Sunday, February 20, 2022


Mellotron Mark II

Introduced in 1963, the Mellotron is an organ-like musical instrument, its keys instead engaging a tape mechanism to play back ranges of brass, woodwind, string and percussive instruments, making it an analogue forerunner to the sample-based synthesisers that appeared during the 1980s. Instead of its intended sounds being manipulated, recreated or synthesised, they are recordings of the original instruments, and specifically one person’s performance, affected as much by breath and touch – you can hear the air through the flute, and the bows on the violins – as much as the “wow and flutter” of the tape, and the speed of the electric motor. The effect created by that specific combination of factors have made the Mellotron a vital, and slightly eerie-sounding, part of British music for the last sixty years, playing back a sound quality all of its own.

The Mellotron’s sound has become more important than how it works. “Baby Can It Be True”, by The Graham Bond Organization, was the first major song to use one, layering sounds over each other, but Manfred Mann’s 1967 hit “Ha! Ha! Said the Clown” then uses it as the hook, instead of guitar or brass. By this point, The Beatles and The Moody Blues used Mellotrons, including on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Nights in White Satin”, later carving a niche in prog rock with King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. The source of the Mellotron’s sound also means its sounds can be taken too often for the “real” thing, like the cello on Oasis’s “Wonderwall”, and possibly the choir at the end of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”, but it sounds too similar to say otherwise. It is also possible to replace the tape, the BBC using an adapted Mellotron to play in sound effects for “Doctor Who” in real time.

Streetly Electronics, the manufacturer of the Mellotron until 1986, was resurrected in 1997 initially to maintain the original version as bands like Radiohead and Oasis continued to use them, even as digital synths by Yamaha, Korg and Roland rendered them obsolete. The sheer number of moving parts in a Mellotron could be affected by humidity, smoke and, least useful for a touring band, movement. However, the possibilities of the Mellotron to a smaller band, and the timbral quality of its sounds, led to more portable versions being introduced into the 1970s.

Mellotron M4000D

The original organ was introduced as an item for the home, with a backing accompaniment available on a second keyboard, and was championed and backed financially by the bandleader Eric Robinson, best known in the UK as presenter of the classical and light music radio show “Melodies for You” on the BBC Light Programme, along with the TV magician David Nixon. Among the first adopters of the Mellotron were people as disparate as Peter Sellers, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, while also providing the only fact I knew off the top of my head about Princess Margaret.

Most notably, the sound of a Mellotron is most often mistaken for that of a Chamberlin, but only because the former is a legally distinguishable version of the latter. Harry Chamberlin designed and perfected his patents from 1949 to 1956, and counted Bobby Darin and Elvis Presley as early customers – but after a legal wrangling caused by a Chamberlin salesman disappearing to the UK and setting up production with a British manufacturer of tape heads, which became Streetly Electronics, Chamberlin and Mellotron continued to sell independently from each other, and not in their home countries. 

Therefore, American acts like The Beach Boys, Edgar Winter, Three Dog Night and Stevie Wonder had access to Chamberlins, and UK acts had Mellotrons. While David Bowie did use a Mellotron on “Space Oddity”, his later “Berlin trilogy” of albums, recorded in Germany, Switzerland and New York, used Chamberlins. Adding to the confusion, the Mellotron’s “3 Violins” sound, used prominently in “Nights in White Satin”, was the one sound licensed for it from Chamberlin.

I want a Mellotron but, due to space and lack of mechanical knowhow, it would have to be one of the modern digital versions currently being manufactured by the original company, although they are expensive: even a rack-mounted version for the studio, where you have to add your own keyboard, costs over a thousand pounds. Fortunately, because Harry Chamberlin sold his company’s rights to them in 1981, all digital Mellotrons effectively come with a free Chamberlin, to layer sounds on top of each other. Arturia sells a downloadable Mellotron sound pack for use via MIDI and a computer, but that is much less special than playing on the real thing.

What would I want to do with a Mellotron? Play on the nostalgia created by the sounds it makes? Layer those sounds together to recreate that eerie quality employed by The Moody Blues? Create something that sounds like nothing else? Yes please.

Mellotron M4000D Micro

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