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The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic keyboard originally developed and built in Birminghammarker, Englandmarker in the early 1960s. It superseded the Chamberlin, which was the world's first sample-playback keyboard. The heart of the instrument is a bank of parallel linear magnetic audio tapes, which have approximately eight seconds of playing time each. Playback heads underneath each key enable the playing of pre-recorded sounds.

The earlier MKI and MKII models contained two side-by-side keyboards: The right keyboard accessed 18 "lead/instrument" sounds such as strings, flutes, and brass; The left keyboard played pre-recorded musical rhythm tracks in various styles.

The tape banks for the later, lighter-weight M400 models contain only three selectable sounds including (typically) strings, cello, and an eight-voice choir. The sound on each individual tape piece was recorded at the pitch of the key to which it was assigned. To make up for the fewer sounds available, the M400 tapes came in a removable frame that allowed for relatively quick changes to new racks of sounds.


Although tape samplers had been explored in research studios, the first commercially available keyboard-driven tape instruments were built and sold by California-based Harry Chamberlin from 1948 through the 1970s.

Things really took off, however, when Chamberlin's sales agent, Bill Fransen, brought two of Chamberlin's instruments to Englandmarker in 1962 to search for someone who could manufacture 70 matching tape heads for future Chamberlins. Harry Chamberlin was not happy with the fact that someone overseas was basically "copying" his idea, and that one of his own people (Bill Fransen) was the reason for this. Fransen approached a UK company that was skilled enough to develop the idea further and a deal was struck with brothers Frank, Norm, and Lesley Bradley of engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. This resulted in the formation of a subsidiary company named Mellotronics, which produced the first Mellotrons in Astonmarker, Birminghammarker, Englandmarker. Bradmatic later took on the name Streetly Electronics. In the early 1970s 100 of the instruments were assembled and sold by EMI under license. Many years later, following financial and trademark troubles through a distribution agreement, the Mellotron name became unavailable and resided with the American based Sound Sales while Streetly manufactured instruments after 1976 were sold under the name Novatron.

Throughout the 1970s, the Mellotron had a major impact on rock music, particularly the 35 note (G-F) model M400. The M400 version was released in 1970 and sold over 1800 units, becoming a trademark sound of the era's progressive bands. The earlier 1960s MK II units were made for the home and the characteristics of the instrument attracted a number of celebrities. Among the early Mellotron owners were Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers, King Hussein of Jordanmarker and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Mellotrons were normally pre-loaded with string instrument and orchestral sounds, although the model 400's tape bank could be removed with relative ease by the owner and loaded with banks containing different sounds including percussion loops, sound effects, or synthesizer-generated sounds, to generate polyphonic electronically generated sounds in the days before polyphonic synthesizers.

Beneath every key is a disengaged tape head and roller.
Depressed key engages tape head and roller.
The unique sound of the Mellotron is produced by a combination of characteristics: Among these are tape replay artifacts such as wow and flutter, the result being that each time a note is played, it is slightly different from the previous time it was played (a bit like a conventional instrument). The notes also interact with each other so that chords or even just pairs of notes have an extremely powerful sound.

The adjustments of mechanical parts such as pinch rollers, pressure pads and tape head azimuth, combined with equalization of recordings sourced from different tape libraries make some notes sound brighter or smoother than others. This quality makes each and every Mellotron instrument slightly unique, and is a large factor in why all Mellotrons will sound different in music recordings despite the same sound (like the 3 violins) being used.

Another factor in the strangely haunting quality of the Mellotron's most frequently-heard sounds is that the individual notes were recorded in isolation. For a musician accustomed to playing in an orchestral setting, this was unusual, and meant that he/she had nothing against which to intonate. Thus, the temperament of the Mellotron is always somewhat questionable when it is used in the context of other instruments. Perhaps for this reason, and perhaps also to allow easy transposition of the instrument's limited range, the pitch control is placed closest to the keyboard on the M400 model.

This temperament issue has led to the Mellotron being regarded, rather unfairly, as a difficult instrument to tune. There certainly could be mechanical problems that would also contribute to this. The original varispeed servo design was poor, for instance, but later improved dramatically. The tapes would stick inside their frames and refuse to rewind if the frame became distorted due to careless handling of the machine. Properly maintained though, the machines behave a lot better than their reputation suggests.

Although they enabled many bands to perform string, brass and choir arrangements, which had been previously impossible to recreate live, Mellotrons were not without their disadvantages. Above all, they were very expensive: they sold for £1,000 (approximately £ today). in the mid-1960s, and the official Mellotron site gives the 1973 list price as US$5,200 (approximately $ today). Like the Hammond organ, they were a roadie's nightmare — heavy, bulky and fragile. After years of touring with Mellotrons, Robert Fripp formulated a rule: "Tuning a mellotron doesn't." The tape banks were also notoriously prone to breakages and jams and those groups who could afford to, like Yes, typically took two or more Mellotrons on tour to cope with the inevitable breakdowns.

The original Mellotrons (MkI/MkII) were not intended to be portable — they often become misaligned when jostled even lightly — but later models such as the M300, M400 and MKV were designed for portability.The American Mellotron distributor, Sound Sales, produced their own Mellotron model, the 4 Track, in the mid 1970s. At the same time Streetly produced a road cased version of the 400 — the T550 Novatron. By the mid 1980s, both Sound Sales and Streetly Electronics suffered severe financial setbacks, losing their market to synthesizers and solid-state electronic samplers, which rendered the Mellotron essentially extinct.

All models, when installed permanently in a studio, provided a very realistic effect. Many examples abound, such as Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. Despite their shortcomings, Mellotrons were (and still are) prized for their unique sound, and they helped pave the way for the later sampler.

In the late 1990s, a Calgarymarker-based company began producing new Mellotrons. These new MKVI Mellotrons were similar to the M400, with some modifications. The company also released sample discs featuring WAV files of each individual note sampled from an original Mellotron. These files, when played using a sampler, enable keyboardists to recreate a part of the sound of the original Mellotrons using cheaper and more reliable modern keyboards.

In 2009, Streetly Electronics released the M4000, the first new Mellotron for nearly 40 years, and the first machine to offer a failproof cycling mechanism, an updated design of the system used in the 1960s MK 1, MK 2 and M300 machines.

Bands such as Counting Crows and The Musical Box have toured using samplers to avoid the inconvenience of transporting and maintaining original Mellotrons on the road. The Musical Box, being a tribute band dedicated to visually reproducing early Genesis shows, have taken great pains to hide the fact that they do not use a real Mellotron by hiding a Kurzweil synthesiser in a wooden box made to look like a Mellotron.

Use in popular music

1960s and the psychedelic era

British multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond may have been the first rock musician to record with a Mellotron, beginning in 1965. The first hit song to feature a Mellotron MKII was "Baby Can It Be True".

Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues had done an 18-month stint as an employee of Streetly Electronics as a quality control and test driver. The Beatles prominently used it on their psychedelic rock single "Strawberry Fields Forever" (recorded November-December 1966). Although the Beatles continued to compose and record with it for the albums "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band", "Magical Mystery Tour", and "The Beatles" (White Album), it was arguably Pinder who brought the Mellotron to the forefront of popular music with The Moody Blues' 1967 album Days of Future Passed in songs including "Nights in White Satin" and "Tuesday Afternoon". Pinder made regular use of the instrument on The Moody Blues' studio albums from 1967 through 1972.Ian McDonald of King Crimson, Rick Wakeman of Yes, and Tony Banks of Genesis also became major Mellotron users at this time, infusing the violin, cello, brass, flute and choir sounds as a major texture in the music of their respective bands.

Other artists utilizing the Mellotron on hit records in this period included The Zombies ("Changes", "Care Of Cell 44", "Hung Up On A Dream"), Donovan ("Celeste", "Breezes of Patchule"), Manfred Mann (several Mike D'abo-era recordings, including "So Long Dad" and "Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James"), The Rolling Stones ("2000 Light Years from Home", "We Love You", "Stray Cat Blues"), Deep Purple ("Anthem"), The Bee Gees ("World", "Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You" & "My Thing"), Traffic ("House for Everyone", "Hole In My Shoe"), Pink Floyd ("A Saucerful of Secrets", "See-Saw", "Julia Dream", "Atom Heart Mother" and "Sysyphus"), Procol Harum ("Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)"), The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, Cream's "Badge", "Anyone for Tennis", The Left Banke's "Myrah", Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me (Chamberlin), Nilsson's "The Moonbeam Song", and The Kinks' "Phenomenal Cat", David Bowie' "Space Oddity", The Flower Pot Men's "Let's Go To San Francisco".

1970s and progressive rock

The Mellotron was widely used to provide backing keyboard accompaniment by many of the progressive rock groups of the 1970s and, alongside the Hammond organ, it was crucial to shaping the sound of the genre. Notable examples include: "Tuesday's Gone" and "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Once Again by Barclay James Harvest, Music in a Doll's House by Family, Grave New World and Bursting at the Seams by The Strawbs, seven albums from In the Court of the Crimson King through Red by King Crimson, "The Rain Song" and "Kashmirmarker" by Led Zeppelin, Catch the Rainbow by Rainbow, 2112 by Rush, I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project, Fragile, Close to the Edge, and Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes, Trespass through …And Then There Were Three… by Genesis, all of Greenslade's albums, Hawkwind's Space Ritual, and Hall of the Mountain Grill, "Rainbow" by America, In Search of Space by Hawkwind and The Pillory by Jasun Martz

The mellotron was also used extensively by pioneering German electronic band Tangerine Dream through their prime, including solo work by Edgar Froese. Their albums Phaedra, Rubycon, Ricochet, and Encore as well as Froese's Epsilon in Malaysian Pale provide archetypal examples of Mellotron playing.

1980s and post-punk

The advent of cheaper and more reliable polysynths and preset 'string machines' saw the Mellotron's popularity wane by the end of the 1970s. Following the impact of punk rock, the Mellotron tended to be viewed as a relic of a pompous era, or in the case of the Chamberlin - as obsolete technology. This was also due to the unavailability of new machines as both U.S. and U.K. manufacturers and distributors had declared bankruptcy, and older broken machines could not be serviced. One of the few UK post-punk bands to utilise its sounds were Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who featured it heavily on their platinum-selling 1981 album Architecture & Morality. Joy Division used its haunting quality to great effect on Decades from their seminal 1980 album Closer. It was also used by British bands XTC, Cardiacs, Nightwing, and IQ, but they were in a minority. It was also used in New Order's song Run 2 from Technique. In the US, Los Angeles avant-garde/art rock band The Fibonaccis made frequent use of a Mellotron. Marillion also used the Mellotron during their tours in the early 1980s.

1990s and beyond

The Mellotron experienced a revival of sorts in the 1990s. While a few bands and musicians (like Paul Weller, Oasis, Julian Cope and Radiohead) managed to resurrect the actual Mellotrons, a plethora of bands began using the "static character" samples of the instrument made possible due to the release of Mellotron sounds in software form. Although the powerful sound dynamics due to wow and flutter and random tape slither movement were largely lost, samples greatly appealed to many musicians who could not find, afford, play, or repair the surviving original Mellotrons.

These bands include Sigur Rós, Dinosaur Jr, Pulp, Marillion, U2, Radio Massacre International, The Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Counting Crows, Copeland, Oasis, Barenaked Ladies, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Spock's Beard, Lenny Kravitz, Kevin Gilbert, The Flower Kings, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Modest Mouse, Ayreon, Muse, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Prick, Grandaddy, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Charlatans, Paul Weller, Radiohead (The song Exit Music (For A Film) is a good example, using 8 voice choir tape set), Porcupine Tree, Anekdoten, Air, Opeth, Wobbler, In Lingua Mortua, Waterclime and Oceana Company. Anekdoten utilizes the Mellotron heavily in their recordings. French electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre was particularly vocal in his love of the instrument, using it extensively in his 1997 Oxygene tour, and often describing it as the "Stradivarius of electronic music".

The Flaming Lips, in 2002, used Mellotron samples in the recording of their album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Eels used the Mellotron extensively through out many of the Eels albums, most notable in the song "Souljacker, pt 2" with E (Eels leader) and a Mellotron and is also featured in the song "Dust of Ages". American metal band System Of A Down has used the sound in their music, most notably on the song "Roulette." On Porcupine Tree's 2005 album Deadwing, track 6 is titled "Mellotron Scratch" and includes lyrics about the sound of a Mellotron causing a woman to cry. Modest Mouse used a Mellotron for the song 'Little Motel'. Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson prominently used the Mellotron's haunting choral sounds on No-Man's 2003 album Together We're Stranger. British indie rock band The Kooks also use a real mellotron on their albums Konk (recorded at Konk studios in Hornsey) and Rak. The Strokes also used a mellotron on the song 'Ask Me Anything' on their 2006 album First Impressions of Earth. The Ataris utilized the Mellotron on their 2007 album Welcome the Night, most prominently on the songs "Cardiff-by-the-Sea" and "A Soundtrack for This Rainy Morning". Les Fradkin uses the GForce M-Tron software instrument on most of his current recordings. He triggers it from a Starr Labs Ztar which gives completely different musical results from the traditional keyboard approach. Opeth has a version of their song "Porcelain Heart" which consists entirely of Mellotron entitled "Mellotron Heart". This version was featured only on special editions of their 2008 album Watershed. A progressive rock group from Finland, Nurkostam, is also known for using a lot of Mellotron on their recordings. Founded in 2008, MelloFest is a UK-based festival celebrating music inspired by both the Mellotron and the Chamberlin. The Belgianmarker band Hooverphonic also made great use of the mellotron on their 2008 album The President of the LSD Golf Club. Dutch indie rock band Oceana Company uses a mellotron M400 on their live shows and album "For The Boatman".

In the early 2000s, availability of original Mellotrons had vastly diminished. Although this inevitably resulted in Mellotron sample use becoming much more common (especially in pop and alternative music), it did not satisfy the wants and needs of former Mellotron owners or purists who could discern digital samples from the real Mellotrons, and desired actual machines. The grassroots demand for authentic Mellotrons thus resulted in two new models - the Mellotron MK 6 and the Streetly Mellotron M-4000. Both models remain faithful to the qualities of the original specifications while also featuring improvements now possible with modern technology. Financial expense and long waiting lists have been associated with both models but have not been a deterrent to those who fondly remember playing the original Mellotrons, or newer young musicians who've developed a musical curiosity about experiences with playing one.

List of models

  • Mark I (1963) - double manual (35 notes on each). Very similar to the Chamberlin Music Master 600. About 55 were made.
  • Mk II (1964) - double manual. 18 sounds on each manual. About 300 were made.
  • Fx console (1965) - double manual with sound effects. About 60 were made.
  • M300 (1968) - 52 note single manual and no pitch wheel-control. About 60 were made.
  • M400 (1970) - 35 note single manual. The most common and portable model. About 1800 units were made. It has three different sounds per frame.
  • Mark V (1975) - double manual. It's basically two m400 in one. Around 28 were made of this one.
  • Novatron mark V (1977) - this is the same as the mellotron Mark V just under a different name. About two were ever made.
  • Novatron 400 (1978) - the same with this one; it's a mellotron M400 with a different name-plate.
  • T550 (1981) - this is a flight-cased version of Novatron 400. About three were made.
  • 4 Track (1981) - very rare and strange model. About 5 were ever made of this model.
  • Mark VI (1998) - an improved version of the M400. The first mellotron to be produced since Streetly Electronics went out of business in the late 80's.
  • Mark VII - this is basically an upgraded Mark V. Like the MkVI, this one is produced on the new factory in Stockholm
  • Skellotron (2005) - an improved m400 with a new look. Made by Streetly electronics.
  • M4000 (2007) - one manual, 24 sounds. An improved version of the MkII with cycling mechanism. Also made by Streetly electronics.


  • Mellodrama, documentary film by Dianna Dilworth
  • Mellotron: The Machine and the Musicians That Revolutionised Rock, by Nick Awde, Desert Hearts, ISBN 978-1898948025.
  • The Mellotron Book, by Frank Samagaio, ProMusic Press, ISBN 978-1931140140

See also


  1. e.g., Hugh LeCaine's 1955 keyboard-controlled "Special Purpose Tape Recorder", which he used when recording his classic "Dripsody"
  2. New M4000 Mellotron
  3. Mike Pinder's Official Web Site

Further reading

External links

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