OptiTron: The Optigan

July 26, 2010
by GForce Software

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.

The Optigan came with a set of discs, and additional discs could also be purchased. Stylistically, these ranged from bona-fide classics such as Singing Rhythms & Classic Guitar 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.