First New Optigan Disc In Decades - Still Crazy Lo-Fi After All These Years
The Mellotron is a justly famous keyboard. It's one of the earliest to play samplings of other instruments (via tape loops). Famously used by the Beatles and many other artists of the 60's, it was an expensive and delicate piece of machinery. Each note of the recorded instrument was a separate loop of tape within the Mellotron, making changing instrument sounds an intricate affair. It also kept the Mellotron out of the hands of consumers.
Electronic home organs had their limits, and were quite expensive. The electronic revolution that would bring us cheap multi-timbral keyboards was years away. In 1970, the Optigan filled the gap. Developed by engineers at Mattel (yep, Mattel had an organ division), the keyboard uses acetate discs as a sound source. Each disc has concentric rings of optical tracks, much like the soundtrack on a strip of movie film.
Swapping the discs gives your Optigan new organ sounds, and new rhythms and sound effects. For me, that's where the Optigan shines. Instead of the accompaniments being the typical electronic boom-boom-chick organ rhythms, the discs have recordings of actual bands. It's a very low-fi & finicky system, an important part of the instrument's charm.
There's a band called Optiganally Yours that use Optigans exclusively (their pair of albums are among my favorite music ever). Pea Hicks of the group has become the steward of all things Optigan, and he and his co-conspirators have recently figured how to make new Optigan discs – the first in more than 30 years. They're not available for sale yet, but check out the video of the prototype in action. I've finally got to find an Optigan for myself – especially if Pea is going to publish more of these Vince Clark sounding discs!