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FAQ


(Note: for service/repair related questions, please have a look at our Tech-Flash page!!)

What is an Optigan, and how does it work?

The Optigan (OPTIcal orGAN) was a sort of adult toy originally made by Mattel in the early 70’s. Basically it was laid out like most home chord organs of the time, but its sound producing mechanism was very unique. Instead of producing electronically simulated organs, drums, etc, it spun clear LP-sized discs, optically encoded with [...]

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Where can I buy an Optigan?

First, you should check the Optiswapit forum located on this website. Failing that, you should regularly do searches for “optigan” and “optigon” on eBay. Another potential online source is Craigslist. If all else fails, put an ad in your local classifieds, not under the “Music” section but under the “Garage sale” or “Wanted” section. You [...]

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How much did Optigans cost new, and how much are they worth now?

There were several different models of Optigan to choose from, ranging in price from about $300 to $500. As for how much they’re worth now, I suppose their value is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve seen functioning Optigans change hands for as little as $5 to as much as $600. An average price [...]

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Can the discs be duplicated?

Yes, we’ve developed a method for making high-quality duplications from original production discs, but for all but the most rare discs, the costs associated at this point are simply too high, at least compared to the typical going rate of original discs on eBay.

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Can new discs be made?

Yes! As of 2008, we are currently making and selling new Optigan discs. Please see the blog for all the latest news!

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Who made the Optigan?

Mattel designed and originally manufactured the Optigan, but sold the whole works intact to Miner Industries (another toy company, which also owned Magnus and Estey organs) in 1973. Miner created a subsidiary company called “Opsonar” to continue production of the Optigan and Optigan discs. The machine was still called “Optigan” though, and almost no changes [...]

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When was the Optigan made?

The first Mattel Optigans rolled off the assembly line in late 1970, and Opsonar ceased production in the summer of 1976.

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How many Optigans were made?

This is still somewhat of a mystery. There have been figures quoted from 1,000 to 100,000, though the actual number is probably somewhere closer to 10,000.

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Where were Optigans sold?

Mostly through large department stores such as Sears, JC Penney and Montgomery Wards. In fact, there was even a special version of the Optigan made exclusively for the Montgomery Wards chain. Optigans could also be bought from music and organ stores.

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Were any Optigans shipped overseas?

Gus Wylde, one of the technicians for Optigan, reports that the last 100 Optigans made by Mattel were shipped to Amsterdam. Frans van der Bijl, a citizen of Amsterdam, did a bit of research on this and found it to be essentially the truth. The parts were shipped overseas, where they were assembled by the [...]

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Is it true that the Optigan was a commercial failure?

Well, yes and no. Optigans actually sold quite well and were popular (despite being very unreliable), but due to some pretty bad mismanagement, Mattel ended up $13 million in the hole by the time they had sold the Optigan to Miner.

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Why are Optigans so unreliable?

The design team for the Optigan largely came from a toy manufacturing background, and consequently most of the engineers thought purely in mechanical terms. There were many elements of the Optigan’s design that could have been much better handled using electronic parts and transistors (such as the disc drive system), but even after designing and [...]

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Who produced the discs?

The core production team for the Optigan discs was Mike LeDoux and Marshall Pearlman. Marshall really oversaw the project as a whole, and Mike was largely responsible for actually creating the discs themselves.

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How were the discs made?

Click here to see a photo essay of the disc-making process.

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Who played the instruments encoded on the discs?

Over the years, a wide variety of session musicians played for Optigan. The earliest sessions were produced in Cologne, Germany, and constitute the bulk of material that was actually released as discs. The German session musicians can be heard chatting away auf Deutsch in the background of many of the master tapes. Back in the [...]

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Who wrote the musical arrangements for the discs?

Most of the arrangements weren’t “written” per se, but were improvised by the session guys based on certain guidelines laid down by Johnny, Mike and Marshall. The earliest sessions were very haphazard in this respect, and contain excessive noodling. Later on, Johnny Largo contracted arrangements from a variety of artists.

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What kinds of instruments were used for the keyboard scales?

Mostly Hammond B3s, Vox Continentals, Gibson and Yamaha Organs.

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How many different discs were made?

In total, 42 discs made it into production, including the two diagnostic test discs, which were only available to service technicians.

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How many different models are there?

In the USA, there were six different versions of the Optigan. Essentially they were the same machine, the cabinet design being the primary variant. There was also a variation that only appeared in Europe. For pictures of the different types, go to this page. 34001 Early monophonic model, with reverb. Not very many of these [...]

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Was there ever a portable model made?

No, although it is possible to convert an standard Optigan into a more “portable” instrument.

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What are the most rare Optigan discs?

Apart from the test discs, the discs that were produced under Opsonar are the hardest to get ahold of. These are: Guitar Boogie Champagne Music Gospel Rock Swing It! Vox Humana Cathedral Organ Polka! Mazurka! Country Sunshine Down Home Country Waltz New Orleans Blues

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Was there ever a “Sitar” disc made?

Not in the original Optigan production period of the early 1970s. There were never even any studio recordings of sitar. Apparently the word “sitar” was put on the cover of the owner’s manual because someone in the office thought it would look good. When we started producing new Optigan discs in 2008, one of our [...]

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Are there any rare prototype discs available?

Yes, a few have surfaced, most notably “Mod Rock,” which reached the point of having an official catalog number and label art, but was mysteriously never put into production. Two copies came from Stan Cutler’s estate- one with full label art, and one without. More recently, a third copy appeared on eBay. “Mod Rock” was [...]

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Are there any rare prototype Optigans still out there?

Probably not. The earliest design concept for the Optigan was a small organ containing something like an Edison Cylinder. When the keys were pressed, they would push down needles onto the audio tracks. This proved to be completely unstable, though, so the focus shifted to optical means. It’s doubtful that any of these prototypes still [...]

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Do the master tapes for the Optigan discs still exist?

Yes and no. All of the original 8 and 16 track masters are gone, but fortunately Mike held on to the 1/4″ stereo mix-down masters. These are probably the most useful tapes to have anyway. I am the current legal owner of these tapes, and have copyrighted the material contained on them. All 40-odd hours [...]

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Can I get copies of the Optigan Master Reels?

At this time, I have not made the complete, unedited contents of the Optigan Master Reels available. You can, however, purchase a selection of loops culled from the reels here.

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What’s the best way to record an Optigan?

Plugging a stereo 1/4″ cable into the headphone output is the easiest way to get a decent recording of an Optigan, though you have to be careful to set the volume pedal so as not to get alot of distortion. I usually shove books under the pedal to keep it in place as just the [...]

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Are Optigan samples available?

YES! You can find our various sample packages here.

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Has the Optigan appeared on any commercially available albums?

Yes. Many. They are listed on the Optigan Discography page.

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How do you pronounce “Optigan?”

Well, the most common way is “Optigon,” hence the frequent misspelling. But if you want to be a complete purist, you’ll pronouce it just the way it’s spelled (ie pronounce “-gan” as in “organ”). The only people I’ve met that pronounce it this way consistantly are Gus Wylde, Mike LeDoux and Johnny Largo.

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What are some of the more advanced techniques of Optigan playing?

Gimmicky techniques such as upside-down and multiple discs are obvious, and hence pretty boring. As far as disc manipulation goes, I like to take two copies of the same disc and tape them together back-to-back so that the beats line up perfectly. This way you get some cool reverse echo effects on the drums. As [...]

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Were there ever any Optigan TV commercials?

Yes- two in fact. The original was produced under Mattel and was hailed as one of the first TV commercials for a musical instrument. From what I’ve heard, this commercial’s theme was “Make Your Own Kind Of Music.” It featured a middle-aged guy who was not very successful as the host of a party until [...]

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Were there ever any Optigan Promotional Demo Tapes?

Yes, and you’re in luck because all of the known Optigan promotional audio material is now on a single CD, available for purchase from this website!! You can hear most of the contents of this CD in the video below.

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What are some other instruments similar to the Optigan?

Information on the Vako Orchestron and Chilton Talentmaker can be found on this page.

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Will Orchestron Discs play in an Optigan and vice-versa?

Yes and no. First of all, the Orchestron was not an “organ” and thus did not have an chord buttons- only a 37 note keyboard. Second, the actual track layout of the Orchestron discs differs from the that of Optigan discs. With the Orchestron, Mike devised a track layout which was much more forgiving of [...]

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Will Talentmaker Discs play in an Optigan and vice-versa?

Again, yes and no. The center hole diameter is slightly different between the two types of discs. It’s a very small difference, but one that results in more crosstalk when you try to play a disc on the other machine. Also, the Talentmaker discs contained a total of 61 rings of soundtrack, versus the Optigan’s [...]

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Other than discs, what kinds of Optigan accessories were there?

There were several different models of benches made to match the different cabinet designs. If you bought your Optigan at Sears, though, chances are you received a generic Sears organ bench. These are the most common type of bench found with Optigans today. Each Optigan also came with a felt cleaning wand, used to clean [...]

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The “A Major” and “E Major” buttons on my Optigan sound wrong. Are they?

Yes and no. From a musical standpoint, they’re very very wrong. But nothing is actually wrong with your Optigan. In order to fit enough stuff onto the discs, they had to cut corners a bit. There wasn’t enough room for A and E major, so they decided that they would take a C# dim chord [...]

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What are the weights and dimensions of the Optigan models?

Here’s a list of the weights and dimensions of the various Optigan models (minus the 37003, which I don’t have info for), to aid in estimating shipping costs. Note that these figures are for just the Optigan itself, not including a bench or any other extras. Model 34001: width: 34.75″ height: 32″ depth: 18″ weight: [...]

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Use Of Our Original Optigan/Orchestron Disc Titles

Since we’ve been authoring new disc titles for the Optigan, our feeling all along has been that these discs (at least the ones with significant musical content in the form of original arrangments and phrases) are sort of like “singles,” ie creative musical products in and of themselves, albeit with an interactive component. We’ve never [...]

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Optigan Featured on latest Sonic Talk episode

There’s some Optigan chit-chat on the latest Sonic Talk episode: Many thanks for the kind words from Dave Spiers & company! To answer a couple of the questions brought up: 1. Yes, various folks have used Optigans in live performance (including yours truly), and yes, they’re a pain in the ass to play live, especially [...]

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