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Dead medium: the Optigan
From: (Philip Downey)

Source(s): Optigan web page New Musical Express website,

(((Philip Downey remarks: I first heard of the Optigan in a music review on the NME's website. It seems it is still being used occasionally. The reviews are cut to basics, while the first part is from an Optigan website. Hope you enjoy it.)))

"So you've found yourself at the Optigan page and you're wondering 'What is the Optigan? Looks like an organ.' Sure, it's an organ, but it's really not like any other organ you've ever heard. The Optigan is unique in the way it produces its lovely sound because it reads its sounds off clear plastic discs. The Optigan Corporation made quite a few of these discs; there seems to be one for every musical genre. To further enhance your Optigan experience, the Optigan Corporation even had music specially arranged for the Optigan and released a number of Optigan Music Books.

"Still, some people doubt the importance of the Optigan. So what does the Optigan sound like? Listen to a few short sound samples, or you can peruse the list of musical releases where the Optigan can be heard providing sonic assistance.

"The discs used by the Optigan are made out of the same material as photo negatives. The size is the same as a 33 1/3 vinyl record. Instead of grooves, the Optigan discs have little waveforms which are read by a light bar reader inside the Optigan. The discs sits on a felt pad and a brass wheel drops on top of the disc when the drawer is closed. The wheel spins the disc when the Optigan is turned on. Volume is controlled with a foot pedal.

"The unique feature of the Optigan is that the chord buttons do not play a chord when pressed, but an entire band jamming in the key chosen in the style of music that the disc is for. So, pressing the A minor chord button on the Nashville Country disc brings to life a whole country band doing a looped riff in A minor. The five switches above the chord buttons are usually percussion, but sometimes have special effects like crowds cheering or monkeys howling. It must be heard to be appreciated (or laughed at)."

(((bruces remarks: See also Working Note 08.2: "the Optigan, the Opsonar, the Orchestron; the Mellotron, the Chamberlin." Pop music in the late 90s has reached such an ecstasy of sampling and appropriation that one might have known that an analog device like the Optigan would enjoy some kind of resurgence.)))

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"SPARKLEHORSE are set to make a return with their second album, the follow-up to 1996's acclaimed 'Vivadixiesubmarine transmissionplot'.

"The new album, 'Good Morning Spider,' contains 17 tracks and was produced by Sparklehorse main man Mark Linkous. It is released by Parlophone on July 20. Briefly describing the album, Linkous says: 'There's a lot of piano and cello and an organ made by Mattel Toy Corporation in the '70s called an Optigan, which I broke. Some rhythm tracks were built from samples I made of steam-powered engines.'"

"Like its predecessor, 'Good Morning Spider' works like an impressionist's paintbrush. Simple songs, derived from the most traditional forms (folk, country, the drunkest drunk punk) and crudely rendered by Linkous and his daunting armoury of arcane instrumentation (including '70s relic the Optigan, the Mattel Corporation's abortive proto- sampler), gradually assume supernaturally emotive qualities, thanks to their author's gauche yet profound lyricism ('The tree you planted has become fecund with kamikaze hummingbirds,' wheezes Mark on 'Thousands Of Sparrows') and an ear for melody that could stir fossilised reptiles."

Philip Downey (