The Mellotron is a keyboard instrument
that was created in 1963 by the Bradley brothers (Les, Frank and Norman) after inspiration from the Chamberlain
At this time in the history of keyboard instruments, you either had an organ (such as the Hammond organ), early synthesizer (Moog was created around this time, though numerous examples of electric keyboard instruments existed before), or a traditional piano. What the Mellotron brought to the scene was an instrument capable of producing the sounds of a vocal chorus, woodwind instruments (Oboe, for example), string instruments (Violin, Cello, etc) or other types of sounds not reproducible on the current technology. This was done not by fancy electronics, but by a clever mechanism involving audio tape. In this respect, the instrument isn't really a sampler, since it is only playing back pre-recorded sounds.
The basic mechanism is quite simple. For every one of the 35 notes available on the keyboard, there was an associated 6 foot long, 3/8" wide audio tape and tape head. By depressing a key, the tape for that key would get pinched by a rolling capstan which would pull the tape over that key's tape head (thus "playing" the tape). Since the length of the tape was only 6 feet, the 7 1/2 ips (inches per second) speed allowed for a sustained note of only about 9 seconds. Releasing the key would free the tape to be pulled back in to its original position, effectively "rewinding" the tape.
The Mellotron was capable of playing a near infinite number of sounds, limited only by the tape frame installed in the instrument. The tape frame was simply the spring-loaded device that held the tapes in their "rewound" position. Typical Mellotrons supported three different sounds per tape frame by means of having three different tracks on each tape. Sounds are selected by turning a dial on the console which in turn would shift the tape heads to the left or right. An interesting effect could be achieved if the dial was between settings; a mixture of the two adjacent tracks would be played. Changing the tape frame in the Mellotron is an involved task, and for a skilled operator, would take at least two minutes.
While the Mellotron was capable of enhancing a piece of music, they are infamous for their unreliability. Due to the large number of moving parts and the fragile nature of audio tape, they need quite a bit of maintenance and TLC. An interesting side note is that when Keith Emerson used to tour, he would travel with four Mellotrons: two to play, and two to be fixed before the next show.
Another problem with Mellotrons is the idea that they almost impossible to keep notes in sync with some sounds. Playing a chord with some sounds would be absolutely horrible if the tapes didn't start at exactly the same time.
With the modern age of integrated circuits and computers allowing for samplers to be created, the Mellotron has become obsolete. The sounds once unique to the Mellotron can now be easially duplicated on a typical sampler. In fact, Mellotron sells an Akai format CD-ROM with every Mellotron sound for about $200 US (requires a sampler with 16MB memory). Because of the modern advances, many Mellotrons have been abandoned long ago to damp basements or moldy warehouses. A recent revitalization of interest in the classic instrument has helped mend this, and Mellotron is even producing the instruments again, however.
The Mellotron existed as several models (non-exhaustive list):
- Mark I (1963)
- Mark II (1964)
- M300 (1968)
- M400 (1970 - Most popular model to date)
- Mark V (1975)
- Mark VI (1997)
It should be noted that company eventually was forced to rename as "Novatron" due to the selling off of Mellotronics in the early 1980s. If you come across a Novatron device, it is essentially a Mellotron with a "Novatron" nameplate stuck over the Mellotron name.
Some bands of note who used Mellotrons: