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 a webpage for this." In the course of trying to find out information about Optigans, I managed to find a copy of the service manual. I found the names of various people who were in charge of technical service contacts. I tried tracking down some of those people, and I managed to get in touch with one or two who'd worked for the company. One big, important contact found me. After we put up the first version of the Optigan website, I got an email from Mike LeDoux. He said, "Hey, I was the guy who made all the discs. We should chat sometime." We ended up having a phone conversation. He knew everything about how this came about. He lived up the coast, not far from where the whole Optigan operation had been. The first time that I went to visit him, he said, "I still have the master tapes in my garage. You want to see them?"
That's what I can't believe!
We went out to his garage; there was this big metal cabinet, and there were 80 1/4-inch reel tapes. They were all color-coded, with detailed notes on them. He said, "If you'd gotten in touch with me a year ago, you would have seen a lot more. I had the original multitrack masters that went to the dump, and I had my whole archive of prototype discs and test discs." What he was showing me were the mixdown masters. He said, "These were going to be next, so it's a good thing I found you."
Can you describe the process of how they made those discs?
The nice thing was he'd made a photo essay. The Optigan was originally developed by Mattel, but it was never sold under the Mattel brand name. They formed a separate company called Optigan to make and sell this. In the mid-'60s, and they had this crazy genius inventor guy named Jack Ryan who was the main idea guy. In the early-to-mid-'60s, they had developed the talking Barbie, with these tiny plastic records inside, with two or three different phrases that she could say. You'd pull the string, and the needle fell into a random groove and played a phrase. They had been looking for other applications for this sound playback technology, and one of the ideas was to make a toy musical instrument. It didn't take long for them to stumble across this idea of using an optical soundtrack on a piece of film. They developed the Optigan and marketed it, but right around 1973 there was big trouble at Mattel and they had to unload some properties. The Optigan was one of the easiest for them to unload. It hadn't sold well, because the machines were unreliable and hard to service. They were also able to drop it very easily because it was a separate company; it wasn't technically a Mattel product.
It didn't have their name on it.
Yeah. They sold the entire operation to a company on the East Coast called Miner Industries. They were making Magnus and Estey chord organs and toys. They shipped everything off to the East Coast, but Mike was the guy that was in charge of making the discs. He was happy living in Southern California and didn't want to move to New Kensington, Pennsylvania. He had to convince them that they needed to keep him employed, because he was the only guy who knew how to do this complicated process, and there was no way he'd be able to teach anybody else how to do it. The whole reason for that photo essay's existence was to show those guys how complicated it was, and how much equipment was involved. He was playing it up. You can see from the photo essay that it starts with making studio recordings of musicians playing. From there, the tapes get mixed down and edited, and then transferred to magnetic film stock. Loops are created, and then they had this modified Scully lathe – instead of a cutting head. It had a light head on it.
That fascinates me.
That's why the discs are LP size. It was a custom piece of gear; a whole contraption with a Westrex mag stock playback machine. It was a real trick to make the loops in the first place, keep it all synchronized, and also to transfer the sound material onto the master disc. Closing the loop joints at the end, while minimizing thumps or other audio artifacts, was a whole process in and of itself. I have a whole technical paper that Mike wrote on that. From the point where the studio recording was in-hand to the point where the master disc was completed, for any given title it was about a month-long process. Full time work on one title. I'm not sure you know, but we've been making new Optigan discs for the past ten years.
I'd heard about that. Amazing.
The way that we do it is completely different from how they did it back then. It sucks that Mike passed away about a year or so before we figured out how to make new Optigan discs, because he'd be so fascinated. It's so easy to make seamless loop joints now! I remember talking to him, and when he was making the discs back in the early '70s, he knew that computers were coming online. He knew that digital memory was becoming cheaper, and that it was only going to be a matter of time before sound could be inexpensively stored digitally, and that you could do this with digital sound. He understood that samplers were just around the corner; but it wasn't there yet, so he was stuck in this hell dealing with all of this clunky technology. The frequency response on an Optigan disc tops out at about 5 kHz. That's the one fun thing about making the discs now.
I figured you'd do a computer printout to make new discs?
That's oversimplifying it. But essentially what we're doing is feeding in a bunch of digital audio files, and on the other end what we get out is a very high resolution graphic image of the disc, which then has to be put on film. It's still a very expensive process. The vendor we use to output the discs, he's the only guy we've found who can do this to the degree of quality that's required. His primary business is with the military, doing blueprints. The files that we give him to generate a master copy of an Optigan disc are many times larger than all the other files he gets from clients. Generating one of our master discs ties up his machine for two hours. In order to get anywhere near the analog resolution that they were doing in the '70s with a Scully lathe with a light valve, these are rendered at a very high resolution, just to get a 5 kHz frequency response!
When you're tracking instruments for a new disc, you're trying to get good fidelity but you're also conscious about what might not be heard?
Yeah. We record the same way that you'd record anything. It's in the mastering phase that we really have to be aware of the limitations of the technology, and what we can and can't do. People who master for vinyl are doing a similar thing. They know which frequencies to emphasize, which to de-emphasize, and how much they can get away with. I've been mastering music for Optigan discs for ten years now, so I've got it down. I know how to master it where it sounds like crap on a computer, but when it ends up on an Optigan disc, it's going to sound okay.
When they were creating the original discs, with the Scully light lathe, what was the purpose of going to the mag recorders [built for the recording and playback of film sound]?
I was trying to figure that out, and I figured it was the only way to lock the loops up.
At the time it was the only way to synchronize sound, because you had to keep the individual loops synchronized to each other so that they would all end up on the disc in the right place and be in sync. If they were off by even a little bit, you would hear it.
Because they're rhythm tracks.
Exactly. At the time, that was the only way they had any hope of synchronizing. For any given disc, Mike would have to do several different tries at a master disc before everything was right. He got better at it. At this point, I've been mastering Optigan discs for twice as long as Mike was ever involved in this whole business. We're using totally different techniques, but I have twice the number of years under my belt dealing with this. The first recordings that they made were made around 1969. They got some musicians in the studio, and they said, "Play a bossa nova groove." They'd go around the circle of fifths, major chords, minor chords, and augmented chords. They didn't know what all they were going to be able to include on the
instrument. The earlier sessions have a much more comprehensive set of chords because they were experimenting. The recordings basically sound like a band jamming aimlessly around the circle of fifths. They would play four bars of C-major, four bars of G-major, four bars of G-minor. They knew that the basic structure was that they'd have these chord buttons, and then they'd have these special effects buttons with drum loops. A lot of people don't realize, but on an Optigan all the sounds on the keyboard are also on the disc. It's not like the keyboard is an electronic organ and the chord buttons are sound recordings. Every sound that the thing makes lives on the disc and is a recording. On an Optigan disc, there are 57 loops of sound: 37 for the keyboard, and 20 for the chord buttons and drum loop switches. For the keyboard tones, whatever organ was available, they recorded. They made all these recordings for some raw material to experiment with and figure out how to make these discs. It took them a year or so to figure out how to make the discs. After they got rolling and the hardware came along, then they started to get more focused on recording material for the discs. Mattel were notoriously cheap, and they decided that L.A. session musicians were too expensive. They flew to Germany, because German session guys were a lot cheaper than L.A. session guys. They went to a studio in Cologne. On the tapes, you listen to between takes to people bantering and there're these guys in the studio speaking German. Then somebody gets on the slate and says, "Okay, Nashville country, take one" and then they bust into a bunch of German guys doing their version of country music. A big part of the charm of those discs is that it's German guys trying to play Motown music. That's why it's a little bit off and cheesy. The first half of the discs that they released for the Optigan came from those German sessions. It wasn't until they launched the product that they started to take the recording aspect of it a bit more seriously, and spend a little more money. They had a second phase of recordings that they did in L.A. There are three or four big band discs where they hired Art Depew – the trumpet player for Lawrence Welk – to write arrangements. It was all guys from the Lawrence Welk band. They were taking it more seriously, actually writing arrangements as opposed to on-the-fly improvising in the studio. That's some of the more advanced material on the master tapes. The tapes that Mike saved are the mixdown masters. The Optigan is mono, but they're two-track stereo tapes. In one channel is the music, and the other channel is the click track.
Oh, of course.
I think click tracks were not a totally new thing, but they were somewhat new, as far as the musicians were concerned. If there's a drummer, most of the time they're trying to follow the click, but they're doing their own thing. It was an important reference because dealing with analog tape, Mike had to find music loops that were as close to sync with that click track as possible. He had to listen carefully and say, "Okay, they played this chord eight times. This one is the closest to being in sync with the click track, so I'm going to edit that one out." Then it gets transferred to magnetic stock tape. It's a painstaking thing.
I can imagine. When you got the tapes from Mike, did he give them to you and say, "Hey, have fun with it."
Yeah. I asked if I could borrow the tapes to make copies, and he said, "I just want these out of my garage. Please take them." The next thought in my mind was, "Who owns the rights to this material?" But, suffice it to say, because of the way Miner Industries folded, Mike said, "This is abandoned property. They were given an opportunity to claim it and never claimed it. I will sell it to you for a dollar." I gave him a token dollar and he signed it all over to me. That being said, if somebody uses an Optigan on their record I'm the last person who's going to go after them and say, "Hey, I own the copyrights…" I don't do that. I do have a sample collection that you can buy from my website that has recordings of the machines playing the discs. You can get a sample library from the master tapes of that material, but I specifically set aside all of the outtakes that never made it onto Optigan disc for my own use. We had already done the first Optiganally Yours album [Spotlight on Optiganally Yours], but I knew that I wanted to use these outtakes to make new music with. The last thing I wanted to do was disseminate all of that material before I had a chance to do something with it.
Hey, you got your dollar's worth!
Our second album [Presents: Exclusively Talentmaker!] came out in 2000, and pretty quickly after that we started working on this new album [O.Y. In Hi-Fi]. When I first got into the Optigan, the idea I had was that it'd be fun to have a band based around this thing. My friend Rob [Crow] – who most people know from the band Pinback – was one of my housemates at the time. I said, in the living room one day, "You know, it'd be great to go to a bar and play cover songs with this thing and have a band." Rob immediately said, "I'll be the singer! Let's do it. Let's call it Optiganally Yours." Over the next hour we wrote our first four songs and recorded them on a 4-track. It was immediately clear that the songs were good. I realized pretty quick that when you have a band or a musical project that's based around a novelty, you can very quickly pigeonhole yourself into being a novelty. My whole goal from the get-go was to have this gimmick, and then make the whole band about various ways to try to subvert the gimmick. Our first album was all Optigan, but our second album didn't have any Optigan. We focused on these other two instruments, the [Chilton] Talentmaker and the Orchestron, which used the same basic technology. Then I thought, "Well, for the third album we're going to use material from the master tapes. It's going to be hi-fi." The album's called O.Y. in Hi-Fi. In 2000 we started working on the third album. I took the material and shaped it into songs instead of, "Here's a bunch of raw material for me to mangle with my sampler, and then spit out some sounds on the other end." I spent a lot of time on subtle editing of the sounds, to get them to live together and groove correctly. I'd get the basic chord sounds from one tape; but I'd pull drum sounds, other chords, and supplementary sounds from other tapes. Then there are the keyboard sounds, which come from other tapes. I was pulling together all this disparate material, which may or may not be in tune or in sync with each other.
That'd be a nightmare!
This album took forever. We would get some momentum, and it would get put on the back-burner. I would send Rob material, and he would do something with it; but by the time we got back to round three, his hard drive would have crashed. Rob is a force of nature. He's a total machine when it comes to recording music. "Those 24-tracks of vocals I recorded? I'll re-do it." That doesn't faze him.
Is everything musical that we're hearing on O.Y. in Hi-Fi all from these master tapes?
No. Rob sings and plays guitar. I don't believe he plays any bass on this record. Rob is all vocals and guitar. A lot of times I'll deliberately make chord progressions that I know Rob would never come up with on his own. I'm pretty familiar with his songwriting style. He always comes up with a melody that I would never get. I'm not a melody guy at all; I'm a harmony guy and a chords guy. If it weren't for the fact that Rob's such a great songwriter, it would be a pointless project. We could easily endlessly tinker with the Optigan. But, at the end of the day, these are good songs.