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:

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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

Hear the Voice of a 3,0000-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy: Scientists 3-D Print His Throat & Mouth and Get Him to Speak … a Little

“The Mummy Speaks!” announces The New York Times in Nicholas St. Fleur’s story about Nesyamun, a mummified Egyptian priest whose voice has been recreated, sort of, “with the aid of a 3-D printed vocal tract” and an electronic larynx. Does the mummy sound like the monster of classic 1930’s horror? Scientists have only got as far as one syllable, “which resembles the ‘ah’ and ‘eh’ vowels sounds heard in the words ‘bad’ and ‘bed.'” Yet it’s clear that Nesyamun would not communicate with guttural moans.

This may not make the recreation any less creepy. Nesyamun, whose coffin is inscribed with the words “true of voice,” was charged with singing and chanting the liturgies; “he had this wish,” says David Howard, speech scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, “that his voice would somehow continue into perpetuity.” Howard and his team’s 3-D printed recreation of his mouth and throat has allowed them to synthesize “the sound that would come out of his vocal tract if he was in his coffin and his larynx came to life again.”

Let’s imagine a different scenario, shall we? One in which Nesyamun speaks from the ancient past rather than from the sarcophagus. “Voice from the Past” is, indeed, what the researchers call their project, and they hope that it will eventually enable museum goers to “engage with the past in completely new and innovative ways.”

If Nesyamun could be made to speak again, St. Fleur writes, “perhaps the mummy could recite for museum visitors his words to Nut, the ancient Egyptian goddess of the sky and heavens: ‘O mother Nut, spread out your wings over my face so you may allow me to be like the stars-which-know-no-destruction, like the stars-which-know-no-weariness, (and) not to die over again in the cemetery.”

Might we empathize? As University of York archaeologist John Schofield puts it, “there is nothing more personal than someone’s voice.” Hearing the mummy speak would be “more multidimensional” than only staring at his corpse. The novelty of this experience aside, one can imagine the knowledge historians and linguists of ancient languages might gather from this research. Others in the scientific community have expressed their doubts. We may wish to temper our expectations.

Piero Cosi, an Italian speech scientist who helped reconstruct the voice of a mummified iceman named Ötzi in 2016 (speaking only in Italian vowels), points out the speculative nature of the science: “Even if we have the precise 3-D-geometric description of the voice system of the mummy, we would not be able to rebuild precisely his original voice.” Egyptologist Kara Cooney notes the clear potential for human biases to shape research that uses “so much inference about what [ancient people] looked or sounded like.”

So, what might be the value of approximating Nesyamun’s voice? In their paper, published in Nature Scientific Reports, Howard and his co-authors explain, in language that sounds suspiciously like the kind that might invoke a classic horror movie mummy’s curse:

While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians’ fundamental belief that ‘to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.’ Given Nesyamun’s stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt.

Learn more about the Nesyamun’s vocal recreation in the videos above.

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The Met Digitally Restores the Colors of an Ancient Egyptian Temple, Using Projection Mapping Technology

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

The e-Book Imagined in 1935

What is the future of the book? Will it retain more or less the same basic paper-between-covers form as it has since the days of the Gutenberg Bible? Will it go entirely digital, becoming readable only with compatible electronic devices? Or will we, in the comfort of our armchairs, read them on glass-screened microfilm projectors? That last is the bet made, and illustrated as above, by the April 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine. “It has proved possible to photograph books, and throw them on a screen for examination,” says the article envisioning “a device for applying this for home use and instruction,” exhumed by Matt Novak at

As The Atlantic‘s Megan Garber writes, “The whole thing, to our TV-and-tablet-jaded eyes, looks wonderfully quaint. (The projector! The knobs! The semi-redundant reading lamp! The smoking jacket!)” But then, “what speaks to our current, hazy dreams of convergence more eloquently than the ability to sit back, relax, and turn books into television?”

And indeed, the original illustration includes a caption telling us how such a device will allow you to “read a ‘book’ (which is a roll of miniature film), music, etc., at your ease.” That may sound familiar to those of us who think nothing of flipping back and forth between books, web sites, movies, television shows, and social media — all to our customized music-and-podcast soundtrack of choice — on our computers, tablets, and phones today.

Everyday Science and Mechanics wasn’t looking into the distant future. As Novak notes, microfilm had been patented in 1895 and first practically used in 1925; the New York Times began copying its every edition onto microfilm in 1935, the same year this article appeared. As impractical as it may look now, this home “e-reader” could theoretically have been put into use not long thereafter. As it happened, the first e-readers — the handheld digital ones of the kind we know today — wouldn’t come on the market for another 70 years, and their widespread adoption has only occurred in the past decade. But for many, good old Gutenberg-style paper-between-covers remains the way to read. It may be that the book has no one future form, but a variety that will exist at once — a variety that, absent a much stronger retrofuturism revival, will probably not include microfilm, ground-glass screens, and smoking jackets.


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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover the Disappearing Turkish Language That is Whistled, Not Spoken

We so often privilege individuals as the primary drivers of innovation. But what if technology is also self-organizing, developing as an evolutionary response to the environment? If we think of whistled language as a kind of technology, we have an excellent example of this self-organizing principle in the 42 documented whistled languages around the world.

As we noted in a previous post, reports of whistled languages go back hundreds of years in cultures that would have had no contact with each other: Oaxaca, Mexico, northern Africa’s Atlas Mountains, the Brazilian Amazon, northern Laos, and the Canary Islands.

These are “places with steep terrain or dense forests,” writes Michelle Nijhuis at The New Yorker, “where it might otherwise be hard to communicate at a distance.” Such is the case in the village of Kuşköy, in “the remote mountains of northern Turkey,” notes Great Big Story:

“For three centuries” farmers there “have communicated great distances by whistling. It’s a language called kuş dili that is still used to this day, though fewer people are learning it in the age of the cell phone.” Also called “bird language” by locals, “for obvious reasons,” this system of vocal telephony, like all other examples, is based on actual speech. Nijhuis explains:

Kuşköy’s version [of whistled language] adapts standard Turkish syllables into piercing tones that can be heard from more than half a mile away. The phrase “Do you have fresh bread?,” which in Turkish is “Taze ekmek var mı?,” becomes, in bird language, six separate whistles made with the tongue, teeth, and fingers.

The method may be avian, but the messages are human, albeit in simplified language for ease of transmission. In the video above Muazzez Köçek, Kuşköy’s best whistler, shows how she translates Turkish vocabulary into melodies—turning words into music, an act of coding without a computer.

That this bio-technological feat arose spontaneously to solve the same problem the world over shows how us how humans collectively problem-solve. But of course, individualism has its advantages. Despite the huge amount of data they gather on us, modern communications technologies have met one particular human need.

In Kuşköy, “bird language is rapidly disappearing from daily life,” writes Nijhuis. “In a small town filled with nosy neighbors, texting affords a level of privacy that whistling never did.”

Related Content:

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Speaking in Whistles: The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico

How Languages Evolve: Explained in a Winning TED-Ed Animation

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

The Secret of the “Perfect Montage” at the Heart of Parasite, the Korean Film Now Sweeping World Cinema

For nearly as long as mankind has tried to commit the perfect crime, mankind has tried to tell stories of the perfect crime. Both endeavors demand intensive planning, the story of the crime perhaps even more rigorously so than the crime itself. No less obsessive a teller and reteller of “perfect crime” stories than Alfred Hitchcock knew that well, and so he remains an icon of such storytelling in cinema. Hence the visual reference, albeit a vanishingly brief one, to the master of suspense in Korean blockbuster auteur Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which has run victory laps around the world ever since winning the Palme d’Or last year. Or so Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, tells it in his new video essay on Parasite‘s “perfect montage.”

This montage comes at the end of the film’s first act, about 40 minutes in, at which point Bong has clearly established the plot, both in the sense of the sequence of events that sets the story in motion, and of the devious plan devised by the main characters. Those main characters are the Kims, a poor family in Seoul who, one by one, ingratiate themselves with and obtain employment within the household of a rich family, the Parks — all while pretending not to be related. After the father becomes the Parks’ chauffeur, the son becomes their English tutor, the daughter becomes their art therapist, the Kims all work together to get the mother hired as the housekeeper. But this requires the displacement of the rich family’s existing housekeeper, who’s worked in the home ever since it was first built.

That displacement is the subject of the montage, which over five minutes relays to the viewer both how the Kims devise their plan — which involves turning the old housekeeper’s peach allergy into a seeming case of tuberculosis — and how they pull it off. Puschak underscores “how balletic everything is, helped along by a classical piece from Handel’s Rodelinda,” as well as the “mesmeric” quality enriched by Bong’s use of “both slow-motion and linear camera moves.” Presenting new information in each and every one of its 60 shots, the montage also foreshadows coming events and references previous ones within itself, inspiring Puschak to compare it to a conversation, and later to “an organism all its own.”

All well and good as a demonstration of cinematic technique, and indeed “a testament to Bong Joon-ho’s control of his craft.” But unless form aligns with substance, no art can attain greatness; what makes this a “perfect montage” is how its very perfection reflects that of the Kim family’s machinations — at least at the point in the film at which it arrives. As with most stories of the perfect crime, things start to fall apart thereafter, though even as they do, Bong’s hand (as well as that of his editor Yang Jin-mo) never falters. This sequence, and Parasite as a whole, would surely command the respect of Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock would also recognize, as Bong himself must, that a montage can always be more finely tuned. There may be no such thing as the perfect crime, but it remains a promising thematic vehicle for getting ever closer to perfection in cinema.

Below, as an added bonus, you can watch the director himself break down Parasite’s opening scene:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Visionary Mystical Art of Carl Jung: See Illustrated Pages from The Red Book

Carl Jung’s Liber Novus, better known as The Red Book, has only recently come to light in a complete English translation, published by Norton in a 2009 facsimile edition and a smaller “reader’s edition” in 2012. The years since have seen several exhibitions of the book, which “could pass for a Bible rendered by a medieval monk,” writes art critic Peter Frank, “especially for the care with which Jung entered his writing as ornate Gothic script.”

Jung “refused to think of himself as an ‘artist’” but “it’s no accident the Liber Novus has been exhibited in museums, or functioned as the nucleus of ‘Encyclopedic Palace,’ the survey of visionary art in the 2013 Venice Biennale.” Jung’s elaborate paintings show him “every bit the artist the medieval monk or Persian courtier was; his art happened to be dedicated not to the glory of God or king, but that of the human race.”

One could more accurately say that Jung’s book was dedicated to the mystical unconscious, a much more nebulous and oceanic category. The “oceanic feeling”—a phrase coined in 1927 by French playwright Romain Rolland to describe mystical oneness—so annoyed Sigmund Freud that he dismissed it as infantile regression.

Freud’s antipathy to mysticism, as we know, did not dissuade Jung, his onetime student and admirer, from diving in and swimming to the deepest depths. The voyage began long before he met his famous mentor. At age 11, Jung later wrote in 1959, “I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing how to differentiate myself from things; I was just one among many things.”

Jung considered his elaborate dream/vision journal—kept from 1913 to 1930, then added to sporadically until 1961—“the central work in his oeuvre,” says Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani in the Rubin Museum introduction above. “It is literally his most important work.”

And yet it took Dr. Shamdasani “three years to convince Jung’s family to bring the book out of hiding,” notes NPR. “It took another 13 years to translate it.” Part of the reason his heirs left the book hidden in a Swiss vault for half a century may be evident in the only portion of the Red Book to appear in Jung’s lifetime. “The Seven Sermons of the Dead.”

Jung had this text privately printed in 1916 and gave copies to select friends and family members. He composed it in 1913 in a period of Gnostic studies, during which he entered into visionary trance states, transcribing his visions in notebooks called the “Black Books,” which would later be rewritten in The Red Book.

You can see a page of Jung’s meticulously hand-lettered manuscript above. The “Sermons,” he wrote in a later interpretation, came to him during an actual haunting:

The atmosphere was thick, believe me! Then I knew that something had to happen. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: “For God’s sake, what in the world is this?” Then they cried out in chorus, “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought/’ That is the beginning of the Septem Sermones. 

The strange, short “sermons” are difficult to categorize. They are awash in Gnostic theology and occult terms like “pleroma.” The great mystical oneness of oceanic feeling also took on a very sinister aspect in the demigod Abraxas, who “begetteth truth and lying, good and evil, light and darkness, in the same word and in the same act. Wherefore is Abraxas terrible.”

There are tedious, didactic passages, for converts only, but much of Jung’s writing in the “Seven Sermons,” and throughout The Red Book, is filled with strange obscure poetry, complemented by his intense illustrations. Jung “took on the similarly stylized and beautiful manners of non-western word-image conflation,” writes Frank, “including Persian miniature painting and east Asian calligraphy.”

If The Red Book is, as Shamdasani claims, Jung’s most important work—and Jung himself, though he kept it quiet, seemed to think it was—then we may in time come to think of him as not only as an inspirer of eccentric artists, but as an eccentric artist himself, on par with the great illuminators and visionary mystic poet/painters.

Related Content:

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

What Is the Coronavirus?: Answers to Common Questions About the Mysterious New Virus Spreading Across China

Above, The Guardian‘s health editor, Sarah Boseley, answers basic questions you might have about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.

What are the symptoms? Where have cases been confirmed so far? How is the virus transmitted? What are the available treatments? Should I be panicking? and more…

For more information, visit the CDC website.

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Jim Lehrer’s 16 Rules for Practicing Journalism with Integrity

In 1988, stalwart PBS news anchor, writer, and longtime presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer was accused of being too soft on the candidates. He snapped back, “If somebody wants to be entertained, they ought to go to the circus.” The folksy quote sums up the Texan journalist’s philosophy succinctly. The news was a serious business. But Lehrer, who passed away last Thursday, witnessed the distinction between political journalism and the circus collapse, with the spread of cable infotainment, and corporate domination of the Internet and radio.

Kottke remarks that Lehrer seemed “like one of the last of a breed of journalist who took seriously the integrity of informing the American public about important events.” He continually refused offers from the major networks, hosting PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour with cohost Robert MacNeil until 1995, then his own in-depth news hour until his retirement in 2011. “I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity,” he said. “News is information that’s required in a democratic society… That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”

To meet such high standards required a rigorous set of journalistic… well, standards—such as Lehrer was happy to list, below, in a 1997 report from the Aspen Institute.

  1. Do nothing I cannot defend.*
  2. Do not distort, lie, slant, or hype.
  3. Do not falsify facts or make up quotes.
  4. Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.*
  5. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.*
  6. Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.*
  7. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.*
  8. Assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story mandates otherwise.*
  10. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label them as such.*
  11. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.*
  12. Do not broadcast profanity or the end result of violence unless it is an integral and necessary part of the story and/or crucial to understanding the story.
  13. Acknowledge that objectivity may be impossible but fairness never is.
  14. Journalists who are reckless with facts and reputations should be disciplined by their employers.
  15. My viewers have a right to know what principles guide my work and the process I use in their practice.
  16. I am not in the entertainment business.*

In a 2006 Harvard commencement address (at the top), Lehrer reduced the list to only the nine rules marked by asterisks above by Kottke, who goes on to explain in short why these guidelines are so routinely cast aside—“this shit takes time! And time is money.” It’s easier to patch together stories in rapid-fire order when you don’t cite or check sources or do investigative reporting, and face no serious consequences for it.

Lehrer’s adherence to professional ethics may have been unique in any era, but his attention to detail and obsession with accessing multiple points of view came from an older media. He “saw himself as ‘a print/word person at heart’ and his program as a kind of newspaper for television,” writes Robert McFadden in his New York Times obituary. He was also “an oasis of civility in a news media that thrived on excited headlines, gotcha questions and noisy confrontations.”

Lehrer understood that civility is meaningless in the absence of truth, or of kindness and humility. His longtime cohost’s list of journalistic guidelines also appears in the Aspen Institute report. “The values which Jim Lehrer and I observed,” MacNeil writes, “he continues to observe.” Journalism is a serious business—“behave with civility”—but “remember that journalists are no more important to society than people in other professions. Avoid macho posturing and arrogant display.”

Read more about Lehrer’s list of guidelines at Kottke.

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

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