Exploring the signature sounds of the intriguing Mellotron contender from Vako Synthesizers


Ready for some time travel? Are you familiar with the Orchestron or the company Vako Orchestron? Well, in any case you should be since the Orchestron not only has its roots deep down in the Moog soil, as well as with the toy manufacturer Mattel, but it is also the signature sound of well known acts that explored electronic music in the 70’s. No more than 40 instruments are believed to still be in existence. Just to get you started, listen to this recently published clip with the machine in action:

Here’s what Optigan.com has to say about the demo video: “Here’s a demo of all 8 original discs that were made for the Vako Orchestron. This keyboard, which is adapted from the Mattel Optigan, was introduced in 1975 by Dave VanKoevering. It was intended to be a competitor to the Mellotron, but it never really took off. Kraftwerk was a very early adopter of this instrument. I’ve included little examples of some of the well-known parts Kraftwerk used their Orchestron for back in the day.”

Optigan or Orchestron, well this is the background; Vako Synthesizers Incorporated, founded by electronic instrument pioneer David Van Koevering, built licensed versions of the Optigan under the name Orchestron in the mid-1970s. Intended for professional use as an alternative to the Mellotron, the Orchestron featured improved recorded sounds over the Optigan. Some models included sequencers and synthesizers. While the same fidelity limitations of the Optigan applied to the Orchestron, these instruments were built to be more reliable and were used successfully in commercial recordings. Designed as a road worthy replacement to the Mellotron, the Orchestron uses transparent optical discs with wave forms printed on them. A photo sensor detects the modulated signal when a light is shown through the disc. The main advantage the Orchestron offered over the Mellotron was increased portability and a lack of 8 second note limitation due to the continual wave forms on the optical discs.

In theory this was a good idea because, reliability aside, Mellotrons were indeed cumbersome and musicians had tried all manner of new playing techniques to disguise its 8 second limitation. However, there was one key area where the Mellotron was always going to win. Namely, the sound. Compared to the Optigan and Orchestron even the most road-battered Mellotron sounded positively hi-fi but, to be fair, the Orchestron has a character of its own which is best defined as grainy as per the Optigan. The Orchestron did away with the Optigan’s cheesy backing tracks opting instead to provide a selection of discs containing sounds such as Choir, Violins, Cello, Organs (Hammond and Pipe Organ) French Horn and Saxophone. The grandfather of the Optigan and Talentmaker, the Orchestron has a character-filled rich timbre reminiscent of the bandwidth-limited Mellotron, but with a vibe all its own.

In the early seventies, R. A. Moog company was sold to Bill Waytena and had its name changed to Moog Music. David Van Koevering became the Vice President of the company. Some time later, Waytena sold Moog Music to Norlin, and David left the company. In the first half of the seventies, he formed Vako Synthesizers and, after buying the rights of the Optigan from toy manufacturer Mattel, he developed the Vako Orchestron, an instrument capable of reproducing the sounds of organs, strings, flute, choir, and other orchestra instruments.

The Orchestron became very famous in the second half of the seventies by the hands of musicians like Patrick Moraz (Yes), Tony Carey (Rainbow), and the Kraftwerk members (the choirs and strings that we listen on their albums Radio-Activity and Trans-Europe Express were all played on a Vako Orchestron that the band purchased during their 1975 USA tour.) In the ’90s, Van Koevering created another innovative instrument, the VanKoevering Interactive Piano, and a new association with his long time friend Bob Moog happened, as Bob being the designer of the analog parts of the VanKoevering Interactive Piano. A minister since the sixties, David Van Koevering is the President and Founder of Elsewhen Research, a non-profit corporation that provides scientific information to what the Bible claims. As a musicologist, David and his wife Becky present public performances, in which they explain the Science of Sound, the History of Music and show their collection of more than 250 rare and unusual musical instruments.

Pea Hick’s the man behind the Optigan website is worth a mentioning here, since aside from keeping the spirit of the Optigan alive via his optigan.com website, Pea Hicks occasionally releases new discs for the Orchestron too. Some of these are reissues of the originals and some are entirely new, such as the recent Tara Busch vocal one. But the fact that people like Pea are still dedicated to such a madcap instrument, proves we are not alone in our appreciation of the esoteric. That’s somewhat reassuring.

If you want to know more about Tara Busch make sure to read Stereoklang’s interview with this inspiring musician, who has been working closely with John Foxx and been touring recently with Gary Numan.

Tara Busch / I Speak Machine

Even Sonicstate pick this up in one of their latest Sonic Talk episodes, which features excellent new Optigan demos by Johnny Largo. Johnny Largo was Optigan’s Music Director from Optigan’s public launch through to about 6 months before Mattel sold Optigan to Miner Industries. Basically he was the guy who went around to the trade shows and actually played the Optigan for all those throngs of amazed industry onlookers.

In the late 1990’s Optigan, Orchestron and Talentmaker samples were released as software sounds. Even in more recent times these instruments and samples have been used by many prominent artist. On the album White Chalk (2007) by PJ Harvey, an Optigan is played by Eric Drew Feldman. Harvey also wrote much of her Let England Shake (2011) album on an Optigan. Steve Adey plays an Optigan on the song “I See a Darkness” from his debut LP All Things Real (2006).

Even Marilyn Manson plays the Optigan on the song “Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis)” from the album Holy Wood released in 2001. AK-Momo uses this instrument prominently on Return to N.Y (2005). The album was recorded using only Optigans, Orchestrons and Mellotrons. Swedish producer Mattias Olsson has since the late 1990’s recorded several albums that features the Orchestron and Optigan prominently. An Optigan sample is used on the track “Eat Yourself”, by Goldfrapp. The same sample was featured on Lily Allen’s 2009 release It’s Not Me, It’s You, on the track “Chinese”. Allen also featured the Optigan sound in two other tracks, “Not Fair” & “He Wasn’t There”.

Want to know even more – here’s a direct link to Pea Hick’s excellent article on the subject and the legacy that he is preserving:

http://optigan.com/about-pea-hicks/optigans-anonymous/