Total Recall (Part 15)
Vintage technology strikes back
The Mellotron lives on
Temporarily suspended last month owing to pressures of space, Peter Forrest's definitive directory of analogue synths returns with a special feature. This month we look at a particular favourite in the analogue hall of fame: The Mellotron. Next month, the A-Z resumes from M-Z.
Part 15 - compiled by Peter Forrest
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 including, during the Second World War, machine tools for the manufacture of Spitfire and Lancaster aircraft. After the war, the sons, Leslie, 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 the Chamberlin design had saddled them with. This was achieved 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 Streetly, near Walsall, in the Midlands, under the Bradleys' control, with Bill Fransen's assistance. The Mellotron rapidly became a huge success, 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 an important niche for themselves through the 60s and 70s. 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 short time), had to start afresh with a new name for their product, and eventually came up with Novatron.
All Mellotrons are based on the principle 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. There was also an option available for the 400, which enabled you to record and use your own quarter-inch tapes.
In a foretaste of how samplers evolved, 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 Mellotron's big advantage over the synthesisers of the time was their polyphony, and 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 for the half-second or second it took for the tape to rewind, but the seven or eight seconds the sound lasted for was a cut above the Emulator and Mirage - not to mention Akai's S700 or 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 aftertouch - but no less an authority than Les Bradley says that the design makes this a complete impossibility.
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 as many as eight tapes were engaged for a big chord.
The factors which eventually sunk them were their weight and bulk, the toll touring took on their electro-mechanical system, and their inability to manipulate sounds like a sampler. 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 aficionados like Martin Smith and David Kean, and musician/producers like Mitchell Froom built up. It 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 was released, with tracks by a selection of Mellotron heroes and fans, including Patrick Moraz, Mike Pinder, David Cross and Matt Clifford.
Full product support is available from David Kean, Mellotron Archives, (Contact Details), who bought up all the inventory in America and Britain. During 1994, Martin Smith and Les Bradley's son John have formed Mellotron Archives UK to handle all sales and product support on this side of the Atlantic. Contact telephone number in the UK: (Contact Details).
First launched in Music Technology magazine in 1992, The A-Z of Analogue is compiled by Peter Forrest. It has become a mine of useful information about early synths and their lines of descent, players who popularised their sounds, and the technology which spawned them. In best interactive style, Peter welcomes contributions to his database, helpful information or memories of those involved in the research or development of vintage keyboards.
Parts 1-14 of the A-Z of Analogue can be found in back issues of Music Technology and The Mix, obtainable from our mail order hotline, telephone number (Contact Details). Alternatively, the first half (A-M) of the story has now been anthologised, in a limited edition of 8000 copies published by SuSurreal Publishing @ £8.95.
Peter has kindly given The Mix 30 copies of Part 1 of The A-Z Of Analogue as competition prizes. All you have to do is correctly identify our three mystery vintage keyboards. To make it a little easier (and less ageist), we've included some later synths, and made it multiple choice. In the event of too many correct replies, we will draw 30 winners. In the event of too few, we'll lower the pass mark to two out of three!
|1.||(a) ARP 2600|
|(b) EMS Synthi 100|
|(c) Buchla Music System 3|
|2.||(a) EDP Wasp|
|(b) EMS Synthi AKS|
|(c) EML Electrocomp 500|
|3.||(a) Mellotron MkII|
|(b) Eko Synth P15|
|(c) Fender Rhodes 73|
Re:Mix #6 Tracklisting:
17 Mellotron Sounds
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #6.
Feature by Peter Forrest
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