Harry Chamberlin’s idea for inventing the instrument came from his recording himself playing an organ. He formed the idea of playback music coming from an organ as a source of entertainment. He soon set about designing the first Chamberlin instruments as early as 1949. The intention was for the instrument to function as a home entertainment device for family sing-alongs, playing the Big Band standards of the day. The Chamberlin’s use as a commercial instrument in rock (or rock and roll) music was never given consideration, as Harry Chamberlin generally resented rock music and rock musicians.
The basic Chamberlin has a piano-style keyboard. Underneath each key is an individual tape playing mechanism. Each tape is pre-recorded with various musical instruments or special effects. When the player presses down a key, a pressure pad pushes the tape on to a tape head and a pinch roller beneath the key catches the tape and pulls it forward into storage box, (or on to a roller mechanism). As this occurs the sound of the tape is heard through an amplified speaker. When the player releases the key, the sound stops, and the tape rewinds by either metal spring rods (as on the early Chamberlins) or by a return roller mechanism (as on the later M1 models). Each tape is only a few seconds long (8 seconds on many units).
Harry Chamberlin spent considerable time (usually from sunrise to sunset) experimenting with sound and had converted a walk-in closet as his first home studio. After obtaining the right acoustics in the room and changing the acoustics of other rooms in his house, the first Chamberlin recordings were undertaken. All Chamberlin recordings were contracted and performed by members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra in the late ’40s and throughout the 1950s. Welk was impressed with the idea of a tape playback instrument and offered to fund its manufacture if it was called a “Welk” machine. Chamberlin refused Welk’s offer.
The Chamberlin instruments were designed to accurately replicate the sound of the instrument recorded on the tape. They were also meant to be physically set in one place and not moved around. Because of this, there was less attention paid to making the instrument robust and many early Chamberlins have no internal chassis and are prone to go out of adjustment.
The Mellotron was a precursor of the modern digital sampler. Under each key was a strip of magnetic tape with a recorded sound that corresponded to the pitch of the key (The Mark II had two keyboards of 35 notes each making a total of 1260 seperate recordings). The instrument plays the sound when the key is pressed and returns the tape head to the begining of the tape when the key is released. This design enables the recorded sound to keep the individual characteristics of a sustained note (rather than a repeated loop) but had a limited duration per note, usually eight seconds. Most Mellotrons had 3 track 3/8″ tapes, the different tracks being selectable by moving the tape heads across the tape strips from the front panel. This feature allowed the sound to be easily changed while playing and made it possible to set the heads in between tracks to blend the sounds.
Despite attempting to faithfully recreate the sound of an instrument the Mellotron had a distinct sound of its own that became fashionable amongst rock musicians during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Novatron was a later model of the Mellotron re-named after the original company liquidised in 1977.
Although tape samplers had been explored in research studios, the first commercially available keyboard-driven tape instruments were built and sold by California-based Harry Chamberlin from 1948 through the 1970s.
Things really took off, however, when Chamberlin’s sales agent, Bill Fransen, brought two of Chamberlin’s instruments to England in 1962 to search for someone who could manufacture 70 matching tape heads for future Chamberlins. Harry Chamberlin was unhappy with the fact that someone overseas was copying his idea, and that one of his own people (Bill Fransen) was the reason for this. Fransen approached a UK company that was skilled enough to develop the idea further and a deal was struck with brothers Frank, Norm, and Lesley Bradley of engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. This resulted in the formation of a subsidiary company named Mellotronics, which produced the first Mellotrons in Aston, Birmingham, England. The music sessions for Mellotrons were recorded by the Eric Robinson Organization at IBC Studios, 35 Portland Place in London England. Mellotronics had offices there and the recordings were made using a customized 9 into 3 recording desk built by IBC’s Denis King. Magician David Nixon partly funded it. Manufacturing company Bradmatic later took on the name Streetly Electronics. By the early 1970s 100 of the instruments were assembled and sold by EMI under exclusive license. Many years later, following financial and trademark troubles through a U.S. distribution agreement, the Mellotron name became unavailable and resided with the American based Sound Sales, and later manufactured by Bomar Fabricating Ltd. while Streetly manufactured instruments after 1976 were sold under the name Novatron.
The unique sound of the Mellotron is produced by a combination of characteristics. Among these are tape replay artifacts such as wow and flutter, the result being that each time a note is played, it is slightly different from the previous time it was played, somewhat like a conventional instrument. The notes also interact with each other so that chords or even just pairs of notes have an extremely powerful sound. The type of attack of the pressure pad pushing the tape and engaging the tape head is often considered a characteristic part of the Mellotron sound.
The adjustments of mechanical parts, such as pinch rollers, pressure pads and tape head azimuth, combined with equalization of recordings sourced from different tape libraries make some notes sound brighter or smoother than others. This quality makes each and every Mellotron instrument unique, and is a large factor in why all Mellotrons will sound different in music recordings, despite the same sound (like the 3 violins) being used. The use of tube pre-amplifiers (MK II Mellotron used by King Crimson), transistorized pre-amplifiers (MK II Mellotron used by Moody Blues) or modified instruments (Mellotron MK V prototype used by Yes / Rick Wakeman) also enhances the sonic colours of each instrument.
Another factor in the strangely haunting quality of the Mellotron’s most frequently heard sounds is that the individual notes were recorded in isolation. For a musician accustomed to playing in an orchestral setting, this was unusual, and meant that he had nothing against which to intonate. Thus, the temperament of the Mellotron is always somewhat questionable when it is used in the context of other instruments. Perhaps for this reason, and perhaps also to allow easy transposition of the instrument’s limited range, the pitch control is placed closest to the keyboard on the M400 model.
This temperament issue has led to the Mellotron being regarded, rather unfairly, as a difficult instrument to tune. There certainly could be mechanical problems that would also contribute to this. The original varispeed servo design was poor, for instance, but later improved dramatically. The tapes would stick inside their frames and refuse to rewind if the frame became distorted due to careless handling of the machine. Smoke, temperature, and humidity also played a huge factor as well. Such problems gave rise to Robert Fripp’s widely circulated quote, “Tuning a Mellotron doesn’t.” Properly maintained though, the machines behave a lot better than their reputation suggests.
Although they enabled many bands to perform string, brass and choir arrangements, which had been previously impossible to recreate live, Mellotrons were not without their disadvantages. Above all, they were very expensive: they sold for £1,000 (approximately £14 thousand today) in the mid-1960s, and the official Mellotron site gives the 1973 list price as US$5,200 (approximately $27 thousand today). Like the Hammond organ, they were a roadie’s nightmare – heavy, bulky and fragile. The tape banks were also notoriously prone to breakages and jams and those groups who could afford to, like Yes, typically took two or more Mellotrons on tour to cope with the inevitable breakdowns.
The original Mellotrons (MkI/MkII) were not intended to be portable – they often become misaligned when jostled even lightly – but later models such as the M300, M400 and MKV were designed for portability.
The American Mellotron distributor, Sound Sales, produced their own Mellotron model, the 4-Track, in the early 1980s. At the same time Streetly produced a road cased version of the 400 – the T550 Novatron. By the mid 1980s, both Sound Sales and Streetly Electronics suffered severe financial setbacks, losing their market to synthesizers and solid-state electronic samplers, which rendered the Mellotron essentially extinct.
All models, when installed permanently in a studio, provided a very realistic effect. Many examples abound, such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. Despite their shortcomings, Mellotrons were (and still are) prized for their unique sound, and they helped pave the way for the later sampler.
Many bands such as Counting Crows and The Musical Box have toured using samplers to avoid transporting and maintaining original Mellotrons on the road. The Musical Box, being a tribute band dedicated to visually reproducing early Genesis shows, have taken great pains to hide the fact that they do not use a real Mellotron by hiding a Kurzweil synthesizer in a wooden box made to look like a Mellotron.
Strawberry Fields Forever – Beatles