The Mellotron


Sectional, animated view inside one of our Mellotron M400s, number 306.

Animation of the inside of M400 306...

What can you say about these creaky beasts except that they are a hernia and a half to lift on and off a stage? And the one you see in the background, the type we use coincidentally, was supposed to be the portable model!!! Handles were never added to these and certain purists will tell you that you should never fit them retrospectively as it "devalues the instrument aesthetically"! Try lifting the b*gger without!!!

The Mellotron started it's life in the States as "The Chamberlin", named after it's inventor, Harry Chamberlin. It was a sort of vintage sampler using magnetic recording tape as the sample medium. Never particularly reliable, the Chamberlin was not a good instrument by anybody's reckoning, certain aspects of the mechanism were very unreliable, not least fundamental components like the pinch wheels. Chamberlin's sales manager, Bill Fransen, brought a couple of these "wonders" to Britain, ostensibly to see about getting sets of matched tape replay heads made to improve their performance - but he had a better idea in mind. A good solid family by the name of Bradley had a tape head manufacturing business called Bradmatic in Birmingham, not far from the Aston Villa football ground. After much inspecting and prodding Fransen's Chamberlin examples they undertook to build the all new and revolutionary Mellotron at their factory in Streetly, essentially still a Chamberlin in it's operation but streets(ly) ahead in reliability. Production of twin manual Mk.1 Mellotrons began in the early sixties and continued until the factory closure in the late eighties going through various marks and models in that time including the much simplified, portable M400. And there was even a name change for reasons far too heavy to go into - Mellotron became Novatron!

When Streetly's finally folded many people thought that was the end of the 'tron - after all, cheap computer memory and samplers had rendered these wonderful machines practically obsolete. I know I personally was desperate to find someone who could service my ailing machine and I searched high and low to no avail for a technician conversant with the quirks and foibles of the Mellotron. But that was before the advent of the internet upon which I eventually found the answer in a matter of seconds... despite Streetly's sad demise 'tron fettling is still alive and well in the hands of Les Bradley's son John, and his colleague Martin Smith, based out of town not far from Rugely in the Midlands. They began what is literally a cottage industry at Martin's home and they have expanded their operation now to the point where they hope soon to be able to manuafacture new 'trons once more. It's also worthy of note that a chap in Sweden who has the "official" Mellotron name, is also producing new 'trons which sell for around £3500. This new machine, known as the Mk. VI, looks almost identical to the M400 you can see in the background but it does have one or two different features to the original.

So anyways, lets have a look at how these things work... the system a 'tron uses is electro-mechanical in nature but that is about all it has in common with it's other electro-mechanical brethren such as the Hammond organ. A set of magnetic tapes 8 seconds or so long, are recorded with the sound of a real instrument playing a corresponding note, one tape for each key of the 3(ish) octave keyboard. When the key is depressed a pinch wheel is pushed against the tape driving it over the common capstan and transporting it over a playback head - et voila!  - the key plays back that note with the instrument of your choice. For a really good graphical demonstration of this principle in action try this link to the excellent Audio Playground Synth Museum site...

So... we've got a keyboard playing back analogue samples of real instruments but yet further deviousness is afoot!!! Move the whole bar of playback heads left or right a fraction of an inch (sorry, this has to be in inches, we weren't metric then and some of us still aren't) and it is possible to engage adjacent tracks on the tapes with different instruments recorded on each. So, three instruments on tracks A through C with mixes available between A and B or B and C. Hmm........... The big beasties (Mks. 1 and 2 and M300) had an even more fiendish arrangement on board. Instead of using 8 second tapes for each key they employed 48 second tapes which were divided off into 6 sections of 8 seconds each, a complicated transport arrangement moved the whole bank of tapes forward or back by Meccano chain propulsion (I jest ye not!) at the touch of a button and a new bank of three sounds appeared. Hmmm again.........

But they also had two keyboards with a bank of tapes for each... therefore the player had a choice of 2 x 6 x 3 different tracks available at the touch of a button... well, at the touch of a few buttons!

With me so far? Good, now this is where I lose you!

What if you were to record accompaniment tracks on the left keyboard playing in various keys dictated by the corresponding keyboard black and white pressy things? And then if you happen to keep the right hand keyboard fitted out with lead voices, you have an early version of a play along home keyboard much as we know and love (?) today. They even went to the trouble of recording little song ending riffs and cheesy "Yeah"s on the bottom key of the manual! Nowadays the accompaniments sound shall we say, a little dated, but it is still quite amazing to see what a big 'tron can do. Genesis and King Crimson, were big fans of the 'tron and their work positively oozed "that sound" generated for the most part on an instrument they both owned at various times, lovingly known as "The Black Bitch" because of it's somewhat unreliable reputation!

But imagine trying to cart a keyboard around on a world tour that is less than 100% reliable (some might wish to  knock a nought off that figure!!!), and weighs more than the average Ford Transit in which you wish to cart it. Not easy, not good. So Messrs. Bradley and the boys went back to the drawing board and came up with the 400, essentially one half of a gutted Mk. 2. But Dear Browser, as this owner can happily attest, 400s still weigh a piggin' ton!

So why bother with a 'tron when modern digital samplers can give you all the instruments under the face of the sun and when you are bored with them you can just go record yourself some more anyway? Well, take a listen to "Kites" by Simon Dupree, or "Watcher Of The Skies" by Genesis. Or perhaps the most famous 'tron track of them all, "Nights In White Satin" by The Moody Blues , the Mk. 2 they owned being played by an ex Streetly employee, the great Mike Pinder. And what about Rick Wakeman and his efforts, both solo and within Yes? On all these artist's work I guarantee you'll pick up that certain something that only a 'tron can do - it's "that sound" -  a sound that stops people dead in their tracks and instills the most awesome feeling of coldness running down your spine! Strangely, 'tronnyness was never more chillingly apparent than when the three violins lead voice was selected, but that particular tape option did not appear until the Mk. 2 - if it hadn't appeared then would the 'tron ever have caught on? We can but wonder.

It has also recently been pointed out that the whole Prog Rock gendre of the 1970's could never have happened without Mk. II strings... and to quote a certain Mister Smith... that's "a collective guilt that the entire Bradley family must learn to live with for the rest of their lives"!!!

Whilst we are talking about the sound why don't you take the time to listen to these sound bytes? The first is a demo of the famous "three violins" but do you recognise the refrain? It's from "Epitaph" by King Crimson though I hasten to add that the player is myself, not the great Robert Fripp! The second is the 4 - 4 male/female choir and the last is the String Section or Ensemble.

Mellotron 3 violins sample in Real Audio format.                       Mellotron 4-4 choir sample in Real Audio format.                       Mellotron String Ensemble sample in Real Audio format.

Finally, this clip is from a Jarrelook concert and it shows how delightful the 4-4 male/female choir can sound in a song. The track being performed is the great Jean Michel Jarre's "Equinoxe Part 4" .

"Equinoxe 4" clip in Real Audio format showing Mellotron 4-4 choir in action.

Our first 400, number 1180, began life back in 1973 and was gigged around the cabaret circuit by the gentleman who sold it to me, and if you are reading this bud you lived in Worsley!!! She was ex(pen)stensively refurbished in late '98 and fitted with a new tape rack - M300 strings, the 4-4 choir (or 8 choir as Martin and John so delight in telling me it is really called...) and the string section which you have just heard. The M300 strings were the trademark sound of Barclay James Harvest's Wooly Wolstenholme; the choir has been used by everyone and his dog and the string section is recognisable instantly as a prime Tangerine Dream  timbre. Anyone remember "Mystic Semblence At The Strand Of Nightmares" from "Phaedra"? At least, I think that was what it was called!!!

But I digress, 1180's first big outing since the refurb was the Arietta music school gig on October 31st.  '98 and she was put to good effect on a couple of Jean Michel numbers. Since that time she has gone from strength to strength and is used more and more in our JMJ tribute band Jarrelook.

Our second M400 was collected on February 14th. 2000, - St. Valentine's Day - henceforth she will be known as "Valentine"!!! In a bit of a sad state M400 number 306 had been progressively pulled apart apparently in search of what had stopped her motor turning. Full of muck and the dust of ages, she had suffered the indignity of being painted none too expertly with a very fluffy brush, a sort of mock flock finish!?! And deep amongst the green-mouldy tape rack someone's pet mouser had left it's liquid calling card. But never fear, the owners drowned that wonderful scent with cheap after shave - Brute or Packo Cardigan, I'm not sure which! What more could a 'tron owner wish for?  Well....... it would be nice if I could get rid of the smell of cat pee from the boot of my Golf!!! After some time with John and Martin at Streetlys, "Valentine" is now back with us and sits at the rear of our keyboard rig.

View of a sad looking tron upon arrival at its new home with Jarrelook...

M400 number 306, "Valentine"

But isn't the 'tron just another dinosaur that should have faded away much as the sixties did, with dying chords played on Mk. 2 strings? Emphatically no - ask Oasis, I'm sure they wouldn't agree - Noel has not long since bought one of the new Mk. VI's and the new album has quite a heavy 'tron presence throughout. Neither would Nelly Fortada whose, "I'm Like A Bird" starts off, somewhat unusually, with dry Mark II strings - 'trons almost always are heard with quite a lot of reverb. And there's a host of other recording artists to whom a real Mellotron is indispensible today. It is also interesting to note that recently a "virtual Mellotron" called "M-Tron" has appeared on the market as a plug-in for computers running a VST host system - personally I find it quite amusing that the first ever sampler has, in turn been sampled to allow it's idiosyncratic playback of the source sounds to be faithfully reproduced by modern music systems with the same idiosyncracies preserved!!!

So where can you get a 'tron 'cos I know you'll want one when you've heard ours - try Streetlys, the links are below, but don't expect to get much change out of three grand for a refurbished M400 and more like eight grand for a Mk. II!!! Then of course there are the new Mk. VI's from Mellotron in Sweden... but I have mixed feelings about these, if only for the fact that you cannot adjust the individual azimuths of the replay heads and are therefore potentially at risk of uneven frequency response across the keyboard.

So if 'trons have captured your imagination big style then why don't you go and have a look these dedicated websites -

Click here to visit Streetlys site for all things Mellotronic...

click here to go to Streetlys tape library for sound bytes...

Click here to visit Mellotron USA, makers of the new Mellotron...

And finally, if you are a convert then here are a couple of pics for you to dribble over in a totaly anoraky manner... enjoy!!!

An ex Robert Fripp tron.

A flightcased M400 in Streetly's workshop.

Painted black it is an ex-Robert Fripp, King Crimson machine.

Mark 2 in the synth museum...

Another "Black Bitch", ex-King Crimson machine, this time a Mk.II.

This photograph is of a machine which I am informed now resides in

Bob Moog's museum dedicated to the history of synthesizers.

Click here to return to the main synth page...

Click here to return to the Jarrelook index page...