Mellodrama

February 3, 2010 · 23 comments

Mellotron M400

The flutes that open “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Stairway to Heaven,” the strings in”Nights in White Satin” — these are sounds you know by heart. What you may not know is that they were played on a keyboard instrument called the Mellotron.

When I was a high school prog music geek with a crappy band, I practiced my keyboard skills by learning parts from records, playing along with Yes, Genesis, and ELP. I only had an electric piano and organ, and was able to borrow a synthesizer every now and then, but laying my hands on a Mellotron became my Grail quest. I would show up early to help set up for the school dances in the hopes that I’d get to fiddle around with the keyboard setups from the bands we hired to play. At one dance, Larry McGowan, the keyboard player for local band Rat Race Choir, invited me to check out his latest acquisition, a huge dual-manual Mellotron. Or so I thought, until he explained that it was a custom-built Chamberlin, an instrument made in the US that competed with the UK-built Mellotron.

It wasn’t until I visited Noise New Jersey – the studio where legendary producer Kramer recorded bands like Galaxie 500, Low, and Ween – that I finally got to play a real Mellotron, a temperamental model M400 (a similar model is pictured above). It was almost impossible to keep in tune but an absolute thrill to play.

The instrument has been around for almost fifty years. Here’s a mash-up I made of some songs containing different Mellotron sounds (a mash-Mello?) that spans five decades. See how many you can name; I’ll provide the answers after I receive a few comments with your guesses):

 

What triggered this nostalgic reverie was the recent release of Mellodrama, a documentary by Dianna Dilworth that tracks the rise, fall, and resurrection of the world’s first sampling instrument.

This fascinating film tells an all-too-common American technology story: home inventor creates something in his garage, the idea is stolen and commercialized by another company, the technology is eventually replaced by something newer, and only then is the inventor credited for his work. In this case, we learn about Harry Chamberlin, who created his eponymous instrument in the late 1940s as a way to have an “orchestra at your fingertips.” He recorded members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra onto multitrack tape, then created a keyboard mechanism to play the sounds.

When you pressed a key, a drive mechanism would move a tape loop past a playback head, playing the note you selected in one of three instrument voices. Choosing an instrument sound moved the playback head over the appropriate track on the loop. Since there were no limits on what could be recorded onto tape, the Chamberlin utilized two keyboards: the left manual played rhythm tracks and chords, while the right manual played solo instruments.

In the early 1960s, Chamberlin hired a salesman, Bill Franson, who secretly took two of the instruments to England and found a company that would replicate them. The company, Streetly Electronics (an electronics manufacturing company owned by the Bradley brothers) in collaboration with Mellotronics Ltd. (the financial backer/marketing company run by Eric Robinson) sold the new instrument in the UK. A few years later, when the Mellotron made its debut at  NAMM — a US music instrument manufacturers convention — Streetly learned that they had been deceived by Franson. They agreed to pay royalties and to sell exclusively in Europe, ceding North America to Chamberlin.

The Mellotron became the defining sound of 1970s prog rock. Although its sound banks weren’t as well-recorded as Chamberlin’s, the instrument itself was more roadworthy. But just barely: keyboard players of the time complained bitterly about the failings of the instrument. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp wryly observed “Tuning a Mellotron doesn’t.” Many touring bands traveled with two Mellotrons — one to play and one to repair — which turned out to be a costly proposition given the $3,000 price in 1970. As soon as decent quality string synthesizers became available, Mellotrons were relegated to the junk heap.

A significant portion of Mellodrama consists of interviews with dedicated fanatics who sought out the instruments at yard sales and in the storage rooms of recording studios. Brian Kehew, one of the fanatics interviewed, has a mint-condition MK II, seen here:

Both Mellotron and Streetly Electronics have been revived, and are producing new Mellotrons. In this video, Tara Busch of Analog Suicide (seen playing above) demonstrates the Melotron MK VI (note the Theremin and drool-worthy Analogue Systems modular synthesizer in the background):

The documentary is a bit short of actual musical examples from the recordings that made the Mellotron famous, a shortcoming brought about by the cost of music licensing fees, but that just leaves more time to investigate some of the less successful musical competitors. Mattel sold the Optigan, an organ look-alike that played orchestral sounds off of clear acetate discs, a technology similar to how movie soundtracks are played in theaters. The Optigan in turn begat the Vako Orchestron, a higher-fidelity optical disc instrument. (I once played an Orchestron owned by Zebra, another local band that graced my high school’s stage.)

It was inevitable that the instruments would be eliminated altogether and the sound banks would be transferred to digital files. Because I’m still a prog rock music geek, my home music setup includes a Sampletron, a virtual Melotron/Chambelin/Optigan/Orchestron that includes all of the sound banks recorded for all of the instruments. It even allows me to layer up to 16 different sounds, more than was ever possible with the originals.

I also have a Mellotron – more specifically, an Ellatron – on my iPhone:

Once more, everything old is new again. Would I still like to own an actual Mellotron? You bet. As soon as I find a spare $7,000 I’ll write a follow-up post.

Update, February 4:

Today I received this message from Diana Dilworth, who saw this post. She had a few points of fact to correct, which I have incorporated.

Brian Kehew’s Mellotron is actually not restored but was fully functional and in perfect shape when he found it a couple of years ago. Pretty amazing really!

Also Streetly Electronics and Mellotronics were two different companies with different owners. Streetly was the manufacturing arm owned by the Bradley Brothers and Mellotronics was the financial backer/marketing company run by Eric Robinson.

Maybe one day you will find yourself a Mellotron. The new digital Mellotron that Markus Resch made is pretty cool:

Update, February 5:

Songs in clip identified here.

23 comments

Chris February 3, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Court of the Crimson King,Beautiful Day,-,-,Portisheaad,Race for the Prize,-,-,Radiohead,Close to the Edge,Peter Hammil?,-,The Rain sSong,, Blue Jay Way,-,-,-,-Kashmir (But I don’t hear any Mellotron here),-, -,Heart of the Sunrise, Space Oddity, another Yes song.

Feel free to delete my comment if I have an unfair advantage…

David February 4, 2010 at 12:21 am

Wrong on Portishead, Peter Hammill, Blue Jay Way, and “another Yes song.” “Close to the Edge” is actually “And You And I.”

“Kashmir” is a trick, the sections with Mellotron also have Plant’s vocals, making it too easy to spot.

8 out of 24. No unfair advantage.

CD March 16, 2010 at 2:31 am

Sorry but you’re wrong – there is mellotron on every track on Close To The Edge.

Chris February 3, 2010 at 11:30 pm

BTW – James Iha has his double Chamberlin at Stratoshpere sound. I used it on a JSBX mix.

David February 4, 2010 at 12:12 am

Did it play in tune?

Andrew February 5, 2010 at 5:07 pm

The modern master of the mellotron: John Medeski of MMW. He removes the top panel of his organ, so he can alter the speed of the loops with his hand while he plays, which produces seriously sick pitch bends.

David February 5, 2010 at 5:18 pm

The first time I saw that trick was when I saw Fiona Apple on SNL. Her keyboard player, Patrick Warren (featured in the movie), had an open-topped Melloron which let him abuse the flywheel.

Brian March 25, 2010 at 7:34 am

That keyboard player was Patrick Warren, actually using a Chamberlin. He also does it with Michael Penn – look for the “Long Way Down” from Tonight Show.

micro February 22, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Did I hear What Is & What Shall Never Be in there? And I think I heard 3 Genesis, two preceding Bowie, and one following. Cinema Show, something from LLDOB, and then something really old, Watcher of the Skies? Argh! It sucks getting old and losing your recall!

David February 22, 2010 at 8:26 pm

You still have much to learn, my young padawan. “What Is and What Shall Never Be” has no Mellotron. What you heard was “The Rain Song.” Only two Genesis tunes; you were correct about “Cinema Show” and “Watcher of the Skies,” and of course David Bowie.

The answer list is here. But, dude, how could you miss “Kashmir?”

micro February 22, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Well, at least I recognized the band, if not the song.

I had King Crimson, U2 and the other Zep, but since your brother had already named them, I didn’t bother. Driving home I was beginning to think I was wrong with the other Genesis song. I’m now leaning towards ELP, although which song, I have no idea. I will have to give it another listen.

micro February 24, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I’m at 6 out of 24, unless you want to give me partial credit for identifying Led Zep even though I had the song wrong. This could affect my making honor roll 😉

David February 24, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I’ll give you the partial credit, but you don’t get honor roll without at least 20 out of 24.

micro February 24, 2010 at 5:26 pm

The only way I could do that would be with an all Bowie or Barenaked Ladies quiz. And even then… 😉

micro February 25, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Snob! 😉

CD March 16, 2010 at 2:34 am

U2 used samples of the Mellotron on Beautiful day. They never used the real thing, and no samples are not the same as the real thing.

David March 16, 2010 at 11:13 am

You are correct, the U2 song uses Mellotron samples. But so does the Opeth I listed. If you’re going to nitpick, be consistent.

Dieter Vanmarcke March 29, 2010 at 8:08 am

Hello
I hear trans-europe express by kraftwerk, but that’s an Orchestron, not a mellotron….

David March 29, 2010 at 10:44 am

Correct. In my follow-up post, More Mellodrama, in which I list all of the tracks, I credit the Orchestron.

David March 16, 2010 at 11:12 am

I selected “And You And I” as an example, but nowhere in my post or comments do I claim that it’s the only track on “Close to the Edge” that uses Mellotron. If I’m mistaken, please point out the passage where I make that claim.

David March 25, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Hey, thanks for reading, and the clarification!

David February 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm

No ELP. Kieth Emerson didn’t use a Mellotron.

David February 24, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Your knowing everything about Barenaked Ladies makes me sad.

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