Classic Gear: The 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 (actually, read the comment from Chris below for more on this, thank you Chris). 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 some kind of emulation hardware or software. Though ‘Tron purists will scoff at the use of a plug-in, it is quite simply the most realistic way to approximate 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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
King Crimson – Epitaph
(thanks to PlanetMellotron.com for the research on these notes.)