A long time ago in a galaxy far away... no - hang on...
A long time ago, around 1959, an American toy company called Mattel brought out a doll which they named 'Barbie'. Leggy and blond and more than ample in the chestal department, Barbie was a chap's ideal fantasy woman but ironically, the doll was designed by a woman and loved by little girls. Barbie was an instant success selling 350,000 in the first year alone and has since gone on to sell millions but much to the dismay of some - many - who believe the doll portrays an unrealistic body image and encourages anorexia and other eating disorders in young girls. In 1961, she was joined by her boyfriend, Ken, and such was 'The Barbie Phenomenon' that they made the newspapers when it was announced that Barbie and Ken had split up! Since then, Barbie has starred in several movies not least of which, of course, Pixar's wonderful 'Toy Story' series - Jodie Benson's and Michael Keaton 's characterisations of Barbie and Ken respectively in Toy Story III are just excellent.
But all of this is by way of setting up the mysterious business of Mattel, a toy company, moving into musical instrument manufacture with something of a rather unique and potentially innovative technology.
You see, in 1971, they brought out their Optigan ... or OPTIcal orGAN.
Using optical disks with the same basic principles used for the sound track of motion picture reels, light was shone through the disc and the waveforms depicted on the clear disc were converted to audio. However, limitations in the technology meant that sound quality was, shall we say, less than ideal compounded by surface noise, dust and the physical handling of the discs. It was a unique combination of genius, clever and crude in equal proportions.
The Optigan was intended as a home entertainment instrument (much like the original Mellotron) with an accompaniment section. But this wasn't some chintzy drum machine thing
but, much like the Mellotron before it, actual recordings of musicians playing and triggered from buttons to the left of the keyboard and it was possible to buy discs representing various styles such as 'Nashville', 'Latin Fever', 'Big top marching band', 'Country Style', 'Rhythm and blues', 'Banjo Sing-Along', 'Polka', 'Dixieland Strut' ... even 'The joyous sound of Christmas' and 'Songs of praise' and the somewhat (by today's standards) dubiously titled 'Gay 90s Waltz'! It's fairly easy to sense Mattel's intended market demographic!
Being kind, let's just say that the Optigan wasn't a huge commercial success. In fairness, Mattel did persevere with it and made several models but the limitations of the optical disc technology, less than ideal sound quality and reliability problems meant it was never destined for lasting success and it was discontinued around 1973.
But all this background info is to bring us to the thrust of this sample set, that of the Vako 'Orchestron'.
One David Van Koevering, an ex-Moog employee, saw possibilities in the optical disc format as a modern replacement for the tape-based Mellotron. A nice idea but, in practice, flawed.
On paper, it was fantastic. I am that old a fart that I remember when it was announced and sent off for the brochures, etc., and frankly, the Orchestron seemed f'k'n stunning... on paper!
Whereas on the Mellotron you had just three sounds available and anything else required almost completely dismantling the thing, swapping the tape frame over with another (a 15 minute job all told). With the Orchestron, it was simply a case of popping in a different disc - remarkable at the time. That and the unrestricted sustain (compared with the Mellotron's seven or eight second tape limit). Oh - there was lot going for the Orchestron in principle but it was not to be. Patrick Moraz (who had just joined Yes, replacing Wakeman) had a monstrous custom three manual jobbie made for him...
Moraz used it on 'Relayer' and his solo album, 'The story of 'I''. I dug out 'I' recently - haven't listened to it for several decades - and it's really rather good ... in a wonderfully self-indulgent prog rock solo album kind of style!
Anyway, rumour has it that Moraz's behemoth broke down and mysteriously disappeared as it made its way for repair. Far be it for me to suggest, perhaps, an insurance scam - who can say? But whatever...
Several eminent progster keyboardists of the time (apparently) had demos of the Vako Orchestron but notably, they didn't whip their wallets out and the thing kind of disappeared into obscurity ... if it wasn't for Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider that is...
He found one second hand while on the Autobahn tour and bought it and it would come to feature on 'Trans Europe Express', 'Radioactivity' and 'Man Machine' as a distinctive signature sound, all of which are in this unique library-*
So where does that leave us here?
Well, I have always been fascinated by this thing. As an ex-Mellotron owner back in the mid-70s, I was very curious about it as a viable replacement for that but it was prohibively expensive and trying to get a play with one was all but impossible. Then, of course, I started seeing the reports about sound quality and reliability, etc.. But still an intriguing instrument. Two or three decades later, I learnt that one Pea Hicks owned the copyright on these sounds so I contacted him with a view to licencing them and, voila, we now have this on offer...
It comes with all the standard Vako Orchestron sounds but, as always, with a bit of twist.
You see, Pea has not only recorded the knackered old discs but also has the master tapes used for those sounds so, using the WORN button, you can choose to use either the 'clean' master tapes or the lo-fi, crunchy, abused and worn, scratchy versions off disc.
Not just that but as you probably surmise looking at the panel, there are two layers allowing you to combine different sounds (which could be master tape or 'worn'). There are also envelopes and vibrato LFOs for each layer as well as the 'CONDITION' buttons to add some wow and flutter and/or honky mid boost EQ and/or subtle distortion / cab simulation.
But we didn't stop there - there's a comprehensive effects section too comprising chorus, phaser, echo and convolution reverb with custom impules from springs and plates to rooms, hall and massive ambient washes.
All this takes it way beyond the original which was, frankly, a bit crude. But we didn't stop there either...
As is known, we favour serendipity here at HS Towers ... that is, the random creation of sounds according to chance. So we have equipped Optometron with such a function - simply click on the display centre screen on the control panel ...
Optomotron comes with some presets to get you started but there's plenty of scope to either create your own sounds with the simple dual layer GUI and/or generate patches at random which can be saved in the usual way.
If you like your sounds crusty and retro-textural, Optomotron is for you, no shadow of a doubt. And not without good reason - for all its flaws, the Vako Orchestron samples in Optomotron have a certain and wonderfully delightful and charming lo-fi and 'organic' character that will add weight to a track without being obtrusive ... and yet distinctive enough to be used as a signature sound if you choose. And it's suitable for almost any genre of music, soundtrack work, whatever. The ability to combine the 'clean' master tape samples and the gunkier samples off disc make it all the more versatile - that and whatever else you can do with the sounds in the GUI and the effects go far beyond what the original offered.
||Pea Hicks - optigan.com
NOTE : It will work with the Kontakt Player but only in 'demo' mode and the session will be time limited.
The full version of Kontakt 4.2.4 or higher is required and recommended
finally got a chance to try out the optomotron- sounds great! definitely has alot of options! love the randomize feature!
Pea Hicks - Orchestron and Optigan Copyright holder
Startling stuff. Love it. I've never even heard of this thing before - it's wonderful like all your products.
of course i had to jump right on this. Gusset moistening indeed!
The GUI for the Newtron 3 is one of your best yet and a delight to tweak.
Ingenious idea to offer the layers and all the Olde artifacts, wow, sample start etc. One of your best offerings of the catalog. Bravo.
Optomotron. I was going to do the laundry. I played the first "Cello" preset for ages before i even delved into this canny device. Again bravo. Oozing warmth and instability. A classic..
The dog's pissed off though, i'd promised him a major outing tonight - it's not gonna happen.......
Snaffled the bundle up immediately. Nice. I'll find a place for these sounds for sure.
Tropical Contour - KVR
Wow! Never thought I'd ever own an Orchestron. Thankyou
as always, great history description, great GUI and great sounds
Wonderful news to know that you've done the Orchestron. The best people to do it. You've done a really good job. Long may you continue.
I think people should just buy HS sounds for your GUIs becaus they are just so much fun. Even if they sounded like sh!t, they are worth having. But the thing is, it all sounds so damned good - I've not bought one bad product from you. And it all workd first time without any haslle. Defo one of my favorite developers.
I cannot believe how well that old Optigan has sampled!!...
Very impressed - an utterly gorgeous layer of gronky analog jam on a thick slab of buttery toast!
Dan - Hideaway Studios
These are great. Often there's talk of lofi and when you hear the actual sounds it's very tame, but you can really make these sound like they're falling apart (or not) which is just what I was after.
I find it's not just pure nostalgia that gives sounds like these their appeal, but the fact that they evoke history. Just play a few notes and straight away there's a sense of the notion of time, decay, the marching "forwards" of society. The cello section sounds great down low as well, very raspy
Sendy - KVR
Steve and his pals makes such brilliant sounds that it is worth buying Kontakt. Even my wife thinks my skills (at least musically) have improved since buying a number of their products.
Theses are not just samples, but living and breathing sounds. The only downside of them is that they sound so incredible on their own I spend whole evenings pressing a couple of keys on my keyboard and just listening to the beautiful noises. I might just record myself holding down one note for ten minutes and selling it as my next ambient piece.
ravasb - KVR
Truly outstanding stuff. I don't know you do all this stuff at the prices you charge.
I have bought libraries ten times this much that are nowhere near as good or as intriguing and interesting. In fact, they were a waste of money. Dull GUI, very basic scripting and lame sounds. Your libraries have beautiful GUIs and graphics, very advanced scripting, fantastic sounds. Makes me wonder how much we're being ripped off by these expensive libraries. I can understand it for the big orchestral and piano libraries bur not so convinced for some of the other libraries.
You are making really magnificent sounds and library at a price anyone can afford and I applaud and thank you, you and all the other smaller developers who are bucking the trend for expensive library. Keep it coming and I can't wait to see what you come up wity next.