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The Mellotron

Weapon of Choice: Mellotron

The Mellotron is an electromechanical polyphonic keyboard musical instrument originally developed and built in Birmingham, England in the early 1960s.

The Mellotron (along with its direct ancestor the Chamberlin) was, in effect, the world's first sample-playback keyboard. The heart of the instrument is a bank of magnetic tape strips (these tapes were parallel linear, not looped as has sometimes been reported or presumed), each tape with approximately eight seconds of playing time; playback heads underneath (but not directly underneath) each key enables performers to play the pre-recorded sound assigned to that key when pressed.

The earlier MKI and MKII models contained two side-by-side keyboards with 18 selectable sets of specially-recorded sounds on the right keyboard such as strings, flutes, and brass instruments which were called "lead", or "instrument" sounds, and pre-recorded accompaniment music (in various styles) on the left keyboard. The tape banks for the later, lighter-weight M400 models contain three selectable sounds (per changeable tape-rack) such as strings, cello, and the famous eight-voice choir. The sound on each individual tape piece is recorded at the specific pitch of the key that it was assigned to.

Follow this link to see how a Mellotron works: keyboardmuseum -- click the key with your mouse

Although tape samplers had been explored in research studios (e.g., Hugh LeCaine's 1955 keyboard-controlled "Special Purpose Tape Recorder", which he used when recording his classic "Dripsody"), the first commercially available keyboard-driven tape instruments were built and sold by California-based Harry Chamberlin from 1948 through the 1970s.

Things really took off, however, when Chamberlin's sales agent, Bill Fransen, brought two of Chamberlin's instruments to England in 1962 to search for someone who could manufacture 70 matching tape heads for future Chamberlins. Harry Chamberlin was not at all happy at first with the fact that someone overseas was basically "copying" his idea, and that one of his own people (Bill Fransen) was the reason for this. He eventually found a UK company that were skilled enough to develop the idea further and a deal was struck with Bill and Lesley Bradley of tape recorder company Bradmatic Ltd. This resulted in the formation of a subsidiary company named Mellotronics, which produced the first Mellotrons in Aston, Birmingham, England. Bradmatic later took on the name Streetly Electronics. Many years later, following financial and trademark troubles, the Mellotron name became unavailable and later instruments were sold under the name Novatron. A small number of the instruments were assembled and sold by EMI under license.
Through the late 1970s, the Mellotron had a major impact on rock music, particularly the 35 note (G-F) M400. The M400 was released in 1970 and sold over 1800 units, becoming a trademark sound of the era's progressive bands. The novel characteristics of the instrument attracted a number of celebrities, and among the early Mellotron owners were Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers, King Hussein of Jordan and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Mellotrons were normally pre-loaded with string instrument and orchestral sounds, although the tape bank could be removed with relative ease by the owner and loaded with banks containing different sounds including percussion loops, sound effects, or synthesizer-generated sounds, to generate polyphonic electronically generated sounds in the days before polyphonic synthesizers.

The unique sound of the Mellotron is produced by a combination of characteristics of tape replay such as wow and flutter, the result being that each time a note is played it is slightly different from the previous time it was played (a bit like a conventional instrument). The notes also interact with each other so that chords or even just pairs of notes have an extremely powerful sound.

Although they enabled many bands to perform string, brass and choir arrangements which had been previously impossible to recreate live, Mellotrons were not without their disadvantages. Above all, they were very expensive – they sold for £1,000 in the mid-1960s, and the official Mellotron site gives the 1973 list price as US$5200. Like the Hammond organ they were a roadie's nightmare – heavy, bulky and fragile. After years of touring with Mellotrons, Robert Fripp formulated a rule: "Tuning a mellotron doesn't." The tape banks were also notoriously prone to breakages and jams and those groups who could afford to (like Yes) typically took two Mellotrons on tour with them to cope with the inevitable breakdowns.

The original Mellotrons (MkI/MkII) were not intended to be portable (they often become misaligned when jostled even lightly), but later models such as the M300, M400 and MkV were designed for portability. All models, when installed permanently in a studio, provided a very realistic effect. An example of this can be found on Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album.

Despite these shortcomings, Mellotrons were prized for their unique sound, and they helped pave the way for the later sampler.

The Mellotron in popular music
British singer, songwriter and keyboardist Graham Bond might have been the first rock musician to record with a Mellotron.

However, the Moody Blues and Mike Pinder brought the Mellotron to the fore of popular music. In fact, Pinder was the first to master and make regular use of the Mellotron in rock music on the Moody Blues' studio albums from 1967 through 1971, while their 1972 album Seventh Sojourn employed the Chamberlin. Mike Pinder was formerly employed by Streetly Electronics and helped manufacture them. Mike Pinder gave each of the The Beatles a Mellotron (which they dubbed the Fabtron).The album "Days of Future Passed" made use of the Mellotron in songs including "Nights in White Satin" and "Tuesday Afternoon".

The Mellotron was also made famous by The Beatles, who used it prominently on their groundbreaking 1967 single "Strawberry Fields Forever", as well as several other recordings they made in this psychedelic period. It was also used by The Zombies ("Changes"), The Rolling Stones ("2000 Light Years from Home"), Pink Floyd ("Julia Dream"), David Bowie ("Space Oddity", where it was played by Rick Wakeman) and others during the psychedelic era. Rolling Stones' guitarist Brian Jones was supposedly the first musician to master the instrument, using it liberally on the album Their Satanic Majesties Request; his most remarkable performance on the instrument was that for the band's 1967 single "We Love You." The Kinks featured the instrument prominently in their recordings between 1967 and 1969, particularly on the 1968 album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.

The Mellotron was widely used to provide backing keyboard accompaniment by many of the progressive rock groups of the 1970s and alongside the venerable Hammond organ it was crucial to shaping the sound of the genre. It features on albums such as Once Again by Barclay James Harvest, In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, Diamond Dogs by David Bowie, 2112 by Rush (band), I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project, Fragile and Close To The Edge by Yes, and Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound by Genesis. Led Zeppelin used a Mellotron to recreate the recorder arrangement for live performances of "Stairway to Heaven", and is featured prominently on "Kashmir" from Physical Graffiti and "The Rain Song" from Houses of the Holy. It was also used extensively by pioneering German electronic band Tangerine Dream through their prime, including solo work by Edgar Froese. The Tangerine Dream albums Phaedra, Rubycon, Ricochet, and Encore as well as Froese's Epsilon in Malaysian Pale provide excellent examples of Mellotron playing.

The advent of cheaper and more reliable polysynths and preset 'string machines' saw the Mellotron's popularity wane by the end of the 1970s. Following the impact of punk, the Mellotron tended to be viewed as a relic of a pompous era. By 1980 its status had diminished to the extent that Captain Beefheart was able to reappropriate it almost as an archaic "found instrument". One of the few UK post-punk bands to utilize its sounds were Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who featured it heavily on their platinum-selling Architecture & Morality album (1981).
The Mellotron experienced a revival of sorts in the 1990s. A variety of bands began using the instrument, including Marillion, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Nine Inch Nails, Grandaddy, Radiohead, progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, progressive metal band Opeth, and progressive jazz/rock band Waterclime. On Porcupine Tree's 2005 album Deadwing, track six is titled "Mellotron Scratch" and includes lyrics about the sound of a Mellotron causing a woman to cry. In late '89/'90, R.E.M. laid down those mysterious sounding cello parts that are so prevalent in the cut "Losing My Religion", using the Mellotron.

Woolly Wolstenholme of Barclay James Harvest still gigs and records with a Mellotron, with both his own band Maestoso and with John Lees' Barclay James Harvest. Although he now plays an M400 rather than the M300 he is most famous for, his Maestoso albums Grim (2005) and One Drop In A Dry World (2004) feature numerous examples of his use of the M300 string sound that became his trademark.

In recent years, John Frusciante of funk-rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers has been known to use the mellotron, most notably on 1999's Californication album, on the song of the same name. The Mellotron can be heard in the track "Breaking the Girl" on the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. He also uses the mellotron prolifically on his solo album "Shadows Collide With People".

The Strokes' 2006 album, First Impressions of Earth, features a Mellotron solo on the track "Ask Me Anything". It is played live by Nick Valensi, the lead guitarist.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is known to possess John Lennon's Mellotron, which he has used in several albums including Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar and the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral.
-- courtesy of wikipedia

The Mellotron in Action

Listen Further/Buy
Fiona Apple "Criminal" -- the string sounds
Radiohead "Exit Music (For a Film)" -- the choir sound
Led Zeppelin "Rain Song" -- the string sounds
I love the Mellotron because the sounds are loaded with character. By today's standards the samples do not sound great, but they have a special quality all their own that seem to breath life into tracks. Owning and maintaining a Mellotron would be a little too much for me (read above) so I use both samples from and a VST plug-in made by GForce called the M-Tron ( see below ). In "Weird and Wonderful" you can hear how I used it in the intro for a song from my current CD The Satellite Orchestra.
Mellotron Emulations

The Mellotron is fairly easy to emulate by simply sampling the 8-second tape loop for each note.
Product Name Manufacture Comments
Mellotron CD-ROM Really Great Samples of each key. This is as close to the real thing as you are going to get.
M-Tron VST Plug-in GForce I prefer the Mellotron CD-ROM samples overall, but there are some really wicked sounds in this package as well. There is the sound of a bass accordion that is dope.
Links to Mellotron Parts, Maintenance and more

Here are a few links to some great Mellotron Sites Site of a Mellotron Guru. They also make a current version called the MkIV for between 6-10,000 dollars!! The son of the original manufacturer of the Mellotron provides repair and restoration services in the UK. And some new models.
youtube video Vintage Mellotron Demo from the 60's. Really entertaining! an exhaustive list of all of the albums that have used a mellotron

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