A simple method for observing coherent optical-transient phenomena is described. Effects such as photon echoes and free induction decay (FID) should allow studies of the dynamic properties of atoms, molecules, and solids on a time scale ranging from milliseconds to ∼ 50 ps. The frequency of a cw dye laser is switched with an intracavity electro-optic modulator, producing in an external sample coherent transients which are detected in the forward beam. Measurements of long dephasing times are possible, as in FID, because the laser can oscillate indefinitely at the new frequency following a step-function switching pulse. Measurements of short decay times are also practical because the switching time is not restricted by the laser gain or cavity ringing time. In addition, the dye's dephasing time of a few picoseconds or less is too rapid to interfere with these observations. Since the pulse sequence can be preselected, the entire class of coherent optical transients is accessible. The method thus incorporates all of the advantages inherent in Stark switching, including heterodyne detection and high sensitivity, without being restricted to Stark-tunable systems. Laser frequency switching is discussed also in terms of a theoretical model which exposes the time-dependent properties of a phase-modulated cavity mode. Dephasing studies have been carried out thus far in atomic and molecular gases and low-temperature solids containing inorganic impurity ions or large organic molecules. The utility of the FID effect is emphasized where precise dephasing times are obtained from time-frequency Fourier transformation of FID signals using a digital computer. The first quantitative and detailed test of FID theory is provided by these experimental techniques. © 1978 The American Physical Society.