From the Chamberlin to the Mellotron

Background

Based on the Chamberlin The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard.  It was developed and built in Birmingham, England, in 1963 by the Bradley brothers who improved on the design of the Chamberlin introducing a tape-based playback system allowing it to be mass-produced more effectively.

The word Mellotron is a combination of the words “mellow” and “trombone”. The sound of the Mellotron is usually described as being warm and thick.

How the Mellotron works

The Mellotron is a keyboard instrument that plays back sounds from analogue tapes located inside the keyboard itself. The sounds themselves are stored on these tapes that run through the instrument at a fixed speed. Each time a tone is played, it repeats exactly with no variation in pitch or amplitude. There is only one key for each tape. This design resulted in several limitations of the instrument, which were overcome in the sampler.

The history and significance of the Mellotron 

The playback system gave the Mellotron a unique sound that was popular among musicians in the 1960s and 1970s. The Mellotron has been used by many famous bands, such as The Beatles,  the opening bars of “Strawberry Fields Forever” allows the listener to experience the Mellotron doing what it does best. Creating a sound that tries to mimic but is in fact unique. 

The Moody Blues iconic ” Nights in White Satin” also shows off the Mellotron in all of its glory. This track appeared on the band’s second LP “Days of Future Passed”, A concept album that fused orchestral and rock. The LP features a full orchestra and the orchestral passages are shared between the orchestra and the Mellotron. This blend gives the LP a unique sound signature.

More progressive Rock bands introduced the Mellotron into their sound.  Soon no self-respecting Prog Band would be seen without a Mellotron and the iconic sound was used to great effect on many LPs.  Check out the opening of Watcher of the Skys from Genesis 1972 prog masterpiece “Foxtrot”. Rick Walkman the keyboard player from Yes also used the Mellotron to great effect notably on the LP “Close to the Edge”. Another masterpiece of Prog Rock.

Although the Mellotron was never mass-produced after 1970, it has had a few revivals by various musicians. For example, The Cranberries used the instrument on their album To the Faithful Departed in 1996. Additionally, The Flaming Lips have built up an extensive collection of Mellotrons over time.

The rise of digital audio and the Sampler, the death of the Mellotron ?

It’s fair to say that the birth of the sampler pretty much killed off the Mellotron. Sampling gave the musician so many more options. We could now create our own sounds but the sound of the Mellotron lived on becoming part of sample library’s however for many this digital sound reproduction did not capture the spirit of the Mellotron. 

So did the Mellotron disappear. I’m pleased to say that it did not 

The sound of the Mellotron has become so iconic, so easily imitated with modern technology, that one might think it is an instrument of the past. But not for Markus Resch.

The original Mellotrons were manufactured from 1963 to the early 1970s. In 2009, a digital version of this instrument was created by Markus Resch. The new version is called “Mellotron M4000D” and is considered a complete redesign of the original device, including hardware and software improvements. This digital version has a full polyphony of 48 notes.

There are also some very good software emulations from Companies such as G-Force and UVI.

The original M4000D was released in 2012. This version included 2GB of memory, which allowed around 60 loops to be stored in the digital frame. A larger 4GB version has since been made available, allowing up to 120 stored loops. The device also features 24-bit / 96kHz

Before the sampler there was the Chamberlin

Background

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.

The Oval 1972, I’m falling in love with open air rock concerts

The Melody Maker Oval concert 1972

Two months after my first open Air concert I was back for more. I was very much into prog rock so when some of the biggest progressive rock bands of the era came together for a special concert at London’s Oval cricket ground. there was no way that I and my band of brothers were going to miss this gig. The show dubbed the “Melody Maker Poll Winners” concert, featured performances by Emerson Lake and Palmer, Focus, Genesis and Wishbone Ash.

The event was organized to celebrate the music of those groups, which had all been voted the best in their respective categories in a poll conducted by British music magazine Melody Maker. Each band played a lengthy set, with Emerson Lake and Palmer – who had just released their groundbreaking album Tarkus – closing the show.

First Up Focus

After seeing Focus at Reading it’s fair to say that I had become obsessed with them. Moving Waves was on my record player nonstop. They even had a hit with Hocus Pocus. I was expecting something exciting, and they didn’t disappoint. Jan Akkerman, in particular, was amazing. The other highlight of the focus performance was Jack Bruce of Cream fame who had been voted best bass player, from what I can remember Jack Bruce was always voted best bass player, Came on stage to Jam with the band.

A fox on stage

Next Up Genisis. If I was in love with Focus it was nothing compared to the feelings that I was starting to develop for Genesis. The gig was just before they released the Epic Foxtrot They played some stuff from it and Gabriel, who was noted for his stage costumes wore a foxes head as he performed one of the tracks. It sounded great They were brilliant.

Nothing to see here move on

Then came Argent I wasn’t that interested in them. Hold your head up had charted and it was a good single but their LP was weak and I was into LPS. In those days we all were.

They just weren’t Prog enough for me.

Then Wishbone Ash, Yea baby 😉

I loved Wishbone Ash. They were a four-piece with twin lead guitars that played off each over so well. On stage they were good and they knew it. They had a certain arrogance about them. I remember one gig of theirs that I went to they started taking the piss out of Status Quo. That gets my vote.

Argus, their third Lp had not long been released. It was a very good LP in fact I still play it from time to time when I fancy a bit of guitar music. I seem to remember enjoying them

Duck, Some madman is throwing knives on stage

Then Came ELP

ELP were The band of the time. The kings of Prog and the biggest of the lot. They were referred to as a supergroup as all three members had left successful bands to form the group. Lake was ex-King Crimson, Emerson The Nice and I think Plamer came from Atomic Rooster.

They were the band of every duffle coat dessert boot-wearing freak which of course was now our tribe. They had just released Tarkus. On the front cover was this tank-like creature, it was a concept Lp, wasn’t every LP a concept Lp those days. They had built two replica Tarkuses on each side of the stage. Every so often smoke would come out of their mouths. Looking back I can see how ridiculous that was, Spinal Tap, eat your heart out. I can remember Bert taking the piss out of them non stop. I liked them.

They played a good set Keith Emerson was nuts throwing daggers at his keyboard and trying to wrestle with it.

Greg Lake had an amazing voice It cut through like no one else’s

And that was it. A great gig and I enjoyed it more than Reading.

But there were better to come.

 

Footnote I’ve browed a couple of images from Terence Ruffle who published a great music blog. Sadly Terence is no longer with us. I never met the guy, I wish I had. He sounded like my sort of guy.  RIP Terry hope you don’t mind a fellow freak borrowing these.

 

The Roland TB 303

Background

The Roland TB 303 was a sequencer and synthesizer designed by Tadao Kikumoto and manufactured by the Roland Corporation (Japan). It was released in 1981 as an accompaniment to the TR-808 drum machine.

The TB 303 was originally intended to partner with the TR 606 drum machine so that composers could create a simple backing track for composing. The problem was it sounded nothing like a bass guitar so it did not catch on and Roland ceased production, however, It has since become one of the most widely used and influential devices in electronic music, especially house music. The machine pioneered the use of portamento on basslines and helped popularize the Acid sound that would later be developed into Acid Trance.

How it works

It is a monophonic, single oscillator bass synthesizer with a built-in sequencer and a small 2-octave “keyboard to enter notes but what gives it its distinctive sound is the resonant filter, accent control and portamento. Program in a sequence hit play and turn the controls for instant acid. Run it through a distortion pedal or FX unit for a hard aggressive sound that in my humble opinion rivals the electric guitar.

A Timeless legend

Over 40 years after its release the TB303 is still going strong. It’s near on impossible to pick one up and when they do come to market they cost a small fortune. This has led to the development of TB303 clones both hardware and software. I own an x0xbox, a hardware clone that I consider capable of producing a sound almost identical to the original although that in itself is a contradiction as no two TB303s ever sounded the same.

And of course, Roland have now cloned their own sonic invention the TB -03, Yep it’s missing a 3

And maybe also the sound. As they say close but no cigar. My x0xbox runs rings around it.