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An early form of sample playback synthesizer, commonly used in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Mellotron produced sounds by means of strips of analog magnetic tape containing pre-recorded instrument sounds. Each strip of tape contained a sample which was tied to a particular key. Depending on the model, various means were available to change to different banks of sounds. Tape sets were offered containing individual instrument sounds, single notes or chords sounded by ensembles of various sorts, and rhythm and melody patterns. The Mellotron was particularly noted for its string and flute sounds, and was prominent in 1970s progressive rock. However, it was notorious for mechanical complexity and frequent need of maintenance.

Mellotron (and Chamberlin) History Edit

The Mellotron is often considered a quintessential British instrument, but its history starts with a California-based inventor named Harry Chamberlin. In 1946, Harry began marketing his first tape-playback keyboard instruments, under his own name. He soon set up a factory and began offering a number of models, which were produced in small numbers, mostly targeted as home entertainment systems. This continued through the 1950s.

In 1961, a Chamberlin salesman took some machines to England with him to pursue sales and distribution leads. While in Birmingham, he approached the Bradley brothers about manufacturing tape heads for the machines. The Bradleys got curious about what they were for, and the salesman showed them the machines. Allegedly, it was represented to the Bradleys that the machines were the salesman's own work. The Bradleys suggested ways in which the machines could be improved, and they reached a deal -- without Chamberlin's knowledge -- to build and market the machine known as the Mellotron. Manufacture began in 1963.

As soon as Harry Chamberlin found out what had been done, the lawsuits flew. However, by 1966, the two sides had agreed to share patents and intellectual property and even exchanged some master tapes. The Bradleys set up two companies: Mellotronics Ltd. did the marketing and owned the patents and copyrights, and Streetly Electronics built the machines. Streetly and the Mellotron went on to eclipse the success of the Chamberlin in terms of sales and fame, eventually building at least 2500 instruments.

One of Streetly's first employees was Michael Pinder, who worked in the factory as a quality inspector. His job was to perform a final quality check by playing the instruments just before they went into the shipping cases. Pinder went on to achieve fame as the keyboard player with the Moody Blues during the band's heyday; his extensive use of the Mellotron helped popularize the instrument with the 1970s progressive rock bands. If one owns an early-production Mellotron, it is almost certain that Mike Pinder played it before it left the factory.

How a Mellotron Works Edit

The strips of tape that contain the sounds are not loops; they are linear strips that always play back from a fixed starting point. Each key has its own strip of tape, which normally lay motionless atop a continuously rotating smooth capstan. Pressing the key pressed a pinch roller against the capstan, pulling the tape through and across a playback head. When the key was released, a spring mechanism pulled the tape back to its starting point; doing this ensured that playback always started at the same point of the tape in order to realistically reproduce the attack transients and articulation of the recorded instrument sound. (For comparison, see the Birotron.) A capstan motor speed control provided some tuning and pitch bend capability; other than that and an overall tone control, no means of modifying the played-back sound was provided.

Most Mellotrons used 1/3" (about 8.5 mm) wide tape strips, cut down from stock 1/2" tape by a special machine built by Streetly. This tape width was chosen because it had to match the width of the keyboard keys; wider tape would have forced the designers to make the keys wider. (This was a problem that Chamberlin solved with its later models by remoting the keyboard, but Streetly never built a remote-keyboard model.) The tape was wide enough for three tracks with reasonable fidelity. A knob or set of buttons on the panel allowed the user to select the track to be played; this was done by physically moving the heads across the tape width. Some models allowed "in between" settings with the tape heads straddled two tracks, playing back a mixture of the two accompanied by signal artifacts from the track boundaries. The coupling was direct; the pinch roller that contacted the tape and capstan, and the pressure pad that pressed the tape against the head, were fastened directly to the underside of the key lever. The capstan spun continuously, but it was smooth enough that when the pinch roller was not engaged, the tape merely lay on the capstan without moving.

The tape wound around a spring-loaded set of serpentine rollers, and the end opposite the tape heads was fixed in place. When the key was pressed, the tape tension pulled slack out of the serpentine, drawing the rollers up against their springs. Tape that had crossed the head spilled loosely into a box in the front of the machine. When the key was released, the roller's springs returned them to their resting position, pulling the loose tape back across the capstan and back into the serpentine. (The lifting of the pressure pad allowed the tape to move away from the heads, so that no sound was heard as the tape returned back through the mechanism.) Tape lengths were enough for 7-8 seconds' worth of audio; if a key was held for too long, the tape would stop after all the slack was taken up from the serpentine. Part of the technique of playing a Mellotron is to keep moving; a note cannot be held very long because of this limitation.

Mark I, Mark II, and the FX Console Edit

The Mark I was the first Mellotron model, a dual-manual instrument with two 35-note manuals. Due to the impossibility of stacking the tape mechanisms, the two manuals were placed side by side, rather than one above the other as usually seen with organs. Only a handful of Mark I's were made before production switched to the improved Mark II. The FX Console was a special model made for the BBC to use for foley work in radio and television productions; it contained tapes loaded with sound effects rather than the usual music tapes. Each manual contained its own track selection mechanism, and the FX Consoles contained additional options for splitting the track selection at set points on each manual.

In order to increase the number of sound choices available, all of these models used a mechanism in which tape was wound onto rollers at each end of the playback mechanism. A length of tape between the rollers was exposed for playback, and this contained one "bank" of sounds. By pressing buttons on the panel, a motor could be made to turn the rollers in synchronism so that a different portion of the total tape width became available to the playback mechanism. This "shuttling" mechanism was mechanically tricky, as it had to stop the tape movement at the right point so that pressing a key would result in neither the attack portion of the note being clipped off, nor in a gap before sound started to come out. Each set of tapes contained six banks; with three tracks, a total of 18 sound sets were available. The unit turned on a "wait" light while the shuttle mechanism changed banks; one of the Mark II's improvements was to mechanically lock out the keys during this period, as playing a key while changing banks would destroy the tape.

These units were designed for home and institution use; they did not hold up well to gigging, and they were very heavy. Nonetheless, Pinder did most of his work with the Moody Blues using a Mark II, and the string parts on two iconic progressive-rock songs -- King Crimson's "Court of the Crimson King" and Genesis' "Watcher of the Skies" -- were played on a Mark II. About 300 Mark II's and 60-70 FX Consoles were made.

The M300 Edit

This was Streetly's first attempt to produce a lighter and more road-worthy instrument. The M300 had a single 52-note manual, with the capability to select tracks in several sections of the keyboard span. For reasons not clear, Streetly decided to switch to 1/4" (6.35 mm) tape, with two tracks across, for this model. It retained the Mark II's bank-changing mechanism; however, Streetly produced an all-new set of standard tapes for the M300. Unfortunately, the redesigned tape mechanism was troublesome. Only about sixty M300s were produced.

The M400 and Mark V Edit

Streetly tried again to produce an instrument that would work better for the touring musician, and this time, they succeeded. The M400 shed considerable weight and wmechanical complexity by dispensing of the bank-changing mechanism. The tapes contained only one bank, with the tape laying loose at the end closest to the playback head, and clamped in place at the other end. To provide sound flexibility, Streetly devised the "tape frame", a sort of large cassette that contained a serpentine mechanism pre-loaded with tapes. Spare frames could be purchased loaded with different sets of tapes, and an experienced tech could change the frame in a few minutes. The M400 was a relatively small instrument with a single 35-key manual, but it did return to the 1/3" tape with three tracks. This was by far the most successful Mellotron model in terms of sales, with over 1800 being built. The Mark V was basically two M400s in one box, with two side-by-side 35-key manuals, and individual track selection and tape frames for each.

The Novatrons Edit

In the late 1970s, Mellotronics Ltd. reached a marketing deal with a U.S. company in which some intellectual rights were exchanged. A subsequent bankruptcy of the U.S. company in turn bankrupted Mellotronics and resulted in another U.S. company, Sound Sales, acquiring certain rights including the rights to the Mellotron name. Streetly Electronics was unaffected by the bankruptcy itself, but they lost the right to market their products as Mellotrons. Subsequently, they adopted the name Novatron. Some M400s and Mark Vs were sold under the Novatron name. Streetly also produced the Novatron T550, an M400 with some improvements and built into a road case. This was the last of the "original" Mellotron models.

The Four Track Edit

In 1980 Sound Sales undertook to produce a Mellotron model of its own. For the tape format, they chose 1/4" tape, but with the heads being non-moving, 4-track heads (as were used on semi-pro tape machines of the day), with track switching being entirely electronic. It used the same basic tape frame mechanism as the M400, adopted to the narrower tape. This worked but was very expensive to produce, and the master tapes produced by Sound Sales were said to be rather naff. Plus, by 1980 polyphonic synths were rapidly moving into the Mellotron's territory. Only a handful of Four Tracks were produced.

Post History Edit

The Mellotron lost sales and users to the digital samplers through the 1980s, and the original Streetly Electronics went under in 1986. The rights to the mater tapes were eventually acquired by David Keane's Mellotron Archives (plus rights to many Chamberlin masters). Eventually Keane managed to resurrect Streetly's tape-trimming machine and was able to produce new 1/3" tapes. This led to renewed interest in the instruments, and a second generation of Bradleys reconstituted Streetly in the mid-1990s. They began by manufacturing new parts for existing units, but by 1999 they had introduced an improved M400 as the Mark VI, and shortly after produced a dual-manual model as the Mark VII. The current model is the M4000, a single-manual unit in an M400-sized case, but with an improved tape shuttling mechanism that provides 8 banks and allows the performer to position the start points arbitrarily. Motor speed control is also improved. There is also a digital model, the M4000D, with a similar appearance but based entirely on digital sampling technology.

Mellotron also licenses the master tapes for use in other formats. They have been marketed as CD libraries for samplers (samples of samples!), and in packaged software such as G-Force's M-Tron, which uses the sounds in an authentic way (no looping) but also provides many synthesis capabilities.

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