Pea Hicks

For years Pea Hicks has carried a torch for the Optigan, a unique optical disc-powered keyboard from the '70s. His band with Rob Crow, Optiganally Yours, has released three albums. He's produced and sold sample sets of Optigan loops and keyboard sounds, and has even introduced a new Optigan disc player into the market. I've been fascinated with this instrument since I first saw one in 1987 while on tour, so I figured it'd be fun to chat with Pea on the phone and learn more.

When did you first discover the Optigan?

Well, I first heard about it in an article in Keyboard Magazine. It must have been the mid-'80s when Bob Moog was writing a monthly column, at the time. He was discussing sampling, and he made a passing mention of the [Optigan Corporation] Optigan and the [Vako] Orchestron. There were no pictures of it or anything, so I had this image in my head of this weird keyboard that you put records in. I was fascinated with the concept, but my assumption, at the time, was that it was something rare and obscure, and that I would probably never see one. This was all before the internet. This was the first time I ever heard someone describe a keyboard as being "cheesy." I thought, "That's the keyboard for me. It must be something great."

I assume you'd been studying piano and organ before that?

I was 15 or 16 years old. I had been taking piano lessons, and I had gotten into synthesizers. We had a [Commodore] Amiga computer, so I was using that to make music. I was focused on trying to make them sound as good and professional as possible. Fast-forward to 1995: I was visiting a friend up in San Francisco, and we went to the Salvation Army. There was this ugly brown organ sitting there. I normally wouldn't have given it a second glance, but I happened to look at it and saw the word "Optigan." I thought, "Wait a minute. I know that name!" I had envisioned something about the size of a Casio keyboard, with maybe a small disc you put into a slot, but this was like a home organ. I turned it on, and it made this spooky, grainy, haunting sound.

You were lucky it worked at all!

Yeah, exactly. It sounded lo-fi. Bob Moog had said it was cheesy, but he didn't say the sound quality was terrible. It was only $50, and I thought, "I guess this'll fit in my car." The two friends I was road-tripping with were pretty pissed off. It wasn't until after I got it home that I discovered you could open the front panel, and that's where you could put the disc in, and there were six other discs in there. There was an owner's manual and a little flier that told you the names of some of the other discs. I was drooling over this list of discs going, "How in the world am I ever going to find any more?" I started my whole research project at the library, looking through old issues of Music Trades magazine. I had probably called every single number of every old organ store or repairman all up the West Coast. I realized that everybody knew about the Mellotron. That was a similar thing, but it was a known quantity. The Optigan was like the poor-man's Mellotron. I made it my own personal project to learn as much as possible about it. I found one guy who had a basic webpage with one page of not-too-detailed information.

The internet was a totally different world back then.

My friend was like, "I can help you make...

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