Monday, March 28, 2022

In Praise of the Mighty Mellotron

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

Image source: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A good rule of thumb is that if you ever want to grab my attention, go find a piece of music with a prominent Mellotron in it. Chances are I'll stop what I'm doing dead in my tracks.

What is it about this primitive sampling keyboard that has captured the imagination of so many music lovers over the decades? I can't speak for anyone else, but for me it's the eerie, otherworldly quality of its sound, contributing a captivatingly haunting atmosphere to so many of the songs it's been featured on.

What became a staple of progressive-rock bands' keyboard arsenals was originally intended to be a souped-up organ designed for home use. Early models had preset sounds and rhythms built in on the left side of the keyboard, while you could choose an instrument to play on the right side. The idea was that you could have the sound of an entire orchestra at your fingertips.

But the Mellotron proved difficult for the average home user to maintain, and so it eventually became a tool used by gigging musicians who liked having the sounds of an orchestra contained in a mobile box of keys and tapes.

Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues was probably more responsible than anyone else for cementing its popularity among musicians. Having worked in assembly and quality control on the instruments for its original manufacturer, Streetly Electronics, Mike turned The Beatles on to the Mellotron, and they famously used it to create the flute introduction to "Strawberry Fields Forever," giving the 'Tron its first big audience. 

Mike would go on to make the instrument an integral part of The Moody Blues' sound, from 1967's Days of Future Passed until his departure from the band in the late '70s. Other prog-rock bands of the '70s would make the instrument a primary ingredient in their own sounds, most notably Yes and King Crimson.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let me explain. The Mellotron was a 35-key instrument that played pre-recorded sounds of various instruments and voices. The sounds came from racks of magnetic tapes inside the keyboard, one tape for each key. So if you wanted to play the sound of a cello in C, for example, you pressed the C key, which would play the tape recording of the cello in that note. You could hold a note for a maximum of eight seconds, at which point the tape ran out. Releasing the key activated a spring that snapped the tape back into place on the rack so you could select it again.

In short, the Mellotron was a big wooden box housing 35 individual tape players, each playing a note corresponding to its place on the keyboard, and a motor to make them all work.

Here's a visual tour.

Nothing was digital. The sounds were those of real instruments played by real people, recorded in a studio, note by note. The master recordings were then transferred to the tapes that made up the Mellotron racks. The slight degeneration of the original sounds on the second-generation rack copies, combined with the peculiarities of the electronics and mechanics involved in playing back the sounds, gave the Mellotron a distinct voice that captivated musicians and listeners alike. It was like hearing real violins and flutes and voices, but through a kind of soupy, disorienting haze, one that was created completely by chance, through a happenstance of organic processes that later digital keyboards could never hope to replicate.

Every rack possessed multiple instruments on each strip of tape, and you could swap out one rack for another if you wanted a different bank of instruments to work from. Which sound you got from the tapes was controlled by an A-B-C switch that would reposition the tape heads under the keys to access the desired sound. Some musicians would set the switch halfway in between two sounds to blend the instruments -- as Tony Banks did on the introduction to Genesis' "Watcher of the Skies," where you can hear Mellotron strings and brass joining forces to create something gothic, majestic, beautiful, and undeniably unique. Have a listen:

Gives me goose bumps after all these years.

I mentioned King Crimson. Multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald was responsible for bringing in the Mellotron for the band's 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, inspired by what The Moody Blues were doing with the instrument. And how fortunate for all of us listeners, because the doomy grandeur of the album's de facto title track, "The Court of the Crimson King," would be absent without it.

Crimson fans would come to associate guitarist Robert Fripp as synonymous with the band itself -- and understandably so, as Fripp kept the band alive after the original lineup fell apart. He also took on Mellotron duties after McDonald's departure, later splitting them with violinist David Cross -- and along the way King Crimson would create many more amazing pieces of music that were heightened by the Mellotron's presence, perhaps none more so than 1974's epic piece "Starless."

So why did Mellotrons fade away? Why are they so strongly associated with popular music of the '70s? Well, in large part, the rise of digital technology would eventually make dialing up a desired sound as easy as pressing a button to select a preset. You could have dozens of sounds at your fingertips without the hassle of swapping out a rack of tapes.

That was part of the Mellotron's decline. The other part is that Mellotrons were notoriously fragile and unreliable. If you're old enough to have ever owned a cassette or 8-track player, you remember how fussy the technology could be. A misalignment of the tape head could cause the sound to wobble. Or the tape might play a little faster or slower than intended -- not a big deal on a home tape deck, but an embarrassment waiting to happen onstage if your A comes out as an A-sharp.

There was more. Play too many notes at once on a Mellotron, and you could bog down the motor, again causing the potential for an unwanted pitch shift. Or tapes could stretch over time -- again, same pitch problem. Some touring musicians found that even the voltage differences between U.S. and European electrical systems would contribute to tuning issues.

Peculiarities like these once caused Fripp to observe that "tuning a Mellotron doesn't." He would know, as the Mellotron was a core part of his band's sound in the '70s.

A handful of musicians and companies tried to improve on the Mellotron and remove some of its inherent limitations. One idea used optical discs in place of magnetic tapes. But by the time the Fairlight sampler came around, followed by other computerized advancements in sampling technology, the Mellotron's fate was more or less sealed.

A few artists continued to use Mellotrons into the '80s and '90s, and Streetly's successor companies (the history of the Mellotron's origins and manufacturers is a convoluted story all to itself) continued to sell replacement parts, refurbish old machines, and release new ones in small numbers. Today, you can even buy a digital Mellotron whose samples are pulled from the original recordings, providing a nearly equivalent sound to the original tape-driven machines without all the hassle and fragility. And you even get 100 different sounds pre-loaded in -- no rack-swapping necessary.

But when prog-rock enjoyed a revival of sorts in the '90s, a few dedicated bands took it upon themselves to revive the symphonic stylings of the genre by using the same instruments you would have heard on your favorite '70s recordings, including vintage Moog synthesizers, Hammond organs, and, yes, old tape-driven Mellotrons. Sweden's Änglagård were the standard-bearers in this regard. Imagine a combination of Yes's bass-heavy compositional complexity, King Crimson's angular and discordant rawness, and the pastoral lilt of Genesis' acoustic guitar and flute passages from their Peter Gabriel days, mix it all with the bleakness of a Scandinavian winter, and you have some idea of what to expect. Most of their music is instrumental, including the opening piece from their 1994 debut album, Hybris.  The tune is called ""Jordrök," which translates to "Earth-smoke." That captures the mood fairly well.

Meanwhile, here's a look at the all-digital Mellotron M4000D. Sounds fantastic, if you ask me.

I'd love to own one. I'd especially love to own an original tape-driven Mellotron, but they're not cheap, they're hard to find, and they require a lot of maintenance that would most likely be beyond my abilities. Ask anyone who knows me: I am not a handyman.

But I still long to learn an instrument, and I don't think a keyboard is beyond me. At least I can see where all the notes are, as opposed to a guitar that has no visual reference and relies on memorization of hand shapes within given tunings. And I think my lack of dexterity would be suited to an instrument that gives itself over to the playing of elongated, atmospheric notes and chords, rather than fast-moving melody lines. After all, the 'Tron was designed with frustrated musicians in mind, as that musty old 1965 promo video up above attests to.

That's me. Maybe someday I could learn enough doomy Mellotron chords to go around town busking on 50-year-old songs that no one knows. I know I'd enjoy it. Whether anyone else would is, naturally, another question. 

No comments:

Post a Comment