Mellotrons in the Science Museum Collections
The Mellotron was the first commercially available music sampler. This Mellotron Mk 2 was sold by Streetly Electronics, Sutton Coalfield, in 1965. The Science Museum also have a Mellotron ‘FX’ Console and a smaller Mellotron 300 in their collections.
Science Museum inventory number 1993-95.
The Mellotron is an analogue machine that uses tapes to store and play back sound. Inside, it has no fewer than 70 tape players, side by side – one for each note of the keyboard. When you press a key, the corresponding tape machine plays. Each tape is loaded with pre-recorded sounds, such as a single flute note or drum rhythm, and there can be as many as 18 sounds on each tape (6 tape segments and 3 tracks).
The Mellotron’s tapes rewind as soon as a note is released, so the note is ready to be played again. Its tape machines spool rapidly to a new part of the tape when a new sound bank is selected. All the tapes have to be cranked at a steady speed, to keep the tuning accurate. But the motor sometimes labours if a musician plays a big chord – one that requires 8 or more tapes to play at once.
The keyboard is split into two manuals. The right manual plays lead instruments, such as flutes and trumpets. The left manual plays backing sounds (e.g. string chords) and rhythms (e.g. Bossa Nova and Foxtrot). There are switches just above the keyboard for selecting sounds and tracks or for mixing adjacent tracks together.
Strawberry Fields Forever (Beatles, 1966)
John Lennon plays the opening flute sounds on the Mellotron.
You can hear Mellotron flute sounds in reverse during the fadeout at the end of the song.
(from MARINHOMARQUEZ, YouTube)
Selling the Mellotron
The Mellotron was an expensive piece of kit – it cost around £1000 in 1965, three times as much as a good upright piano. And it was pushing tape technology to the limits of what was possible at the time.
With its 70 tape machines, heavy-duty motor and chain gear, the Mellotron was hefty and notoriously temperamental, especially when it was moved from gig to gig. But it wasn’t designed for gigging. It was originally publicised as the ideal instrument for the wealthy amateur who wanted an easy way to bring a ‘whole orchestra’ into the home (see adverts). The Mellotron made its name when some well-known musicians started experimenting with it in the studio, most notably the Beatles (in Strawberry Fields Forever) and The Moody Blues (in Nights in White Satin).
The Mellotron was a direct descendant of the Chamberlin, a keyboard instrument developed by American musician Harry Chamberlin to play back sounds recorded on multiple tapes. His associate Bill Fransen went to the British tape recorder engineers Bradmatics in the early 1960s, as he wanted to improve on the ‘Chamberlin’ and sell it on the mass market. Inspired by the Chamberlin, Bradmatics became Mellotronics (Melody Electronics) and build the machines you see here. They were backed by musician Eric Robinson and magician David Nixon.
Mellotron advertisement featuring Eric Robinson, c1965
(from mrmt, YouTube)
Mellotron advertisement on vinyl, c1965
(from, dhdyeh456j YouTube)
The myth and the Musicians’ Union
According to popular legend, the UK Musicians’ Union tried to ban the Mellotron because they were worried it would put musicians out of a job. However, combing through the Musicians’ Union archives, I’ve found no evidence to back this up. In fact, in 1967, the Musicians’ Union sent a delegate to Bradmatics to check the instrument out. They were quite withering about its capabilities:
‘The Mellotron is new, and like many new developments has its weaknesses. A five-note chord played high in the treble with the string tone indicated hardly sounded like a string section, and a ‘fanfare of brass’ lacked the precision-like sound of live performers…’
Noting that the instrument could only be used be a skilled keyboard player, they concluded:
‘We believe that the threat to the livelihood of musicians by the ‘Mellotron’ is no greater than that by any electronic organ.’
Source: Musicians Union’ Monthly Report, 1967.
If any of you were around at the time of the Mellotron and were playing at BBC Lime Grove Studios or any other place where the Mellotron was in use, I’ve love to hear from you. I’m keen to get to the bottom of this story about the Mellotron dispute.
Nights in White Satin (live version, The Moody Blues, c1968)
Mike Pinder is using the Mellotron to play the string line.
(from yonderboy1206, YouTube)