Mellotrons – How They Work, Best Options (2024)

A Mellotron is an older polyphonic sampling keyboard developed as a further improvement on the Chamberlin, an electro-mechanical keyboard invented by Harry Chamberlin in the 1940s.

Mellotrons typically consist of 35 notes. When pressing a key, a magnetic strip is pushed against a capstan, pulling it across a playhead. The strip usually lasts for 8 seconds, and the tape rewinds when the key is released. 

The unique sound of a Mellotron comes from the slight imperfections in the pitch of acoustic instruments, the playback defects of an analog system, and the variations in recording over a low-fidelity system

The Mellotron – At a Glance

  • The Mellotron is a polyphonic sampling keyboard developed as an improvement on the Chamberlin, known for its unique sound created by analog imperfections.
  • Invented in the 1960s in England, it gained popularity with bands like The Beatles, King Crimson, and Genesis.
  • Early Mellotrons used magnetic tape strips to mimic instrument sounds, which are polyphonic, emulating chords.
  • Modern digital Mellotrons like the M4000D offer vintage sound emulation and MIDI compatibility.
  • Prices range from $990 for the Mellotron Micro to $14,500 for the MKVII Hardwood version.
  • Famous songs featuring Mellotrons include “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Kashmir,” and “Paranoid Android.”
  • Software versions like Arturia Mellotron V provide Mellotron emulation for modern music production.

History And Creation Of The Mellotron

The first Mellotron was invented in the 1960s in Birmingham, England, and these were originally meant to be home entertainment devices. 

An employee of Harry Chamberlain’s, Bill Fransen, took the Chamberlain Musicmaster 600s to Bradley Brothers’ British firm, asking for improvements on the device by adding matched tape relay heads. Thus, this led to the first blueprint of the first Mellotron MKI. 

There were many takers for this new and unique sound. Apart from musicians such as The Beatles, who used it on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Bands like King Crimson and Genesis also used the Mellotron often, while the instrument was also enjoyed by personalities such as Princess Margaret, David Nixon, and Eric Robinson.

Although the production of Mellotrons stopped in 1986, they were incorporated by bands in the 90s, such as Oasis and Radiohead, in their sound. 

How Do They Work?

The original and early Mellotrons were based on the principle of applying magnetically recorded tape in electronic organs to create basic tones. Since these preceded modern-day samplers, which capture and store sounds, Mellotrons were used to imitate instruments such as violin or even vocals. These devices are polyphonic; pressing one key emulates the multiple notes of a chord. The original Mellotron MKI and the MKII are some examples.

The Best Mellotrons to Buy Online (2024)

With the advent of technology, Mellotrons received a digital makeover. The Mellotron M4000D is a digital keyboard that offers a MIDI output. The sounds are based on the original, vintage Mellotron and Chamberlain tones. These were introduced in 2010 and are built like a modern synth. The audio produced is uncompressed in 24bit.

Additionally, there is also the Mellotron Micro and the Mellotron 4000D Mini, which are 25 and 37-key variants of the Digital version, respectively. They offer the same functionality in a more compact form.

The Mellotron is also available as a rack-mounted unit in the form of the M4000D Rack, and the sounds can be accessed using other MIDI keyboards and even instruments.

Apart from the originals, many brands have also created pedals for a Mellotron effect for guitars and basses. Electro Harmonix’s MEL9 is an emulation that offers the user a variety of traditional Mellotron sounds such as strings, orchestra, cello, flute, etc.

Like all other things, technological advancements have been made to Mellotrons. Even though the modern ones no longer use the magnetic strip, the sounds they emulate are still very much the same.

Is It A Synth?

The Mellotron is, in fact, an electronic keyboard, but unlike a traditional synthesizer, the sound is generated from the 35 individual tapes containing different sounds. This allows them to emulate completely different instruments like modern-day sampling devices. 

The mechanism that gives them their unique sound also became a major drawback for users during the initial period. The wheels and rollers of the tape rack often needed adjustment because the tape speed had tended to become erratic. There was also the possibility of misalignment between the tape heads and tape, which led to poor-quality sound output.

How Much Do They Cost?

  • The starting price for the analog Mellotron MKIV, which is still in production, is around $6800 and goes up to $14500 for the MKVII Hardwood version. Additional components such as tape rolls, additional sounds, and volume pedals cost extra. 
  • Digital versions of the Mellotron, such as the M4000D, are priced around $2799. The M4000D Mini is around $1990, and the Mellotron Micro is approx $990.
  • The Mellotron rack mount is available and in production for around $1845.

Of course, these numbers in no way reflect the exact costs since Mellotrons are not as widely used as other organs. The best way to get your hands on one is to browse online music stores to see who offers the best deal. Another way to get one of these is to visit your local vintage music shop or second-hand music shop. These places often have these rare gems in stock. If you get lucky, you might even be able to get your hands on the original MKI and MKII from users who are looking to sell them to potential Mellotron enthusiasts.

Famous Mellotron Songs

It is hard to not tell the Mellotron apart from other synths in a song. Since their invention, they have been used in many iconic and anthemic songs. Some of these are:

  • Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles
  • The Court Of King Crimson by King Crimson
  • Kashmir by Led Zeppelin
  • Space Oddity by David Bowie
  • 2000 Lightyears From Home by The Rolling Stones
  • Paranoid Android by Radiohead
  • Phaedra by Tangerine Dream
  • Wonderwall by Oasis
  • Watcher Of The Sky by Genesis

While the list is exhaustive, and there are many notable uses of the instrument throughout musical history, Mellotrons have also made their way into the sounds of current artists such as the Foo Fighters, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, and Air, to name a few. 

The Software Evolution Of Mellotrons

Procuring a Mellotron, with its pretty limited tonality, might not seem like the most practical thing to do. The good news is that now you have brands such as Arturia who have created software that specifically emulates them. The Arturia Mellotron V Software comes with presets that give you access to the original sound of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Genesis. Additionally, you can also tweak the parameters to customize the sound further. 

You can use the Arturia KeyLab or any other MIDI controller to use this software, and it is compatible with all DAWs on Windows as well as Mac computers.

Summary

The Mellotron is truly unique in not just the way they were designed but also the sound they produce. No matter what the genre, they have found their way into some of the most classic pieces of music made over the decades. Thanks to innovations in technology, they have morphed into a digital form, and they now take up very little space on your computer. Whether you are a fan or immensely dislike its sound, a Mellotron is not a mere fad in the history of music, and it continues to thrive and inspire even today. 

Featured Image by: Buzz Andersen from San Francisco, California, United StatesCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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