The Rime Of The Ancient Sampler
The Mellotron: A Historical Perspective
A new album from Voiceprint, The Rime Of The Ancient Sampler, is both a celebration of the Mellotron as well as a meeting of some of the best known users of the instrument. David Etheridge looks at the past, present and future of the world's first ever sample playback instrument.
It's interesting how opinions have changed over the past few years. From being regarded as a piece of junk by many (a pox on them and their VLSI chips), with horrendous tales of unreliability, lack of spares, limited playing time and more, the Mellotron is now undergoing a renaissance in the minds of many musicians... and about time too. Just as a 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost has no comparison to today's tin boxes on wheels, so the Melly is the keyboard to play, to record, and to use. IQ's Martin Orford once described it as "the Gibson Flying V of the progressive movement".
But I'm getting ahead of myself. How did this wondrous machine come about? Sit down, put on any suitable music by Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, or the Moody Blues (especially the Moodies) and we'll explore the story...
In Aston, Birmingham, just after the war, Norman, Frank and Les Bradley ran a company by the name of Bradmatic, which manufactured all manner of electro-mechanical items: amplifiers, timing mechanisms, even amusement arcade machines. Their first love was audio in the shape of tape recorders, and later on their specialisation in making tape heads.
In 1962, the Bradleys received a curious order for 70 matched tape heads from Bill Fransen, an American entrepreneur then living in London. Why so many? Curiosity won out, when Bill Fransen invited them down to London to see the product. This was the Chamberlain — named after Harry Chamberlain, who had undertaken the preliminary development work in the USA. (Even today, Chamberlains are jealously guarded by their owners in the States.) This was a tape-based instrument, using each note of a keyboard to push a length of tape over a replay head and causing a sound to be heard, by using a motor-driven spindle and pinch rollers. Since any sound that could be recorded could obviously be replayed, the whole concept was a total revolution in musical instrument technology. Consider the opposition at the time: early electric pianos, the cheesy Vox organs that would captivate Elvis Costello in later decades, some Hammond organs, and a lot of really naff keyboards (are you old enough to remember the Phillips Philicordia? It was as bad as the name implies).
However, despite its potential, the Chamberlain had a few design drawbacks. The main difference from a Mellotron being that all the components were bolted to the cabinet, with no interior framing. If the cabinet flexed, things went out of alignment, and it was fundamentally unreliable as regards pitching stability. While some Chamberlains were produced in small numbers, the real work was yet to be done by the Bradleys.
In September 1962 the brothers placed an advert in a local music paper to attract backers for the project, and almost immediately struck gold in the shape of Eric Robinson — band leader, musical all-rounder, and programme presenter on the Light Programme (a sort of musical Jimmy Young).
With Eric Robinson's contacts, the musical and recording side of things were in the bag, leaving the production to the Bradleys, who moved their business to Streetly, near Walsall. Mellotronics (from MELOdy and elecTRONics) Limited was the music, recording and marketing side of the business, firstly based at Market Place in Mayfair and working in conjunction with IBC recording studios, then later at premises in Portland Place (just across the road from the BBC), which also housed its own recording studio for production of the master tapes.
Much time was spent in recording sessions with well known musicians of the time, the resulting master tapes being sent up to Streetly for assembly and duplication on an extraordinary 'double deck' tape machine. By late 1963 the first Mark 1 Mellotron was ready; even though many improvements had been made during the development stage, there were still problems with tuning and reliability, as each tape for the instrument was 42 feet long and only 1/8" stretch over this length was permissible (any more and tuning went out of the window!). It took nearly three months just to produce the first set of tapes, so it was only in 1964 that the improved Mark 2 was produced. Let's have a look at this in a little more detail.
This is the large machine that you'll have seen in early Genesis and Moody Blues photos. Looking like an even larger version of a Hammond organ, with a luxurious rosewood finish, and weighing in around 3cwt, the Mellotron was originally marketed at the home keyboardist. With twin 35-note keyboards, each note could play any of three selected tape sounds, recorded on 3/8" tape. The left hand keyboard was split half way along, and featured the Rhythm and Accompaniment sections. The sounds here were complete musical sections in a variety of styles (see the accompanying panel for Mark 2 sounds). The right hand keyboard played the lead sounds, which were single (monophonic) notes. In addition, not only could the select buttons choose each of three sounds, but two extra buttons were provided for combinations of sounds (guitar/organ, violins/saxes). There were large rotary controls for volume of each section, varispeed, and reverb — a 'spring'-based unit acting on the lead (right hand) keyboard only. Further pushbuttons could select no less than six different banks of sounds, and each Rhythm and Accompaniment bank was in a variety of useful keys (Banks 1 and 2: C; Bank 3: E-flat; Bank 4: F, etc).
When you switched the Mellotron on (via an 'ignition key'), two small red lights (no LEDs in 1964) lit up to announce that you were ready to go. The lights went out when you changed Banks, only lighting up again when the required Bank was ready to play. If you tried to play while changing Banks, you'd break the tapes!
Sooner or later, curiosity made you look inside the beast. If you thought the circuit diagram looked forbidding, the inside was even more so! There was a multi-valve preamp behind the control panel, with trim pots for each section, and interior connections were by TV coax cable plugs and sockets. At the far left was the flywheel, connected to the rotating shaft that drew the tapes over the replay heads. Each key on the 35-note keyboard had its own pinch roller and felt pad. The pinch roller squeezed the tape onto the motor-mounted shaft and ran the tape, while the felt pad pushed the tape onto the replay head. Individual screw adjustment was used for volume and tape wow on each key, so roadies "had to have an A-level in Meccano" to understand a Mark 2 Mellotron!
But what was this behind the keyboard? A roller? Actually, two of them were built in to mount the tapes, as each tape was 42 feet long (six Banks of sounds, seven seconds per sound running at a tape speed of 7.5 inches per second). The rollers were motor-driven and connected by a bicycle chain, so that they kept totally in sync when revolving. To select the Banks, there was a Bank select tape separate from each keyboard that ran over another replay head. A pulse tone was recorded at the points where each Bank began, and this stopped the motor at the relevant point (the earlier Chamberlain had punched holes in the sync tape; if the contacts touched inadvertently, the results were usually disastrous). Two relay boxes below acted as 'Station select control units', allowing you to 'cycle' (remember those chains!) between Banks.
Around the back there was a large removable panel, and here you could see the tape frames with return springs on each note. There was also the main power supply with a built-in voltmeter, 10 Amp fuses for all circuits, and stereo amplifiers (one for each keyboard) driving Wharfedale loudspeakers. Further coax and pillar connectors were provided for external speakers (although you need a 10 kOhm resistor for direct injection usage). At the front was a pedal for the spring reverb.
As you can imagine, the Mellotron was not the kind of instrument you could throw in and out of the back of a Transit easily. The Moody Blues' Graeme Edge told me that it was a case of "all hands to the Mellotron" on gigs. With all those valves, you had to be careful not to bash it around.
For those who did understand the Mellotron, it was probably just as reliable as any other keyboard of the day. Mike Pinder understood the Mellotron very well, and is the man who started us all off with his work in the Moody Blues. Fortunately, he worked for Streetly Electronics for 18 months before joining the band, and when the Moodies bought a secondhand Mark 2 for £300 in 1966, he had the necessary knowledge and experience to make repairs on the road. He certainly coaxed sounds from the Melly in the studio that no-one else has achieved either before or since.
The first person to use the Mellotron on the road was the legendary Graham Bond, with the Graham Bond Organisation. He came across one at the Hammond office in Paris, and was soon using Mellotron and Hammond organ through both Leslie cabinets and Wurlitzer trumpet horns to devastating effect. Mind you, he's reputed to have lifted a Hammond organ around on his own, so the weight might not have been a problem to him!
Other musicians started using the Mellotron as the instrument grew fashionable: The Beatles' 'Strawberry Fields' is the obvious example, but also Manfred Mann, the Rolling Stones, and many other bands of the mid '60s. It was not only musicians who were attracted to the Mellotron — actor Peter Sellers owned one, and after showing it to some folks who lived at Kensington Palace, Lord Snowdon ended up with one.
King Crimson used a Mark 2 on their first album, later selling it on to Tony Banks of Genesis [who used it to stunning effect on the opening sequence of 'Watcher Of The Skies', from the early Genesis Live album - Ed]. With the rigours of touring, the frames inside went out of alignment, and Genesis' own Mark 2 ended up being filled with blocks of wood to jack the works back up into line. Eventually, according to Tony Banks, the Mark 2 was having to be rebuilt after every gig, so it was probably with some relief that he switched to a Model 400 in 1973 for the Selling England By The Pound album.
The BBC soon decided that the Mellotron was what they were after for triggering spot sound effects in radio drama productions, as the Mellotron could provide 1260 different effects (70 notes, three sounds per note, six Banks each). They bought five of them!
By 1968 the need was felt for a smaller version, not quite so back-breaking in usage, and so the Model 300 was produced. This had a 52-note keyboard with only two sounds per note, on 1/2" tape. Sounds were changed by an electro-magnetic selector rather than the mechanical system employed on the Mark 2, and a Hammond model spring reverb was fitted. All the sounds on the Model 300 were brand new recordings of instruments, and differ from those on both the Mark 2 and the later Model 400.
Whereas on the Mark 2 the keyboard ran from G to F in each case (35 notes), here you were presented with a 52-note keyboard (19 of which controlled the Rhythm tracks) beginning at A. The first three notes were diminished chord phrases. Then came a full octave (C-C) of Rhythm tracks, as on the Mark 2, and the last three notes (C sharp, D, D sharp) were percussion tracks. The lead sounds then commenced at the next note, E, extending up two octaves and a sixth to C.
Woolly Wolstenholme of Barclay James Harvest was the most noted user of this model, but it was not without its problems. The main one was in the tape rollers at the bottom of the frames, which were replaced on the Model 300 by Fluon guides. Unfortunately, the lubricating properties of the Fluon didn't last not only causing the tapes not to return properly and filling them up with static, but also hanging them up when changing Banks. Woolly Wolstenholme solved the latter problem by only using the string sounds on his 300; he's also on record as saying that he had to put a 2kW blow heater on his Mellotron for an hour before gigs, to warm it up and get everything running smoothly. What was really needed was an even more basic model, and in 1970 it appeared: the single manual Model 400.
This is the Mellotron that readers are probably most familiar with: a single manual model, with a 35-note keyboard, and just three sounds on an easily removable tape frame (just undo four screws and out it comes). With no onboard amp or speakers, the 400 could be moved around easily by just two people, and a change to circuit boards and transistors rather than valves altered not only the sound, but also the reliability. Easy controls — Volume, Tone, Varispeed, three position sound select button, and On/Off switch — and a wide variety of tape frames with the most popular sounds were available. While the synths of the time were monophonic, the Mellotron would give you up to 35 notes of polyphony without any trouble. Without any trouble? Not necessarily. The earlier models were fitted with the CMC10 motor, and the varying torque on the shaft from the notes played could cause the pitch to vary. By 1974 a new SMS2 motor was fitted, rock steady at most temperatures, and silent in operation.
By this time the Mellotron was well established, with a list of users reading like a 'who's who?' of rock in the '70s: Yes, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Argent, ELO, Tangerine Dream, Hawkwind, Greenslade, Tomita, and many others worldwide.
By 1974, in answer to musicians like Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz who were using two or more Mellotrons, there appeared the Mark 5. Essentially two Model 400s in one box, weighing a hefty 300lbs, there were also a few more developments. Back came the spring reverb (in stereo this time), independent high or low level outputs and panning controls, and the control panel was placed in front of the keyboard. The flat top allowed you to place the customary two Minimoog synths on top.
Problems beset the Mellotron in the 1970s. The Musicians Union made noises and attempted to have the instrument banned (some things never change, do they?), although many bands appeared on BBC TV's Old Grey Whistle Test using them, and Mike Pinder used two on a documentary about the Moody Blues. There was more... Mellotronics had licensed worldwide distribution to Dallas Music, and when that company went to the wall in October 1977 with a considerable sum owing to Mellotronics, the effect on the company was fatal.
In the winding-up order, the Mellotron name was sold in error by the official receiver to an American company who serviced and repaired Mellotrons but didn't actually make them. (The last I heard of Mellotron Digital was in the mid '80s, when they were producing Fairlight-type instruments.)
While Streetly Electronics were still a perfectly viable company, they were legally prevented from calling a Mellotron a Mellotron, so their product's name was changed to Novatron.
With the advent of polyphonic synths, the Novatron fought a gallant rearguard action, including a drop in prices between 1979 and 1983. Sales were still healthy up to the beginning of the '80s, with more improvements: a noise gate was fitted, and the last model (the T550, a flightcased version of the 400) developed. In addition, Streetly would upgrade earlier Mark 2s to full Mark 5 spec, and would also make up tapes from your own masters. A 1/2" tape conversion kit was also available for you to make your own tapes.
With a brief Indian summer of use in the 'progressive revival' bands of the early '80s (notably Pallas and IQ), the Mellotron sounds lingered on, even more telling compared to the first samplers that were emerging. Compare a Mellotron/Novatron to an Emulator 1 and you won't believe how terrible the Emulator sounds by comparison.
Having supplied many tapes and favours to some of the industry's most famous musicians, the company wrote around appealing for help. None was forthcoming, and at the beginning of 1986 Streetly Electronics went into voluntary liquidation. And so, after 23 years and some of the most innovative music of our time, that was that.
While most musicians guarded their Mellotrons and looked after them as best they could, others tried to see if there was any way of attempting to get any service or spares going again. A few approaches were tried; a few months before Streetly Electronics folded, one owner wrote to Les Bradley proposing a Mellotron Appreciation Society. Understandably, the company had other things on its collective mind in 1986, so nothing came of it. For a couple of years, things remained quiet. Les Bradley's collection of Mellotrons and the double-deck tape machine went to the Science Museum — a fitting tribute, but perhaps the final nail in the coffin. Or was it?
In 1989, Martin Smith was looking to buy a Mellotron. He had originally met Les Bradley way back in 1970, after discovering that he lived only three miles away from where his favourite instrument was manufactured. As a keen devotee of progressive rock (most Melly fans are) the Mellotron was synonymous with the music and the whole vibe of the era.
Martin met Les Bradley again in 1989, and, over the proverbial conversation in the pub with Les and his son John, heard the full story of the end of Streetly Electronics. Martin got his Mellotron via Les, and after four pints of Marston's Pedigree made the suggestion that was going to change his (and probably many other Melly owners) life: 'Why don't we make a Mellotron album?'. Fine — but how to go about it?
Martin phoned up BBC Pebble Mill in early 1990, and asked for the phone number of Dave Greenslade, keyboard player and former Mellotron user in the band that bore his name. The Beeb duly obliged, and when Martin put the idea to Dave, the answer was a resounding 'YES!'. As it turned out, Dave has been too busy on other projects to contribute as yet, but Martin hopes for future contributions from this most pivotal of characters in the story.
Encouraged by Dave Greenslade's reaction, Martin chatted to Gordon Reid, the visible side of CEDAR Audio and a Mellotron fan. When he mentioned the idea of the album. Gordon suggested he talk to Nick Magnus, keyboard whizz on Steve Hackett's solo albums of the '70s and past member of The Enid. Nick obliged with a whole host of contacts and Mellotron owners. Almost everyone said yes, the notable exception being a certain famous 'caped crusader'. By this time Martin was encouraged enough to start the project off in earnest
With Martin driving a white Mellotron 400 around in a van from one musician's studio to another, tracks began to be assembled and recorded. When not using musicians' own studios, much help and time was given by Grosvenor Studios in Birmingham, whose owner was a long-time friend of Les Bradley. Blue Weaver (Strawbs), Bill Nelson (BeBop Deluxe), Derek Holt (Climax Blues Band), David Cross (King Crimson) were all recorded in this way, with Nick Magnus providing some genuinely accurate samples of Mellotron sounds for those musicians unable to get hold of a Mellotron. The samples were taken from Martin Smith's own Mark 2 and Steve Hackett's Model 400.
Throughout 1991 further contacts were made and tracks recorded: Gordon Reid; Matt Clifford (GTR, Asia, and currently The Rolling Stones); Brian Chatton (keyboardsman with Flaming Youth, a natty little combo who's drummer joined Genesis: Mr. Phil Collins himself); Ken Freeman (inventor of the Freeman string synth in the '70s); Chris Taylor (Central TV session player); Julian Colbeck (yes, him too); and David Kean, who restores and supplies tapes for Mellotrons in the USA (he gigs with three of them!).
In 1991 I had sold my Mark 2 Mellotron, but as a result of this Martin turned up on the phone (probably wondering who this nutter was who had just sold a priceless relic). I gave him all the contacts I could (including Moodies contacts from the time I played bass to Graeme Edge's drums in Robin Lumley's jazz rock band. Confused? I am too). From here, Martin came up with the ultimate in credibility for a Mellotron album: the boss himself, Mr. Mellotron — none other than Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues!
While Mike Pinder is the founding father of all Mellotron players, Martin struck gold very soon afterwards when Patrick Moraz (Yes, Moody Blues) agreed to provide a track for the album. Both Moodies keyboard players on a Mellotron album! But in 1992 one further scoop was obtained: Woolly Wolstenholme of Barclay James Harvest, Mellotron player extraordinaire (he once owned four of them), offered an unreleased track from a later (post-BJH) solo album project that was never completed. The Melly triumvirate complete, there was no doubt that the projected album would feature all the musicians of stature in the Mellotron's history.
The musicians were ready — so what about a label? Most record companies didn't want to know. One A&R head did go overboard for the idea, but then their 'special projects' section vetoed the plans, having lost a mint on another entirely different project. Enter Robert Fripp, another pivotal musician in the Mellotron's history...
Although currently too involved with the League Of Crafty Guitarists to participate himself (though we live in hope), Robert supplied contacts both here and in the States. Finally, Voiceprint accepted the challenge and have not only released the CD, but are also planning a limited edition vinyl double album release for people like me who don't own a CD player.
Currently, all the above musicians (plus Martin Smith himself) have contributed to The Rime Of The Ancient Sampler, which is the first of a series of Mellotron-based projects, with Alan Freeman (yes, dear old Fluff) providing the sleeve notes. Further musicians are being approached: Tys van Leer of Focus, David Bedford, and Anthony Phillips (Genesis' original guitarist) are the latest candidates for tracks.
Here's the story so far: the Mellotron hasn't died, but been in hibernation for a few years. Plans are in hand for a limited run of Model 400s, with Dolby noise reduction amongst other goodies. In the USA, David Kean is producing new tapes for existing machines, for Mellotrons are very long lived — no matter what you might have heard of their reliability in the past. Outlines for a TV documentary are being considered by various TV companies, but the current emphasis on 'youth' programmes has meant that they've remained only an outline so far.
But much remains. Many instruments are being dusted off and sent to Martin Smith and John Bradley for servicing and restoration. Once serviced, they're as good as new, and in a studio setting, with today's effects processors, they've never sounded so good on tape. The music on Rime Of The Ancient Sampler shows off the Mellotron in its rightful context in modern MIDI systems, and how effective it can still sound. It also proves triumphantly that the sounds and styles that featured the Mellotron were, for many people, the true 'Golden Age of Rock and Roll'. I'm amongst those fans; but then I'm a Mellotron fan, too.
Thanks are due to the following for info and assistance on Mellotrons over the years: Dave Crombie, Graeme Edge, Patrick Moraz, Rod Argent, Nick Magnus, Kerry Minnear, Harry Shapiro, Robin Lumley, Martin Smith, and of course Les Bradley.
Feature by David Etheridge
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