Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Optigan Surgery (WARNING: Nerds Only)

OK. If you don't have an Optigan, best look away now, 'cause this shit's about to get REAL. Thought i'd document what I went through this week in-case there are any Optigan owners looking for guidance in taking theirs apart (they will have to do frequently... they're built like toys). Before I begin, I would like to state that all photos and video in this post were taken with phone camera, hence they are shit.

First things first, I had to remove all other stuff from around the Optigan so that I could attack it with my screwdriver. Bye bye Solina/CS15/Records/Guitars etc:

Then, I had to unscrew every single screw I could see... to get underneath the first layer of the optigan, where you can access the chord-button contacts etc, you have to take the sides off, or at least prize them apart (the turntable/drive mechanism is on the next level of unscrewingeverything-ness, and i'd try and tackle that later). 

So, taking the back off I saw this:

Dusty much? After hoovering the hell out of everything I could reach, I turned to face the business end (Btw I love the longness of the keys when you remove the plastic top. I can imagine someone with massive long spindly fingers playing it, or at least someone with long nails. Maybe Nosferatu):

So that area in the bottom left of the photo is usually where the first phase of Optigan maintenance goes down. This is where the chord button contacts are:

Again, dusty as fuck. Hoovered up the debris and removed this stupid black plumbers tape that was an aborted mod I started once... can't be bothered to explain it, was trying to improve the contacts and it didn't work. 

Anyway, it was at this point that the turntable on the Optigan started to creak back into life, which is what I had been fearing had died. At first, the pitch was all over the place, some discs played back sounding like Lil Wayne 'A Milli' and some more like Kanye West 'Through The Wire', but it gradually seemed to even itself out *sigh of relief* 

Seeing as i'd opened it up, I thought I might as well try and make the chord buttons work a bit better if possible. The keyboard has always been absolutely fine, so no cause for concern there. But the chord buttons usually hardly ever work, especially the major key buttons (usually the most caned ones). Also, the 5 loop buttons above the chord keys are even worse. 

So I set to work on improving the contacts, firstly with a pencil eraser to clean them up:

As stated previously, these contacts correspond to the chord buttons. The thin wire strips get pushed down onto the cells below making an electrical connection which plays the corresponding loop. Even when the cells are pristine, the contact area is quite small because of the thinness of the strips, so I had a plan to improve it. 

I'd make little metal squares that sat above each cell, increasing the conduction area, which would improve the chances of the sound playing back upon button-pressing. So, down I went to the kitchen to grab some tin-foil:

As they were, folded strips of tin foil, they were too floppy. I wanted to guarantee that pushing down a chord button would get all that square area of foil pressing hard against the cell below. So these strips of foil needed a solid backing. I went down to my local art shop to look for bits of stiff card, but stumbled upon something better- thin perspex, which when cut down into tiny squares was rock solid:

So the perspex-reinforced tinfoil went onto the 5 loop buttons, with a spot of tape for each one so they didn't move about:

I made a little video of me prodding them to check whether it improved the contact. It did by about a gazillion percent:

When I put the plastic lid back on, it was perfect. I was living the dream with a FULLY WORKING OPTIGAN (this video is of note as I showcase the loops included on the Polynesian Village disc, which contains the greatest Optigan loop of them all- THE MONKEY LOOP. You'll know it when you hear it):

So then I knew I had cracked it. Perspex-reinforced tinfoil! Genius. I had never had much issue the minor/diminished chord buttons so I only really had to repeat the process for the 7 major chord buttons... So there you have it... If you have an Optigan but the chord buttons are flakey, try this method, it will work provided your contact cells/wire aren't totally kaput. In most cases they'll just be covered in dust and gunk. Clean them up, and then maximise the contact with the perspex squares. Then you'll be able to do shit like this (if you have the Dixieland Strut disc):


  1. I'm going to try this on my own Optigan. Thanks much for sharing!

  2. My man,
    I realize this post is old, but it's extremely useful. If those videos were still up it's be about 10 fold more useful. Any chance you still have the orig video files for those? If so I'd dearly love to see them. I'm at operative011@gmail.com