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Gearhead: Appreciating The Optigan 50 Years Later

A quirky chameleon of a keyboard—as seen on TV!—celebrates its 50th birthday this year

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The Optigan
The Optigan

These days, if you’ve got the right apps, you can recreate the sound of just about any instrument on earth. In the early 1970s, when there was no digital recording, people weren’t so lucky. Back then, the best you could do was buy a Mellotron or Chamberlin. These were keyboards that played back recordings of various different instruments on magnetic tape cartridges, an analog version of what we now call samples. Cool as these early proto-sampling keyboards could be (Herbie Hancock coaxed some of the scariest sounds ever heard on this planet out of a Mellotron for 1972’s Crossings), they were expensive and tough to use. Which is where the Optigan came in.

Introduced in 1971 and originally built by the Mattel toy company, the Optigan got its weird name from bashing together two words: “optical” and “organ.” The reason for the second word was obvious—it looked and worked just like an electronic organ—but the optical bit was what really set the Optigan apart. Its wide array of instrument sounds were recorded not on tape but on 12-inch celluloid discs read by a light beam, much like a CD, DVD, or any other optical disc we use today. Many of the discs, with titles like “Big Band Beat,” “Banjo Sing-Along,” and “Polynesian Village,” were sold in separate sets.

Optigan program disc
An Optigan program disc

The Optigan was the first musical instrument ever to be advertised on television, and for a while it benefited from that exposure. But in the end, its cheapness worked against it. The sounds on the discs suffered from poor quality, pitch problems, and scratchiness, while the disc drives often malfunctioned.

By the late ’70s, the Optigan was already a relic. Even so, its wobbly, lo-fi tone has attracted a cult following. Many artists—including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Devo, to name just three—have used this odd, forward-looking yet backward-sounding instrument in their music over the years. It can even be credited for inspiring the formation of at least one band: Optiganally Yours, an indie-rock duo that came together in mid-1990s San Diego.

Eventually, one of the members of that band, Pea Hix, managed to track down and rescue (from someone’s garage) the original master tapes that were used to make the Optigan’s “samples.” This of course meant that he had access to all the instrument’s sounds, and many more that had never been put on disc, in high fidelity. The results can be heard on a 2018 album titled (unsurprisingly) O.Y. in Hi-Fi. Sounds great, right? Well, yes. But also no. Because, when you think about it, pristine audio quality doesn’t exactly fit into what we enthusiasts like to call the Optiganal aesthetic. 

Optigan Keyboard
Optigan keyboard

Scroll through the slideshow below to view new gear.


Music City Exports

Music City Exports

Another 50th anniversary of note in the gear world this year is that of Eventide, a pioneer in digital audio processing. The company is celebrating that milestone with the release of the Clockworks Bundle, which takes the effects units that made it famous in the ’70s and ’80s—including the Instant Phaser, Instant Flanger, Omnipressor, and two different iterations of the Harmonizer—and puts them all together in one virtual rack for DAW users. It’s compatible with both Windows and Mac OS X.

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall served a the editor of JazzTimes from May 2018 through January 2023. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.