Introducing the Mellotron: A Groovy 1965 Demonstration of the “Musical Computer” Used by The Beatles, Moody Blues & Other Psychedelic Pop Artists

With a name like a laid back 60s robot, the Mel­lotron has been most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with psy­che­del­ic pop like The Bea­t­les’ “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er,” the Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin,” and David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty.” But the ear­ly sam­pling key­board, an elec­tro-acoustic device that used pre-record­ed tape strips mount­ed inside an organ-like key­board, was first mar­ket­ed, Gor­don Reid writes at Sound on Sound, to “old-time/­mod­ern/Latin dance audi­ences.” It was sup­posed to con­vinc­ing­ly repli­cate an orches­tra.

The Mel­lotron, built and sold by Mel­lotron­ics, Ltd., was based on an ear­li­er instru­ment, the Cham­ber­lin Music­Mas­ter, which used record­ed notes from mem­bers of Lawrence Welk’s band—hardly the hippest sounds on the scene when the Mel­lotron MK1 debuted in 1963. By the time of the MK2, how­ev­er, the device devel­oped into a pow­er­ful mul­ti­tim­bral machine, with a dual key­board, “con­tain­ing more than 70 3/8‑inch tape play­ers, a reverb unit, ampli­fiers and speak­ers.”

The rock world “took the Mel­lotron to its heart,” Reid com­ments, “and it was this that ensured its suc­cess.” It could sim­u­late oth­er instru­ments, but it did so with its own dis­tinc­tive fla­vor (pro­vid­ing not only the flute intro to “Straw­ber­ry Fields” but the Span­ish gui­tar at the begin­ning of The White Album’s “The Con­tin­u­ing Sto­ry of Buf­fa­lo Bill”). Brad Allen Williams sums up the slight­ly more portable Mel­lotron M400’s lim­it­ed oper­a­tions suc­cinct­ly at Fly­pa­per:

Due to the rather prim­i­tive tape mech­a­nism (and the inher­ent chal­lenges of keep­ing 35 play­back heads and pinch rollers in good con­di­tion), Mel­lotrons are a lit­tle unpre­dictable and can be quite char­ac­ter­ful. The action of the key­board is stiff and unusu­al-feel­ing, so vir­tu­osic play­ing is not usu­al­ly in the cards. All of these “bugs” some­how become “fea­tures,” how­ev­er — the quirks add up to a son­ic char­ac­ter that’s icon­ic and instant­ly rec­og­niz­able!

Like so many dis­tinc­tive ana­log instru­ments from pop music’s past, the Mel­lotron has returned in Nord’s updat­ed Mel­lotron MK VI, which “uses new mechan­ics and state of the art tech­nol­o­gy, but orig­i­nal unused stock tape heads.” That’s groovy news for musi­cians who dig the Mellotron’s dat­ed idio­syn­crasies. In the short film above, how­ev­er, from 1965, British TV per­son­al­i­ties Eric Robin­son and David Nixon intro­duce the instru­ment to view­ers as a first-rate new “musi­cal com­put­er.”

With built in rhythms and a wide selec­tion of sounds—including trom­bone and French accordion—the Mel­lotron was on the cut­ting edge of its day. Robin­son and Nixon put the device through its paces, show its inter­nal oper­a­tions, and gen­er­al­ly show off what essen­tial­ly looked like a nov­el­ty organ built for liv­ing rooms and cabarets before Lennon/McCartney & Co. got their hands on it in 1967. Just above, see McCart­ney give a mod­ern audi­ence a dif­fer­ent sort of demon­stra­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rick Wake­man Tells the Sto­ry of the Mel­lotron, the Odd­ball Pro­to-Syn­the­siz­er Pio­neered by the Bea­t­les

Every­thing Thing You Ever Want­ed to Know About the Syn­the­siz­er: A Vin­tage Three-Hour Crash Course

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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