A History of the MELLOTRON

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A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by shaft9000 » Tue Dec 30, 2008 9:08 pm

I pulled this from the .pdf that comes with M-Tron Pro.
Thought some of us would find this rather interesting...

The Mellotron® – A Brief History
Gordon Reid © 2008

The earliest instrument to play back samples of existing sounds was probably the Singing Keyboard (1936), which replayed optical recordings of waveforms (much like early cinema soundtracks) when the player pressed its keys. This concept resurfaced many times between the mid-1930s and
mid-1970s, but the next important development in ‘sampling’ technology was driven by the invention of magnetic recording tape, which made it possible for the recordings to be reversed, layered, filtered, re-recorded… and more. The first instrument to take full advantage of this was Hugh Le Caine’s Special Purpose Tape Recorder (1954), which used a keyboard to control the playback of multiple reels of tape. This was sensational stuff, and many avant-garde composers
made use of the Recorder.

Meanwhile, a chap named Harry Chamberlin was also experimenting with a keyboard that could replay magnetic tapes, but in a more conventional manner, with a constant replay speed and a different pitch recorded on the tape under each key. It has now entered legend how a Californian window cleaner named Bill Fransen was intrigued by the sounds emanating from one of his customers’ garages and, peering through a (newly cleaned?) window saw the inventor playing an early Chamberlin MusicMaster. It is also well documented that Fransen then introduced himself, and ended up working as Chamberlin’s salesman.
Unfortunately, the MusicMaster hummed badly and proved to be very temperamental. Fransen was keen to see it improved so, unbeknown to Chamberlin, he travelled to England to find the expertise he needed, and subsequently placed an order for 70 matched replay heads with a company named Bradmatic, based in Birmingham, UK. Curious as to why anyone should require so many matched heads, the Bradley family (hence the company name) met and later joined forces with Fransen. However, none of them had the cash needed to fund the redesign or to manufacture the proposed instrument, so they advertised for financial support. Bandleader and radio broadcaster Eric Robinson replied, and development began.

Fransen turned out to be a talented recording engineer, and the Eric Robinson Organisation owned the highly regarded IBC Studios which were used to record the sounds that would eventually be installed within the keyboard. Shortly thereafter, the ERO was renamed Mellotronics Ltd, and its first product, the Mellotron Mark 1 appeared in 1963. Costing £1,000, a huge sum at the time, it offered many improvements over Chamberlin’s instruments, but remained rather unreliable.

It was to be another year before the first truly useable Mellotron was to appear. When it did, the Mark 2 was a 350lb dual-manual monster comprising more than seventy 3/8” tape players, each capable of playing a strip of tape lasting just eight seconds. It also contained a reverb unit, amplifiers, and speakers. It was 70-note polyphonic and was able to reproduce all manner of sounds including orchestral strings, flutes, brass, guitars, organs, pianos and choirs, the last of which were famously described as sounding like “dead men singing”.
A second and even more expensive version, the Mark 2 FX Console, was designed for use as a sound effects machine in TV and film studios.

Mellotronics saw its instruments as modern-day organs, and sold them to clubs and theatres, while others became celebrity toys. Despite this, the pop and rock community took the Mellotron to its heart and, by 1967, everyone was experimenting with it. The Beatles had already recorded what was eventually to become the most famous Mellotron performance of all time, the introduction to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, but the band that deserves greatest credit for bringing the instrument to the world’s attention was The Moody Blues, whose hit ‘Nights in White Satin’ was perhaps the first to bridge the gap between ‘beat’ music and classical orchestration.
In 1968, a smaller and cheaper (£871) Mellotron appeared. Called the Model 300, this dispensed with one of the keyboards and the internal speakers, and adopted a new tape format with redesigned motors and electronics. Bands such as Barclay James Harvest and Gentle Giant were influential exponents of the new instrument but, unfortunately, it was again unreliable: its mechanism would become charged with static electricity, and its tapes were then prone to wrapping themselves around the large drums that formed part of the sound selection mechanism.

Two years later, the Mark 2 and Model 300 made way for an even cheaper instrument – the Model 400. Costing just £795, this was smaller and lighter than any previous model, and its release presaged an explosion in the number of players using Mellotrons. But it was in the genre of progressive rock that the new keyboard became best known, and the huge popularity of bands such as Genesis and Yes was due in no small part to the haunting sounds of its violins, choirs and flutes. It was the heyday of ‘prog’ and audiences loved Mellotrons, but many keyboard players disliked them intensely. Keith Emerson threw his into an orchestra pit, and Rick Wakeman was recently quoted as saying that there wasn’t a computer known that had enough memory to record everything that he disliked about them.
In 1974, a fan approached Wakeman and asked whether he would be interested in a keyboard that was lighter and more reliable than a Mellotron, had no eight-second limit, and used 8-track tapes to produce a very similar sound. The fan was Dave Biro, and his instrument was the prototype of the short-lived Birotron. Wakeman was intrigued, and plunged a significant amount of money into its development. Unfortunately, a significant technical oversight had doomed the design from the start so, despite building a handful of machines, Birotronics folded in 1979.
A year earlier, Galanti had built a keyboard that, instead of using tapes to replay the sounds, used optical discs similar to those developed for Mattel’s Optigan (Optical Organ). Called the Chilton Talentmaker, this was withdrawn from sale when Mattel threatened to sue the manufacturer for patent infringement. Two years later, Mattel decided to develop its own, advanced disc player for professional use. This evolved into the Vako Orchestron, another instrument designed specifically to replace the Mellotron. Established by Dave van Koevering (formerly of Moog Music) Vako Synthesizers Inc. started building a range of models in 1975, but they were commercial flops and, despite being used briefly by Yes and Kraftwerk, quickly disappeared.

The final Mellotron also appeared in 1975. This was the Mark V, which was essentially two Model 400s in a single case. But in 1976, the bubble burst. The advent of cheap string machines and polyphonic synthesisers made it simple for keyboard players to obtain lush, orchestral textures,
and the birth of punk rock meant that most of them no longer wanted to. Worse was to follow. When, in 1977, Mellotronics’ US distributor collapsed while owing it a large sum of money, Mellotronics was unable to meet its financial obligations, and was liquidated.
Happily, Bradmatic – now known as Streetly Electronics – survived, and was able to continue manufacturing. However, they couldn’t call their instruments Mellotrons because the name had
been sold along with the physical assets of Mellotronics Ltd. Another name was needed,
and thus the Novatrons were born.
There were four of these: the Model 400SM, the 400FX, the Mark V, and the T550, but only the T550 was a new product, the others being re-badged Mellotrons. (Manuals of the era stated that, “we are no longer able to use the name Mellotron” and asked owners to “substitute the new name Novatron in its place when reading this manual”.)

In the post-punk 1980s, there was a resurgence of interest in progressive rock, and many bands championed the Mellotron again. Unfortunately, the advent of cheap digital samplers meant that, for most players, it was obsolete. So, in 1986, Streetly Electronics went into voluntary liquidation, and the Mellotron died.
Except that… it didn’t. Interest in the Mellotron never waned, and numerous people experimented with tape replay systems based upon it. Then, in 1991, an American named Dave Kean purchased the rights to the Mellotron name and established Mellotron Archives. Soon after, Martin Smith and John Bradley (the son of one of the Mellotron’s original designers, Les Bradley) reestablished Streetly Electronics. Both companies supplied refurbished instruments, new tapes and spare parts but, by the middle of the 1990s, demand had reached the point where there were simply not enough vintage instruments to go around. It was therefore inevitable that somebody would consider manufacturing Mellotrons again and, in 2002, Kean and his Swedish collaborator, Marcus Resch, started shipping the Mellotron Mk VI, a clone of the Model 400. Then, in 2006, Smith and Bradley launched the Model 4000, which combines a modified version of the tape replay mechanism designed for the Mark 2 in a case approximately the size (and convenience) of a Model 400. Amazingly, the best Mellotrons ever built are being built today, and the sounds they make are still as popular – and as musically relevant – as at any time in the past five decades.
2600.solus.modcan a.eurorack.cs60.JP8.Juno6.A6.sunsyn.volcakeys.jd990.tb303.x0xb0x.revolution.
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shaft9000.muffwiggler.com <- singles & mixtape
shaft9000.bandcamp.com <- spacemusic album
youtube.com/shaft9000 <- various synth demos and studies

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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by cornutt » Tue Dec 30, 2008 10:46 pm

A couple of things to add:

* Bill Franson's actions got Streetly unwittingly sucked into a patent lawsuit with Chamberlin. They settled the suit with Streetly agreeing to pay a small licensing fee to Chamberlin, who continued to design and manufacture his own models, the M1 being his most popular. Chamberlin marketed mostly to home users and institutions, which is one reason Chamberlins don't appear in recorded music nearly as much as Mellotrons.
* At the time the Moody Blues formed, their keyboard player Mike Pinder was working for Streetly, and already had a considerable amount of hours in learning the instrument. His position at Streetly was final inspector -- he played every 'Tron that came off the line, as the last step before it went into the shipping crate. If you have an early production Mellotron, there's a good chance Pinder has played your instrument.
* The British musicians' union tried to get the Mellotron banned. They were concerned that the 'Tron would be used to replace session players. At one point, Pinder did a demonstration for some union officials in which he showed them how he had replaced the phrases and rhythms on the left-hand keyboard of his Mark II with more lead sounds. That helped placate the union.
* Rick Wakeman got so fed up with his Mellotrons that at one point he burned two of them.
* The Mark II that Tony Banks recorded "Watcher of the Skies" with was purchased by the band from Robert Fripp. Fripp told Banks that it was the same 'Tron that he had used on "Court of the Crimson King", but Banks said that Fripp had several Mark IIs that he sold to different musicians, and he told them all the same thing!
* Chamberlin recorded several tape sets for his personal use only. He never put them into a production Chamberlin or even let anyone else have copies. Until David Kean acquired the master tapes, no one other than Chamberlin and a few of his family and friends had ever heard them. They're included with M-Tron now.
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Esus » Tue Dec 30, 2008 11:15 pm

Man--a lot of folks must have the day off! :D

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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Char-El » Wed Dec 31, 2008 1:01 am

You should check out the new book by Nick Awde called MELLOTRON available at www.deserthearts.com The definitive Mellotron book.

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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by THM » Wed Dec 31, 2008 3:45 pm

Char-El wrote:You should check out the new book by Nick Awde called MELLOTRON available at http://www.deserthearts.com The definitive Mellotron book.

Hadn't seen this book; thanks for the link !!
I'm very fond of the Mellotron as I'm a huge fan of the late 60ies and 70ies Prog Rock bands (Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, a.m.o.) and the so-called Berlin School (Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, etc...) that used it many times.

I just ordered the M-Tron Pro (I own the excellent M-Tron already while the M-Tron Pro may contain some nice new tape loops), maybe when I'll have received it I'll write some short review in the VSE Software forum.
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by V301H » Wed Dec 31, 2008 7:19 pm

The Chamberlin was fairly common in Southern California in the 60's and 70's. Many of the Hollywood studios had them. Occasionally you would see a local band using one on stage. The earlier models were not tunable which limited there appeal somewhat. There was a Prog band in Orange County called Aircastle that used a double side-by-side keyboard Chamberlin to good effect. Three Dog Night hired a guy named Skip Conte to play Chamberlin in the early 70's which can be heard all over their hit "The Show Must Go On". Conte was previously a member of Blues Image. Their hit "Ride Captain Ride" features some prominent Chamberlin sounds. Mike Pinder took to the Chamberlin on the Moody's Seventh Sojourn album. The song "For My Lady" is almost all Chamberlin.

There was another Prog band in Orange County called Gazelle. They were music students at Golden West College in Westminster. Somehow their keyboardist managed to buy a Mellotron Mark II from Mike Pinder who was living in Malibu at the time. Pinder sold three of his Mellotrons around 1975.

In 1973 I saw a Mellotron 300 for sale in a music store a couple of blocks down the street from the Whisky A-Go-Go. These had one long keyboard rather than the two side-by-side keyboards of the Mark I/II. They also had some alternate sounds not standard on other models.

I tried out a Vako Orchestron around 1976. These weren't sold in stores, but by sales reps. In SoCal there were a couple of guys calling themselves Cosmic Keyboards who would demo one at your location if they thought you were a good prospect. I thought the thing sounded terrible and it was about $3500 for a single keyboard model.
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Esus » Wed Dec 31, 2008 7:40 pm

V301H wrote:I tried out a Vako Orchestron around 1976. These weren't sold in stores, but by sales reps. In SoCal there were a couple of guys calling themselves Cosmic Keyboards who would demo one at your location if they thought you were a good prospect. I thought the thing sounded terrible and it was about $3500 for a single keyboard model.
I was in retail music back in the '70s. The store where I worked got a bunch of Chilton Talentmakers. A POS if there ever was one--cheesy lo-fi cha chas, meringues--you get the idea. Anyway, about half the people who bought them brought them back because they were so terrible. Looking back, I should have scored a half dozen at about $100 each and stored them somewhere. Oh well, hindsight is 20/20. #-o

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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by V301H » Wed Dec 31, 2008 7:49 pm

In the 70's we were all looking for the best sound quality. There were advances always being made in recording and stereo equipment. I was looking for an instrument that sounded as good as or better than a Mellotron without the technical problems. This quest for the ultimate sound quality caused many of us to pass on instruments that would later become classic or collectable. If only we could have seen the future of music where sound quality is no longer a major factor.
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Syn303 » Wed Dec 31, 2008 8:16 pm

V301H wrote:I tried out a Vako Orchestron around 1976. These weren't sold in stores, but by sales reps. I thought the thing sounded terrible and it was about $3500 for a single keyboard model.
Funny enough Kraftwerk opted for a Vako Orchestron instead of the Mellotron, which
they used on the albums Radio-Activity (1975) and Trans-Europe Express (1977).
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Mooger5 » Wed Dec 31, 2008 9:25 pm

Kraftwerk still used the Orchestron for the choir on The Model.
I´ve read somewhere that Vako gave them an Orchestron during the Autobahn Tour, and I think it was one of the newer professional models.
The sound quality may have been poor to discerning listeners at the time, but when I first heard Trans Europe Express I was quite amazed at how well they "sang" the choirs on Europe Endless and Showroom Dummies. Well if they´re actually overdubbed "real" voices, I wouldn´t be surprised as I still have some doubts :)
The string section on Radioland is one of my all-time favourite sounds in electronic music. Reminds of old dark atomic-age movie soundtracks and old tube radios. The "low-finess" of the sound really matches the album´s atmosphere.
And the choirs in Radioactivity (the song) and the violins on TEE sound so close to a Mellotron (at least M-tron as it´s what I´m familiar with). People thought for years it was de facto a Mellotron. Could it be the Orchestron sounds were taken from the tapes? It would be cheaper to hire a Mello than a considerable number of musicians to record the sounds, and that would explain the sound quality...
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by V301H » Wed Dec 31, 2008 10:46 pm

The Vocal Choir was the first disk I tried on the Orchestron. It was so fuzzy and indistinct sounding that I asked if it was a Flute. The rep indignantly replied "That's a Vocal Choir!" I said "Oh."
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Mooger5 » Thu Jan 01, 2009 5:24 pm

[youtube][/youtube]
In this video two of the discs are mislabeled. Perhaps it was common? Did you hear the flute disc?
I can hear drums and voices in the background each time the keys are played. Looks like it catches parasite radio signals. But the sound quality is enough so that I´m now sure it was an Orch on Europe Endless :wink: 8) The voice timbres are identical (and clearly not taken from the Mello´s tapes - end of speculation).

BTW the glitches we hear are the point where the loops recycle, right?
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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Char-El » Thu Jan 01, 2009 7:40 pm

I believe I read some time ago that 2 Mellotrons were used to make the Orchestron recordings....fading one in with volume pedal when the other one's tape ran out to get long sustained sound to "loop". But I may also be thinking of the Birotron, Rick Wakeman's toy. I posted last night on GEAR FOR SALE forum...someone had a double manual Orchestron on Ebay (which time ended for last night but you can still see the photos) and had a "buy it now" price of 12 grand!!! And no working disks!!!

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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Char-El » Thu Jan 01, 2009 7:43 pm

BTW- other famous Orchestron appearances are in Foreigner's "Cold As Ice" in the middle section (sounds Mellotron-ish), Gary Wright used it a while.....of course Patrick Moraz on "Story Of i"

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Re: A History of the MELLOTRON

Post by Micke » Thu Jan 01, 2009 7:46 pm

In fact, Ralf Hütter used the Vako orchestron until the first half of the 1981 "Computer World" tour. I'm not totally sure but I think Ralf's orchestron was a model "B" (Edit: or possibly an "A" which apparently looks identical) , the same model as seen in the video posted above.
Last edited by Micke on Thu Jan 01, 2009 8:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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