How the Psychedelic Mellotron Works: An In-Depth Demonstration

Record­ed music his­to­ry is filled with instru­ments that appeared for a brief time, then were nev­er heard from again—relegated to the dust­bin of too-quirky, heavy, awk­ward, tonal­ly-unpleas­ant, or impos­si­ble-to-tune-and-main­tain. Then there are instruments—once they assumed their basic shape and form—that have per­sist­ed large­ly unchanged for cen­turies. The Mel­lotron falls into nei­ther of these cat­e­gories. But it may in time tran­scend them both in a strange way.

“Of all of the strange instru­ments that’ve worked the edges of pop­u­lar music,” writes Gareth Bran­wyn at Boing Boing, “the Mel­lotron is prob­a­bly the odd­est. Basi­cal­ly an upright organ cab­i­net filled the tape heads and record­ed tape strips that you trig­ger through the key­board, the Mel­lotron is like some crazy one-off con­trap­tion that caught on and actu­al­ly got man­u­fac­tured.”

First made in Eng­land in 1963, it appeared in var­i­ous mod­els through­out the sev­en­ties and eight­ies. It has reap­peared in the nineties and 2000s in improved and upgrad­ed ver­sions, all lead­ing up to what Sound on Sound called “the most tech­no­log­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed Mel­lotron ever,” the 2007 M4000. In the video above Alli­son Stout from Bell Tone Synth Works, a music shop in Philadel­phia, PA, demon­strates a much ear­li­er, far less advanced M400 from 1976.

Not only did the Mel­lotron beat the odds of remain­ing an unwork­able pro­to­type; the pro­to-sam­pler became a psy­che­del­ic sig­na­ture: from “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er” to the Moody Blues and David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty.” It pop­u­lat­ed ear­ly prog rock, thanks to Yes’s Rick Wake­man, who played on Bowie’s space rock clas­sic in 1969, and to Ian McDon­ald, who fell for the instru­ment that same year as a found­ing mem­ber of King Crim­son. (See enthu­si­as­tic YouTu­ber “Doc­tor Mix” play Mel­lotron parts from well-known songs above.)

The instrument’s slight­ly cheesy, Lawrence-Welk-orches­tra-like sounds some­how fit per­fect­ly with the loose, spa­cious instru­men­ta­tion of prog and psych rock; its sound will live as long as the music of The Bea­t­les, Bowie, and every­one else who put a micro­phone in front of a Mel­lotron. Yet in most of its iter­a­tions, the Mel­lotron has lacked the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a melod­ic instru­ment that sur­vives the test of time. It is finicky and prone to fre­quent break­downs. It is lim­it­ed in its tonal range to a series of tape record­ings of a lim­it­ed num­ber of instru­ments.

In the case of the Mel­lotron M400 at the top, those instru­ments are vio­lin, flute, and cel­lo. Do the sounds com­ing from the Mel­lotron in any way improve upon or even approx­i­mate the qual­i­ties of their orig­i­nals? Of course not. Why would musi­cians choose to record with a Mel­lotron at a time when ana­logue syn­the­siz­ers were becom­ing afford­able, portable, and capa­ble of an expres­sive range of tones? The answer is sim­ple. Noth­ing else makes the weird, warm, war­bly, whirring, and entire­ly oth­er­world­ly sound of a Mel­lotron, and noth­ing ever will.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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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