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Sampling Sixties style

The Mellotron

Article from Music Technology, April 1989

Once considered an instrument no keyboard player should be without, more recently regarded as a mechanical monstrosity, the Mellotron was definitely an early sampler, but was it the first? Dave "Crumbly" Crombie reminisces.

If the sampler and the controversy that surrounds it seems like a peculiarly '80s phenomenon, think again - it all began back in the '60s with the Mellotron.

Novatron 400SM

TODAY ITS "SAMPLING City". Samplers offer higher and higher sample rates, and longer and longer sample times than ever before. They boast sophisticated features like time stretching and compression, and internal hard disks. But how did it all start? Who actually had the idea of taking a recording of an instrument, then building an instrument that played back that recording rather than creating a sound in its own right? Right now you're probably expecting me to say "the guys that made the Mellotron", but in fact they weren't. There was someone and something before the Mellotron.

As we all know, a sampler stores sounds in digital format in computer memory (RAM), and in simplistic terms this data is reconstituted whenever the sampler receives MIDI Note On data, or in the case of a keyboard sampler, whenever someone hits a key. Before digital there was analogue, and of course the storage medium for analogue sounds was tape. So the early samplers were basically glorious, beautiful, mechanical monstrosities, which were in essence tape recorders connected to a keyboard.

The History

BUT LET'S GO back to the Second World War. There were three brothers, Frank, Norman and Leslie Bradley, who had just taken over their father's engineering business in Aston, Birmingham. The company had been manufacturing semi-professional tape recorders and amplifiers, but with the advent of the war, they were commissioned by the War Office to make specialised tools for Castle Bromwich Aero - builders of Hurricane aircraft.

The war ended and the Bradleys changed the name of their company to Bradmatic (not perhaps the most snappy of names by today's standards, but it was in keeping with those times). With no military contracts to keep them going, the Bradleys set about getting whatever work they could. This included the manufacture of all manner of things - timing mechanisms, amplifiers, even amusement machines - but their main product still lay within the audio sphere. It was the manufacture of tape heads.

In 1962 the Bradleys were approached by an American in London to supply a set of 70 matched tape replay heads. This was a somewhat unusual order, as they couldn't see the point in so many matched heads. Curiosity prevailed and the Bradleys decided to deliver the order personally to see what was happening. As it turned out, the tape heads were to be used in a musical instrument - named after its inventor, it was the Chamberlain.

The Chamberlain used basic ideas developed by Laurens Hammond for his successful Hammond organs, whereby a motor drove a shaft onto which were set a number of bevelled disks (tonewheels), which were set against a magnetic pickup and used to generate musical pitches. However, the Chamberlain didn't use tonewheels; instead it used tape - one piece of tape under each key, and as the key was pressed the tape was drawn, by the revolving shaft, over a tape head more on the workings later.

The instrument bowled the Bradleys over. "Why?", you may ask. Well, as the old adage goes, "I suppose you had to be there". Consider what there was in the instrument industry at that time: Fender Rhodes pianos (just), Vox Jaguar organs, Hammond Organs, and a few more esoteric instruments such as the Ondes Martenot, the Theremin and the Clavioline. This instrument, Heath Robinson though it was, was in essence as important a breakthrough as the synthesiser was to become some six to eight years later.

You could put anything you wanted on each piece of tape, and remember, there was one piece of tape for each key, so it was like having a 35-voice sampler something we don't have today.

It was, however, obvious to the Bradleys that Chamberlain didn't have the wherewithal to get the instrument into production, so a deal was struck whereby the Bradleys took up the challenge to turn Chamberlain's original ideas into a working professional instrument.

In September 1962 an advert appeared in the music press asking for financial backers for the project. Amongst the respondents were two extremely well-known entertainers of the time - Eric Robinson, the band leader, and TV magician, personality and famous bald person David Nixon (are all TV magicians bald?). The money was subsequently conjured up, and the company changed its name to Streetly Electronics, moved to a new factory, and in early 1964 the first Mellotron Mk I (renamed after four of the assembly staff, Melvin, Lottie, Ronald and Mark), was launched. Many improvements had been made over the original Chamberlain design, but the Mk I was still inherently unreliable, and really did fail to deliver the goods.

In the spring of 1965 the Mk II became available and this was a considerable improvement over its predecessor, not only in specification but performance. (You might have guessed I was lying about the name above). The Mk II was a dual manual machine with two 35-note keyboards, housed in a rather formidable piece of furniture that Mike Tyson himself would have had trouble shifting. In short, the Mellotron Mk II was a monster - not the kind of instrument to sling in the back of a Vauxhall Cavalier and shoot off to the local club with. It was principally designed for studio or home use; it was definitely not for touring.

The Bradleys had designed the Mellotron along the lines of a home organ rather than a professional "rock" instrument. The two keyboards were split up as follows: the bottom half of the left keyboard was assigned rhythmic duties whilst the upper half of the left keyboard was used for accompaniment. Melody lines were handled by the right-hand keyboard.

The mechanics of the tapes was really utterly fantastic - each key had its own individual piece of tape, so when the key was pressed, around ten seconds worth of tape was drawn over the tape head. But that's nothing. Each tape was 3/8" wide and featured three parallel tracks (A, B and C), so by moving the heads en masse, you could select three different sounds. Consequently, on each ten-second piece of tape there were three audio tracks. To make things even more complicated, six lengths of tape were accurately spliced together so that under each key there was capacity for 18 samples. The bandwidth of each sample was low, say 8kHz, but if you equate that to today's sampler technology, the information stored for one ten-second sample would be around 60kB for three tracks per key - 480kb, for 70 separate sources 33.6Mb, and for six sets of tapes 201 Mb.

So, the Mellotron was a "sampler" but probably not in the strictest sense of the word. Perhaps "sample replay machine" would be a better description.

The Software

THE ACTUAL SOURCE material was "assembled" with the help of backer Eric Robinson, The Eric Robinson Organisation arranged the recording sessions (sampling sessions) for the various instruments incorporated in the Mellotron. Many of the country's leading musicians were sampled, including the likes of comedian and trombone player George Chisholm.

Some of the recordings that found their way into the Mellotron seem to have been a strange foretaste of what was to happen with digital samplers in the late '80s. The Mellotron Mk II rhythm section tapes consisted of whole phrases - each of, say, four bars, and each note would be transposed accordingly, but the phrase might be slightly different, to give you extra flexibility. And it would often be the case that the bottom-most note of the rhythm section would be a coda, written in the same style but used to round off the piece. For example, one coda might run like the end of a Kenny Ball jazz piece with a chorus of "Yeah" punctuating the final beat. Other rhythm tapes bore the titles 'Waltz', 'Afro-cuban', 'Dixieland', 'Jazz Foxtrot' and 'Fast Jazz Bass'.

The accompaniment section had tapes with the names 'Cello and Violin - Moving chords', 'Trombone', Celeste', 'Marimba' and 'Swinging Flutes'.

Of course, there were also more familiar samples, the most commonly heard being the flutes and the strings, but there were also more esoteric ones like 'French Accordion' or 'Mandolin'. Before the Mellotron, the only way to get an actual string sound was to hire in a string player there were no string machines at that time.

The Rise

IT WAS THE Mellotron that cut a path of acceptability for the synthesiser when it arrived some years later. As ever, the big problem area was the Musicians' Union. Using prerecorded tapes of instruments was like a red rag to the MU bull. They saw technology replacing their members - why use a string quartet with four lots of fees when a Mellotron cut recording costs by 75%? The battle lines were drawn.

Nevertheless the Mellotron started to become more widely used. The Beatles each had one, and the Mellotron flutes were immortalised on 'Strawberry Fields Forever'. Most of the top bands in the late '60s used a Mellotron at one time or another, quite simply because, as with most classic instruments, the sound became extremely fashionable for the time.

One person who can lay claim to doing more to promote the Mellotron than anyone else must have been Mike Pinder, of the Moody Blues. He actually worked for Streetly Electronics and managed to come to a mutually beneficial agreement with the Bradleys. The Moody Blues, a Birmingham band, were at that time unknown, and it's generally believed that the Mellotron helped the band acquire their identity. In return, the publicity the instrument received worked wonders for its sales.

The year of 1968 saw the birth of the Model 300 Mellotron, a single manual instrument with 52 keys, but it wasn't until 1970 and the Model 400 that the instrument really came of age. But more trouble lay ahead.

Mellotronics, the newly-formed division of the Eric Robinson Organisation, who marketed the instrument, decided to give the world rights to Dallas Music, who promptly went bust owing Mellotronics a mint. Mellotronics in turn went bust, owing the Bradleys at Streetly Electronics another mint. What this all meant was that the liquidator of Mellotronics sold off all the assets of the company. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up, the name "Mellotron" was sold to an American company. Although the manufacturers of the instrument were still in business, they had lost the rights to their own name. In reply, the Streetly posse came up with the name Novatron.

The first Novatron was the 400SM (which is almost the same as the Mellotron Model 400). This was the most successful version, more so than the two-manual Mk 5. The Model 400/400SM was a single manual instrument with just one set of tapes built in. But by means of a clever design, tapes could quickly be changed over. The release of two screws facilitated the removal of a complete tape rack - somewhat larger than a typical ROM card nevertheless, at around £195, tape racks weren't too expensive.

Figure I - Tape mechanism

Again, 3/8" tape was used, with three parallel audio tracks. Typically, the original tapes would feature strings, brass and flutes, however, the library of tapes was becoming considerable, and of course for a substantial fee you could have your own tapes made up with your own samples. The bagpipes on McCartney's Mull of Kintyre were specially recorded so he could use them to recreate the Pipers at live concerts, and Steve Hackett of Genesis had recordings of his own voice made for early concerts.

Figure I illustrates the basic workings of the instrument: as the key is depressed, the tape is squeezed between a pinch roller and a rotating shaft (this shaft being common to all keys). The tape is then drawn over the tape replay head. When the key is released the tape automatically rewinds and resets.

Problems? There were two main ones. Firstly you could only play a note for around seven seconds, that's how long the tape was; after that the note just died. And you couldn't play the same note over and over again at speed because the tape wouldn't have time to reset. The second problem was that if you played a fistful of notes, the motor wasn't strong enough to maintain the correct tape speed and the pitch of all the notes fell.

The control panel was pretty straightforward, with two knobs, one for volume, the other for selecting which track you wanted. Incidentally, it was possible to set the head to play in between tracks so you could mix two sounds together.

The Mellotron really was a breakthrough as important as the synthesiser, though this wasn't recognised as such in the commercial world. The sound of the Mellotron became associated with several bands - not only the Moody Blues, but also the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Genesis. Other users included Rick Wakeman, Led Zeppelin, ELO, Yes - even Oscar Peterson had one.

The Mellotron was the first instrument that could give a live band an orchestral backing. Consider what a shock it must have been for an audience of the time to hear a full-blown choir emanating from a single keyboard on stage. Although problems with the MU continued, the Mellotron found its way onto television (usually piloted by Mike Pinder with the Moodies) and in the end even the BBC bought a Mk 5, which was loaded up with sound effects. This made "spotting" effects much easier for the studio managers.

Novatron MK5

The Fall

EVERYTHING GOES IN cycles and it wasn't long before the organ industry were producing lowcost string machines that started to become more economical for many players to use. Then came the polyphonic synthesisers and the writing was on the wall for the Mellotron/ Novatron. Mellotronics in the US still exist, and they are currently handling music software, but they also have in hand a new digital Mellotron. Perhaps it would be better if the name was left to rest in peace along with all those pioneering memories of the '60s and '70s. Pass me my walking stick, someone.

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Apr 1989


Vintage Instruments

Gear in this article:

Keyboard > Mellotronics > Mellotron

Retrospective (Gear) by Dave Crombie

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