Mellodrama: The Mellotron Documentary


The Mellotron is a 1960s sample-playing keyboard where each key triggers a short tape recording of a real instrument. Today Sunday is the premier of Dianna Dilworth's Mellodrama: The Mellotron Documentary at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. (Watch the trailer above.) Over at Rhizome, BB pal John Alderman interviews Dilworth about her film and the revolutionary music machine. From Rhizome:
John Alderman: People often find uses for devices that are outside the inventor's original intentions, and it seems like that's what happened with these instruments.

Dianna Dilworth: Absolutely. Harry Chamberlin, the man who invented it was really into playing the Hammond organ but he wanted one that would play orchestral sounds, and so he started doing experiments and working with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra to record sounds. His vision for it was very much for it to be in every living room across America for sing-a-longs and socializing. Yet it was adapted by non-conventional musicians and it took off in psychedelic and progressive rock, and that he really didn't intend. In fact, people would try to buy the instrument from him and he'd tell them, "no, no, you're supposed to use it like this."

What are the most recognizable songs that feature these instruments?

The most famous song is "Strawberry Fields" by the Beatles; the flute sound at the beginning is a Mellotron. On the other Beatles' song, "Bungalow Bill" there's a Spanish guitar sound at the beginning, and it's actually just a rhythm track on the Mellotron. The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" has it throughout the song. It was largely associated with progressive rock, but it was used by other people like Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and the Zombies.
"Interview with Mellotron Documentary Filmmaker Dianna Dilworth"

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  1. Harry Chamberlin, the man who invented it was really into playing the Hammond organ but he wanted one that would play orchestral sounds, and so he started doing experiments and working with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra to record sounds. His vision for it was very much for it to be in every living room across America for sing-a-longs and socializing.

    This sounds like what would later become the Optigan (made by Mattel), which (if I’m not mistaken) actually DID have loops of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra for you to play along to (I know for a fact that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played some of the recorded loops).

    Supposedly there was a Mellotron tape rack of “Beatles back up vocals” made in the late 60’s– just Paul going “laaaaa” or something, but the Beatles broke up before taking possession of it.

    Mellotrons still sound better than any sampling keyboard, to me anyway; they’re a lot more human. They also (unfortunately) tend to have tuning problems, and don’t stand up well to travel (as several progressive rock bands discovered in the 70’s).

    This looks like a good documentary (for a music nerd like me, anyway).

  2. In the early Seventies I met David Van Koevering the builder of the VAKO ORCHESTRON, who also once worked with Moog. The Orchestron cam e from the Mattel Optigan. We would go to his shop to talk about synths and music. IIRC, the unit I saw at his shop was the unit Patrick Moraz would use, which had at least six offstage optical disc readers. Here is a clip of the smaller version.

    Van Koevering was very imaginative and odd. Googling his name today brought some surprises to say the least, I thought he was dead and never would have guessed he was some strange preacher.

  3. Actually, the Mellotron doesn’t actually play a ‘short sample’, but rather a continuous tone from tape loop –each key has its own dedicated loop. The loops are several feet long and neatly arranged inside the body of the organ.
    BTW –the Moody Blues pretty much made this thing their signature sound –it’s all over their late 60’s albums.

  4. The Mellotron plays a sample that is only 8 seconds long, after which the tape returns to home position. Each note can not be played any longer than 8 continuous seconds. The tapes can be played in many short bursts, but must not have more playing time than return time. The tapes were tensioned on spring loaded idlers. See this http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/oct07/images/MellotronM4000_Diagram1_l.jpg

    This is why Van Koevering bought the Optigan, it used optical discs, the sample was in a circle and could be played continuously. Again, IIRC, each offstage optical reader held two optical discs.

  5. The Mellotron on the Beatles’ “Bungalow Bill” is not the Spanish guitar…that’s a Spanish guitar. The Mellotron comes in at the end, playing the melody line as the song breaks down into applause.

  6. There is a company in the UK (I think) reproducing new replica Mellotrons. I actually emailed them to query about “why hasn’t anyone made a digital copy of Mellotron?” (There are digital Mellotron emulation programs that are pretty good sounding– why not build one into a road worthy keyboard?) They balked at the idea.

  7. @TedMills:

    Check the trailer again — the “Spanish guitar” is a stock prerecorded break played on a Mellotron. Cool. Mellotron wasn’t just sampling sonic qualities, it was used to capture entire measures of rhythm tracks.

  8. Brian Wilson? I need to see this movie. Another great example is King Crimson’s use of it, particularly on “In the Court of the Crimson King.”

  9. Bradtronics Ltd. made the first Mellotrons in Birmingham, England. Streetly Electronics, run by John Bradley (who helped build Mellotrons alongside his father, Les, and two uncles at Bradtronics) and John’s business partner, Martin Smith, have started producing a modern version of the M400:

    http://www.mellotronics.com/StreetlyM4000.pdf

    I met John and Martin when they came to LA a few years ago to refurbish a couple of machines at a private studio.

  10. If you’re looking for more modern use of the Mellotron, you can find it on albums by e.g. The Smashing Pumpkins (Mellon Collie…) and Red Hot Chilli Peppers (Blood Sugar…) too.

    It became associated with Progressive bands really as a matter of timing: it became available in the late 60s when those were the bands that were getting adventurous with sound in general. As soon as those keyboardists could replace the Mellotron, they did: as already pointed out, they just weren’t made for touring. However, a well-maintained Mellotron in a studio environment could be TOO clean, without that “organic” wobbliness that everyone remembers.

  11. @SKORE

    Of course there ARE digital versions of Mellotron, Birotron and Optigan:

    Sure, I know about this, it might be OK for the studio, but that’s not something I would prefer to take up on stage. Piano usually players bring digital pianos (by Kawai or Yamaha, for example) on tour, not laptops with plug-ins. They could, but why risk having a system crash on a laptop in the middle of the tour when you can have an actual instrument (I’ve never heard of a digital piano “crashing”, correct me if I’m wrong. At the very least it’s a rare occurrence.)

  12. I wrote an essay on the Mellotron for my electronic music class. Those things were awesome.
    Other notable examples:
    Used a number of time on Radiohead’s OK Computer, most notably the choruses on Exit Music (For a Film) and The Tourist. The odd cutoff (with no decay) that makes them sound so unnatural is exactly what made the Mellotron sound so unique.

  13. Bangbangblog,

    You’re right. I went shooting my mouth off without watching the whole thing. D’oh!

    Some more Internet digging has found more facts:

    a) the guitarist is Eric Cook, an Australian session guitarist
    and
    b) You can also hear the same sound on King Crimson’s live album “EPITAPH”.

    Found on
    http://877.fc2web.com/bungalow.html

    Okay, now I feel I’ve added to the conversation! :-)

  14. Digital samples are no replacement for a real Mellotron, Chamberlin, Birotron, Orchestron, or Optigan.
    They just don’t do the same things or have the same personality, and the samples are bad in many cases.

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