The Legendary Optigan

At almost any single period during the years 1970-1985 there were over 45 brands of new electronic organs on the UK market: Between them they managed to produce, 183 models under £1000, 137 models between £1000 & £2000 and 201 models over £2000+

The Legendary Optigan

Postby Mike Bracchi » 09 Jun 2012 11:18

The Optigan and Orchestron were successors to the famous Mellotron and Chamberlin-machines.

They were analog, mechanical sample players but the Optigan and Orchestron used optical discs for storage, making them considerably more transportable than their one-tape-machine-player-per-key predecessors and also more affordable.

Changing sounds was now simply a matter of swapping discs, but the sound fidelity attainable with these optical discs was very limited.

Famous users include Kraftwerk (the 'Choir' sound on Radio Activity is the Orchestron), Elvis Costello, Devo, PJ Harvey and many more.

Production history

Engineering work on the project began in 1968 and the first patents issued in 1970.

The Optigan was released in 1971 by Optigan Corporation, a subsidiary of toy manufacturer Mattel, Incorporated of El Segundo, California with the manufacturing plant located nearby in Compton, California.

All rights to the Optigan, the disc format, and all previous discs were sold in 1973 to Miner Industries of New York, an organ manufacturer who formed a subsidiary, Opsonar, to produce it. Miner had record sales for a time, in part due to Opsonar. However, sales declined shortly thereafter and production of the Optigan and its discs ceased in 1976.

Appearance and construction

The Optigan looked like a scaled-down version of the electronic organs of the day.

The various cabinet designs and their matching benches were simulated wood made out of a molded plastic the manufacturer dubbed "Temperite" and finished with matching speaker grille cloth and occasionally reverb units inside the unit. A mechanical reverb unit and cabinetry with genuine wood veneer were available as extra-cost options; the switch for the reverb on units so equipped is located below the power switch.

Non-reverb equipped Optigans feature a metal plate which reads "Stereophonic" in raised relief and which hides the unused opening. Reverb-equipped units had a slightly different plate which read "REVERB Stereophonic" affixed immediately to the left of the rocker switches and above the power switch.

According to two piano bar prototypes were produced. The Optigan played in stereo through two solid state amplifiers with the right-hand keyboard assigned to the instrument's right channel and the chords and effects assigned to the left.

The optical disc format

The Optigan's playback system functioned much like the storage and reading of an optical soundtrack as was used in motion pictures, using a light bulb to energize a photoelectric cell on the opposite side of spinning, 12" diameter clear plastic film discs (officially referred to as "Program Discs") encoded with fifty-seven concentric optical tracks.

The system then translated the analog waveforms on the disc to an audio signal. A flip-down door beneath the keyboard allowed access to the disc's loading area to the left of the unit and a disc storage area to the right. Program discs were loaded by simply sliding them onto the felt-covered platform; a V-shaped notch on the front of the panel aided in alignment. When power was applied and the front cover closed, a spindle engaged the center hole of the disc and a motor-driven idler wheel spun the disc on the spindle.

The power switch itself was mechanically linked to the disc's drive system; lowering the front panel dropped the spindle and disconnected power to the instrument, allowing the program discs to be changed without the need to fully power down. A broad, flat, white plastic cleaning tool with a purple, simulated velvet cleaning surface was supplied with each Optigan to allow periodic cleaning of the photoelectric cell, located near the rear of the instrument.

Thirty-seven tracks were sustained or repeatedly percussive notes in the timbre of a particular instrument and were played through a standard three-octave piano-style keyboard with the right hand; twenty-one were of a live band or soloist playing chords in different keys arranged per the circle of fifths, specifically B-flat, F, C, G, D, A and E major, minor, and diminished and were played with the left hand in much the style of a chord organ or accordion.

The remaining five were assigned to rocker switches above the chord buttons and featured (depending on the disc in question) percussion, sound effects, introductions, vamps, and endings synchronized with the chord buttons. Pushing upward on the rocker switches locked them in place for use with percussion; pushing downward allowed momentary use for vamps, introductions and endings.

Cover of the beginner's music book shipped with each new Optigan. Despite the mention on the cover, no disc with the sound of a sitar was ever offered

Not all of the chord buttons had their own track assignments, the result being only fifty-seven sounds on sixty-three buttons, keys and switches. There was also an optical metronome incorporated into the discs which showed as a red flashing light for the downbeat and white for the upbeats inside the Optigan badge above the keyboard.

The advantages of this unique optical playback system were that the Optigan's range of timbres was infinitely expandable and that there was no limit on the duration of a note as there was on the Optigan's professional-grade counterpart, the magnetic tape-based Mellotron. The disadvantage was that notes could have neither attack nor decay, as the tracks had no specific beginning or end.

The "Starter Set" sold with the Optigan contained discs with fairly self-explanatory titles: "Big Organ & Drums", "Pop Piano Plus Guitar", "Latin Fever", and "Guitar in 3/4 Time." More modern styles were represented by titles such as "Movin'!," which was a rhythm and blues disc and "Hear and Now," with a sound clearly based on the hit single "Sweet Seasons" by Carole King (and cover art evocative of that of her Tapestry album). Other discs were marketed individually and packaged much like long-playing phonograph records. These individual titles were also bundled in much the same way as the "Starter Set" and sold as six-disc "Entertainment Folios." Some discs were available only as part of a two-disc "Style Pak" with titles such as "The Joyous Sounds of Christmas", "Country Style Pak.", "Polka" and "Songs Of Praise" - these last two being produced towards the end of production and in very low quantities. Music books of various styles and even arrangements intended for individual disks were also available and sometimes packaged with the different bundles.

The initial run of musical tracks were recorded by Southern California studio musicians in Hollywood and Torrance. However, a musicians' union strike meant that some of the later discs were recorded in Germany. One disc is of particular note. The instrumental tracks for "Bluegrass Banjo" were recorded by members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The Vox Humana disc keyboard sound was used for the "Vocal Choir" Orchestron disc.

For the benefit of those unable to read music, the notes in the books were numbered in correspondence to a numbered and color-coded foil strip above the keyboard. The Optigan's songbooks were written and arranged by Optigan Corporation's music director, Johnny Largo. Largo, an accordionist and session musician, was a contemporary of Johnny Marks, a composer best known for his popular mid-20th century Christmas melodies. As such, many of the songs in the Christmas books were Marks compositions.


Despite its use of recordings of actual musical instruments in lieu of internally generated sounds, the Optigan suffered from poor tonal quality due not only to the bandwidth limitations of its optical system but its mechanical system as well.

The Optigan concept was really similar to that of the Mellotron (early sampling technology) but while the Mellotron used magnetic tape, the Optigan borrowed its technology from motion picture optical soundtrack technology and its amplitude modulated format.

The disc could be sped up or slowed down via a thumb-wheel next to the chord buttons to cause a corresponding change in tempo and pitch; however, faster speeds tended to roll off the lower frequencies, slower speeds rolled off the highs and moderate to slow tempo lent a slightly muddy quality overall.

Natural imperfections on the celluloid discs as well as dust and dirt came through as scratches, clicks and pops, much like a worn phonograph record. Furthermore, the pitch change brought on by the tempo adjustment made session work with live musicians a difficult proposition, especially since the pitch varied greatly from disc to disc.

Even though the technology of the day was more than sophisticated enough to avoid them, there were numerous mechanical problems with the disc's motor drive due to its having been engineered to be as affordable as possible. Changes in environment which had a physical effect on the photocells frequently led to cross-talk between tracks. One common example involves the F at the upper end of the keyboard; press this key, step on the volume control pedal and the C-diminished/A-diminished chord can often be heard in the background.

These same diminished chords intentionally found their way onto the row of major chords. And as pointed out earlier in this article, not all of the chord buttons had their own track assignments. In a very unusual move, A-major utilizes the same soundtrack as B-flat-diminished, G-diminished, and E-diminished while E-major shares space with F-diminished and D-diminished, thereby making it impossible to play in the keys of A or E, at least with left-hand accompaniment. Apparently, this was done to save space on the disc, further explaining the lack of dominant seventh chords or any chords in the keys of E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, B and F-sharp.

Optigan badge with its optical metronome seen as the circular object beneath the arches of the trademark.


Cover of the 1972 Everything Is Beautiful songbook. As the name suggests, it was filled with arrangements of the soft popular music of the day.

Since the instrument was aimed at amateur players, the majority of the songs in the Optigan's music books are written in the much simpler keys of F, C and G. The Optigan certainly had its share of detractors, then as now. Yet it provided an entertaining and educational introduction to the world of music and likely sparked interest in a generation of budding musicians and composers.

Vince and I had several of these instruments pass through our hands at Hertfordshire Organ Studios, sadly, they are few and far between today - very rare so keep an eye out on eBay and if you see one grab it while you can 8)

Source; Wikipedia & Nord UK
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New Optigan Video Clips

Postby Mike Bracchi » 03 Aug 2012 20:55

Optigan music used in the intermission at the Cinema

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Postby andyg » 04 Sep 2012 10:18

Digital dates from the early 80's, someone wrote.

Tell that to Allen, who were using PCM sampled waveforms for many years before that!
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Re: The Wacky: Legendary Optigan

Postby Mike Bracchi » 22 May 2013 12:23

A new video clip of the Optigan bringing together a long lost TV advert and a track from Johnny Largo, Mattel's Optigan trade show demonstrator

Last edited by Mike Bracchi on 04 Oct 2015 15:02, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: Updated with new video clip ....
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Re: The Legendary Optigan

Postby dragon » 04 Oct 2015 15:02

Pretty amazing in its time but I think I will stick with my present set up. .. Fred

Last bumped by Mike Bracchi on 04 Oct 2015 15:02.
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