The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic keyboard originally developed and built in Birmingham, England in the early 1960s. It superseded the Chamberlin, which was the world's first sample-playback keyboard. The heart of the instrument is a bank of parallel linear magnetic audio tapes, which have approximately eight seconds of playing time each. Playback heads underneath each key enable the playing of pre-recorded sounds.
The earlier MKI and MKII models contained two side-by-side keyboards: The right keyboard accessed 18 "lead/instrument" sounds such as strings, flutes, and brass; The left keyboard played pre-recorded musical rhythm tracks in various styles.
The tape banks for the later, lighter-weight M400 models contain only three selectable sounds including strings, cello, and an eight-voice choir. The sound on each individual tape piece was recorded at the pitch of the key to which it was assigned. To make up for the fewer sounds available, the M400 tapes came in a removable frame that allowed for relatively quick changes to new racks of sounds.
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. Initially, Harry Chamberlin was not happy 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. Fransen approached a UK company that was skilled enough to develop the idea further and a deal was struck with brothers Frank, Norm, and Lesley Bradley of engineering 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 In the early 70's 100 of the instruments were assembled and sold by EMI under license. Many years later, following financial and trademark troubles, the Mellotron name became unavailable and resided with the American based Sound Sales while Streetly manufactured instruments after 1976 were sold under the name Novatron.
Throughout the 1970s, the Mellotron had a major impact on rock music, particularly the 35 note (G-F) model M400. The M400 version was released in 1970 and sold over 1800 units, becoming a trademark sound of the era's progressive bands. The earlier 1960's MK II units were made for the home and the characteristics of the instrument attracted a number of celebrities. 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 model 400's 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: Among these are tape replay artifacts 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.
Another factor in the strangely haunting quality of the Mellotron's most frequently-heard sounds is that the individual notes were recorded in isolation. For a musician accustomed to playing in an orchestral setting, this was unusual, and meant that he/she had nothing against which to intonate. Thus, the temperament of the Mellotron is always somewhat questionable when it is used in the context of other instruments. Perhaps for this reason, and perhaps also to allow easy transposition of the instrument's limited range, the pitch control is placed closest to the keyboard on the M400 model.
This temperament issue has led to the Mellotron being regarded, rather unfairly, as a difficult instrument to tune. There certainly could be mechanical problems that would also contribute to this. The original varispeed servo design was poor, for instance, but later improved dramatically. The tapes would stick inside their frames and refuse to rewind if the frame became distorted due to careless handling of the machine. Properly maintained though, the machines behave a lot better than their reputation suggests.
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 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. The American Mellotron distributor, Sound Sales, produced their own Mellotron model, the 4 Track, in the mid 1970s. At the same time Streetly produced a road cased version of the 400-- the T550 Novatron. By the mid 1980s, both Sound Sales and Streetly Electronics suffered severe financial setbacks losing their market to synths and samplers, which rendered the Mellotron almost extinct.
All models, when installed permanently in a studio, provided a very realistic effect. Many examples abound, such as Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. Despite their shortcomings, Mellotrons were prized for their unique sound, and they helped pave the way for the later sampler.
In the late 1990s, a Calgary-based company began producing new Mellotrons. These new MKVI Mellotrons were similar to the M400, with some modifications. The company also released sample discs featuring wav files of each individual note sampled from an original Mellotron. These files, when played using a sampler, enable keyboardists to recreate part of the sound of the original Mellotrons using cheaper and more reliable modern keyboards. Streetly Electronics has also released a new version of the M400 Mellotron,called the M4000, and is the first machine to offer a failproof cycling mechanism, an updated design of the system used in th 1960's MK 1, MK 2 and M300 machines.
Bands such as Counting Crows and The Musical Box have toured using these sampled Mellotrons to avoid the inconvenience of transporting and maintaining original Mellotrons on the road. The Musical Box, being a tribute band dedicated to visually reproducing early Genesis shows, have taken great pains to hide the fact that they do not use a real Mellotron by hiding a Kurzweil synthesiser in a wooden box made to look like a Mellotron.
The first hit song to feature a Mellotron MKII was Baby Can It Be True.
Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues had done an 18 month stint as an employee of Streetly Electronics as a quality control and test driver. He subsequently introduced the Mellotron to John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the The Beatles, who used it prominently on their single "Strawberry Fields Forever" a year later (recorded November-December 1966). It was also Pinder who brought the Mellotron to the forefront of popular music with The Moody Blues' 1967 album Days of Future Passed in songs including "Nights in White Satin" and "Tuesday Afternoon". Pinder made regular use of the instrument on The Moody Blues' studio albums from 1967 through 1971.
Other artists utilizing the Mellotron on hit records in this period included The Zombies ("Changes"), Donovan ("Celeste", "Breezes of Patchule"), Manfred Mann (several Mike D'abo-era recordings, including "So Long Dad" and "Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James"), The Rolling Stones ("2000 Light Years from Home", "We Love You"), Deep Purple ("Anthem"), The Bee Gees ("World", "Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You" & "My Thing"), Traffic ("House for Everyone", "Hole In My Shoe"), Pink Floyd ("A Saucerful of Secrets", "Julia Dream", "Atom Heart Mother" and "Sysyphus"), Procol Harum ("Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)", The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, Cream's "Badge", "Anyone for Tennis", The Left Banke's "Myrah", Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Nilsson's "The Moonbeam Song", and The Kinks ("Phenomenal Cat").
The mellotron 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.
These bands include Sigur Rós, Dinosaur Jr, Pulp, Marillion, U2, Radio Massacre International, The Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Counting Crows, Oasis, Barenaked Ladies, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Spock's Beard, Lenny Kravitz , Kevin Gilbert, The Flower Kings, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Modest Mouse, Ayreon, Muse, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Faith No More, Grandaddy, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Charlatans, Paul Weller), Radiohead (The song Exit Music (For A Film) is a good example, using 8 voice choir tape set), Porcupine Tree, Air, Opeth, Enslaved, and Waterclime. French electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre was particularly vocal in his love of the instrument, using it extensively in his 1997 Oxygene tour, and often describing it as the "Stradivarius of electronic music".
The Flaming Lips, in 2002, used Mellotron samples in the recording of their album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Eels used the Mellotron extensively through out many of the Eels albums, most notable in the song "Souljacker, pt 2" with E (Eels leader) and a Mellotron and is also featured in the song "Dust of Ages". Armenian metal band System Of A Down has used the sound in their music, most notably on the song "Roulette." On Porcupine Tree's 2005 album Deadwing, track 6 is titled "Mellotron Scratch" and includes lyrics about the sound of a Mellotron causing a woman to cry. Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson prominently used the Mellotron's haunting choral sounds on No-Man's 2003 album Together We're Stranger. British indie rock band The Kooks also use a real mellotron on their new albums Konk and Rak. The Strokes also used a mellotron on the song 'Ask Me Anthing' on their 2006 album First Impressions of Earth. Les Fradkin uses the GForce M-Tron on most of his current recordings. Opeth has a version of their song "Porcelain Heart" which consists entirely of Mellotron entitled "Mellotron Heart". This version was featured only on special editions of their 2008 album Watershed. A progressive rock group from Finland, Nurkostam, is also known for using a lot of Mellotron on their recordings.