The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard originally developed and built in Birmingham, England, in 1963. It evolved from the earlier Chamberlin, a similar instrument, but could be mass produced more effectively. The instrument works by pulling a section of magnetic tape across a head when a key is pressed. The original models were designed to be used at home, and contained a variety of sounds, including automatic accompaniments. The bandleader Eric Robinson and television personality David Nixon were heavily involved in the instrument's original publicity. A number of other celebrities such as Princess Margaret were early adopters. The Mellotron's popularity greatly increased following its prominent use by The Beatles and by subsequent groups, including The Moody Blues and King Crimson. Its popularity waned, however, due to the introduction of polyphonic synthesizers and samplers in the 1980s, despite a number of high profile uses from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and XTC, and production ceased in 1986. The instrument regained popularity in the 1990s, and it was used by several notable bands, which led to production of new models in the 2000s.

Operation & History

The Mellotron generates its sound via audio tape. When a key is pressed, a tape connected to it is pushed against a playback head, similar to one found on a cassette recorder. While the key remains pressed, the tape is drawn over the playback head, and a sound is played. When the key is released, a spring pulls the tape back to its original position. The original Mellotrons (MkI/MkII) were intended to be used at home or in clubs, and were not designed for touring bands. Even the M400, which was designed to be as portable as possible, weighed over 122 pounds (55kg). Smoke, and variations in temperature and humidity were also detrimental to the instrument's reliability. While tapes were designed to last years, continual movement of the instrument, and transfer between cold storage rooms and hot lighting on stage could cause the tapes to stretch and stick on the capstan. 

Although tape samplers had been explored in research studios, the first commercially available keyboard-driven tape instruments were built and sold by California-based Harry Chamberlin. The concept of the Mellotron originated when Chamberlin's sales agent, Bill Fransen, brought two of Chamberlin's Musicmaster 600 instruments to England in 1962 to search for someone who could manufacture 70 matching tape heads for future Chamberlins. He met Frank, Norman and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd, who said they could improve on the original design. The Bradleys subsequently met bandleader Eric Robinson, who agreed to help finance the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds. Together with the Bradleys and television celebrity David Nixon, they formed a company, Mellotronics, in order to market the instrument. Robinson arranged the recording sessions at IBC Studios in London, which he co-owned with George Clouston. Bill Fransen failed to explain to the Bradleys that he was not the owner of the concept, and Chamberlin was unhappy with the fact that someone overseas was copying his idea. After some acrimony between the two parties, a deal was stuck between them in 1966, whereby they would both continue to manufacture instruments independently. Bradmatic renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970. The 35 note (G-F) model M400 version was released in 1970 and sold over 1800 units. By the early 1970s, hundreds of the instruments were assembled and sold by EMI under exclusive license. 

Many years later, following financial and trademark troubles through a U.S. distribution agreement, the Mellotron name became unavailable and resided with the American based Sound Sales, and later manufactured by Bomar Fabricating Ltd. Streetly-manufactured instruments after 1976 were sold under the name Novatron. The American Mellotron distributor, Sound Sales, produced their own Mellotron model, the 4-Track, in the early 1980s. At the same time Streetly Electronics produced a road-cased version of the 400 – the T550 Novatron. By the mid-1980s, both Sound Sales and Streetly Electronics suffered severe financial setbacks, losing their market to synthesizers and solid-state electronic samplers, which rendered the Mellotron essentially extinct. The company folded in 1986, and Les Bradley threw most of the manufacturing equipment on the skip. Streetly Electronics was subsequently reactivated by Les Bradley's son John and Martin Smith. After Les' death in 1997, they decided to resume full time operation as a support and refurbishment business. By 2007, the stock of available instruments to repair and restore was diminishing, so they decided to build a new model, which became the M4000. The instrument combined the features of several previous models, and featured the layout and chassis of an M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.

Notable Users

The first notable musician to use the Mellotron was variety pianist Geoff Unwin, who was specifically hired by Robinson in 1962 to promote the use of the instrument. He toured with the instrument and made numerous appearances on television and radio. Unwin claimed that the Mellotron allowed him to provide more accomplished performances than his own basic skills on the piano could provide, due to the automatic backing tracks on the Mk II's left hand keyboard. The earlier 1960s MK II characteristics of the instrument attracted a number of celebrities. Among the early Mellotron owners were Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers and King Hussein of Jordan. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop became interested in the possibilities of the Mellotron, after Mellotronics had targeted them as a potential customer, hoping it would allow them to increase throughput. The corporation used two custom-made models containing sound effects throughout 1963 and 1964, but found the sound wasn't up to professional broadcast quality, and had problems with fluctuating tape speed. British multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond is considered the first rock musician to record with a Mellotron, beginning in 1965. Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues worked at Streetly Electronics for 18 months in the early 1960s as a tester, and was immediately excited by the possibilities of the instrument. After trying piano and Hammond organ, he settled on the Mellotron as the instrument of choice in the band, purchasing a second-hand model from Fort Dunlop Working Men's Club in Birmingham. Pinder used the Mellotron extensively in The Moody Blues from 1967's Days of Future Passed to the 1978's "Octave".

The Moody Blues-Night: Nights in White Satin

Pinder claims to have introduced The Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney to the Mellotron, and convinced each of them to buy one. The group hired in a machine and subsequently used it on their single "Strawberry Fields Forever", recorded in various takes between November and December 1966. Though producer George Martin was unconvinced by the instrument, describing it "as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard", they continued to compose and record with various Mellotrons for the albums Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles (White Album). McCartney continued to use the Mellotron sporadically in his solo career, and his wife Linda played one while touring with Wings.

The Beatles-Strawberry Fields Forever

The Mellotron became a key instrument in progressive rock. Robert Fripp of King Crimson bought two Mellotrons when the band was formed in 1969. They were aware of Pinder's contributions to The Moody Blues and didn't want to sound similar, but there was no other way of generating the orchestral sound. The instrument was originally played by Ian McDonald, and after McDonald's departure, by Robert Fripp. Later member David Cross recalled he didn't particularly want to play the Mellotron, but felt that it was simply what he needed to do as a member of the band.

King Crimson-The Court of the Crimson King

Tony Banks bought a Mellotron to use with Genesis in 1971 from Fripp, reportedly a model used by King Crimson. He decided to approach the instrument in a different way to a typical orchestra, using block chords. Banks stated that he approached the Mellotron in the same way he would use a synth pad on later albums. His unaccompanied introduction to "Watcher of the Skies" on the album Foxtrot, played on a Mk II with combined strings and brass, became significant enough that Streetly Electronics provided a "Watcher Mix" sound with the M4000. Banks claims to still have a Mellotron in storage, but doesn't feel inclined to use it as generally prefers to use up to date technology. 

Genesis-Watcher of the Skies

The Mellotron was used by pioneering German progressive electronic band Tangerine Dream through the 1970s. Their albums Atem, Phaedra, Rubycon, Ricochet, Stratosfear, and Encore as well as founder Edgar Froese's Epsilon in Malaysian Pale provide archetypal examples of Mellotron playing. Though the Mellotron was not extensively used in the 1980s, a number of bands featured it as a prominent instrument. One of the few UK post-punk bands to do so was Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who featured it heavily on their platinum-selling 1981 album Architecture & Morality. Andy McCluskey has stated they used the Mellotron because they were starting to run into limitations of the cheap monophonic synthesizers they had used up to that point. He bought a second-hand M400 and was immediately impressed with the strings and choir sounds. XTC's Dave Gregory recalls seeing bands using Mellotrons when growing up in the 1970s, and thought it would be an interesting addition to the group's sound. He bought a second-hand model in 1982 for £165, and first used it on the album Mummer. IQ's Martin Orford bought a second hand M400 and used it primarily for visual appeal rather than musical quality or convenience. The Mellotron received notable publicity in 1995 due to its use on Oasis' album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? The instrument was played by both Noel Gallagher and Paul Arthurs on several tracks, but a particularly prominent use was the cello sound on the hit single "Wonderwall", played by Arthurs. Radiohead asked Streetly Electronics to restore and repair a model for them in 1997, and recorded with it on several tracks on their album OK Computer. Spock's Beard's Ryo Okumoto is a noted fan of the Mellotron, saying it characterises the sound of the band. This is the story of the mellotron narrated by Yes' keyboardist Rick Wakeman

The story of the mellotron