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Page last updated at 07:26 GMT, Monday, 23 August 2010 08:26 UK
The return of the Optigan

By Tom Bateman
Today programme

Optigan keyboard

One of the earliest synthesisers designed for the mass market is being rediscovered by a new generation of musicians.

March 1971. Workers strike over the government's industrial relations bill - Mungo Jerry top the charts - and a new type of musical instrument is about to be unleashed on the world.

The early 70s were an exciting time in music production. New methods of recording and storing sound were being combined with improvements in electronic engineering. One company was ready to cash in.

In the US a subsidiary of Mattel, the toy firm better known for Barbie and Hot Wheels, had been working on a new organ that used optical technology to play pre-recorded sounds from a celluloid disc.

They called it the Optigan.

"It was quite a phenomenal achievement," says Brad Roberts, lead singer of the band Crash Test Dummies, who have revived the Optigan for their new album.

"It was kind of an eerie foreshadowing of digital files and floppy disks."

Measuring no more than one metre wide, with a three octave keyboard and accordion-style chord buttons for the left hand, the Optigan was designed to be an entire band inside one instrument.

The Optigan starter set
The Optigan used special disks to play primitive samples

It played recordings of real instruments and even combinations of instruments.

Owners could choose from a range of different sound styles on the LP-size celluloid discs that were inserted into the front of the organ just below the keyboard.

The discs came with seductive names for the home music-maker: "The Blues- Sweet And Low", "Nashville Country" and even "Polynesian Village".

"The sounds on the Optigan have a peculiar quality," says Roberts.

"When you press the buttons for the chords on the disc, up comes the country band. So basically you can write a song with [them]."

The concept behind the Optigan was an early form of what we now know as sampling - the use of short loops of digitally stored drum tracks or melodies to create the basis for a song, now ubiquitous in contemporary music.

"We didn't have to go around thinking up what things we wanted to sample [for the album] and then work with those samples," Roberts explains.

"They had laid it out right there for us. It was like 'you want to play this genre? Here it is'."

Airbrushed away

But the Optigan was not to be the success its makers might have hoped for.

Dave Spiers with his synth collection
It just didn't work. Maybe it was too ahead of its time.
Dave Spiers, Optigan owner

Its clunky design, problems with the sound quality and the flimsy nature of the discs led to a flop in sales.

By 1973, Mattel wanted nothing more to do with the brown and cream coloured organ and sold off the company that made it.

One man who knows the instrument inside out is Dave Spiers, a music software designer from Reading who owns an original Optigan.

"It appears to have been airbrushed out of Mattel's history because I think it brought them to the brink of extinction," he says.

Spiers works from his converted garage, home to around 30 organs and synthesisers which he restores and digitally records to sell to musicians and studio engineers.

"It just didn't work. Maybe it was too ahead of its time," says Spiers.

"Maybe it was just the fact that it seemed to last about a year before it ended up in thrift stores."

Brad Roberts, singer for the Crash Test Dummies
Crash Test Dummies lead singer Brad Roberts: A fan of the Optigan

But Mattel could hardly have foreseen music tastes coming full circle and the Optigan falling back into fashion.

In recent years it's been used on tracks by artists including Beck, Blur and Goldfrapp.

As we chatted, Dave Spiers gave me a demo of his Optigan.

When it finally cranks up into life, a loud hiss fills the room. It takes several attempts pushing down on the chord buttons before the celluloid disc agrees to spin and engage with the optical reading system

But the result is magical. The Optigan has an evocative quality - if a little out of tune.

"It just adds this kind of old vintage vibe to a modern contemporary track," says Spiers.

Crash Test Dummies singer Brad Roberts has only praise for the Optigan's "peculiar" sounds.

"They almost have that kind of creepy sounding feeling that you get from old gramophone recordings," he tells me, laughing.

"It sounds like dead people."

Crash Test Dummies' album 'Oooh La La!' featuring the Optigan is released on August 22.

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