Orange amps used to be brilliant one-trick ponies, but this new stage-ready all-valve head offers two flavours of tone plus a wide range of gain choices. Review by Huw Price
Description: 50/25W twin-channel valve head with attenuator and tube buffered effects loop.
Made in the UK
Contact: Orange Amps – 0208 905 2828 – www.orange-amps.com
Black is the new Orange, or so it would seem. It’s a relatively new look for an established amp manufacturer, and the colour change signifies a lot more that a style rethink. At present the Dual Dark series comprises two models – the 100 and the 50. Both are heads, and they’re rated at 100W and 50W. We’re reviewing the smaller of the two.
The Dual Dark amps are mostly aimed towards heavy rock and metal players, and they offer an alternative to the ‘classic’ Orange tone. Channel A of this twin-channel head is described as having a ‘completely new voicing’. Channel B has the same sound as the Orange Dark Terror, but the resemblance stops at the preamp because the power stage of the Dual Dark 50 features a pair of EL34 power valves running in Class AB.
The basketweave tolex and gold piping may be Vox features but the aesthetics and control layout remain recognisably Orange. Last time this writer reviewed an Orange amp he faced the ignominy of calling up Orange’s tech team because he couldn’t get the amp to switch on. The confusion was caused by the Full/Half power switch, which turned out to be a three-way with standby mode in the middle position. Fortunately this is now clearly labelled on the front panel and we were able to get the Dual Dark to switch on without further embarrassment.
Orange has always had a quirky approach to labelling, on occasion relying exclusively on stylish but slightly cryptic hieroglyphs. For the Dual Dark they have adopted a belt and braces approach and the symbols are augmented by descriptive labels that even the average guitar journalist should be able to decipher.
Channel A is the most fully-featured, with a complete set of Treble, Middle and Bass controls. Like the Dark Terror, Channel B has a single midrange shaping control that shifts the frequency balance from full mid boost with attenuated highs and lows to mid scoop with full-on treble and bass. Both channels get independent Volume and Gain controls and there’s an Attenuator that works on both channels.
Resistive attenuators tend to employ rotary switches, but this one has an infinitely variable control. A quick call to Orange confirmed that the Dual Dark attenuator relies on a customised phase inverter that determines when the output tubes begin to clip and the manner of the clipping. This method is preferred in order to maintain a direct connection between the speakers and the output transformer. Although controls are provided on the front panel, both channel switching and attenuator bypass can be done by footswitch too.
Quarter-inch jack sockets are provided on the back panel, adjacent to the effects send and return connections. Orange use an ECC81 valve to buffer the effects loop, with a further five ECC83s handling preamp duties and providing four gain stages. In fact Orange claims that these are the highest-gain amps the company has ever manufactured. The stock EL34 power valves can also be swapped for other suitable tetrodes, so long as a qualified tech performs a routine re-bias.
High-power Orange amps have always had an aura of robustness and the Dual Dark maintains the tradition. Made in the UK, it’s heavy and solidly put together with superbly applied tolex and piping, metal corner covers and chromed facia protectors. All the cooling vents are metal, and everything is screwed down so tightly it can only inspire confidence.
Starting with the Gain and Volume controls for both channels set to high noon, it’s clear that they produce similar amounts of overdrive but they have quite different voicings. Channel B is the more edgy and aggressive, with lashings of upper midrange bite. Even on half power clean headroom isn’t an issue, because the gain range of both channels is immense. Channel B’s Shape control is powerful, yet it remains useable at both extremes. The extra edge when running at half-gain translates into extra clarity at low-gain settings.
The Shape control is slightly counter-intuitive: best think of it as a mid-scoop. Fully counter-clockwise the midrange is lifted to produce a thick, slightly plummy tone with clear highs and solid lows. As it’s moved clockwise you can almost feel the midrange changing shape, and at 11 o’clock the tone starts to shift from UK fatness to a hollowed-out Fender-meets-clean-Mesa sound.
In clean mode Channel A has a thicker, warmer tone with extra weight in the low mids and more forgiving transients. While Channel B is ideally suited to wrenching clear and bright tones out of hot humbuckers, Channel B’s sweeter treble and softer attack works better with single coils.
Despite producing an outstanding array of clean sounds, the Dual Dark is really engineered for distortion. The first third of Channel A’s Gain control moves through milder overdrive tones but the Dual Dark really feels like it’s being reined back until Gain reaches about halfway. This is where notes start to gel, sustain draws out and the dynamics come to life.
Experimentation is needed with the Volume and Attenuator settings. I’d expected that pushing the power stage and using extra attenuation would smooth out the sound, but Channel A’s distortion tones are clearer and smoother with the Volume set lower. Strangely enough it was the other way with Channel B, where higher Volume settings helped to refine the preamp distortion’s slightly fuzzy edge. The distortion on this channel has a more modern, US vibe – crunchy and brutal, but superbly well-defined.
Rather than taking the usual clean/dirty channel approach, Orange has come up with two channels that have distinct voicings, yet they’re still capable of a vast range of clean to extremely distorted tones; hardly surprising when they each have four gain stages.
Both could be used as a clean channel or a crunch channel and it’s left for the player to determine which is preferred for each application. The attenuation feature is a useful addition that can be used simply to manage volume levels or interact with the Volume controls to explore various levels of power amp drive. If you opt for the footswitch, you can even use it as a ‘boost’ by switching the attenuation off for solos.
Although it can edge into retro rock or classic metal territory, the Dual Dark 50 is not really about that. It’s a modern rock amp with simple yet powerful controls and a bit of a UK/US crossover thing going on. Powerful stuff indeed.