I transcribed the Vako Orchestron VIOLIN disc parts from Kraftwerk’s “Franz Schubert” and put together a little demo / cover version. I cheated and used samples instead of learning the parts and playing them live on a real Orchestron, but hey, life’s too short. You can get my Orchestron samples here.
I put this together in Cubase. The synth sequence is played by Retrologue. I didn’t spend too much time dialing in the sound just right, but it’s close enough.
The other thing I didn’t take the time to do is emulate the dynamics of Kraftwerk’s original Orchestron performance. I’m assuming this was Ralf just improvising, most likely with a foot pedal to control volume, because there’s lots of dynamic volume stuff happening that isn’t possible by just playing an Orchestron straight. It would have taken a lot of time to re-create all these dynamics, so I didn’t.
I also decided to omit the “Endless Endless” coda.
I had some Optigan odds & ends sitting around and decided to mash them all up into one video. The slide show is from a photo album that Mike LeDoux (the guy in charge of making all the original Optigan discs) put together in 1975 in order to, basically, show his corporate overlords at Miner Industries / Opsonar (this was in the post-Mattel era) why they still needed to keep him, since he was their only employee on the west coast. The idea was to show them how complicated his job was, and that they couldn’t simply “hire some other guy” to do the work at their plant on the east coast. Needless to say, it was a hell of alot more difficult to make an Optigan disc back then as it is now! Though it’s still pretty tricky…
The audio is a variety of things from cassettes found in Mike’s archives:
First off is the only Optigan radio spot that I’m aware of.
Next is a series of demos made during the sessions that Art DePew arranged and conducted for Optigan. These are all big band recordings, and resulted in discs such as Champagne Music, Big Band Beat, Swing It, and Dixieland Strut. During the sessions, they had a bit of fun jamming on the basic arrangements, and that’s what you’re hearing here. Some of these arrangements never got used on any Optigan discs, so we may issue them at some point if there’s sufficient demand.
Lastly is the audio only from a Dec. 21, 1972 broadcast of the Dinah Shore TV show. Her guest was Barry Goldwater, who gets roped into attempting to play an Optigan. I’d love to see the actual clip, but I’ve yet to find it anywhere. If anyone finds it, let me know!
Since there’s been some interest this week, here’s a quick video of the Optigan/Orchestron master tape vault, ie my library closet. Sorry for my incoherent rambling. Highlighted is the tape containing the famous Orchestron Vocal Choir sound that Kraftwerk used during the mid-late 70s on several albums/songs. Here I demonstrate probably the most recognizeable Kraftwerk Orchestron bit, the sustained chord from “Uranium.” New Order later sampled this chord from the Kraftwerk record and used it in “Blue Monday.”
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 if you’re touring. Here’s a fun early example (no relation to the singer Pete Hicks!):
2. The idea of directly drawing your own optigan discs with a pen is one that comes up, but in reality it basically doesn’t work. Basically all you can hope for is a bunch of noise. Mike Le Doux told me that he experimented with trying to “draw out” the loop joint thumps on the discs, with zero useable results. And that was just an attempt to draw in a very tiny bit of waveform.
I finally got around to assembling and uploading some miscellaneous Optigan demo recordings made by Johnny Largo ca 1972. Some of these recordings have previously been heard elsewhere, but many of them are seeing the light of day for the first time here, direct from the original studio master tapes. Unfortunately Johnny didn’t last long enough at the company to make demo recordings of the later disc releases, so what we have here only covers about half of all the original Optigan titles. Eventually I’ll get around to making my own official demo videos of the rest of the discs, but this is a start anyway, and one things for sure- Johnny can definitely play rings around me! (If you need any definitive proof of that, check out his rendition of “Dizzy Fingers” in the LP I’ve posted below!)
From indie rock veteran Pall Jenkins (The Black Heart Procession, Three Mile Pilot) come the haunting sounds of DARKSOPHONE, featuring musical saw, Marxophone, skeletal guitar and heavy drums. Since the saw and Marxophone both have limited ranges, we’ve split the keyboard, placing the saw on the lower half and the Marxophone on the upper half. For those unfamiliar with the Marxophone, it’s a zither-like instrument that is played with a series of keys, which bounce metal hammers onto the strings for a repeated dulcimer effect. The musical saw is played with a bow, and each note has an organic vibrato and other articulations. The sparse guitar chords lend themselves to combining chord buttons for extended harmonies. The drums feature patterns in both 6/8 and 4/4. Trying slowing the disc all the way down and/or playing it backwards with the reverb cranked up for some spooky late-night shoe-gazing!
For a very limited one-month time period only, from now until March 14th 2017, we’re offering an opportunity to buy discs from our back-catalog (click this link to go to the web store). Normally we’re not able to keep these titles in stock, because historically the vendor that makes the raw discs has required a minimum order of 25 copies of any given title. Since our cost for these copies is quite high, and it’s an extremely niche market, we can’t afford to buy them in large quantities and remain thousands of dollars in the red while the orders slowly trickle in. BUT, over the course of a year we typically reach a point where there are enough total requests for discs across all the various titles that the vendor is willing to take an order without requiring the usual minimum number of copies for each title. This all has to happen in one fell swoop, so we’re limiting the time frame in which folks can place their orders. Once the deadline passes, we’ll order only as many copies as we have actual orders for. It will then take a month or two to get all those copies fabricated and sent out. Your patience is appreciated! Unfortunately, we cannot offer any sort of bulk discounts or other types of custom orders beyond what is offered in our store. In the past we’ve experimented with different bundle pricing schemes, etc, so the prices set for those bundles will remain in effect. All discs will ship with the printed jackets exactly as pictured on the product page for each item.
Optigan.com has just made its annual donation to cancer research, in memory of Mike Le Doux, the guy responsible for making all those Optigan discs in the early 70s. 10% of the proceeds from our Optigan Archives Vol. 1 sample set goes to cancer research, and this year $138.00 goes to the Jimmy Fund. Please consider making a donation of your own!
We recently had a query about servicing intermittent Orchestron keys, and Robert typed up this guide, which I thought would be helpful to add to the blog:
The Model A is basically a modified Optigan chassis in a different box.
Usually these don't have key contact problems.
The other models (Model B, Model C, Model D and their variants) have
"J-wires", which are gold plated wire contacts that are pushed against a
common bus rod by the keys. These models have key contact problems.
There are two things that should be done to eliminate flakey keys:
1. Replace all the capacitors on the keyboard PCB
2. Replace all the J-wires
The capacitors get leaky over time, causing a small DC current to flow
when you press a key, creating an audio thump. Even if yours doesn't thump
on every note, you'll be doing yourself a favor to replace them (you'll
have to remove the PCB anyway to remove the J-wires--next step). I
recommend using quality film capacitors, which will last forever. Make
sure the voltage rating is at least 25V (the bigger the voltage rating,
the larger the cap so don't go for too high of rating or you'll have a
problem fitting them on the PCB.)
The J-wires must be replaced. Don't try to clean-sand-polish them. It will
only be temporary and will give you grief later.
I buy J-wires from Carla Batman at Organ Service Corp:
P.O. Box 372
Marengo IN 47140
The J-wire part number is 999-036-00 (CONTACT, KEYBD LOOPED J-WIRE).
Email her to ask for current pricing (used to be around $1.50 per wire).
This is not a fulltime job for Carla, so it may take her a few days to get
back to you.
The J-wires from Organ Service Corp are not exactly the same as the
original Orchestron J-wires, but they are easily modified to work by
making two cuts:
1. The original wires are "J"-shaped; the new wires have a coiled-spring
bend. If you cut halfway up the first coil, you can get the wire into a
2. The new wires are too long, so the lengths need to be trimmed. I do
this as a last step after soldering them into the board so I can ensure
they are all trimmed to the same length (using the original wire lengths
as a guide).
Hi folks, I’ve been out of the loop for awhile since I broke my wrist, which set me back more than you would think. I’m still recovering (well, as much as I’ve got left to recover, which won’t be 100%), but am back to most of my usual activities now, and I’m eager to finish up some projects that were started before my accident. The first is a new Orchestron disc, with a new Optigan disc to follow shortly.
DREHORGEL is a newly recorded sound for the Orchestron. It’s a small, hand-cranked street organ that plays punched music rolls, similar to a calliope. The drehorgel featured here is owned by Pat Quilter of Quilter Labs. For our disc, we chose the unique “trill” sound of the drehorgel, which produces repeated notes. Great for playing creepy circus type music!
Here’s a clip of Pea playing the “Happy Birthday” roll on the drehorgel used in the making of this disc: