The Mellotron
September 7, 2006 6:03 PM   Subscribe

You may have never heard of it, but you've damn near certain heard it. The Mellotron (FortuneCity link) is a keyboard instrument; each of its keys triggers a tape with a pre-recorded instrument on it. It was effectively the world's first sample player. [more inside]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (38 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
As with any other vintage instrument, the Mellotron attracts its fair share of geeks. And if you can't afford to buy one, you can always roll your own from a couple of old Walkmans or download one for use in-the-box. For extra 'Tron geek porn, watch a modern-day one being disemboweled (quicktime). In the meantime, as always you can leave the debates over the merits of the real thing to the kids over at Steve Albini's place.

previously: 1
somewhat related: 1, 2
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:03 PM on September 7, 2006

I remember reading an account of Genesis touring during what I consider their glory years (Nursery Cryme to Wind and Wuthering). Tony Banks was responsible for the Genesis sound. He used a 'device' which depended on various things rotating to play cassette tape loops. Apparently this thing had to be rebuilt every night as it was so prone to breaking down. Tell me: was this the Mellotron?

A garlic scented kiss from The Lamia to those who answer.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:18 PM on September 7, 2006

Well, Turtles, I can't say for sure but it sure sounds like it. I've heard a similar story from my aunt going to see the Moody Blues here in the Hague give or take a few decades ago. It sure is prone to breaking down while on the road, though, which is not too strange if you consider that each key has its own "tape player".

In fact, you could say that the most vulnerable part of Genesis' touring gear of that period was the Mellotron and its, wait for it... Tony Banks. *drum roll, mellotron hit*
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:25 PM on September 7, 2006

Ah -- memories of Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Keith Emerson (ELP, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Rick Wakeman.
posted by ericb at 6:33 PM on September 7, 2006

For the minimalist, there's Laurie Anderson and her tape-bow violin. She makes some truly fantastic noise with this thing in her live concert film, "Home of the Brave."
posted by lekvar at 6:37 PM on September 7, 2006

goodnewsfortheinsane: lovely, buddy: thank you.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:38 PM on September 7, 2006

Nice. Such a wonderful sound.

Those not into the classic rock may recognize the mellotron from, say, Sebadoh's "Spoiled".

/sorry, don't know how to link MP3s
posted by stinkycheese at 6:50 PM on September 7, 2006

Turtles, that is indeed the Mellotron. Each tape had something like 8 seconds of sound, so holding down any one key on the keyboard would only result in that note dying out after those 8 seconds. This physical limitation made the Mellotron quite challenging to play live. There is a truly cool digital simulation called the M-Tron, and it even has the same note duration limitation. It's one of my favorite synth plugins, and it includes ALL the tapes that were available for the Mellotron, including the harp glissando, a thing of beauty.
posted by dbiedny at 6:50 PM on September 7, 2006

Folks, let's not forget Mellotron's dad, the Chamberlin--the inspired playing of which can be found all over this record.
posted by retronic at 6:57 PM on September 7, 2006

early Wakeman-era Yes featured the mellotron prominently.
posted by quonsar at 6:57 PM on September 7, 2006

The Smashing Pumpkins used one on Siamese Dream.
posted by malaprohibita at 7:04 PM on September 7, 2006

This is the best post I've seen on Metafilter. That Tweakbench link itself is fantastic - there are some awesome VST plugins there.

These sounds are going to keep me busy for months.

Kudos to the poster.
posted by eraserhed at 7:19 PM on September 7, 2006

"Mellotron": best name ever for an electronic instrument. (Okay, "Moog" was pretty cool too, but he didn't have to think of that, it was his name.)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:23 PM on September 7, 2006

As a high school band geek infatuated with the Beatles, hearing about the Mellotron was pretty wild back in the Sixties.

Little did I know that, as a piano player, I would stop reading magazines like "Keyboard" ten years later, as they became the baliwick of computer geeks and I remained a piano player.
posted by kozad at 7:28 PM on September 7, 2006

ahhh, I'm taken back to high school, close listening to Superunknown with the liner notes open in front of me, desperately trying to tell which instrument was the mellotron.

nifty post! thanks.
posted by carsonb at 7:38 PM on September 7, 2006

Let's us not forget the Space Echo. Check out that crazy tape loop!
posted by TonyRobots at 7:39 PM on September 7, 2006

Sorry, the site has a redirect that undermined my URL copying. Here's the real link.
posted by TonyRobots at 7:40 PM on September 7, 2006

Oh, lord. A friend of mine had a vintage Space Echo. That thing had the sexyest tone, perfect for making old-style dub. I miss playing wth that thing.
posted by lekvar at 7:50 PM on September 7, 2006

eraserhead: Kudos to the poster.

Seconded! Thanks.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:03 PM on September 7, 2006

Please pardon my bad manners:

Thanks, goodnewsfortheinsane!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:09 PM on September 7, 2006

Yes, kudoes to gnfti. We had a mellotron in our garage when we lived in LA, sometime in the early 1980s. Those tapes were a pain to keep tidy and the thing took hours to "tune" since it wasn't used all the time. I think it burned in our garage fire and frankly, no one cried over its demise. That being said, I too dug the sound and kind of regret that we never got more than sci-fi sounding weirdness out of it.
posted by Lynsey at 8:37 PM on September 7, 2006

ah, the mellotron. i know intimately how much a pain in the ass it is; my ex (keyboard player specializing in vintage gear/sounds) had one of the originals, and it broke and broke and broke and was always in the shop -- and almost no one knows how to repair them.

on the other hand, it's very cool, and you can always play the intro of "strawberry fields forever" and look brilliant.

see also the mellotron archive.

don't get me started about how much i miss the b3.
posted by sdn at 8:45 PM on September 7, 2006

coolest synth name: Farfisa Syntheslalom. Complete with a little red man skiing down a hill. Great sounding, too. Unfortunately some of the keys stopped working and I am clueless how to fix it.
posted by johnnyblotter at 8:50 PM on September 7, 2006

listen to some stereolab . they even have a song called mellotron .
posted by mishaco at 9:22 PM on September 7, 2006

Porcupine Tree has a song called "Mellotron Scratch" on their "Deadwing" album. Those with gobs of bandwidth can hear it here: keep clicking on the forward double arrows, it's the 6th song. The lyrics can be found here. (I like Porcupine Tree's music but the design of their web site makes it hard to link to anything.)

And oh, I like linking to Wikipedia articles, so voila.
posted by davy at 10:32 PM on September 7, 2006

I could waste hours just reading the reviews on Planet Mellotron. Thanks for the post!

Trivia: "In 1994, McCartney bought the FX Console model featured on the recording of 'Strawberry Fields Forever.'"
posted by SteveInMaine at 3:20 AM on September 8, 2006

Julian Cope plays a fluorescent Mellotron.
posted by scruss at 4:14 AM on September 8, 2006

"Epitath" by King Crimson (Greg Lake singing) has enough Mellotron for the rest of your life
posted by hal9k at 4:30 AM on September 8, 2006

"In the Court of the Crimson Ooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh..."
posted by thrakintosh at 4:37 AM on September 8, 2006

"In 1994, McCartney bought the FX Console model featured on the recording of 'Strawberry Fields Forever."

Yes, but apparently when Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles catalog the Mellotron was part of the deal, and the instrument is now rumored to be in a warehouse in Bahrain, where it is being played by 4 monkeys and a giraffe.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:56 AM on September 8, 2006

early Wakeman-era Yes featured the mellotron prominently.

I can remember "Roundabout" experienced from a second row seat. The a cappella vocals right before ending guitar bit are half live vocal and half Mellotron of the band singing.

sdn: you can always play the intro of "strawberry fields forever" and look brilliant.

Years ago, I found a Mellotron soundfont (remember those?) and the first thing I played was the Strawberry Fields intro. To hear those sounds coming out of my speakers gave me industrial chills and put a big old goofy grin on my face. The newer software based tron versions are much more reliable, but the Rube Goldberg-esque complexity of the original has a special place in my gadgeteer heart.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 5:39 AM on September 8, 2006

Ah yes the mellotron -a classic! It instantly reminds me of Strawberry Fields and Kashmir. Thanks for the post!
posted by ob at 6:02 AM on September 8, 2006

Of course the Strokes use one exclusively for Ask Me Anything on their new disc (Amazon - Real Player.)
posted by juiceCake at 7:09 AM on September 8, 2006

For more on the Beatles' use of the Mellotron and early Moog synths, you must read:
The Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn
Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four's Instruments, from Stage to Studio by Andy Babiuk.
Both books offer comprehensive detail and great photos.
posted by Lord Kinbote at 7:36 AM on September 8, 2006

If you learn to recognize the sound of the Mellotron, you'll start hearing it everywhere.

Props on the Porcupine Tree reference. Their lead singer/songwriter, Stephen Wilson, produced a few Opeth albums...there isn't much Mellotron on the metal albums he produced (Damnation and Blackwater Park) but if you listen to Opeth's progressive album, Damnation, you'll hear tons of Mello goodness.
posted by baphomet at 8:09 AM on September 8, 2006

Those things are such a blast to play around with.
posted by Relay at 10:16 AM on September 8, 2006

I hope one day to record the loops necessary to realize a mighty AGGROTRON.
posted by rut roh at 11:01 AM on September 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Forget ye not also the Optigan, later released as the Vako Orchestron as used by Kraftwerk (you can hear it on most of Trans Europe Express).
posted by 6am at 4:38 PM on September 8, 2006

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