The Novatron Revisited
Article from Electronics & Music Maker, February 1983
An instrument which has shaped today's electro-music
Digital technology may be the latest musical preoccupation, but it's as well to remember that the pioneers of electronic music used simple analogue units, tape and disc players and electromechanical rather than electronic wizardry to achieve their amazing effects. Stockhausen, Varese and many others produced their innovative concrete music by manipulating taped natural sounds, and it was quickly realised that an instrument which could arrange such sounds musically could perform a compositional function for years to come. Thus the Mellotron was born, and continues today under the name Novatron to offer the sounds of real instruments and effects to the keyboard player.
In addition to its rich sounds, the Mellotron offered the only versatile source of polyphonic music other than piano, organ and string synth and so was adopted by hundreds of experimental musicians. Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk became established not so much on the strength of their electronic experiments as on the way in which these were integrated with the powerful, romantic sounds of the Mellotron.
Adapted for the BBC as a specialised sound effects store with added bands of tape and a dual keyboard, the Mellotron had an important part to play on Radio and TV for many years. Contractors to the BBC during this period were Streetly Electronics, the original designers and manufacturers of the Mellotron and now of the fully compatible Novatron. Leslie Bradley of Streetly summarised the history of the machine and its present applications for E&MM.
"Many people consider the Novatron or Mellotron in a rather jaundiced light today. Comparing it to modern state of the art synthesizers it does at first look that way. Synthesizers are wholly electronic and the only moving parts are keys and controls, whilst the 'Tron is basically mechanical action linked with electronics.
Well, so what! A car is sheer mechanics with more and more electronics hung on to it — fitted with a magneto it will run without any electrics or electronics — the point is today we hang more and more electronics on to them. So, let us examine the Tron more closely. Its sounds are derived from special tape of non-standard width, each tape having 3 tracks played via a 35 note keyboard. Virtually any musical instrument can be recorded, thus providing real sounds of instruments, which is the point we hit in our advertisements.
Most readers will know that tapes are mounted on frames which are quickly exchanged in the unit so that many different selections of instruments may be available.
The most popular of all the tracks available are the choirs. Show me the synth which can give you chords of real voices and at a cost of less than a 'grand'. There is no such animal, and you have to part with a lot of hard earned bread to get a pretty sickly imitation.
We would like to make a further point which many keyboard musicians appear to have missed. When the Moody Blues produced their album Long Distance Voyager several real orchestral passages, bridges and links were recorded and mixed in to great effect. Patrick Moraz, with his broad minded approach, looked for a way to obtain the same mixture of sound during his tour of the U.K. and America. How did he do it — with a Novatron, no less. We transferred the studio orchestral material to sets of tapes and during stage shows Patrick merely had to press the appropriate key at the right moment and 'presto', the L.P. sound was coming from the stage — orchestra and all.
Virtually any sounds, musical or otherwise, may be transferred to the Novatron. Paul McCartney asks us to supply him with recordings of bagpipes, frying chips, excerpts from his albums and other assorted effects. Timed carefully and fitted, the Tron gives you instant access to the sounds which come out right on the nose when you bang the key.
Music, sound effects, short jingles, applause, laughter are all the same to the Novatron — it does not mind at all! The Model 400 whether called a Novatron or a Mellotron accepts the same tapes and frames. As mentioned earlier, we use a non-standard width tape on the unit, but we can supply you with tape guide conversion kits which enable you to use 2-track ¼" standard tape at 7½ ips, so you can record your own tracks and install them.
We are currently supplying a number of units with ¼" tape format to overseas broadcasting corporations for use purely as a sound effects source. By using several keys in sequence complicated multiple effects may be built up as required.
Shall I go on? Who says the Novatron is old fashioned?"
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