Rami Jaffee Test Drives His Customized & Restored Optigan

Optigan guru Pea Hicks let us know about this video, which captures Rami Jaffee (The Wallflowers, Foo Fighters) test driving his restored and custom Optigan 35012

The Optigan is a bizarre ‘OPTIcal orGAN’, created by Mattel in the 1970’s. It’s a sort of proto-sampler, playing back audio encoded on film discs.

Optigan’s were made with bad technology and worse build quality. Nevertheless, Optigans have a completely unique sound and vibe.

Jaffee’s Optigan was restored and customized by Robert Becker, of Quilter Labs. Becker arranged an unveiling and test drive for Jaffee at their office. In the video, Jaffee also tries out some of the new Optigan discs from Hicks’ Optigan.com.

12 thoughts on “Rami Jaffee Test Drives His Customized & Restored Optigan

    1. Yeah, his delight really sells it.

      Every once in a while I’ve thought about buying MTron Pro just for access to those crazy rhythm loops.

      1. Rami is a real hoot and a damned solid player, so his enjoyment is a good selling point. He’s INTO IT the right way! I use M-Tron Pro, so I wanted to mention how broad it really is, because they got it Right. Yeah, its a specialty instrument, but it includes the various high points of the real thing, like half-speed playback capability. You get a solid set of synth-type controls that push the basic sound as far as it can go, as well as the option of using two layers. I was a bit surprised to hear how many sounds were full and clear, as opposed to the classic, more grainy tone people love. There is a “2nd Flute” that walks all over the “Strawberry Fields” flute for clarity. I also came to learn how just a touch of ‘tron under another sound adds some meaningful tonal contrast. Its a great pad resource, obviously, but also not just a one-trick pony. You can buy an Optigan set for it, as well as a Birotron set and a different set of Streetly tapes. I once got to play a real ‘tron with a string rack in it, so I can understand why Rick Wakeman set fire to one, heh heh… its a Rube Goldberg nightmare inside. Even Rick likes the app because its everything in the base library, minus any mechanical hassles. G-Force provides good customer service, too. They do “vintage” very well. If you don’t already know about them, start here. Their new ARP Odyssey waxes all of the others!


  1. It’s like a sampler based on laserdisk. Sort of the Dragon’s Lair of synthesizers. It sounds rather charming. Full of sounds no one else would have thought to bother with. There are a couple of them on eBay and lots of disks. If I still had money I’d get one just to have it.

    1. They’re not laserdiscs. The audio is totally analog, no lasers involved. “Optical” refers to the fact the audio is not magnetic like a tape, and not a 3-D physical groove like a vinyl record.

      Optigan sounds are optically printed (not “encoded” in the modern sense) on clear plastic, like the soundtracks on old movie film reels. You can see the analog waveforms with your naked eyes, it’s a picture.

      They have more in common with a vinyl record – but instead of a dragging grooves past a stylus, it shines a light through the spinning disc onto a photosensitive electric eye to produce the sounds, which are many concentric loops instead of a single swirling groove.

      Optigan discs are basically loop-locked photographic records.

        1. This is splitting hairs, but Laserdiscs were not really “analog” like we use that term today, they’re more hybrid, combining electronics, digital and analog domains.

          A digitally controlled laser system would scan microscopic pits, just like a CD. The video signal created by that scan was PWM – analog video. But the soundtrack was in CD digital format, as well as menu functions. It’s highly complex.

          Whereas the Optigan is completely simple, analog and physical – By pressing a key, you’re opening a VCA gate on the output of one of the concentric looping rings of the disc – a light source and a photoresistor with spinning printed-on-transparancy media in between them.

          A LaserDisk is nearly a hybrid of VHS and DVD technology.
          Optigan is like a mellotron that uses photo printed media instead of magnetic tape.

      1. A big point of appeal with electro-mechanical instruments of any kind is that they are a bit dangerous and may go KERWHANG! at any moment. Things like Optigans or Pianets grind and wheeze in various unique ways that make you feel all TOO close to them. I like the various characters of different instruments, but there’s a certain point at which it stops being charming and becomes a PITA that interferes with your noodlings. A lot of that vintage charm can fade after you pay a technician $40+ an hour for just the bench charge, never mind the parts and labor. I’ve known some great techs and they hella earn it, but you will *pay*, seeker! I also understand the complaint about software instruments “missing” something; even Ivory can’t totally replicate the wood and air of a real grand. I take the opposite view, because having played enough hardware that threw a rod at a key moment, riding the hassles of the OS-version wave seems like a gift from Asgard by comparison. Whanging away at the real thing is great fun, but somehow, it seems even moreso when I can drop $200 instead of $5k and get everything but the upkeep worries. I don’t really want an actual Yamaha CS-80, but I could do a lot with the money it takes to buy a single tuning session for one. 😀 Besides, I have four different controllers (one a workstation), so getting the best of both worlds is a snap. I love my First World problems.

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