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.