The Mellotron's Fascinating History - Cool History Facts

The Mellotron’s Fascinating History


The Mellotron is a tape based analog keyboard that marked the true origin of sampled sound.

It has a rich and varied history and it got to evolve countless times since its very first invention. Harry Chamberlin, in 1946, got a fabulous idea as he was playing around with the keyboard. He thought, if he could make a recording of himself playing, then it is also quite possible to build a machine that plays pre-recorded tunes. Harry’s sampler was truly the first sampler in recording history.

The samples could be played back through the keyboards amplifier and speakers whenever a key was pressed. For the tape to be returned back to the loop for the player to trigger again, a spring in the keyboard was used. It was not quite possible to get sustained notes, however, the attacks were reproduced very accurately each time one pressed a key on the keyboard. Different sounds were often created depending on which part of the tape was being played back at that particular moment. The most notable tunes were the flute, voice and organ sounds.

Harry’s premier machine had 14 looped drum patterns and it was a 100 Rhythmate.  It was very similar to what the Optigan became. After moderate success with his first machine, Harry went ahead and built a Model 200 keyboard. This keyboard used a 1” tape. Many improvements were made on the original invention. The instrument was a monster weighing almost 350 pounds and containing 70 tape players and a reverb unit amplifiers and speakers.

Many other models were built in later years with 35 keys. The machines could load a variety of rhythm tapes, sound tapes and even sound effects tapes. This new instrument was without a doubt an awesome invention. The downside to Harry’s invention was that his machines kept on breaking down. Frustrated with this, he later sold his rights to the Bradley Family.

Making the tapes was no easy feat; they needed a ton of work. There was also no digital editing software available in those times. The machines had to be perfectly in tune and the tape splicing was an arduous process.

Several models of these instruments came to being in the 1960s, but it was a very expensive unit. Many Mellotrons were also installed in clubs and theaters as well as recording studios.

It was quite fortunate that most of the big stars of the time were using the Mellotron. Many artists including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other major acts of the time had listeners scratching their heads trying to figure out what that cool new sound they were listening to was. It was most notably used in The Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the Moody Blues Classic “Nights in White Satin”.

The Mellotron, if sold in modern times would retail at roughly $35,000. Quite expensive!

Between the 1970s and the 1980s 250 units were built, which were undoubtedly the best ones to purchase with the 1973 M400 possibly being the best in the series. It sold almost 2000 units over the years d it was more than 20 pounds lighter than its original predecessor, containing 35 notes and a removable tape frame to swap out sounds. The Mellotron became the stable sound of progressive rock in the 1970’s especially by King Crimson and then later adopted by popular bands like Genesis, Yes, and Tangerine Dream during the same musical era.

Interest in the Mellotron never waned despite its downturn in popularity which was not unexpected in this new digital age.

There is some good news for music fanatics; there are Mellotron apps available on android. All you have to do is download it.

Photo by Buzz Andersen / CC by