Okay, I thought this page would not be for everybody, hence the fact that it isn't part of the table of contents frame. Then I started getting all kinds of variations on the question "What the heck is a mellotron?" The pictures below are of my particular beast, a MkII FX Console, to give its official name. The MkI and it's more successful follow-up, the MkII, were the largest of this breed, kind of like the T-Rex of the mellotron world. They’ve been known to eat musicians alive...
Part One: So just what the heck is a mellotron?
Simply described, it's a tape replay organ. Each key has a strip of magnetic tape under it on which is recorded that corresponding note on whatever instrument you can imagine (and some you can't). When the key is depressed, the tape plays back. So if the tape has, say, a recording of a flute playing, that's what comes out of the speaker (Think about the opening to "Strawberry Fields". That's Paul playing a mellotron.) Pretty neat, huh? Back in the '60s when mellotrons were developed, this was very high tech. The Mellotronics folks thought it would take the home entertainment market by storm. (Click HERE to see an hilarious tape demonstrating the mellotron in this guise.)
Instead it took the rock & roll music biz by storm. The Beatles used it. The Stones. The Moody Blues sound owes a lot to mellotrons. King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Emerson, Lake and Carl, the list goes on. Choirs, orchestras, whole string sections can easily be reproduced in 8 second bursts (how long each strip of tape lasts). There were also the FX Consoles, made primarily for the BBC as a storage and playback system for sound effects. One of these babies could store over 1200 of them. Remember laugh tracks on the old sitcoms of the '60s? Now you know what they used to produce them! (A quick sidebar: What you're listening to is Devotion, a band in which I played in the mid-70s. While this song is definitely not representative of what the band normally sounded like, it is a pretty good demonstration of the scope of sound of which a mellotron is capable. You'll hear violins and mixed choir. Pretty amazing, huh? The particular instrument being used on this recording is the MkII FX Console pictured below.)
In the early '80s, though, disaster struck. Digital samplers started to get really useable and a lot less expensive, and since mellotrons were heavy and could be very unreliable, especially touring, they dropped out of favour. But what's this? In recent years, keeping the phrase "everything old is new again" in mind, mellotrons have come back into style. In fact you could say they're downright trendy. Young bands want to use some of those great old keyboards their daddies used. Oasis has two of them (including one of the same model I have). Radiohead uses one. Even U2's most recent album has mellotron -- although we're pretty sure they used mellotron samples (kind of silly if you ask me: sampling a sampler). If you’re dying to find out more about mellotrons (and who isn't?), visit the Links page. They're even being manufactured again by Markus Resch and David Keane (www.mellotron.com). Streetly Electronics, a descendant of the original manufacturer, has also entered the fray again, making a limited run of the infamous "Flight Case" 400s, as well as a one-of-a-kind mellotron with a glass case and gold-plated trim! Can a new MkII be far behind? A cycling 400? And you thought these fabulous instruments were dead!
Below is a quick primer on how they work:
ABOVE: Shows the "business end" of a MkII FX Console. Notice the two keyboards side-by-side (due to the fact that large loops of tapes are under each key). Each strip of tape actually has three voices recorded on three parallel tracks. So one section of tape might have, say, string section next to mixed choir next to 'cello. Wow! Things are getting better and better. On most models you can also blend adjacent tracks together, as well (Think of the opening of Genesis' "Watcher of the Skies" here. That's mellotron violins and brass mixed together with a little bass accordian thrown in (giving the song it's quasi-Neopolitan feel.). On the big fellas like this, there are also two long rollers for each manual, one under the keys at the front of the instrument, and one at the back, so the mellotronist can press a button, cycle to a different section of tape and have three more voices available, 18 per keyboard and 36 different voices in total, when all is said and done.
The provenence of this particular instrument is also interesting. It was possibly the first mellotron imported into Canada. I bought it in 1973 from Peter Csanky (who also owned a MkII and an M300 at the time). He tells me he personally flew the intrument back from the UK. (How this was done is beyond me. I didn’t even know Pete had a bloody pilot's licence! Personally, I wouldn't want to try to land one of these suckers in heavy weather...) He used this mellotron on Fludd’s hit, "Cousin Mary". When I got it, the colour was the usual "BBC battleship gray, since almost all of the FX consoles were made for that august broadcaster. Since you could record and then store a sound effect on a small section of tape, mellotrons were perfect to use as a sound effects "library". Later, as better ways were found to store and use sound effects, the BBC began selling off their units and many found their way into the hands of musicians. Sir Paul even owns one. It's the one the Beatles used at the Abbey Road studios where they recorded.
LEFT: This shot shows the mellotron from the back. Those brown strips hanging down are real, live magnetic tape, stored in two large loops and held under tension by springs. When the key above is depressed, the loops start feeding out. Lift the key and the tape snaps back to the beginning. Pretty slick… RIGHT: An inside shot showing the back rollers where the unused sections of tape are stored. The roller for the other end of the tape is directly under the keys. Both rollers move in exact sychronization by means of a chain drive connecting them, bringing a different section of tape (and three other voices) into position. The sound of this cycling is not unlike that of a blender. If it doesn’t work perfectly, it might as well BE a blender because the tapes will be frappéd. For a diagram of the innards, click HERE, for an animated demo, click HERE (you must click your mouse on the key).
LEFT: Martin Smith and John Bradley of Streetly Electronics. These gentlemen are the only people in the world who can (and do!) repair the large mellotrons -- any mellotron for that matter! John is the son of Les Bradley who managed Streetly in the glory days of the '60s and '70s. Martin is responsible for recording the tapes -- the "heart" of this magnificent instrument.
The restoration of my mellotron (pictured above) was carried out by Jim Krueger of Broken String Music who completely rebuilt the bottom of the severely water-damaged case and also did the masterful refinishing job. Jim also makes killer custom guitars, amplifier cabinets, organ benches, bathroom vanities, you name it! The guts were overhauled (and improved) by Streetly Electronics in the UK. They also made the custom set of tapes I use. A splendid job, gents! There aren't many mellotrons that look and sound this good.
RIGHT: A classic '70s "serious keyboard player's rig": mellotron, minimoog, Hammond B3 and one of them new-fangled, digital synthesizers by Yamaha. I spent my Devotion-al career touring with this rig. Weight: about 1000 lbs.-- and that doesn’t include amplifiers. This was not much fun carrying up and down the 2-flight back stairs at the El Mocambo here in Toronto, I can tell you! And it’s even less fun now that we're all older. This is the reason roadies were invented. My chiropractor thinks everyone should own a set of these keyboards.
An interesting sidebar: I'm one of the very few who actually had no problems touring with one of the big mellotrons. Perhaps that’s because I knew how to maintain it and was willing to take the time to do it. Most keyboardists cringe at the thought. They hated the beasts. One even set fire to his. Although, having seen and played the custom-made mellotron this particular musician used on tour (now owned by Chris Dale of Toronto), I feel he should have immolated the idiots who built it for him instead. Fortunately, that particular instrument had been stolen by the time he got frisky with the gasoline.
LEFT: Ah, to feel young again and be playing rock & roll (of sorts). If the folks who hired me to teach at the Royal Conservatory of Music could only see me now! (This photo was taken at the Devotion Reunion gig in 2001.)
Part 2: Recording New Voices For Old Mellotrons
In October of 2000, I got involved in a project to produce new recordings for Streetly Electronics who were interested in making improvements in the voices they were able to offer and to also make available some voices which have never before been available. In all, we produced six new sets of recordings: piccolo*, recorder*, oboe/cor anglais split, clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano sax and French horn. (* indicates a new mellotron voice. The others are improved recordings of previously available voices) It was an interesting exercise. Not many musicians are ever required to be able to produce 35 absolutely perfect 8-second notes on demand. That's a lot tougher than it sounds! You can hear all these new voices at the Streetly Electronics Sound Library website.
The new voices have proven so popular (especially the French horn and bass clarinet), that we're about to take the plunge again and my wife, Vicki, will record bass flute, as well as flute choir -- which will be matched at the time of recording rather than recorded separately and then mixed together after the fact, as was done in the past. This should give much more natural-sounding tuning and timbre. At least that's our theory...
And the fabled "Mellotron Recording Society of Toronto" is (starting at top row left): Julian "Hoolio" Smerdon, bass clarinet and clarinet ("The bass clarinet is guaranteed to move your bowels when played at high volume." -- Martin Smith, Streetly Electronics); Scott Paterson, recorder (for those "Stairway to Heaven" moments); Senia Trubashnik, oboe/cor anglais split (No, he's not drunk. Oboists normally look like this when they play...); Phil Poppa, soprano sax (It used to be an alto sax, but the first time Phil washed it, the darn thing shrank.); Vicki Blechta, piccolo (a particularly dangerous mellotron voice since it has been known to blow out windows and shatter crockery at a hundred yards. Please use with discretion..); and Rick Blechta, French horn (notice the perfect playing posture). The recording engineers were Denis Keldie (oboe/cor anglais) and Johnson Attong (all the rest). Thanks guys!
NOTE: Vicki appears under extreme duress: 1) because she had a very bad cold at the time (notice her cute, little red nose), 2) because she wasn't wearing make-up when I took the photo (she still looks great, though, doesn't she, JB?), and 3) because she hates playing the piccolo. That's fine. Most people hate listening to it. Vicki will also be handling flute duties when we record bass flute and the flute choir sound (bass, alto, C, Eb and piccolo) for the lads at Streetly. I'm on tap as the Official Flute Wrangler...
By the way, the rather beat up MkII at the top of this page is none other than the original mellotron owned by King Crimson -- still owned by Robert Fripp, too. This instrument was responsible for those stunning sounds on their first album back in 1968. The awesome way in which it was used on "Epitaph" started many of us down the road to mellotron insanity and remains, to the minds of many, the most spectacular use of the instrument ever. (Photo by Robert Cervero)
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