The Mellotron is an instrument that is revered by its many fans and thought incomprehensible by those that have embraced the convenience and flexibility today's polysynths.
History of the Mellotron
Reproduced from the Peter Forrest article with kind permission from Martin Smith and John Bradley of Streetly Electronics www.vemia.co.uk/mellotron
In 1932, Leslie C. Bradley set up an engineering firm, which his three sons joined as they left school. They made a variety of products that included, during the Second World War, machine tools for the manufacture of Spitfire and Lancaster aircraft. After the war, the sons, Les, Frank and Norman, continued as Bradmatic Ltd., electro-mechanical engineers - only a few hundred yards from Aston Villa football ground.
They were contacted by Bill Fransen, an American who had come over to London hoping to improve on the production process of the Chamberlin (q.v.), and produce large quantities of them for the mass market. They ended up building their own versions of the machine with backing from bandleader, radio celebrity and entrepreneur Eric Robinson (plus magician David Nixon).
Mellotronics, the firm Robinson created for the purpose, recorded quarter-inch master tapes in London, and Bradmatic converted them into the unusual 3/8" format they had saddled themselves with in borrowing the Chamberlin design, using a unique double-decker tape transport that Les Bradley invented and developed. Meanwhile, production of the instruments themselves, which they called the Mellotron, went on in the newly-converted factory in the Midlands town of Streetly, near Walsall, under the Bradleys' control, with Bill Fransen's assistance.
The Mellotron rapidly became a huge success, with its unique sounds outweighing its sometimes poor reliability, its bulk and considerable expense. The Beatles were total Mellotron converts, Led Zeppelin and the Stones got in on the act as well, and a whole new genre of music sprung up, fuelled by bands like King Crimson, Barclay James Harvest and the Moody Blues, whose keyboard player Mike Pinder had worked at Streetly for eighteen months before going professional and featuring the Mark II (bought from the nearby Dunlop factory social club..) as his main instrument. Mellotrons were never going to be a really mass market instrument, but they carved out a vitally important niche for themselves through the sixties and seventies.
Disaster struck, however, in 1977. Dallas, the firm that handled Mellotron distribution in the USA, went bust, and eventually brought Mellotronics down with them. In a devastating liquidation blunder, the inventory and the rights to the name were sold to an American firm, who had been servicing Mellotrons but not manufacturing them. The Bradleys, who were now trading as Streetly Electronics (having also been Mellotronics Manufacturing, part of the Eric Robinson Organisation, and also Aldridge Electronics for a shorttime) had to start afresh with a new name for their product, and eventually came up with Novatron.
All Mellotrons are based on the principal invented by Harry Chamberlin, where each key simply sets a length of tape in motion, playing back whatever was recorded on the tape. They were thus the predecessors of sample playback machines. User sampling wasn't impossible, either - but generally involved recording what you wanted and sending it to the Mellotron factory to be converted into a rack of tapes for your machine.(At least one machine was built which actually recorded as well as playing back some of the tapes, but it never went into commercial production; and there was also an option available for the 400 which enabled you to record and use your own quarter-inch tapes
Early Mellotrons would have a bank of backing tracks and percussion tracks, like loops today, as well as multi-sampled lead/chordal instruments. You'd even get little bursts of applause or other ambience on some of the tapes - including Bill Fransen's 'Yeah!!' at the end of the Dixieland rhythm track.
The Mellotrons' big advantage over the synthesisers of the time was in their polyphony, and in the comparative fidelity of their sounds. Later on, they also managed to put up a good fight against early samplers, first by providing better fidelity, and then in the size of their 'memory' - you would have needed a huge amount of onboard memory to have sampled the equivalent amount of sounds on, say, a Mellotron Mark II, at a similar bandwidth. Okay, you couldn't re-trigger a sound until the tape had rewound, but the seven or eight seconds the sound lasted for was a cut above the Emulator and Mirage - not to mention Akai's S700 and Roland's S10.
Some people claim the possibility of making the sound of any one note a little brighter and louder by pressing down hard on the key - a sort of primitive polyphonic after touch - but no less an authority than Les Bradley says that this would only have happened on an instrument that was so badly out of alignment that the overall signal-to-noise ratio would have been poor.
All Mellotrons had at least two and usually three tracks side by side on the tape for each note, and all the earlier models also had six sets of tracks one after the other on each tape. You could make the Mellotron fast-forward or rewind to get to the bank you wanted. While the technology to do this was a vast improvement on the Chamberlin, it still had its problems, particularly with the 300. Other problems concerned the difficulty of building a motor that wasn't prohibitively heavy or expensive, but still had enough torque to cope with maintaining speed when suddenly, say, eight tapes were engaged for a big chord.
The factors which eventually sunk them were their weight and bulk, thec omparative unreliability of an electro-mechanical system once it was subjected to the rigours of gigging, (particularly in having to withstand changes of temperature and humidity in being loaded and unloaded at venues) and their inability to manipulate sound like a sampler can. In 1986, Streetly went down, and an era ended. Appeals to music business celebrities to rescue the firm had gone unheeded, and three or four years went by before a groundswell of interest and enthusiasm from Mellotron fans like Martin Smith and David Kean and musician / producers like Mitchell Froom built up, and meant that these wonderful dinosaurs of the electric music world were not going to be allowed to become extinct.
In 1993, The Rime of the Ancient Sampler CD (VP141CD) was released, with tracks by a selection of Mellotron heroes and fans - Matt Clifford, Bill Nelson, Mike Pinder, Patrick Moraz, Gordon Reid, Sheila Maloney, Blue Weaver, Derek Holt, Nick Magnus, Woolly Wolstenholme, Ken Freeman, Martin Smith, David Cross, Chris Taylor, David Kean, Julian Colbeck, and David Etheridge. The CD also includes an extremely amusing taste of the 1964 Mellotron demonstration disc.
Users include (actual model unknown): Don Airey, Gregg Allman (briefly), Rod Argent, Ken Ascher (John Lennon: 'Mind Games'), Brian Auger / Julie Driscoll 'This Wheel's on Fire', Tony Banks, Beach Boys, Beatles (Strawberry Fields Forever and throughout The White Album) - sold at Abbey Road sale in 1980, Cocteau Twins, Julian Colbeck, David Cross / King Crimson ('Epitaph', etc.), Crowded House, Simon Dupree, Earthstar, Electric Light Orchestra, Brian Eno ('From the Same Hill'), Bob Ezrin (Lou Reed: 'Berlin'), Larry Fast, Robert Fripp, Mitchell Froom, Genesis, Steve Hackett, Jimi Hendrix ('The Burning of the Midnight Lamp' - choir effects), Simon House / Hawkwind, King Hussein, J-M Jarre, Billy Joel, Elton John ('Daniel' and 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'), King Crimson ('Epitaph'), Lenny Kravitz ('Fields of Joy'), Led Zeppelin ('Stairway to Heaven' â€“ flute sounds at beginning; strings on 'The Rain Song'), Howard Leese / Heart, JohnLennon - in private studio - probably Mark II (intro to Bungalow Bill and other things on White Album), Julian Lennon, Patrick Leonard, Nick Magnus, Manfred Mann ('Ha-ha Said theClown' and 'Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James'), Princess Margaret, Marillion, Dave Mason ('Hole in my Shoe'), Maximum Sound Studios (1970), Meat Beat Manifesto, Moody Blues, Patrick Moraz, Graham Nash / Hollies (1967), Mike Oldfield (the Strawberry Fields machine, recently sold back to Paul McCartney, reportedly for Â£10,000), Felix Pappalardi (Cream: 'Doing the Scrapyard Thing'), Oscar Peterson, Pink Floyd, Andy Richards, Eberhard Schoener, Peter Sellers, Rolling Stones ('2000 Light Years From Home'), Spooky Tooth, Keith Spring, Tomita, John Tout / Renaissance, Vangelis, Rick Wakeman (on 'Space Oddity'), Blue Weaver / Strawbs, Wings, Stevie Winwood / Traffic 1967, Robert Wyatt ('Ruth is Stranger than Richard' and 'Rock Bottom'), Yes.