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Editors' Blogs

The Mellotron: Now THIS is a Musical Computer!

December 18, 2008

Another link from Scott Dorsey: here's an infomercial for the Mellotron, the great granddaddy of all our digital samplers, sample players, and sound libraries.

The Mellotron is one of my personal passions: it's an analogue sampler, a machine that plays back recordings made on actual analogue tape. The way it works is simple in concept and a nightmare in execution: every key on the Mellotron controls a tape head that is brought down on a strip of tape that is pulled at a steady (sorta, hah!) rate over a mechanism of pulleys and springs. After 8 seconds, the tape runs out and so does your sound... erk! And when you let go of the key, the pulleys rewind the tape for you... splang!

The Mellotron and its many imitators ruled the roost throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Before digital audio got cheap, they were all there was out there, and their sounds appeared all over the place. Those flutes opening the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever"? Mellotron. The strings on just about anything from early Genesis ("Watcher of the Skies") to the entire Moody Blues catalog? Mellotron. The choir on Kraftwerk's "Radio-Activity"? ... um, actually that's a Vako Orchestron. But close!

I should point out that Mellotrons have a certain sick charm to them but aren't exactly something you want to casually go out and buy. Modern models (yes, people still build them) are more reliable than the original designs from the '60s, but they're still flaky and costly and require a fair bit of upkeep. You can get much (but not all) of the charm of the real thing with sample libraries like GForce's M-Tron and M-Tron Pro and IK's SampleTron (reviews forthcoming, honest). When someone figures out a way to emulate the behavior you get  when retriggering a Tron note before the tape has had a chance to completely rewind (it starts instantly but the recorded attack of the instrument is gone, replaced by a sudden drop into the sustain portion of the sound), then arguably we may not need real Trons at all any more... but there will always be people who like the fact that no note ever sounds quite the same twice.

Anyway, there are a ton of interesting YouTube videos about the Mellotron and its ilk, of various famous artists and less famous collectors showing these dinosaurs off... but this ad video is a favorite of mine, not only because it shows several shots of the tapes spooling along on the pulleys, but also because it's just so incredibly... well, watch it and see for yourself, why don't you? "Bye Bye Blues, two fingers, nothing up me sleeve!"

PS. The symbol of the Pathe' Company, responsible for the ad, was a rooster... so please, no emails from people wanting to know about the girl sitting on the giant cock, okay? Thanks in advance.

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