Before the sampler there was the Chamberlin


The Chamberlin is a unique keyboard instrument that has been around since the 50s. It was invented in America by Harry Chamberlin who had this great idea when setting up his portable tape recorder to record himself playing on an organ at home, but then realized he could make another type of instrument where you can replay sounds from real-life instruments instead!

The Chamberlin was an instrument that could be played like a piano but with new sounds. 

It used a complex mechanism that stored analogue audio samples on strips of tape, and when you pressed any one key it would play forward or backwards depending on which way it has been facing up until then. The note had a limited length – 8 seconds in most cases. 

The Chamberlin was a precursor to the Mellotron and led to many other instruments that we’re able to produce these types of unique sounds for musicians to use in their music, such as string synthesizers and electronic organs and the sampler.

The birth of the Chamberlin 

Harry began production and to promote his instrument Harry teamed up with a chap called Bill Fransen who was totally fascinated by this unique invention and subsequently became Chamberlin’s main salesman. However, there were terrible reliability problems using an early tape mechanism which resulted in tapes getting mangled easily due to their poor quality material used at first production stages – so much that it is said 40% of all produced instruments had failed before even leaving the factory doors!

 In addition, it was impossible to fix these machines due to the lack of availability of parts.

Even Harry himself had trouble repairing his own invention! It is said that he once took a broken instrument apart and found a live frog inside! If this is true, then I am totally amazed at the poor maintenance procedures used by Harry.

From Chamberlin to Mellotron

Fransen felt that Chamberlin would never be able to fix these problems alone and so,  Fransen brought some Chamberlin’s to the UK in the early ’60s to seek finance and a development partner. He showed the Chamberlin to a tape head manufacturer, Bradmatics, in the Midlands who agreed to refine the design and produce them for Fransen. 

 A new company, Mellotronics, was set up in the UK to manufacture and market this innovative new instrument and work got underway. The problem was Bradley brothers (Frank, Leslie and Norman who owned Bradmatics)    unaware that they were basically copying and ripping off someone else’s idea. Seems like Fransen forgot to tell them about Harry.

It wasn’t long before Harry Chamberlin got to hear of this and he too went to the UK to meet with the Bradley brothers. After some acrimonious discussions, the two parties settled with Harry selling the technology to the Bradleys. Mellotrons continued to develop their ‘Mellotron’ whilst Harry returned to the US where he continued to make his Chamberlins with his son, Richard, in a small ‘factory’ behind his garage and later, a proper factory in Ontario, a small suburb in Los Angeles. In total, they made a little over 700 units right through until 1981. Harry died shortly afterwards.