In the fast-paced modern world, where technology and innovation marry and bring amazing new things into the world, indulging in something of the past feels refreshing; novel, even.
Take Mellotron, for example.
We hear it in old songs, and we still hear it in not-so-old ones. The Mellotron lends a classic, old-world feel to the listening experience, and that is what makes it so cool.
What is a Mellotron?
Before synthesizers became a thing and even before the Mellotron itself, there was the Chamberlin.
The Chamberlin is the Mellotron’s forebear. Born in the 1950s, the Chamberlin gave rise to the idea of pre-recording actual sounds to create a sort of a sampler. The Mellotron is the polished version of its predecessor, developed to produce “cleaner” pre-recorded sound and designed for commercial production.
The Mellotron is an instrument that can record, alter, and playback audio data by means of magnetic tape, which was the rage for data storage during that time. The magnetic tapes are then distributed across a keyboard.
Each key in the keyboard has three tapes connected to it, each tape representing different sounds of pre-recorded instruments. But each key carries only one note; the three instrument sounds all play the same note.
The Mellotron is a sampler in such a way that it can play different recordings of actual instruments like flute, violin, horn, and even choirs or vocalists, among others.
How Does a Mellotron Work?
The Mellotron plays actual recorded notes from strips of magnetic tapes attached to the keys. Different keys play a specific recorded note; so, if there are 35 keys, there would also be 35 strips of tapes, each one playing 35 individual sounds.
But how does it happen?
It is really very simple.
Inside the Mellotron’s body is a mechanism with different moving parts all working together to produce the sound being played.
A big rotor at the rightmost side of the instrument’s top panel spins a long cylinder called the capstan. The capstan lies across the keyboard, just underneath a row of magnetic tapes that are approximately 5 feet long each. Each strip of tape is connected to keys, and every key has a pinch roller that pulls the magnetic tape and presses it against the capstan when the key gets pressed.
The tape is not arranged in loops, as some people believe. Rather, the length is fixed vertically, with the tape being drawn upwards when the corresponding key is hit.
The tape gets pulled up and plays the actual, pre-recorded sound as it touches the capstan. The sound can only be played for 7 or 8 seconds, after which the tape reaches the end of its length and goes back down in position, ready for when it might be played again.
The Mellotron can play up to three different pre-recorded sounds per key. The sounds can be selected by turning the knob and pointing it to the desired sound. For instance, by moving the control from cello to violin, the head across the tapes changes position so that it will play the tape bearing the pre-recorded violin sounds. Turn the knob back to cello, and the head moves back as well so that will it pick and play the tape with the pre-recorded cello sounds.
The pace of the rotor can also be controlled. It can either be sped or slowed down, creating that pitch-bent effect. The tone control, meanwhile, can tweak the sound and make it go dark and heavy or light and bright.
Notable Mellotron Users
Princess Margaret, King Hussein of Jordan, Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and Peter Sellers —what do they all have in common?
Well, they love their Mellotron and dedicated a corner of their precious space for this instrument.
The Mellotron graced quite a few songs across different genres, especially pop and rock, since its creation. It has that prominent, unearthly, and lofi-like tone that is impossible not to notice.
Hailed as the most famous Mellotron figure in mainstream music of all time, the Mellotron flutes filled the intro of the Beatles’ iconic song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”. They also used the Mellotron Spanish guitar for the intro of the song “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”.
The Rolling Stones
Brian Jones played the Mellotron on several songs such as “We Love You”, “She’s a Rainbow“, “2000 Light Years from Home“, and “Jigsaw Puzzle“.
Rick Wakeman played the Mellotron as a stand-in track for what was supposed to be a symphonic overdub on David Bowie’s hit song “Space Oddity”. For some reason, the orchestral piece that should be playing the Mellotron’s part for the final cut was ditched, and the Mellotron remained.
John Paul Jones used the Mellotron flute for the intro of their song “Stairway to Heaven”, and Mellotron string for the “The Rain Song” and “Kashmir”.
Noel Gallagher and Paul Arthurs played the Mellotron on several of their album’s tracks, particularly the Mellotron solo cello on their hit single “Wonderwall”. They also played the Mellotron on their single “Go Let It Out”.
They recorded several of their tracks with their newly restored Mellotron for their studio album “OK Computer”. They also used the Mellotron eight-voice choir sound for “Exit Music (For a Film)”.
They used the Mellotron strings and voices throughout their composition “Phaedra”.
They used the Mellotron on almost every song of their 7 albums. Millions of people were fooled into believing that the band was backed by a symphony orchestra – but it was just really the Mellotron!
They used the Mellotron string and brass on the extended introduction of “Watcher of the Skies”.
They used the Mellotron strings and voices throughout their album “The Wake of Poseidon”.
The classic Mellotron intro was played for their track “Changes”.
They used lots of Mellotron violin for their track “Ladytron” – this title is actually a wordplay in which the “tron” part refers to the Mellotron keyboard that the band used throughout the song.
The Mellotron Today: Its Flaw is the Feature
In the past, the only way to incorporate orchestral sound in a music recording was to hire an orchestra. Of course, it is not always a feasible option.
This is where the Mellotron is useful – get the sound of a full orchestra and even the choir by just playing some keys.
These days, the Mellotron is still used in music recording to impart a retro sound and feel in music. Yes, it is still fairly popular.
Why? Because nothing sounds quite like it, not even its more stable cousin, the synthesizer.
It still adheres to the old standard of Mellotron, which is pre-recording the sound and storing it the analog way in tapes. It has that characteristic analog sound that can be unpredictable at times due to the antique nature of its system.
So, how does it fare with all the other more modern instruments?
The thing about the Mellotron is that its flaw is actually its strength. It is the feature that makes the instrument recognizable.
The Mellotron will certainly not go away soon.
Joyce Ann graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies at New Era University. She especially enjoyed her journalism class and was nominated for Photojournalist of the Year. Joyce Anne loves music; she is a self-taught piano player. When she's not writing (or baking or watching documentaries), she's probably playing songs on the piano, mostly by ear.