A Mellotron History
Popular music and its culture has given us many famous instrument innovations. The electric guitar, the Rhodes Piano and the synthesizer quickly come to mind . Our capacity for invention seems at times to be limitless when a problem stands between us and our artistic vision. One problem facing all musicians at one time or another is the matter of artistic control and the ability to realize a sound without having the facility to play the instrument responsible for that sound. Multi-track recording gave a single musician the ability to manipulate time by overdubbing a performance to create a multi instrument piece of music but, he still was faced with learning and playing those instruments himself. A major driving force for today's music industry, to be sure.
In 1946, a clever man named Harry Chamberlin saw a solution to this problem. One day, while playing his home organ, Harry got out a portable tape recorder to record his playing for some friends. After having made the recording, the BIG IDEA struck him. He thought, if I can make a recording of myself playing, why not build a machine that plays recordings of these (and any other) sounds? Harry had seen the first sampler that has culminated to date in the machine that you, dear reader, are about to load these sounds into. Full circle.
According to Harry's son Richard, Harry's first machine was the model 100
rhythmate. This machine had 14 loops of drum patterns and was aimed at the home organ
market. Pleased with the success of this machine, he then built a shop in Upland Ca. and
began production of the Model 200 keyboard.This instrument used quarter inch full track
tape and the first version of his multi station tape changing system. Oddly, this machine
also had a steel subframe that was soon abandoned with the design of the 300/350 series.
The lack of a subframe was the major design flaw in all of Harry's subsequent models up to
the M series. It's the first thing that the Bradley Bros. would add to this
design in producing their first Mellotron.
Nine months later, Bill concluded that even though Harry's wonderful keyboard was sound in principle, he was never going to fix the problems that continued to plague the tape shuttling system. Believing that the idea was to good to be left alone, Bill "appropriated" two of Harry's Model 600 Music Masters and took them to England to try and find someone with the engineering and manufacturing talent to bring this idea to fruition.
While looking for this talent in Birmingham, Bill contacted Leslie Bradley of Bradmatic Ltd. and asked if they could supply a set of 70 matched replay heads. Les consulted with his brothers Frank and Norman and replied that they could indeed do this. The brothers were very curious about this strange request ( Frank rightly guessed that they must be for some sort of music machine) and inquired further.The Brothers were impressed when Bill showed them how their 70 replay heads were being used and when asked by Bill if they could improve upon and mass produce this machine, they gave him an enthusiastic yes. It should be stated here that the Bradleys at this point believed the idea to Bill's and they had no reason to believe that they were infringing on someone else's patent or intellectual property. This all came to light a year later after Harry got wind of it and hot footed it to England. Boy, was he mad.
When the dust settled, Harry agreed to sell the technology to the Bradleys
for a sum of 30,000.00 in 1966. Harry reluctantly shook Bills hand and went back
home to continue his own path of development that culminated in the Chamberlin M series of
the 1970s. Harry did some master tape trading with the Bradleys and some of
Harrys masters ended up with the Bradleys.They are now a part of the Mellotron
Archives collection that this CD ROM was made from.
A number of rock groups, the Beatles, Stones, Kinks etc.. helped make the instrument more visible and a young Brumey lad named Mike Pinder went to work for Streetly. Michael's job there was to play the finished Mellotron at the end of the assembly line and make any final adjustments before it was sent to the customer. He fell in love with the sound and decided that it would be an ideal addition to his new group the Moody Blues. Leslie Bradley helped Michael purchase a used Mk II and the group promptly used it to record their hit single Love and Beauty. Soon thereafter the Beatles cut Strawberry Fields Forever. The Mellotron sound was on it way to becoming a sonic archetype in our Pop music consciousness.
The development paths taken by Harry Chamberlin and the Bradley Brothers went in two different directions. They both knew they needed to improve reliability, portability and make a larger choice of instrument sounds available. Harry abandoned the multiple station idea of shuttling the three track tape for new sound selections and instead changed to 1/2 inch eight track tape with stereo playback capability. This was the M series. The M-1 was a single 35 note keyboard. The M-2 (or M-1D as it was originally called) had two keyboards with a 25 note keyboard being added to the left of the 35 note one. The M-4 had 4 keyboards and the Riviera Model 800 had two M-2 style units in one cabinet and a fifth foot operated 25 note unit. This last machine was Harrys crowning achievement and is now owned by Mellotron Archives. Richard Chamberlin remembers only 2 of these units being built 4 M-4's and 5 of the M-2s seeing the light of day. The production numbers for the M-1s suggest between 100 and 300 units being produced between 1970 and 1981 and is arguably the best sounding instrument of this type.
The Mellotron evolved in a much different way. After many calls to make the Mk II more portable, the Bradleys designed and built the Model 300 Mellotron. This unit (the oddest of the bunch) hints at the direction that would lead to the M400. The 300 had one 52 note keyboard, quarter inch tape and no pitch control! Only the first few had this much missed feature. Imagine.... a Mellotron that one couldnt tune. The tape library was completely redone for this instrument but only 160 units were made. They realized quickly that even though the 300 was a much slimmer version of the huge Mk II, it still wasnt portable enough and the sounds available still didnt satisfy the thirst for more variety. To satisfy this demand the Brothers also abandoned the multi station platform but retained the proprietary 3/8 inch tape format. They then developed a removable tape frame or cassette and expanded the original Mk II library to include another 16 new instruments. The new instrument designed to use these new tape frames was the ever famous M400. One couldnt go to a progressive rock concert in the 70s without seeing that unmistakable profile. It was also usually the only white keyboard on the stage. At 122 lbs. the littlest Mellotron sold over 1800 units and was the only design that came close to being a marketing success.
Why was the Mellotron more popular than the Chamberlin? A couple of
reasons. Firstly, the Bradley Brothers were geniuses in their time at constructing many
pieces and assembling the finished product, therefore, in the time it took Harry to build
one Chamberlin, the Bradleys built a dozen Mellotrons with standardized parts and
adjustment procedures. Secondly, the English groups had our attention at that time and
they were using English instruments.
This led to an unusual situation: Streetly would build a tron, call it a Novatron and sell it to you for 3500.00 where as Sound Sales would take shipment of that same machine, call it a Mellotron and charge you 4500.00 for it. Get the picture? Streetly went out of business in 1987 after heroically bucking the synthesizers domination of the market for 4 or 5 years.
The end of this story is in your hands. Mellotron Archives bought the
Bradley Brothers master tape collection of Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds and the
Mellotron Digital collection that descended from Mellotronics in London. This collection
of tapes and instruments was the source for this C.D. ROM. The sounds are exact recordings
of Mellotrons and Chamberlins right down to the pressure pad contacting the tape head for
7 seconds. (These are the last sounds on earth that need to be destroyed by looping). All
35 notes were sampled from the most well maintained Mellotrons and Chamberlins on the
planet. The renewed popularity of these sounds deserves an accurate volume like this one
and we hope you can enjoy them without worrying about fouling a tape.