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Dead medium: the Optigan, the Opsonar, the Orchestron; the Mellotron, the Chamberlin
From: Candi Strecker
Source(s): an essay by musician and collector Pea Hicks, available on the World Wide Web:

For further info on Optigans, seek out The Optigan Page

(Candi Strecker:)

(((The Optigan was a musical instrument produced for the home-organ consumer market in the early 1970s, using a radically different optical technology to produce its sounds. The "Dead Medium" in this case would probably be the optically-readable disks from which the Optigan "read" and generated its sounds.

The following information is extracted from a much longer (and very delightful) essay by musician/composer Pea Hicks of San Diego, describing his epic quest for Optigans and information about them.)))

(Pea Hicks:)

About ten years ago I first became aware of the existence of the Optigan. It was in the tenth anniversary edition of Keyboard magazine. In an article on the past and future of keyboards and synthesizers, there was a brief reference to the Optigan, and it stuck in my mind for years as it was the first time I had ever seen the word 'cheesy.'

The Optigan was a kind of home organ made by the Optigan Corporation (a subsidiary of Mattel) in the early 70's. It was set up like most home organs of the period = a small keyboard with buttons on the left for various chords, accompaniments and rhythms.

At the time, all organs produced their sounds electrically or electronically with tubes or transistors. The Optigan was different in that its sounds were read off of LP-sized celluloid discs which contained the graphic waveforms of real instruments.

These recordings were encoded in concentric looping rings using the same technology as film soundtracks. Remember that sequence in *Fantasia* where the Soundtrack makes a cameo? Those squiggly lines are actually pretty close to what the real thing looks like. As the film runs, a light is projected through the soundtrack and is picked up on the other side by a photoreceptor. The voltage is varied depending on how much light reaches the receptor, and after being amplified this voltage is converted into audible sound by the speakers. The word 'Optigan' stands for 'Optical Organ.'

Optigan discs have 57 rings of soundtrack = these provide recordings of real musicians playing riffs, chord patterns and other effects. (37 of the tracks are reserved for the keyboard sound itself = a different recording for each note.) So when you want to play a bossa nova, you don't get those wimpy little pop-pop-chink-chink electronic sounds = you actually hear a live combo backing you up! This was a pretty unique concept for the early 70's.

Technically speaking, the Optigan was a primitive sampler. Sort of. I tend to think of it more like an ultra-poor-man's Mellotron or Chamberlin. These are two famous keyboards from the fifties and sixties which played back recordings of instruments on lengths of magnetic tape. These two became very popular despite some huge drawbacks.

For one thing, the tapes only lasted a few seconds and could not loop. If you wanted your flute to keep playing, you would have to re-press the key after eight seconds. This also involved waiting for the tape to rewind, so fast playing was generally not possible. Also, the racks of tapes themselves were pretty huge and unwieldy = changing from a choir to an oboe was quite an undertaking compared to what today's machines can do. Not surprisingly, these instruments were quite expensive to buy and maintain. But the sounds they made were worth it = at least at the time.

Mattel marketed the Optigan as something of an adult toy = the sound quality was simply not good enough for professional use. They sold mostly through stores like Sears and JC Penney and were relatively inexpensive = about $150 to $300 depending on which model you chose.

They came with a "Starter Set" of four discs, and extra discs were marketed like records. Official Optigan music books were also available to help you make the most out of the minimal talent you probably had if you had bought an Optigan in the first place.

The first thing you notice about the Optigan (if you have any imagination at all, that is) is how malleable this technology was. You can do all sorts of things with the discs to sabotage the sound = put them in upside down, put several in at once, manually stop and start them with your hands for record scratch effects, press all the buttons at once, and so on.

Most of the sounds that were recorded for the keyboard section are different kinds of sustained organs. Since the disc spins constantly, the sounds just keep looping around and around. So the keyboard sounds can't have a beginning and end per se. [...] Some of the discs even have non- musical sound effects (such as applause) on them.

You would think that, since the discs are not played by physical contact, there would be no pops or scratches such as on vinyl records. But this is not the case = tiny scratches on the discs cause irregular diffractions of light which in turn end up sounding exactly like record scratches! Most of the time, though, this actually improves the sound. You get the weird feeling that you're listening to a cheesy old Enoch Light record, but you're actually controlling where the music goes!

[...] Mattel only produced the machines (at a factory in Compton, nonetheless) for a couple of years. They didn't sell very well because of several design flaws which made them amazingly unreliable and prone to breaking down. Eventually Mattel sold the whole works to the Miner Company of New York (an organ manufacturer). They continued production of the Optigan under the company name of Opsonar and also produced several new discs.

But the design remained the same, and its inherent problems forced the Miner company to drop the machine as well. Later, the technology was bought by a company called Vako which made an instrument called the Orchestron. This was designed for professional use, but the sound quality still sucked. They made about 50 of these machines before they folded.

Candi Strecker

"putting up Burma-Shave signs along the information superhighway"