Optigan – the early 1970s poor-man’s Mellotron from Mattel

The Optigan is an “optical organ” from the early 70s created and sold by Mattel that uses waveforms printed onto clear discs which are read much the way a movie soundtrack is read off of films. As of 2011, they can be found on the used market in the neighborhood of $400 USD, but the discs can often fetch $20-50 USD each, so keep that in mind. In addition to that, they are notoriously finicky and require a lot of patience and maintenance. Although there is no needle (light shining through the discs is read by photocells) there is still a scratching sound imparted on the output, and the high frequencies are quite muted giving the sound a haunted, dated feel.

Everything you could possibly want to know about them and more can be obtained here via Pea Hicks’ incredible labor of love: http://www.optigan.com/

I recently used my Optigan when I was asked by the Language Dept. to supply music for their collaboration with Meghan Eplett for a Kate Spade special project called “Orange“. The music needed to be cyclical, upbeat, whimsical, playful and suit the lo-fi nature of the animation, and I thought the Optigan (using the disc called “Rollin’ Easy”) met those requirements quite well.

Here is the video:

I obtained my Optigan in late 2009 at a thrift store in Michigan while visiting family for the holidays. It came with 18 discs. It cost me…$9.99 USD. Yep, ten dollars. Though I was 2000 miles away from home, I couldn’t pass up such a deal.

The first order of business was to test it out – it actually worked but only two of the many chord buttons were functioning and the 5 ‘fill’ buttons were intermittent. The next task was to figure out how to get it home. I naturally went straight to Pea Hicks’ Optigan site I mentioned above and started searching. Turns out the model I picked up (35011) could be subjected to a mod lovingly named the “Choptigan” – in other words, the speakers and pedal could be removed from the circuit and the remaining necessary components from the bottom could be relocated to the top section. Then the top could be removed making the Optigan much like a really thick and super heavy keyboard.

Thankfully, my in-laws not only allowed me to perform this absurd task in their home, they also had a giant pile of inch-thick cardboard which I ended up using to pack up the Choptigan for shipping to California. Ground shipping was $52.47 bringing my total cost up to $62.46 USD.

Incredibly, it survived the shipping to Los Angeles with no problems which surprised me considering the electro-mechanical nature of the inner workings as well as its age. Right away I took it all apart for cleaning and to remove the foam that turns to sludge in the chord button section (see it below to the left).

Yeah, this is a bit better.

Once I reassembled the unit all buttons and keys worked perfectly. Next I sanded down the wood and pondered what color to stain it, even though it looked kinda cool unfinished.

My wife helped me stain it a reddish-orange and give it a nice clear coat. Here is where it currently lives between my Rhodes piano and Roland RS-202 String synth.

(What’s with the Roland D-5 you ask? I got it for $25 at a yard sale and use it as a MIDI controller for my Akai S-900 sampler)

**********************UPDATE************************

My Choptigan had been sitting on a couple blocks of wood on the Rhodes as some of the mechanics extend below the upper wooden housing when the top section is removed. I rearranged my studio recently and finally built a proper bottom and finished the Choptigan mod for real:

I used 1×1’s framed out to fit snugly recessed into the bottom and cut a piece of masonite to size. I then stained the wood and added rubber feet. Done!

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3 Responses to “Optigan – the early 1970s poor-man’s Mellotron from Mattel”

  1. I had the Vako Orchestron for about a year, after finding it at a flea market for $75 in 1996.

    It included their two best discs, “Violins” and “Choir”, which were all over a couple of Kraftwerk’s records (they bought one while touring “Autobahn” around the U.S.), as well as a few optigon discs. The biggest difference was that it had no built-in amp or speakers, and no accompaniment loop switiches. But if you had an optigon disc in there, the lowest octave of keys would play the loops as long as you held them down. I sold it for big bucks, mostly because I regarded it as more of a museum piece than a practical piece of gear. And it was way too heavy for my highly transient mid-20’s.

  2. where could i sell mine at? I have maybe 10 disc. its in pretty good shape and I wanna sell mine, I have the bench and everything.

    • I would recommend listing it in your local craigslist (http://www.craigslist.org/about/sites) with a decent photo of the unit. If you don’t have luck with that, you could always list it on eBay and if you don’t want to ship it, make the listing ‘local pick-up only’. Try to have good photos in your listing, as that will help the potential buyers assess the appearance of the unit and will help you sell it. Good luck!

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