During Dawn Landes’ Live Lunch appearance this past Friday, she mentioned she owns an Optigan. I nearly fell out of my chair! I knew exactly what she was talking about because I used to own one. So what is a Optigan?
Back in the early 1970’s, the Mattel Company marketed this all-in-one keyboard & musical “assist” organ under a different name so as to fool the buying public into believing this was an actual musical instrument. It had a three-octave keyboard and a series of buttons corresponding to the keys A thru G and an additional series of A thru G buttons in the minor & diminished key ranges. It also had 5 rhythm buttons that had all kinds of funky sound effects; everything from football snare drums to huge crowd noises.
The Optigan ran off of a LP sized plastic disc (manufactured by the Kodak Co.) which held pre-recorded musical loops of a full band playing in various keys. Hit a button and a light sensor (not a laser) played back that key. So the Optigan serves as an interesting pre-cursor to both digital disc and loop generator technology. For a quick overview of the Optigan, try this NPR story: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7718580
The only problem was, the Optigan never sounded very good. My Grandmother bought one in 1972, but soon grew tired of it. She gave it to me, and I road 800 miles from my Grandmother’s house in Louisville to my parent’s house in Jacksonville Fl. squeezed between my Optigan and my parent’s backseat car door. Hey, you’ve got to suffer for your art! I even bought extra discs for the thing, including the rare and now highly sought after one called “Guitar Boogie” (like having Chet Akins in a low-fi box) and the soul/funk inspired “Moving.” Oh Mama, what I could do with that set of loops today! Unfortunately, I gave my Optigan away to a friend in Florida in 1985. Hey Tracy, if you still have it, I want it back now.
About ten years ago, a band calling itself Optiganically Yours released a full length album of songs built around the Optigan’s limited capabilities, and it met with surprisingly positive critical acclaim. To hear the Optigan in all it’s cheesy glory, here is an MP3 of Optiganically Yours doing Stop Touching Me.
For all you EVER wanted to know about the Optigan but were afraid to ask, here is a great fan site: http://www.optigan.com/