The History of the Mellotron

The 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.

Harry 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 War.

Harry 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 years. Harry 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

The 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.

In 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 to key.

Bill 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. It’s not clear if the following events were with Harry’s 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.

Bill ended up in the UK, and was looking for a company who could provide a supply of matched replay heads in batches of 70.

Now, we’ll 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.

After 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 company’s founder.

Leaping 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 else’s designs, as they thought that the idea was Bill’s. 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.

Back 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 Mellotron’s favour were the Bradely’s 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 exposure.

Figure 2 - Chamberlin M Series

A 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"; it’s the sound of the Mellotron that gives the song its haunting, dreamlike quality. The exposure also did wonders for the popularity of the Mellotron.

The 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 picture)

The 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

An 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.

The 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 couldn’t be tuned to other instruments.

Figure 5 - Model 300 Mellotron

The 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

The 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

The 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.

Early 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.

Around 1973 a model called the 400SM was introduced which had a number of improvements in the transport mechanism and a far stronger motor system.

Around 100 Model 400s were supplied in kit form to EMI who made them under license.

Figure 8 - EMI Mellotron 400

Figure 9 - Mellotron 400 (and Minimoog)

In 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

So, 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 struck……

In 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.

The 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. So, Streetly Electronics couldn’t 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 name. Ironically, Sound Sales could import a Novatron and rebadge it to sell it as a Mellotron!

The 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 it’s believed that only three were produced under the Novatron name.

Figure 11 - Inside a Novatron 400SM

Figure 12 - Novatron 400SM Publicity Shot featuring Patrick Moraz

As 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.

The 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

Streetly 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.

As 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

But of course the eighties was the digital era. By 1987 systems such as Emu System’s 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.

And 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, it’s 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.