"OOOOOOOHHH....much joy. It’s great to hear these sounds in this format."
Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Tom Waits)
For what was an operationally simple instrument, it’s fascinating to discover the inventive ways in which various artists have used the Optigan. For example, many have resorted to turning the discs over so they play backwards and a few have even loaded more than one disc at a time for layered textures (both of these things are possible on the M-Tron Pro)
However, our favourite story comes from ace producer Tchad Blake, a man with a wealth of experience with the instrument after discovering it during high school in the early 70s.
Years later, he and Mitchell Froom created an Optigan based drum loop for Tom Waits as a starting point to record his version of "Heigh Ho It's Off To Work We Go" for a Hal Willner Disney project.
Tchad says. “If I remember correctly, we used two discs stacked and slightly offset to get the rhythm. Tom loved it and several months later asked if he could borrow one of my Optigans to take on the road, so I put together a very organized pack of discs with a note on top explaining how to work and troubleshoot most things that could go wrong and sent the whole thing off in a flight case.
Six months later Tom called to say thanks, that he was sending it back and just how great it was to have an Optigan out on the road.
When it showed up at the studio I took a look at the disc pack I had so carefully assembled and found that it was all exactly the same as it was when I sent it out. Nothing had been disturbed. Not even the note.
I knew he couldn't have used it without changing something in there so I called him up and asked if there had been a problem with the discs?
Tom said. "Discs???.......never got to the discs, we took the keyboard out, set it up on the stage and the motor made such a beautiful noise we mic'd it up and just used it like that.”
Originally manufactured by toy maker Mattel®, the Optigan was an attempt to break into the burgeoning 'home entertainment' market of the 1970s.
The Optigan used LP sized plastic discs on which sounds, backing tracks and effects were stored and these were read by an optical sensor on the instrument itself.
After inserting the disc and firing the machine into life, the user would have access to a single lead sound that spanned the keyboard, plus a wealth of auto accompaniment rhythms & effects, each of which were triggered by a series of buttons. These were subdivided into five rocker switches of Effects and then a series of Major, Minor & Diminished buttons.
The idea was simple. Pushing a button gave you a backing track in a variety of keys and you then played the keyboard to accompany these backings.
Although there were several different Optigan models available, ranging from the single speaker 34001 to the ‘Stereophonic’ & ‘reverb’ laden 35011, the operating principle of the instrument remained the same throughout its existence.
To help the purchaser get started, the Optigan came with a set of discs that included; Big Organ & Drums, Pop Piano Plus Guitar, Latin Fever and Guitar in 3/4 Time. Additional discs could then be purchased and, stylistically, these ranged from bona-fide classics such as Singing Rhythms & Classic Guitar (the latter used to great effect by Jon Brion on the film soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to the toe-curling Nashville Country and truly epic Romantic Strings.
It’s fair to say that the lo-fi sound and general poor build quality never really captured the public’s imagination and subsequently a large percentage of Optigans either ended up as landfill or simply being sold on for a pittance. We know of several people who walked into thrift stores to be confronted with an ill-treated Optigan and who, after hearing it, fell in love with it instantly. “I was sick of instruments like the DX-7 and D-50 and there was just something about hearing this grainy beast that made me buy it on the spot” recounted one now very famous musician to us when we asked how he found his.
While a fair few instruments were sold across the USA, outside of a few pockets of enlightened musicians, they were almost unheard of. Steve Hackett had made use of the Big Band disc on his Sentimental Institution track on the 1980 Defector album, but by-and-large in the UK the Optigan was unknown.
Indeed, our love affair with the instrument only started when we heard one in the USA at the turn of the century. There was something about the instrument’s backing tracks that took us back to our teenage days of the 1970s. The same instant nostalgia that the M-Tron rhythms imparted and we knew we had to acquire one somehow. We approached several fonts of knowledge in the Optigan world about possible joint ventures but despite our best efforts nothing ever transpired. However, a few years later our friend Scanner contacted us to say that the UK based band Coil not only had an instrument but a massive collection of discs too.
Several phone calls later, Coil’s Peter Christopherson and Jhonn Balance invited us to their studio to begin the recording process and we jumped at the opportunity.
Sadly, soon after we finished the recording process, Jhonn Balance died in a tragic accident and in the ensuing studio sale we took possession of this very Optigan. For this reason it remains one of our prized possessions.
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