Engineering work on the project began in 1968 and the first patents issued in 1970. The Optigan was released in 1971 by Optigan Corporation, a subsidiary of toy manufacturer Mattel, Incorporated of El Segundo, California with the manufacturing plant located nearby in Compton, California. All rights to the Optigan, the disc format, and all previous discs were sold in 1973 to Miner Industries of New York, an organ manufacturer who formed a subsidiary, Opsonar, to produce it. Miner had record sales for a time, in part due to Opsonar. However, sales declined shortly thereafter and production of the Optigan and its discs ceased in 1976.
The immediate predecessor of the Optigan was the 'Welte Lichtton-Orgel' of 1936 (see literature: 'Elektrische Klangmaschinen')
Not all of the chord buttons had their own track assignments, the result being only fifty-seven sounds on sixty-three buttons, keys and switches. There was even an ingenious optical metronome incorporated into the discs which showed as a red flashing light for the downbeat and white for the upbeats inside the Optigan badge above the keyboard. The advantages of this unique optical playback system were that the Optigan's range of timbres was infinitely expandable and that there was no limit on the duration of a note as there was on the Optigan's professional-grade counterpart, the magnetic tape-based Mellotron. The disadvantage was that notes could have neither attack nor decay, as the tracks had no specific beginning or end. Nevertheless, one was never without a considerable choice of music styles while seated at an Optigan. The "Starter Set," sold with a new Optigan, contained discs with fairly self-explanatory titles: "Big Organ & Drums", "Pop Piano Plus Guitar", "Latin Fever", and "Guitar in 3/4 Time." More modern styles were represented by titles such as "Movin'!," which was a rhythm and blues disc and "Hear and Now," with a sound clearly based on the hit single "Sweet Seasons" by Carole King (and cover art suspiciously evocative of that of her Tapestry album). Other discs were marketed individually and packaged much like long-playing phonograph records. These individual titles were also bundled in much the same way as the "Starter Set" and sold as six-disc "Entertainment Folios." Some discs were available only as part of a two-disc "Style Pak" with titles such as "The Joyous Sounds of Christmas" and "Country Style Pak." Music books of various styles and even arrangements intended for individual disks were also available and sometimes packaged with the different bundles.
The initial run of musical tracks were recorded by Southern California studio musicians in Hollywood and Torrance. However, a musicians' union strike meant that some of the later discs were recorded in Germany. One disc is of particular note. The instrumental tracks for "Bluegrass Banjo" were recorded by members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
For the benefit of those unable to read music, the notes in the books were numbered in correspondence to a numbered and color-coded foil strip above the keyboard. The Optigan's songbooks were written and arranged by Optigan Corporation's music director, Johnny Largo. Largo, a well-known accordionist and session musician was a contemporary of Johnny Marks, a composer best known for his popular mid-20th century Christmas melodies. As such, many of the numbers in the Christmas songbooks were Marks compositions.
Even though the technology of the day was more than sophisticated enough to avoid them, there were numerous mechanical problems with the disc's motor drive due to its having been engineered to be as affordable as possible. Changes in environment which had a physical effect on the photocells frequently led to crosstalk between tracks. One common example involves the F at the upper end of the keyboard; press this key, step on the volume control pedal and the C-diminished/A-diminished chord can often be heard in the background.
These same diminished chords intentionally found their way onto the row of major chords. And as pointed out earlier in this article, not all of the chord buttons had their own track assignments. A-major utilizes the same soundtrack as B-flat-diminished, G-diminished, and E-diminished while E-major shares space with F-diminished and D-diminished. Apparently, this was done to save space on the disc, further explaining the lack of dominant seventh chords or any chords in the keys of E-flat, A-flat, D-flat, B and F-sharp. A somewhat bizarre end result of these "diminished major" chords is that playing anything in either the key of A- or E-major is impossible on the Optigan without adding a dissonant, even Gothic flavor to the music.
Since the instrument was aimed at amateur players, the majority of the songs in the Optigan's music books are written in the much easier keys of F, C and G. The Optigan certainly had its share of detractors, then as now. Yet it provided an entertaining and educational introduction to the world of music and likely sparked interest in a generation of budding musicians and composers.
Steve Hackett has also made frequent use of the Optigan. Hackett's 1980 album, Defector, features an unusual number called "Sentimental Institution", recorded with a solo Optigan spinning the "Big Band Beat" disc behind Pete Hicks' vocals. His 2003 release, To Watch the Storms, features sonically expanded samples of the Opsonar "Champagne Music" disc on the track, "Circus of Becoming". Also of considerable note is the band Optiganally Yours, featuring keyboardist and optigan.com founder Pea Hix; they base their original compositions around the Optigan and employ it and similar keyboard instruments on virtually all of their recordings.
An Optigan sample was used on an episode of the Cartoon Network series, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, first airing on October 22, 2004. In it, a mirror image of the character Bloo played sped-up samplings of the vamps and endings of the "Dixieland Strut" disc through a horn which appeared on his body.
AK-Momo uses this instrument prominently on Return to N.Y. The album was recorded using only Optigans, Orchestrons and Mellotrons. Swedish producer Mattias Olsson has since the late 90's recorded several albums that features the Orchestron and Optigan prominently.
The soundtrack for the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michel Gondry) uses the guitar from a Talentmaker. "It's funny because you were talking about my grandfather inventing that keyboard," begins Gondry. "Jon has some old keyboards. My father, who is the son-in-law of my grandfather, took over his keyboard shop and he started to sell electronic synthesizers and organs and he had this very weird synthesizer called The Talentmaker. And I hadn't heard or seen one in 30 years. And when I went to see Jon he had this. So when you hear this very sad guitar that we use a lot [in the film] that's [The Talentmaker]. So you had the nostalgia of my grandfather's shop."