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Sampling A Vintage

The life story of the original sampling keyboard — the Mellotron.

It was the original sampled keyboard. It was on more records than Bob Geldof. It was big, and white and had funny knobs. It was the Mellotron, and this is David Etheridge.

THIS HAS turned out to be a sad year for aficionados of the great grandaddy of the sampling world — the Novatron. After a 23 year history, the makers of the instrument, Streetly Electronics, were forced into voluntary liquidation and the factory was cleared.

The Novatron first came to prominence in the early 1960s, then known as the Mellotron (yes, now you remember) when an American entrepreneur approached Streetly Electronics with plans for a prototype replay keyboard to be called the Chamberlain. The resulting instrument was unreliable, but with some refurbishing and a new set of financial backers including bandleader Eric Robinson, the Mellotron was born.

It used the medium of ⅜in tape. When each key on the 35 note keyboard was depressed, a length of pre-recorded tape bearing the sound of an instrument at the appropriate pitch was drawn over a replay head and amplified. Any recorded sound was available to purchasers' requirements though the sound only lasted the handful of seconds the strip of tape took to run its course. There'd be a gap while springs whipped the length back to the beginning for another run. Still, in 1963 the instrument was a revelation.

But early Mellotrons didn't stop there. What was offered was a twin keyboard instrument, with its own integral amplifier and speakers — the right hand keyboard also had a spring reverb unit and swell pedal for lead lines. Each tape had three tracks on it, and the sounds could be mixed between the tracks. In addition, the tape had six banks of sounds and each bank could be selected at will by buttons that worked what Streetly Electronics called the 'Station Select Control Unit'. This was an ingenious electromechanical system that ran the tapes on rollers until the required bank was reached, at which point a red light came on to tell you that all was ready. There's more. The left hand keyboard was designated 'Rhythm' and 'Accompaniment', and was subdivided into two sections with tapes giving not just single notes, but entire musical phrases played by jazz bands, light orchestras and the most improbably manic sounding beat group you ever heard in your life. (Even the wiring diagram looked confusing.)

In all there were 54 sounds available to the budding one man band. When both keyboards were played together that's exactly what you got, and the whole technological dream was housed in a wooden case not unlike a Hammond organ. The Mellotron was an osteopath's nightmare weighing in around 3cwt — a four roadie job at the best of times. This didn't stop the BBC buying five of them as sound effects machines for their drama department and the word began to get around. Even Peter Sellers had one and so, believe it or not, did Lord Snowdon.

Amongst the employees at Streetly was a young man by the name of Mike Pinder who left the company after 18 months to join his new group, the Moody Blues. This experience stood him in good stead when touring America as he had to make on-the-road repairs and overhauls to the instruments. When the Moodies bought a secondhand Mellotron for £300 in 1966, it enabled the band to sound bigger and more orchestral than any of their gigging contemporaries. On the road Mike Pinder removed the heavy amp and speakers from inside to lessen the weight. He also replaced the unused accompaniment tapes from the left hand keyboard and put a second set of lead tapes in. As the tapes were only seven seconds long he could then hold chords indefinitely purely by switching between keyboards. Fed into an external amp system the resulting sound could make Ray Thomas' trouser legs flap alarmingly and converted American audiences into religious zealots overnight.

By 1968 the original Mellotron's weight disadvantages were well known, and an interim smaller model, the 300, was introduced with only two lead sounds per tape and a reduced accompaniment section. One of the best known users was Woolly Wolstenholme of Barclay James Harvest who is on record as stating that he had to use a 2kw fan heater on the instrument to get it to warm up sufficiently to stay in tune on gigs. Having said that the instrument still had an alarming habit of going flat when you played too many notes at once as the load of the tapes on the motor drive became too much.

In 1970 the Mellotron 400 was introduced and this one is the beast that we are most familiar with: a single keyboard with just three sounds in a single tape frame (the rollers and selector circuits just didn't stand up to touring unless you were Mike Pinder). Tape frames were easy to change and with the newly burgeoning progressive movement as typified by Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson (all mad keen Mellotron users), it seemed things were set for the future with sales climbing nicely.

Just a few years later further improvements were announced including a new servo motor that solved the temperature and load problems. With such luminaries as Mr Wakeman taking three or more Mellotrons on stage, Streetly introduced the Mark 5 which harked back in some respects to the original instruments. Basically a Mark 5 Mellotron was two 400s in one cabinet with the return of a spring reverb (this time in stereo), volume pedals and improved replay heads. In addition Streetly were now offering factory rebuilt Mark 1 and 2 Mellotrons to Mark 5 specification.

One error had been made in the business side, however — the distribution of Mellotrons worldwide by Dallas Music. In the mid 70s Dallas Music crashed and during the confusion of receivership the trade name Mellotron was sold to an American company who refurbished and repaired the instruments but didn't actually make them. Streetly were still viable however, so after some head scratching the name of the instrument was changed for legal purposes to Novatron.

With the advent of polysynths at the end of the seventies the Novatron began to fall from favour. Rick Wakeman pioneered the Birotron, which used eight track cartridges in continual motion. But with the instrument in constant play mode the wear on both tapes and heads was considerable and the machine never went into large scale production. Novatrons sold at a much reduced level gaining a brief respite a few years ago with the advent of the 'progressive revival' bands such as Pallas and IQ. When the Emulator appeared it seemed to be the writing on the wall for the Novatron.

The Mellotron/Novatron is still in use with several bands, Kurzweil notwithstanding. Patrick Moraz is still employing a Mark 5 and a 400 loaded with all kinds of sound effects and orchestral phrases. But then he is with the Moody Blues. The sound is always distinctive and confirmed fans love the instrument with a passion despite its shortcomings. Just as vintage Hammond organ users keep them serviced and in use and guitar collectors search out early model Gibsons, is there not the case for a 'Mellotron Owners Club' to preserve, use and maintain the instruments?

Les Bradley, former director of Streetly Electronics, is trying to get a new company formed to provide after sales service and new sets of tapes for owners. Any budding entrepreneurs out there prepared to help in this respect? Try one in your keyboard set-up — cheaper by far than a Fairlight and the tape mix of choir and church organ can sound like anything from the Last Night of the Proms to the Second Coming. With such an important place in the history of rock instruments — the Mellotron singlehandedly opened up hitherto unimagined possibilities when it first came out — the Mellotron should not, indeed must not, be allowed to pass unappreciated into the annals of history.

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Jan 1987

Feature by David Etheridge

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