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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!