Classic Gear: The Mellotron Keyboard

Mellotron

The Mellotron will forever be one of the most unique sounding and groundbreaking keyboard instruments ever created. It was based on the Chamberlin, which was the world’s first sampling keyboard. When you press a key on the Mellotron, an 8-second piece of audio tape is triggered to run, and when you take your finger off, the tape quickly rewinds. By actually recording each chromatic pitch of an acoustic instrument (say flutes, strings, organs, or the legendary boys choir) and assigning each 8-second recording to its respective key, the Mellotron was a machine that could emulate any instrument or sound. (See the youtube clip below for a helpful demo.)

Some samples were recordings of an actual full-band rhythm track, kind of like pressing the demo button on your Casio, but with a sound leagues more impressive. Regardless of the soundbank being used, however, the ‘Tron has an eerie, wavery quality to its sound that has intrigued musicians, producers, and listeners since its inception.

The Mellotron is infamous for its lack of portability, requiring painstaking realignment of tape heads when relocated. Today, you might find them in rare studios with a knack for vintage gear but the best shot at getting your hands on these classic sounds is to grab the affordable GForce M-Tron emulation software. Using your computer and a midi keyboard, you can get access to virtually all of the known Mellotron sounds. Though ‘Tron purists will scoff at the use of a plug-in, it is quite simply the most realistic way to harness the otherworldly sounds of the Mellotron.

Check out till.com for further information, and don’t miss the excellent Planet Mellotron where you will find information on many recordings that employ this expensive, rare, technologically dated but much loved and legendary instrument.

Examples
The ultimate Mellotron example is the flute intro to the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. This is an outtake (Take 7) that highlights the 10-piece street drumming team that hides in the outro rhythm of the final cut; though it’s not Mellotron, this fantastic texture always astounds me:

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The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever

Phenomenal Cat by The Kinks from VGPS is a great ‘Tron track. The regular flute sound is instantly recognizable, but take special note of the demented ‘rock guitar’ sample and the rhythm tracks:

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The Kinks – Phenomenal Cat

On David Bowie’s early classic, Space Oddity, Rick Wakeman was brought in to perform a placeholder part for what would later become orchestral strings. Apparently the magnificent warble of Wakeman’s ‘Tron part got the best of Bowie, because that is what we still hear today:

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David Bowie – Space Oddity

The Mellotron became an important instrument to the world of prog rock as it could create grandiose sound without the prohibitive costs involved with hiring an orchestra. Listen to this Mellotron drenched classic from King Crimson’s debut:

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King Crimson – Epitaph

(thanks to PlanetMellotron.com for the research on these notes.)

Mellotron Demo

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrXtmKGkSa4[/youtube]


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8 Comments.

  • ib

    Great piece, Brendan. Excellent. Made me want to dig out “Village Green Preservation Society” for a more careful listen… Phenomonal Cat somehow passed me by, previously. Now, what about a post on the Theremin ?

  • Brendan

    very well may have to, ib. have you seen the documentary? one of the finest films i can name, a story of love more than of technology.

  • ib

    I did see something on British television some years back, but it was one of those occasions where too much alcohol and other sundry substances were consumed in tandem. My memory of it is somewhat hazy but i do remember being impressed…

  • Kenneth

    Germany’s Manikin Electronic makes a “Memotron”, another contemporary alternative:
    http://www.manikin-electronic.com/en/products_memotron.html

  • sabrina

    I’ve just joined this site and it looks great.

  • Natasha

    thanks for the info – I loved the video too!!

  • marthafines

    Merry Christmas to all… and to all a good night.

  • Chris

    Excellent article Brendon.

    If you don’t mind I’d like to offer a few corrections for you. I only know this because I own a Mellotron, Chamberlin and Birotron, and had to research these to keep the machines alive. It’s pretty esoteric stuff, so bear with me.

    It’s not the re-aligning of the tape heads, but the pinch rollers and pressure pads that can be a problem to get the tapes in the Mellotron to play properly. Tape head alignment almost never needs to be done. The ‘tape head alignment’ is a common misconception.

    Also, there is no software out there that offers ‘all’ of the Mellotron sounds. Only the most well known ones are offered. Many tron sounds never made it into software form, and probably never will. For example there’s unknown Chamberlin sounds and custom Mellotron sounds that aren’t available. And Birotron sounds that may be lost to time. Also – software is a only an approximation, because it can’t emulate the randomness of the tapes slithering under the keys which is what creates the magic dynamic in the sound. This goes straight to your point of why the purists ‘scoff’ at the idea of a plug-in. Of course, there’s not much choice anyway.

    Strawberry Fields does have Mellotron at the end. There are flute arpeggios you can hear playing alongside the drums. I have those sounds in one of my Mellotrons.

    Thanks for this wonderful article. I hope this extra information helps.

    This was one of the better articles on the machine as well. Keep up the good work.

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