The Chamberlin is an electro-mechanical keyboard instrument related to the Mellotron. It was created by Californian inventor Harry Chamberlin in 1946. Various models and versions of these Chamberlin music products exist. While most are keyboard-based instruments, there were also early drum machines produced and sold.
The basic Chamberlin has a piano-style keyboard. Underneath each key is a small tape deck. Each tape is pre-recorded with various musical instruments or special effects. When the player presses down a key, the tape deck begins to play through an amplified speaker. When he or she releases the key, the sound stops, and the tape rewinds. Each tape is only a few seconds long (8 seconds on many units).
Some controversy exists regarding the origin of the Mellotron, but most of the accounts tell of Chamberlin's associate, Bill Fransen (sometimes described as his window cleaner, sometimes as an employee), taking Chamberlin's design to England and selling it without Chamberlin's knowledge in the early 1960s. After this somewhat dubious beginning, Chamberlin and the company that produced Mellotrons later came to a financial arrangement.
The royalty payments Chamberlin received from the Mellotrons helped him to continue producing instruments in his garage, and later in an Ontario, California factory. In 1981 (shortly before Chamberlin's death), the company ceased production, after making approximately 700 units.
The later Chamberlin model M1 is reputed to have superior sound and reliability to Mellotrons. In general, the Chamberlin tapes use much less compression on their recordings, thus featuring sounds which "breathe" more and possess more dynamics and vibrato than those of the Mellotron. It is rumoured that several famous recordings which purportedly use a Mellotron actually use a Chamberlin. One popular music group that has openly used a Chamberlin is Ambrosia. The Moody Blues used the Chamberlin on their album "Seventh Sojourn". David Bowie was the first musician to employ the instrument on his Berlin era albums (1977-79). English band XTC use one on their 1986 "Skylarking" album. Singer/songwriter and producer Jon Brion frequently plays the Chamberlin, and can be heard in many of his cues on the soundtrack to the film I Heart Huckabees. Tom Waits also championed the instrument on albums such as 'Frank's Wild Years' and 'Bone Machine.'