Grooving to the Sound of an Optigan

For our SoundClips series, listener Graig Markel demonstrates the late, great musical instrument called the "optigan."

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Happier memories now, this one that humans can do wonderful things as well as brutal ones. Today, a sound clip about a treasured musical relic called an optigon.

Mr. GREG MARKEL (Singer-Songwriter): My name is Greg Markel. I'm a singer-songwriter from Seattle, Washington. The optigon is a big ugly console organ that was made by Mattel in the early 1970s.

(Soundbite of optigon music)

Mr. MARKEL: It looks like any other family organ from that time period. It's got the cheesy wood paneling, and the buttons that play the chords on the left-hand side. The difference with the optigon is that it makes sounds from 12-inch discs that are specially made for this machine.

(Soundbite of optigon music)

Mr. MARKEL: They look a lot like standard vinyl records only they're a lot thinner, kind of like those flexi-discs you used to be able to find in magazines years ago. The discs are clear and have black waveforms that are read by a beam of light inside the organ.

(Soundbite of optigon music)

Mr. MARKEL: There's not a whole lot of flow end or a whole lot of high end, but there's plenty of low-fi midrange.

(Soundbite of optigon music)

Mr. MARKEL: The standard piano keys on the right-hand side plays one instrument than the buttons on the left-hand side plays loops. Each disc has different sound.

(Soundbite of optigon music)

Mr. MARKEL: I heard about the optigon years ago, and always hoped to find one in a garage sale or at a thrift store envied those musicians who did have that kind of luck. My friend Lauren(ph) had such good luck that he actually ended up with two of these, and was kind enough to sell me one for $50. I was on my way, I had the optigon, and all I needed now was some discs. After doing some pretty heavy searching on the Internet, I ended up with four discs: singing rhythm, Latin fever, and a Christmas set containing two discs.

The Christmas set I found on eBay and was even still in its original packaging, but somehow, amazingly, still sounded just as trash as the other ones. That's the nature of the optigon. From the loud mechanical noise to the electrical hum, it's a noisy, low-fidelity instrument that brings magic from the past into world that's now digitally enhanced to perfection.

(Soundbite of optigon music)

NORRIS: Listener Greg Markel demonstrating the optigon. He sent this as part of our SoundClips series. Information about how you can send your entry is at npr.org.

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