Basically the whole world celbrates the life and death of the great Beatle John Lennon. Yet few of us remember the instrument that John Lennon favored over many… and that is the Mellotron, one of the most original keyboards with a sound that’s so distinct that it really can’t be replicated with samples, or reproduced ever again.
This keyboard is really one of the very first ever sampling instrument ever designed. The Mellotron is a tape driven keyboard from England that is based on The Chamberlin keyboard that was made in California from the 50’s. Chamberlin came over to England with a sales agent named Bill Fransen who stole his idea and started Mellotronics with impressive engineers who made a superior model of the Chamberlin called the Mellotron MK II.
The keyboard Fransen and Co. designed became a huge hit among musicians because of the unique sound of the pre-recorded tapes, which were within the keyboard. Magnetic Tape, as many knows, has inherent inconsistencies – therefore so does the Mellotron – so when one played a note one time, it might sound completely different the next time you played it. Also, when the tape would become unusable they would have to get a second generation of the tape – possibly giving it an extra “hiss” out of the notes. The tape wasn’t the only thing adding color and distinction to the instrument, there was also the tube preamp and transisorized preamp that was found in the various MK II’s.
What is so fascinating is that each key on the keyboard has it’s own reel of tape assigned to it, with three different instruments on each reel of tape! I know, it’s a not huge selection of instruments today, even compared to a fisher price keyboard these days. Yet in the 60’s if you wanted other instrument’s sounds for the Mellotron, you had to take out a huge spool of 35 different reels of tape to put another 3 instruments into the machine. The Mellotron also had features that were unheard of back then but are now standard in every keyboard, synth, and midi controller you can get – and that’s the pitch knob. The way it worked on the Mellotron was by speeding and slowing down the tapes, thus adjusting the pitch. One would like to see any Midi keyboard do that!
These keyboards took off with musicians, you can hear it on Beatles tracks like the flutes in “Strawberry Fields”, Revolver’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Magical Mystery Tour’s “Flying”, The White Album’s “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Revolution 9.” It can also be found in many songs by King Crimson and YES, who were both big fans of the instrument.
One can still find these used today in many studios, and there are people who restore them for a living, this goes to show you how much of a distinct sound these have because most high end sampling keyboards have Mellotron samples on them, but they don’t even come close to replicating the sound of these natural instruments…
By Spencer Byrnes