From about 1963 to 1980, a Mellotron was an electro-mechanical instrument that used recorded samples of orchestral instruments stored on special tape-recorder tapes to produce a variety of sounds, using a divided keyboard, with the right half playing the tune, while the left half offered more rhythmic support.
Most musicians in the 21st century, will have no need for a Mellotron, Its major use is to recreate – with precision – some of the orchestral sounds, used by groups from the mid 1960s and onward into the 1980s. One such group is the Moody Blues, where the Mellotron can be clearly heard throughout Love and Beauty (1967).
The Mellotron is available in obsolete versions, such as the one depicted in the photo above, in smaller, lighter more modern variants or as cards to be inserted into computers (both handmade in Sweden today), or as fully digital software apps, typically offering 8 or 18 voices.
For most people, modern keyboards will offer a range of orchestral voices that is gudenuf for home consumption, or even a gig. Enthusiastic admiration of a Mellotron is a clear indication of a person living in the past.
To understand the development of the Mellotron, it helps to begin with the early evolution of drum machines.
The first drum machine was the Rhythmicon, designed by Leon Theremin (1896 – 1993) in 1932. Theoretically, it was versatile, but far too difficult to play, even for an experienced professional musician. It had been commissioned by the eccentric/ controversial composer/ pianist/ performer Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965), who quickly and quietly ignored it.
The next product was the Chamberlin Rhythmate. At some point towards the end of the 1940s Harry Chamberlin (? – 1967) started development. It took years. By 1957, a Model 100 Rhythmate, became the world’s first sampler, relying on tapes to reproduce recorded loops of drum patterns.
Chamberlin’s business model was disrupted by the 1959 Wurlitzer Sideman, that used a rotating disk to produce percussion sounds. This was a successful product, effectively eliminating the need for the Rythmate. Wurlitzer ceased production of the Sideman in 1969.
Thus, subsequent models of the Rythmate included keyboards, and extended the range of sounds produced, using a proprietary 3 track, 3/8” tape format. These enabled Harry Chamberlin to be the exclusive seller of the tapes, if only people would buy the machines!
New models regularly emerged. By the early 1960s, Chamberlin developed the Model 600 Music Master, that included two 35 note keyboards (G to F). The right-hand keyboard was used for the instrument sounds (flute, violins, etc ), while the left-hand one was used for the rhythmn accompaniments (Bossa Nova, Cha Cha Cha, Tango, etc).
In the early 1950’s, Harry Chamberlin hired former window washer Bill Fransen as a salesman. Unfortunately, while the instrument’s concept was appealing, its execution produced an unreliable machine, that was difficult to sell.
Fransen took two Chamberlins 600 Music Masters to England, looking for a manufacturer that would be able to supply 70 replay heads. In Birmingham, he engaged Bradmatic, who built the requested replay heads. After Fransen showed them the two Music Masters, they agreed to make a more reliable instrument, and to mass produce it. In 1963, this improved instrument became the Mellotron Mark 1. The designer of this instrument was Leslie Bradley (? – 1997). This electro-mechanical instrument was now much more than a drum machine, but far less than a synthesizer. It was approaching what people today refer to as a keyboard, but excessively heavy and large.
Using British funding, band leader Eric Robinson (1908 – 1974) set up Mellotronics Ltd in London, and recorded various instruments at IBC studios (International Broadcasting Company), which he owned with George Clouston, who worked for the BBC.
In 1965, the Graham Bond (1937 – 1974) Organisation was the first band/ musical group to use a Mellotron to record a single, Lease on Love, and an album, There’s a Bond Between Us.
A Mellotron was also used on Manfred Mann’s (1940 – ) single, Semi-Detached, Suburban Mr. James (1966).
The Beatles first discovered the Mellotron during a visit to IBC studios in London on 1965-08-09. John Lennon ordered a Mark II, which was delivered to him 1965-08-16. The most famous Beatles’ song using a Mellotron is Strawberry Fields for Ever (1967), where it substitutes for a flute.
In 1964, a Mark II model was produced. Mike Pinder (1941 – ) worked on quality control at Bradmatic for 18 months. Shortly after, he acquired a Mark II which became the musical foundation of The Moody Blues, a group he had just founded. Using a Mellotron, Love and Beauty (1967) became the group’s first hit. Because of his experience acquired at Bradmatic Ltd, Pinder was able to make technical improvements to his instrument. These included the replacement of accompaniment sounds on the left keyboard with additional instrument sounds, as typically provided only on the right keyboard, allowing it to have a total of 36 instruments.
The possibilities offered by the Mellotron attracted many musical groups: The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. It was the first fully polyphonic instrument which allowed a faithful reproduction of other instruments including strings, brass, flute and vibraphone. There were other keyboard instruments available: electric organs (Hammond, Vox, Farfisa), acoustic and electric pianos (Rhodes, Wurlitzer) and monophonic synthesizers (Moog, ARP). However, these either could not offer the variety of sounds, or their learning curve was so steep, that it was not worth the effort.
In 1965, Harry Chamberlin travelled to Britain to visit Bradmatic. A financial arrangement was made with the Bradley brothers allowing them to continue manufacturing the Mellotron and to use the famous sound of strings (3 Violins), the only sound common to Mellotron and Chamberlin.
Bradmatic changed its name several times to successively become Bradmatic Productions, Mellotronics Manufacturing, Aldridge Electronics and finally Streetly Electronics. With the growing success of the Mellotron, Streetly marketed the Mellotron directly, then delegated it to Dallas Arbiter.
Because of the success of the Mellotron, the BBC asked Streetly Electronics to develop a Sound Effects Console (FX Console) Mark II version, whose technical specifications were adapted to the needs of the BBC. This involved the recording/ acquisition of 1260 sound effects to provide sound for radio and television broadcasts.
In 1968, a M300 version emerged, offering a single 52-note keyboard and eliminating amplification. Despite its scaled-down size, it was still a large and difficult instrument to transport. Some bad design decisions tarnished the model’s reputation, and only 52 copies were produced.
By 1970, a M400 became the first Mellotron that was (relatively) easy to transport. Its mechanics were simplified compared to previous models, allowing the use of interchangeable tape frames. Each tape had 3 tracks, with each frame holding a bank of 3 sounds. It was possible to order additional frames with other sounds. Many new recordings were made for the M400. It was Streetly Electronics’ biggest commercial success. Here is a video explaining how the M400 works.
From the end of the 60s, the Mellotron was used increasingly in progressive rock, by groups that include Genesis, Yes and King Crimson. It offered a polyphony, that was sometimes described as melancholic or bewitching.
In 1975, the Mark V arrived. It was, essentially, two M400s in a single box, but with the addition of a reverberation unit.
In the United States, the Mellotron was distributed from 1972 to 1976, by Dallas Arbiter, later, Dallas Music Industries (DMI). DMI’s bankruptcy resulted in Mellotronics transferred distribution rights to Sound Sales, which acquired the registered name Mellotron. This DMI bankruptcy also resulted in the closure of Mellotronics in Britain. Instruments made by Streetly Electronics, lost their right to use the Mellotron name, but used Novatron as a replacement name.
In 1981, the 4 Track is the first American Mellotron, manufactured by Sound Sales. In essence it is an M400, but is able to play 4 tracks on 1/4″ format tapes with an equalization for each track, volume and pan. This recording quality of the tapes was so poor that only five copies were made.
At the beginning of the 1980s, other, better samplers arrived on the market: notably, the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator I and the Mirage Ensoniq. Despite their technical innovations, these machines were expensive, and provide poor sound fidelity, that lasted only a few seconds. By the mid 1980s technological advances resulted in more efficient and less expensive machines, typically made in Japan by Akai and Roland.
At this point, the Mellotron is obsolete. Streetly Electronics ceases operations in 1986. Some years later, John Bradley, son of Mellotron designer, Leslie Bradley, and Martin Smith, founded Mellotron Archives UK. This becomes Streetly Electronics. It remodels, maintains and sells parts and bands/ tapes for all Mellotron models.
In 1989, David Kean purchased the bankrupt estate of Mellotron in the US and bought all remains of the associated UK companies. He resurrected the Mellotron brand. He was then joined by Markus Resch, an engineer. In 1990 they began making tapes, spare parts, and start building what would become the Mark VI Mellotron in 1999, described by its manufactures as: a newly manufactured, electronically and mechanically improved tape-replay instrument. Unfortunately, it also includes a tube pre-amp, which is a regressive measure.
About 1999, David Kean began divested himself of his interest in the Mellotron company, and moved his new project, the Audities Foundation to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Since 2001, the Mellotron company has been owned and operated by Markus Resch, in Sweden. It now produces both analog and digital instruments as well as apps under the brand Mellotron. In 2005, the Mellotron Mark VII was launched. Both the Mark VI and the Mark VII machines are still in production, although the Stockholm shop with its listening centre has closed.