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Long Lost Cousins

The Vako Orchestron

The Orchestron was originally developed by Opsonar around the time that the Optigan was on its death bed. The idea was to adapt the Optigan’s technology into a more “professional” quality instrument which could compete with the Mellotron. After initial development by Opsonar, the Orchestron was adopted by Dave VanKoevering, formerly of Moog. His company, Vako, produced the Orchestron in a variety of models for a couple years starting in about 1976 until it too kicked the bucket.

Technically, the Orchestron was a much more reliable instrument than the Optigan, but the sound more or less remained just as crappy, so it never really flew. Gone were the cheeseball chord accompaniments- this instrument was primarily designed to play back the sounds of brass, organs, strings, choirs, flutes, etc. Optigan discs had 57 soundtracks- Orchestron only had 37. This meant that if you put an Optigan disc in and Orchestron, you would get most of the chord patterns spread across the keyboard, with 17 organ tones dispersed throughout. But if you put an Orchestron disc in an Optigan, you would get 20 organ tones in the chord buttons with the remaining 17 in the bottom range of the keyboard. The layout of the different tones and chords would be pretty erratic because the layout of the soundtracks for the two kinds of discs was quite different. With Optigan discs, the first Special Effects Switches are the outermost rings because these typically require the greatest fidelity. Consequently, the lowest organ note is located on the innermost rim, with the notes ascending outwards sequentially. The Orchestron works on a different principal- the notes are arranged so that each tone is neighbored by a fourth or a fifth. This way, if there is any crosstalk, at least it will be a harmonically agreeable blend instead of a jarring minor second!

You can’t deny that the Orchestron looked way cooler than the Optigan, from the single-manual Model Bs, Cs and Ds to the ultimate wet-dream monster, the Model X Phase Four! These larger models incorporated synthesizers as well for a more comprehensive musical experience. Availability of Orchestrons today is sadly even less than that of Optigans. And of course you can pretty much forget about finding them cheap- because they were considered “professional” instruments, they have pretty much gone the same route as analog synthesizers in terms of overblown prices. Since originally writing this article about the Orchestron, I have actually had the opportunity of speaking with Dave VanKoevering himself! He told me lots of stories about the genesis of the Orchestron, including details about its connection with the Chilton Talentmaker (see below). Still, even with this firsthand information, there still seems to be a lot of speculation about the exact nature of the relationship between the three different instruments/companies. Dave has offered to let me loose in his archives if I’d ever like to go out to Nashville to see him, though, so keep watching this space for more info if and when that trip happens!

There were only eight discs made for the Orchestron:

  • Pipe Organ
  • Flute
  • Violin
  • Vocal Choir
  • Organ (Hammond B3)
  • Solo French Horn
  • Cello
  • Saxophone

Listen:

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The scales for these discs were partially culled from the Optigan Master Tape Library, but Dave VanK informed me that additional scales were supplied by none other than Paul Beaver, the early Moog Synthesist of Beaver & Krause fame. The discs themselves were all made by Mike LeDoux. Another mystery on this front is that prototype Orchestron discs (with handwritten label areas) seem to be much more common than actual production discs with official art. I showed some of these protos to Mike and while he confirmed that it was all his handwriting, he had no idea how anyone would have ever gotten hold of those protos! My guess is that the protos were leaked out of the Opsonar R&D lab.

This is the original Orchestron disc art style.
This “prototype” style, in Mike LeDoux‘s handwriting, is somehow the most commonly encountered type of Orchestron disc.
This is the 2nd version of the Orchestron disc art.

The Chilton Talentmaker

[Or How To Build A Better Optigan]

In the May 1973 issue of Music Trades Magazine, a small article appeared:

Chilton to Introduce New Organ: The TalentMaker A new optical organ called the TalentMaker will be introduced at the NAMM Show according to F. Roy Chilton, president of the Chilton Corporation, Torrance, California. The new instrument has 24 chord buttons, 37 keys and has such features as instantaneous electronic speed and pitch change, slide balance control, 12′ speaker, 24 Watts of power and vinyl grain wood cabinet according to Chilton. Anticipated retail is about $395.00. “The TalentMaker is a quality musical instrument built by one of Europe’s largest manufacturers of electronic musical instruments, The Galanti Electronics Group, with eight factories located in Italy and Ireland”, said Chilton. The TalentMaker operates on special optical discs featuring a “Triple Track” (patent applied for) process which produces a clear, wide range tone according to Chilton. Chilton, a veteran in the music industry, was formerly president of Thomas Organ, Magna Electronics and Optigan Corporation. The Chilton Corporation is a subsidiary of General Electro Music and the new instrument will be displayed in Space 27A, B&H.

Subsequently, at NAMM that year, Miner/Opsonar published this advertisement in the NAMM Daily:

WARNING:

“We are the owners of pending U.S. patent applications plus the following granted U.S. patents covering aspects of photo-optical chord organs.

We are prepared to use full legal means to protect our rights under such patents against anyone making, using or selling any infringing organs.”

Given this information, and the fact that I had never encountered (or known anyone to have encountered) an actual Chilton Talentmaker, I assumed that Chilton had simply given in to Miner’s threats and ceased and desisted production. However, last year my friend Brian Kehew (of Moog Cookbook fame) was pawing through the back room of an old record store in San Bernardino when he came across it: an actual, working, production-model Chilton Talentmaker. It came stocked with all 20 discs, owner’s manual, warranty card and various brochures. This obviously laid to rest any idea that the Talentmaker never made it into production. It was apparently sold from a store in Covina, CA called “Exclusively Talentmaker.”

Brian let me borrow the Talentmaker for the purpose of archiving the sounds from the discs. The primary difference between Optigan and Talentmaker discs is that the Talentmaker discs have Eb major and minor chords as well as true A and E major chords!!! Three extra rings of soundtrack minus one special effect switch make this possible. Also, Talentmaker discs use so called “triple-track” technology, which was essentially an attempt to reduce noise. The idea is that each soundtrack is actually 3 parallel copies of identical material, such that the signal is amplified by a factor of 3 whereas the noise stays at the unamplified level. This may sound good in theory, but in actuality it doesn’t really work that way. For the most part, Talentmaker discs are just as noisy as Optigan discs. The sound quality is a little bit better, but I have a feeling this may be more due to a narrower collimator strip.

A more substantial improvement over the Optigan is in the disc drive system. The Talentmaker features a direct, belt-driven flywheel, as opposed to the more archaic friction-based system found in the Optigan. This results in a much more stable pitch as well as a more smoothly and quickly adjustable motor speed. Playing the Talentmaker is a joy compared to playing an Optigan!!!

Now, there are still many mysteries about the Talentmaker. For one thing, it is known to have been manufactured by Galanti in Italy. Further research revealed that Roy Chilton had done business with the American branch of Galanti- General Electro Music- since his departure from Optigan. However, the keyboard assembly of the Talentmaker is (apart from the actual controls) identical to that used on the Orchestron- a machine designed and built by Opsonar. There is at least one possible explanation for this. An obscure memo that Mike LeDoux dug up for me reveals that in 1975 Opsonar was considering a deal with Chilton which would essentially merge the Talentmaker and the Optigan. The idea was to use the Talentmaker’s improved chassis and to adapt the current library of Optigan discs to work with the Talentmaker’s somewhat-different track layout. This merger never happened, but my best guess is that since this was happening at the same time that R&D was underway for the Orchestron, Opsonar probably decided to scrap Optigan altogether and transform the Talentmaker into the Orchestron instead. So in other words, this would indicate that the Talentmaker was the “missing link” between the Optigan and the Orchestron.

This guess proved to be correct, as I later talked to Dave VanKoevering himself, who claims that the very first Orchestrons were in fact simply converted from existing Talentmakers! Dave also claims to have personally manufactured the TM discs, though this seems a bit odd to me because it’s an absolute fact that Mike LeDoux made the Orchestron discs. I guess the bottom line is that the Orchestron grew equally out of the aftermath of the Optigan and the Talentmaker.

The discs themselves are, for the most part, paraphrasings of the Optigan discs. While none of them directly steal audio from the Optigan discs, many of them copy musical material verbatim or close to verbatim. Dave VanK claims that the music itself was recorded in Italy by musicians that frequented a night club owned by one of the head guys at Galanti. The primary problems with the discs are to be found in the joints and the synchronization. Many of the joints produced loud pops, and often there are rhythmic elements which are somewhat out-of-sync with other elements on the same disc. Still, in my opinion, these flaws simply add to the charm!!

Enticed by the prospect of digging up more information, I of course turned to the internet to search for Roy Chilton. To my great surprise, I found an email address for a Ken Chilton (Roy’s brother and right-hand-man was named Ken), and lo and behold it turned out to be the right guy!!!

Ken informed me that Roy had passed away several years ago. Eventually Llyswen and I got the chance to meet with Ken and his wife Mary for several hours. They were absolutely delightful folks, and Ken had lots of great stories from the “old days” of the organ business. Sadly, however, his involvement with his brother’s Talentmaker venture was just about nil, and he remembers almost nothing about the machine. Frustratingly, he could not point us to anyone who might still have one or have materials or further information.The Talentmaker was apparently in production from 1973 to 1976. It stands to reason that there are at least a few of them still out there. WHERE ARE THEY HIDING???

Rob & I have written an album’s worth of songs on the Talentmaker, with some Orchestron overdubs. This album, entitled “Exclusively Talentmaker”, was released in April 2000 and you can find more information as well as some samples in mp3 format on this page.

Talentmaker Discs

Listen:

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