The History of the Mellotron
story of the Mellotron begins not in Britain, as many people believe,
but across the pond in America. The
germination of the idea that became the Mellotron began when a chap
called Harry Chamberlin was recording his playing of his home organ
onto a portable tape player, so that he could play the recording
back to his friends.
realised that the idea of taping sounds to be played back later
could form the basis of a musical instrument capable of playing
back any sound that could be captured on tape, including other instruments
such as his organ. The
sample playback keyboard had just been conceived by Harry. The
time of this idea? Not the swinging sixties when the Mellotron burst
onto the market, but 1946 shortly after the end of the Second World
worked on his idea for a number of years and in 1948 he released
a device called the Model 100 Rhythmate, which provided 14 loops
of drum patterns. The model was aimed at the home organ market,
and somewhere between four and ten models were produced over two
perceived this product to be a success and followed it up with the
Model 200 keyboard. Approximately 100 models were produced between
1951 and 1959. A significant feature of this model was the ability
to have different banks of sound stored upon the same tape, with
the tape being spooled to switch sound banks.
Figure 1 - Chamberlin Model 200
Model 200 was followed by the Model 300/350 set of keyboards, of
which approximately 200 were produced between 1960 and 1969. Also,
a dual manual organ style keyboard called the model 600/660 was
produced between 1962 and 1969. These new models used 3/8 inch tape
as opposed to the 1/4 inch tape used by previous models. Not only
did this allow more sounds to be stored on the tape, but it was
also a proprietary format that ensured that Harry also got the after
sales market for replacement tapes.
the early sixties Harry hired a salesman called Bill Fransen to
help increase the sales of the machine, which were dogged by a few
problems: Harry had a problem with keeping up with the demand for
the machine; the bank select mechanism was unreliable and had the
habit of mangling the tapes when used; and finally (but importantly
for the Mellotron story) Harry used hi-fidelity replay heads in
the machine, but they were not matched. In other words, the 35 tape
heads used in a particular machine quite possibly had different
characteristics which resulted in uneven sound playback from key
believed that Harry had a wonderful product idea, but he also believed
that Harry was never going to fix the problem with the bank select
mechanism. Its not clear if the following events were with
Harrys blessing or not, but it appears that Bill went out
into the world with two Model 600s with a mission to see if he could
find somebody capable of turning the idea into a commercial success.
ended up in the UK, and was looking for a company who could provide
a supply of matched replay heads in batches of 70.
well jump back in time a little. In 1932 an engineering company
in Aston, Birmingham was setup and run by the Bradley family. The
firm made a range of semi-professional tape recorders and amplifiers.
During the Second World War, the output of the firm switched to
the manufacture of specialist tools for the production of fighter
aircraft at a local factory.
the war, the company no longer had their military contracts to keep
them going, so they set about looking for additional work, and made
a number of items including timing mechanisms, amplifiers and amusement
machines. However, their specialist area was still audio and specifically
the manufacture of tape heads. After the war, the name of the company
was changed to Bradmatics, and was now run by the three sons (Leslie,
Frank and Norman) of the companys founder.
forward again, in 1962, Leslie Bradley of Bradmatics was approached
by Bill Fransen to see if they could manufacture batches of 70 matched
replay heads. Leslie and his brothers were puzzled at this order
as they could not see the point of so many matched heads, and they
asked Bill what they would be used for. Bill
revealed all and showed the brothers the Model 600 and asked them
if they could improve upon the basic design. The answer was an resounding
"yes" and the Bradleys set about doing this, ignorant
of the fact that they were infringing somebody elses designs,
as they thought that the idea was Bills. When
Harry Chamberlin got wind of the turn of events in the UK, you can
imagine that he was none to pleased, and things were a little fraught.
Eventually though, Harry agreed to sell the technology to the Bradleys
for a sum of $30,000. The
Bradley brothers in conjunction with Orchestra leader Eric Robinson
and magician David Nixon formed a company called Mellotronics. The
purpose of the company was to handle the sales and distribution
of the Mellotron. Bradmatics was also renamed Streetly Electronics,
which in effect became the manufacturing outfit of Mellotronics.
in the US, Harry continued to make his own line of machines, albeit
in small numbers, and his designs culminated in the M series machines,
which remained in production until 1981. These final machines had
a much better sound quality than any Mellotron, yet it was the Mellotron
that won the day. The factors in the Mellotrons favour were
the Bradelys drive to make the Mellotron more reliable and
portable, and because they were capable of producing the machines
in larger quantities than Harry could. Also, English bands, were
the main stay of the sixties scene and were usually using English
instruments such as the Mellotron. Thus the Mellotron had the greater
Figure 2 - Chamberlin M Series
big boost to the popularity of the Mellotron was given by a chap
called Mike Pinder, who worked in the Streetly factory testing and
adjusting finished Mellotrons as they came off the production line.
Mike decided that the instrument would be ideal for his new band
and, with the help of Leslie Bradley, purchased a used Mellotron
from the nearby Dunlop factory social club. Mike worked for eighteen
months in Streetly Electronics before his band turned professional.
The name of the band? None other than the Moody Blues. The Mellotron
sound was one of the trademarks of the Moody Blues. Think of "Nights
in White Satin"; its the sound of the Mellotron that
gives the song its haunting, dreamlike quality. The exposure also
did wonders for the popularity of the Mellotron.
first Mellotron was (in a stroke of originality) called the MK I
and was released in 1963. The MK I was basically a copy of the Chamberlin
Musicmaster 600, and was targeted for the home market and had two
35 note keyboards side by side. The left keyboard was used for accompaniments
and rhythms, whilst the right keyboard was used for "lead"
sounds. Only 55 MK Is were built and few of these instruments exist
now, as most were upgraded to MK II status. The MK I shared the
bank switching mechanism of the Chamberlin, along with its ability
of shredding tapes: particularly if you attempted to play any keys
whilst the tapes were spooling to a new bank.
Figure 3 - Mellotron MK1 (with Bill Fransen in
MK II was introduced in 1964, and around 300 were produced between
1964 and 1967, making it the first model (Mellotron or Chamberlin)
to achieve success. Essentially the MK II was a much improved MK
I, with little difference in function or appearance. The MK II was
the instrument used upon most of the classic tracks of the sixties
(and very early seventies), including the opening of one of my favourite
Mellotron heavy tracks: "Watcher of the Skies" by Genesis.
Figure 4 - Mellotron MK II
offshoot of the MK II was called the FX Console, which was built
according to BBC specifications, which were much more demanding
than the original target market of the Mellotrons. The FX machines
had a better signal to noise ratio, a better capstan drive system
and no internal amplifier; they were also painted in "regulation"
BBC Grey. The FX machines had up to 1260 sound effects recorded
over the tapes (remember: 3 sounds per track; 6 banks per tape;
35 keys per manual; and two manuals). The FX Console machines were
used for "spotting" sound effects on programmes, such
as "Doctor Who". Because of the better specifications,
some FX machines found their way back into recording studios, but
fitted with the original MK II sound tapes. The Mellotron installed
at Abbey Road studios (of Beatles fame) was one such machine. Around
sixty FX consoles were produced between 1966 and 1967.
next machine was the Mellotron 300, which was introduced in 1968.
It had a single 52 key manual and was designed to be a smaller and
more "portable" machine (weighing in at "only"
100 Kg). The recorded tapes for the Model 300 were of higher quality
than the original MK I and MK II recordings. However, the tape mechanism
itself was the least reliable of all Mellotrons. Basically the Mellotron
300 used 1/4 inch tapes (with only two tracks and not three) and
self lubricating tape guides, that eventually ran dry. The result
was a fairly high probability of broken tapes. About 60 machines
were produced between 1968 and 1970. One drawback of the Model 300
was that it did not have a pitch control on it, and thus couldnt
be tuned to other instruments.
Figure 5 - Model 300 Mellotron
successor to the Model 300 was called the Model 400 and was the
most successful model in the History of the Mellotron. Produced
between 1970 and 1980, around 1900 Model 400 Mellotrons were produced.
The Model 400 was quite a radical departure, in that the bank changing
mechanism was finally dropped and 3/8 inch tape (and three tracks
per tape) was reintroduced, along with the pitch control that was
dropped from the previous model.
Figure 6 - Mellotron Model 400
Model 400 had a "cassette" mechanism where the tapes where
held in a rigid frame which could be changed when new sounds were
required. This design recognised the need for improved reliability
as more and more people were touring with Mellotrons, and usually
used them in conjunction with other keyboards thus having only three
sounds per tape was deemed to be an acceptable trade-off for the
improved reliability. To change banks, you removed a tape frame
and replaced it with another. Apparently, the experienced user/roadie
could change a tape frame within two minutes, thus changing sounds
in between songs was a possibility.
Figure 7 - Mellotron 400 Tape Frame
Model 400 Mellotron was also significantly lighter at 55 Kg than
other models due to the simplified mechanism and the use of solid
state electronics rather than valves.
Model 400s were prone to slowing down when more than six or seven
notes were played at once as the capstan motor drive system was
not very strong. The same drive system also exhibited a high pitch
whine, which could break into the audio chain.
1973 a model called the 400SM was introduced which had a number
of improvements in the transport mechanism and a far stronger motor
100 Model 400s were supplied in kit form to EMI who made them under
Figure 8 - EMI Mellotron 400
Figure 9 - Mellotron 400 (and Minimoog)
1976 the MK V was introduced, but this could not be considered to
be a commercial success as only 28 units were produced. Essentially
the MK V was two model 400s in a single case, but with a built in
reverb unit and stereo outputs. Either keyboard could be independently
panned between the two output channels.
Figure 10 - Mellotron MK V
during the seventies the company was having a reasonable success
with the Model 400 (and a minor run with the MK V). But then disaster
1977 a deal was struck with an American firm called Dallas Musical
Instruments (DMI) to handle the world wide distribution of the Mellotron.
DMI initially did well and increased the sales of the Mellotron,
but other products in their portfolio were not selling well. DMI
collapsed because of this, owing Mellotronics a small fortune. Mellotronics
also collapsed in turn owing Streetly Electronics a similar amount.
Amazingly, Streetly Electronics (barely) survived this collapse
and continued to make Mellotrons. Unfortunately, they could no longer
call them by this name.
reason for this was because the American liquidators sold off the
rights to the Mellotron and Mellotronics names along with the other
assets to a former employee of DMI, who set up a new company called
Sound Sales to handle the sales of Mellotrons and their sound tapes.
Streetly Electronics couldnt use the Mellotron name and had
to come up with a new name. Thus, the Novatron was "born",
in either Novatron 400 or Novatron MK V guises, although of course
to all intents and purposes they were Mellotrons under a different
Sound Sales could import a Novatron and rebadge it to sell it as
production run numbers of 1900 Mellotron 400s include the Novatron
machines, although its not clear how many of the 1900 units were
Novatrons. However, a Novatron MK V is an extremely rare machine,
as its believed that only three were produced under the Novatron
Figure 11 - Inside a Novatron 400SM
Figure 12 - Novatron 400SM Publicity Shot featuring
mentioned, the majority of Novatrons were just rebadged Mellotron
400SMs and MK Vs, but there was one "new" model made under
the Novatron name following the collapse.
Novatron T.550 was essentially a 400SM Mellotron built into a sturdy
flight case, and was produced between 1981 and 1983, although only
three were ever built. The flight case included space for two tape
frames to be carried in transit.
Figure 13 Mellotron T.550 - Closed
Figure 14 - Mellotron T550 - Open
Electronics continued until 1987, when they finally ceased trading,
having lost the battle to increasingly more powerful synthesisers
and sampling modules. Few machines were made in the eighties and
Streetly Electronics probably survived against all odds for that
length of time due to the after sales market of servicing Mellotrons
and selling new tape frames.
a separate development, Sound Sales produced their own variant of
the Mellotron called the 4-Track, of which four were produced between
1980 and 1983. Externally it was similar to a Mellotron 400, but
had four tracks on 1/4 inch tape and utilised fixed four track tape
heads (as opposed to mono tape heads on other Mellotrons that had
to be moved across the tape to select a track). This meant that
all four tracks could be simultaneously available.
Figure 15 - Mellotron 4 Track
of course the eighties was the digital era. By 1987 systems such
as Emu Systems Emulator II had brought digital sampling within
reach of at least the pockets of professional musicians, and they
were pretty fast to abandon Mellotrons in favour of the more compact
and reliable digital samplers. But,
as the increasing re-use of the Mellotron shows, they also abandoned
what was a pretty unique sound.
of course a new Mellotron, the MK VI, is in production. If you like
the Mellotron sounds that you can now load on your EX, you can actually
go and buy the real thing once more, but hurry, the initial production
run is for thirty units!
Figure 16 - New Mellotron MK VI
So to round of this history, with all of our modern
technology at our disposal, its a testament to the character
of the Mellotron that a taped based sample playback device with
its roots in a fifty four year old idea is making a comeback today.