What can you say about the Mellotron?

One of the most unique electronic instruments ever made and a trademark sound of '70s prog-rock bands such as Genesis, Yes, the Moody Blues, King Crimson, England as well as artists such as Isao Tomita and many, many more - the list of users reads like a who's who of the music industry.

It's enjoying something of revival these days with Paul Weller, Radiohead, Nelly Futada, Oasis, Stereophonics and many others appreciating its totally unique sound.

Arguably the original multi-sampler, each key on the Mellotron had recordings of real instruments on a piece of magnetic tape under each note of the 3-octave keyboard and each key had its own pinch roller and playhead.
When a key was pressed, the pinch roller enaged with a master capstan wheel and dragged the key's tape over a playhead.

What emanated were some of the finest sounds to be heard. Real strings, real choir, real flutes and much more but with a bizarre, surreal feel to them. Many different models were made but perhaps the most well known and popular one was the M400 featured here.

Inside the Mellotron was a frame of tapes with a length of tape for each of the the 35 keys. Each tape could play for no more than eight seconds inspiring a unique 'crawling spider' playing technique as you played inversions to keep sustained chords going.

Each strip of tape had three sounds on it (one of the most popular combinations being strings, choir and flute) selectable from a rotary switch on the panel to the left of the small three octave keyboard but other frames could be purchased and swapped over if you wanted. This was a 'simple' matter of lifting the lid off the unit, removing the keyboard assembly, undoing a few screws, lifting out the tape frame and replacing it with the other frame, tightening the screws and replacing the keyboard assembly and top lid!!!

The instrument was also very temperamental and required regular servicing.

This included regularly cleaning the tape heads (one for every key) and the pinch rollers (one for every key) if the tapes were to play reliably. More often than not, however, they didn't but the wow and flutter added a surreal and ethereal quality to the sounds (that said, it was real pain if a note or chord suddenly went out of tune live or in the middle of a crucial take in the studio!).

Other regular adjustments required were de-magnetizing the tape heads (one for every key) , lining up tape head azimuth and servicing the return springs (one for every key) that pulled the eight second tape lengths back to the start - without the latter, tapes wouldn't return to the beginning and the tapes would playback with horrible clicks. It was also necessary to adjust tensioners (one for every key) so that the tapes make good contact with the heads but you couldn't make these too tight because the tape had to clear the heads when it sprang back to the beginning. It was a nightmare and if you owned a Mellotron, unless you could pay for regular servicing, you had to become pretty skilled at maintaining it yourself!

I owned an M400 back in the mid-70s and can testify to the amount of work required to keep these things playable. It literally had to be serviced almost every time I wanted to use it for recording and if I took it out live, it would have to undergo a thorough check before the gig. In both situations, even after some tender loving care, the bloody thing could let me down at any time and it was certainly a love-hate relationship that I had with it.

But as much as I loved the sound of the Mellotron and as much as I loved my M400, it had to go - it was too much of a liability to keep because studio sessions, band rehearsals and live sound checks were forever being held up while I pulled the thing apart to adjust something or another. So, very reluctantly, I sold it! I have regretted it ever since!

The Mellotron is now also available again to buy new in the form of the Mark VI. Find out more......

Review of the new Mark VI:

Find out more about the Mellotron's romantic history at:

And if you want a wealth of Tron info and trivia, you must viist

There's also the Mellotron website: