The Hardware: The Mellotron

The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks

Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTube demo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? 🙂

I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.

Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…

Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! 🙂 This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‘swinging flutes’ and, towards the end of the song, ‘piano riff’ settings.

U.S. picture sleeve of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, released as a double A-side single with “Penny Lane” in February 1967

I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. 🙂 And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!

Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.

The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Sound explains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.

Inside of a Mellotron M400. The tapes are underneath the brown-colored key extensions.

For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!

As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.

Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.

Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.

Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.

The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.

Bill Fransen with the first Mellotron off the production line, 1963. Photo credit: Sound on Sound

In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.

There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.

In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.

In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.

If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.

Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.

And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.

Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.

Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.

One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!

Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones’s fake strings are heard during the “All I see turns to brown…” bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune’s closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.

This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

Celebration Day All Over Again

Led Zeppelin’s 2007 tribute concert at London’s O2 arena to stream on band’s YouTube channel this Saturday

In 2007, the surviving members of Led ZeppelinRobert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – reunited for a tribute concert for Ahmet Ertegün, which they performed on December 10 that year at London’s O2 Arena, together with drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham. This Saturday, that show will stream live on Led Zeppelin’s YouTube channel at 8:00 p.m. BST (3:00 p.m. EST).

Ertegün was the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, the label that issued the band’s first five albums. Zep’s tribute gig was their first full-length show in almost three decades. The tribute opened with an all-star band, including Keith Emerson, Chris Squire, Alan White and Simon Kirke, who were backed by the brass section from Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. The concert also featured Paul Rodgers, Paolo Nutini and Foreigner as supporting acts, who played together with the Rhythm Kings as well. Other guests on the Rhythm Kings’ set were Maggie Bell and Alvin Lee.

Zep’s show, the headliner of the event, has been captured in various formats, including a limited big screen release in October 2012, DVD, home audio and CD. My streaming music provider includes the latter, and I listened to it this morning. While perhaps not quite as outstanding as Cream’s 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, I think it’s pretty great stuff, especially, once you get past the opener Good Times Bad Times, where to me Plant sounds like he’s holding back a bit.

I’m certainly planning to watch this Saturday. Apparently, the stream will be up for two or three days. Here are two clips – a little appetizer, if you want! First up: Black Dog, from Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s forth studio album released in November 1971. The song was co-written by Page, Plant and Jones.

And here’s Kashmir, from Physical Graffiti. Co-written by Bonham, Page and Plant, I’ve always found this tune both a bit weird, yet brilliant at the same time. Physical Graffiti, which appeared in February 1975, was Zep’s sixth studio album, and the first record they released on their own label Swan Song Records, which the band had launched in May 1974.

Sources: Wikipedia; Facebook; YouTube