In Restoration: Mediterranean Optigan

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We received a pair of two optigans!

We’ve been interested in optigans for a while, but we never tried to acquire one because their maze-like construction makes them notoriously hard to service. Also, we don’t really do motors around here. But the opportunity arose to pick up two, so here we are.

One of the optigans was in pretty excellent cosmetic condition. It included the music rack, the speaker cloth was absurdly clean and none of its many plastic parts were broken whatsoever. We’ll call this one the Mediterranean optigan because that’s what Mattel called that design in the catalog. The other was presented to us as a “parts” optigan. It hummed loudly and had some random screws defacing the chord side of the keyboard. We haven’t really worked on that one yet, but we’re mystified about the screws because nothing should be screwed in place in those locations. That one is definitely going to have surprises inside.

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Anyway, the chord buttons on the Mediterranean optigan were sticky and intermittent, and we were pretty curious about the inside, so we decided to open it up and clean the contacts. The first thing we did was remove the back, which was easy because only three of twenty screws were present.

The Optigan has two amplifier circuits, one for the chord buttons and one for the keyboard. Both amplifiers were easily accessible, as was its basically microscopic reverb tank. The back of the optigan has plenty of real estate for a reverb tank of any dimension, but a larger tank probably would have added a dollar or two to the cost, and that was probably a dealbreaker for the designers. We’re not even being flippant: this was a $400 organ (aka $2500 in today’s dollars) literally marketed towards people that didn’t have the first clue about how to play an organ. It’s hard to blame Mattel for cutting corners here.

Anyway, the Optigan was stereophonic, meaning that each amplifier was sent to its own corresponding speaker. Marketing materials made a big deal about the stereophonic thing, which is crazy because the speakers were mounted on the same plane about 10” from each other. The effect is not multi-directional by any stretch. It also makes the Optigan a pain to mic. You’d think that emphasizing the optical disc reading system - which put custom, professionally arranged backing tracks literally at the user’s fingertips - would be a better sell, but hey! We’re not the Optigan’s marketing team. Though neither was anyone else, it seems, judging by the volume of increasingly desperate-sounding job postings for Optigan salespeople, demonstrators, engineers and “troubleshooting technicians” that we found in early 1970s newspapers.

The other Optigan, which is in less good condition.

The other Optigan, which is in less good condition.

The amplifier was pretty much the only thing that was accessible. The key contacts were tucked away under the plastic face, which, to our growing horror, required both sides of the console to be wedged away. And we’re not even going to talk about the motor assembly, the presence of which we more or less took on faith. Since, aside from the contacts issue, the Optigan was working, either the motor was running somewhere deep in the organ’s fiberboard heart or the whole thing truly was possessed by spirits.

Once we got the sides of the Optigan off, and got over the vague discomfort of seeing a chord organ stripped down to its feeble-looking skeleton, we were able to remove the plastic face and access the keys. By remove the plastic face, we of course don’t mean “completely remove” - that would be way too convenient. There is a tiny light in the center of the Optigan’s face that is permanently attached to the rest of the circuit via a delicate length of fiberoptic cable. Through this threadlike umbilical cord, the plastic face remained attached to the organ while we worked on the contacts. Replacing that cable and the attached light was the last thing we wanted to do. So we worked around the plastic face and moved it aside when necessary, trying at all times not to make any sudden movements that might snap the cable.

Once the face was off, the keys appeared to be oddly two-toned. On closer inspection, the rear half of the keys were actually covered in a thick film of dust. Fortunately, Optigan keys are apparently made with one of the 1970s’ better plastics, so the dust came right off with a mild detergent. When we were finished, the keys looked brand new.

As predicted, the contacts were also pretty gross. We cleaned them with isopropyl alcohol and a lint-free cloth. This made a huge difference. After cleaning, the chord buttons and switches worked perfectly. They also pressed easily and sprang back with a satisfying bounce. We put the Optigan back together and it was ready to play.


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