New Prototype Optigan/Orchestron Disc Player (Sneak Preview)

After four decades, it looks like the legacy of the Optigan optical sample playback keyboard will live on in a new instrument.

Optigan’s Pea Hicks shared this sneak preview of a new Optigan/Orchestron disc player, currently under development.

Here’s what Hicks has to say about the video:

Robert Becker has been making steady progress (in his spare time) on his new Optigan/Orchestron disc player, which we hope will be put into production at some point. There’s still lots of work to be done, bugs to iron out, things to be fine-tuned, code to be optimized, etc, but it’s currently playable (via MIDI), and the basic sound quality is quite good, so we figured we’d post a few informal/noodly sound clips of it in action.

These are direct/unprocessed recordings from the unit, some featuring the onboard reverb.

Sorry, no live video of it being played at this time. We don’t cover ALL the features/functions in these sound demos, as some of them aren’t quite working yet, but you can get an idea from looking at the photos what sort of things it will be able to do.

Since the new player is still in development, details on pricing and availability are still to be determined.

15 thoughts on “New Prototype Optigan/Orchestron Disc Player (Sneak Preview)

  1. For people who are thinking of buying this, what happens when the novelty wears off? Will users get tired of messing with disks that don’t load properly or get damaged and are unplayable? Who is going to service the mechanical parts for this? This was an interesting idea when it first came out, because there wasn’t a better way to play recorded sounds. There has been a better option since the 1980s.

  2. Incidentally, there’s a great $5 iOS Optigan app that just came out that sounds fantastic and gives you access to all 40 original discs…

  3. Listen to the opening track of Kraftwerk’s 1975 Radio Activity album. The choir sound was done using one of the first Orchestrons built. The choir sound was great in 1975, and it still sounds good today.

  4. Found one of these at a thrift store years ago for $10. It came with about 15 disks. It was great fun but needed a good cleaning, unfortunately I wasn’t as mechanically inclined back then so I ended up getting rid of it. Kinda wish I held onto it, but it was a little too large to survive constant moves.

  5. Very clever, but also more anal-retentive in overall use than a modular that covers a whole wall! I admire people who take more organic routes, because it requires imagination and persistence. However, M-Tron Pro is $149 and the Optigan pack for it is $49. Its a far easier and more creative way to enter that world. Amusingly, I owned a darned Opitigan as a kid. It was great fun, but M-Tron takes the concept farther by several light-years. If you prefer Birotron or Chamberlin grit, you can have those as well.

  6. Not meaning to disparage true fans, but for those who don’t know the instrument intimately, I have to write…

    The reason analog is so popular in the digital age, to the point that we purposely try to recreate design shortcomings: Analog audio has design difficulties. Over decades, solutions that produced a pleasing sound survived, solutions that did not, or were tragically unreliable, were quickly forgotten.

    The Orchestron/Optigan was a bad solution. Tantalizing enough to keep people talking about it to a degree, but fundamentally flawed. Bad sound (inherent in the solution), and unreliable. Today, if you like that bad sound, at least we can get rid of the unreliability by digitizing. (We could write an algorithm to make it scratchier the more it’s played back, if you want more authenticity!)

    “…and the basic sound quality is quite good”—this is a relative statement (just listen to the demo)…I know that some people will assume the poor sound quality is due to poor electronics of the original instrument, and a fresh player will sound wonderful. But no, it’s baked into the solution, and into the disks…We had a Vako Orchestron, must have been a used trade-in, when I worked in the keyboard department at Guitar Center as a young man. My fellow salesman referred to it as the “Wacko Orchestron”. I wonder if anyone ever bought it…

  7. Good times for Optigan loveres. I’m sure it does seem a bit anachronistic, but Pea’s still releasing new discs that take the concept in new directions, and these aren’t available in the digital versions. Once my Optigan finally kicks it, it would be nice to have a backup plan available, too.

  8. Notice on the Cello and violin examples that the bowing attack is not present. So for the percussive sounds like piano and vibraphone, are the attacks going to loop if the notes are held long enough?

    1. Bill

      On the Optigan, everything is a continuous loop, vs a tape playback system like the Mellotron. The key doesn’t start playback of a sound from the beginning – like a Mellotron or most samplers – it ‘switches on’ the playback of a continuous loop.

      Discs typically combined continuous looped sounds, like the ‘aahhhh’ of a choir or the sound of a sustained organ, with prerecorded looped beats and grooves.

      This gives it a unique sound and some unusual for the day capabilities, like the ability to sustain sounds indefinitely.

      1. Yes I figured that was true. But when I listened to the video, there were examples of percussive sounds like piano (7:37) and vibraphone (6:10), which sounded like the attacks were present. I would think that notes could not be held for long without the loop coming back and playing the attack portion of the recording.

        1. Bill

          Some of the old sample discs (from the 70s) have sampled ostinatos for their loops. For example, you play a key and a series of banjo notes comes out. So, for those, the loop is a continuous stream of, say, 16th notes.

          Some of the new discs that Pea Hicks has put together, though, extend what’s possible on the Optigan and put phrases on each of the keys.

  9. So you are saying that in the case of the piano and vibraphone, that the recording is a person playing a series of notes or a phrase. It can’t be played with each note triggering a recording of a single piano note.

    1. I haven’t used them, but it sounds like they are put together like the new sitar disc:

      These are not how traditional Optigan discs are designed. Hicks has released several discs designed to explore the possibilities of doing things more like music construction kit loop libraries. Except as a retro optical sample disc.

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