to honest work?  Do you play out or record much these days?

‘m a rhythm guitar player really.  My favorite rhythm guitar players, both sonically and attack style, etc, are Steve Jones and Malcolm Young.  Lead players that gave me a lot of useful feedback, with regards to the amps/designs, were Marc Ford, Audley Freed and Rontrose Heathman.  All three of them are real killer players, especially when it comes to letting the brakes off!

I don’t record much these days but I do a lot of mastering.  Try to give digital recorded records the analogue touch.

TBR:  We’ve talked quite a bit about amps.  You’ve got to have a couple of guitars kicking about.  Give us a short (or long) list of your favourites that you either own or would like to.

I’m mainly a Les Paul man.  I like a Junior too!

TBR:  Beatles or the Stones?

AE: Stones!

Are you a football fan at all?  Which club do you support?

AE: Lost interest in it!

TBR:  Will you miss good beer when you’re in States?  Which is your favourite beer?  And if you drink gin, which is your best?  (I love the damn stuff.  Along with Orange amps, gin one of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world if you ask me)

AE: Red Hook is nice in the States!  I like Polish beer in the UK right now.  Not big on Gin myself.

…and with that, cheers to Adrian and everybody at Orange.