Inside the Mellotron

by Howard Boder

Sounding Like Tony Banks: The Mellotron

What is a Mellotron

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The Mellotron is an early polyphonic sampling keyboard that was developed soon after the (earlier) Chamberlin which was developed in the US as a home entertainment keyboard. Most Mellotrons consists of just 35 notes. When you press a key, a strip of magnetic tape is passed over a playback head playing the sound rather like a tape recorder but the strip only lasts about 8 seconds. When the key is released, the tape rewinds, ready to be played again.

Each tape has an authentic recording of the note played by the actual instrument(s). Due to the imperfect pitch of acoustic instruments, the defects in an analogue playback system (wow and flutter), slight variations in recording, and the low fidelity of the system, the result is a unique sound. The characteristic of tone is haunting and has emotion that is absent from cleaner digital sounds which has led to its lasting appeal.

Only three sounds were available on the later (and popular) model M400 (A, B and C). Earlier models had a split keyboard with solo sounds on the right hand and accompaniment sounds for the left hand. The unwieldiness of the actual instrument (weight and fragility) has led to it being an unreliable stage instrument, such that several bands (Genesis and King Crimson) for example, ended up taking several on the road once they could afford to do that. As well as many musicians, Princess Margaret and Peter Sellers were early adopters, probably for the home entertainment value.

Tony Banks

“Tony Banks bought one from Robert Fripp in 1971 and used it from Nursery Chryme onwards. “

Why it was used?

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In the decades before digital technology bought high quality orchestral sounds for keyboards, the mellotron allowed bands to add strings, choirs, brass and other sounds to a track without having to use an orchestra. The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of progressive rock which often seeks to combine classical music with rock. The mellotron was ideal for that.

Mike Pinder (the Moody Blues) was a key pioneer and early user of the instrument. He worked for Streetly Electronics (the manufacturer of the mellotron) in the 1960s.

Famous non-genesis tracks featuring the mellotron

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Famous early uses include:

  • The flute sound at the start of “Strawberry fields forever” (the Beatles)
  • The mournful strings sound on “Night in White Satin” (the Moody Blues)
  • The string sound at the start of “In the court of the crimson king” (King Crimson)
  • The string sound on “Joan of Arc” (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark)
  • The string sound on “Space Oddity” (David Bowie)
  • The cello sound on “Wonderwall” (Oasis)
the_moody_blues nights_in_white_satin_s

Genesis use of the mellotron

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Tony Banks bought one from Robert Fripp in 1971 and used it from Nursery Chryme onwards. Key tracks include:

  • “Watcher of the skies” opening (Tony used the knob half way between strings and brass to get both sounds on the right hand and bass accordion on the left hand)
  • “Suppers Ready” ending (Brass B sound)
  • “Firth of fifth” (String sound)
  • “Dance on a volcano” (String and choir sound)
  • “Afterglow” (Triple 8 Choir sound)
M400 Mellotron

Why do The Book of Genesis use a Memotron?

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The memotron (made by the Manikin Electronics) is a great modern alternative to the mellotron as it is light-weight, portable, and has all Genesis sounds. The rack module has the added bonus of allowing up to 6 sounds to be selected by midi channel. A typical Genesis tribute show for us will feature up to 6 sounds so this avoids reloading sounds between songs. A quality midi compatible keyboard (I use a small Roland) connected to the memotron with a DIN lead is all you need. Our stage manager (Simon Beever) has built me a cabinet so that on stage I can give the visual appearance of the real thing.