At the end of the 40’s, in California, Harry Chamberlin invented the first instrument using tape recordings: the Model 100 Rhythmate. With its recorded loops of drum patterns, it can be considered the ancestor of modern-day samplers and drum machines.
The Model 200 not only used tapes, but also a keyboard; it had sounds of flute, violins, vibraphone… The next models (300/350, 400, 600/660… ) were the first to use 3/8” tapes with 3 tracks. This proprietary tape format enabled Harry Chamberlin to be the exclusive seller of the tapes used in his machines.
The Model 600 Music Master is particularly interesting for the history of the Mellotron, since it is the first model to include two 35 note keyboards (G to F). The right-hand keyboard was used for the instrument sounds (flute, violins… ), and the left-hand one was used for the accompaniments (Bossa Nova, Cha Cha Cha… ). The same system would be used, a few years later, in the first Mellotron Mark I.
The production of Chamberlins started in the early 50’s.
Harry Chamberlin then hired a man named Bill Fransen as a salesman, in order to help him increase his sales. However, although the concept of the instrument was quite seducing, its mechanism was unreliable.
Convinced that the production would remain at small-scale level, Bill Fransen took two Chamberlins 600 Music Master to England, looking for a manufacturer that would be able to supply 70 replay heads. He met the Bradley brothers (Frank, Norman and Leslie), of Bradmatic Ltd., a Birmingham-based company specialized since the 30’s in the production of semi-professionnal mechanisms, amplifiers and replay heads. Bradmatics built the 70 replay heads asked by Fransen, but the Bradley brothers were curious about the way they would be used. Fransen showed them the two Chamberlins and asked them if they would agree to work on the instrument, to make it more reliable and mass produce it. They immediately accepted, not knowing that they were “stealing” Harry Chamberlin’s idea.
In 1963, the Mark I was born. It was the first Mellotron (the name comes from the words MELOdy and ElecTRONics), and it used the same system as the Chamberlin: two 35 note keyboards side by side (one for lead instruments, the other for accompaniments), and 3/8″ tapes with 3 tracks.
In September, an ad was placed in the paper, in order to find a financial support. Eric Robinson, an orchestra leader, the magician David Nixon, and some other show-business personages embarked on the adventure.
The Bradley brothers moved to the suburb of Bimingham to open up their new factory, named Streetly Electronics.
Eric Robinson created Mellotronics, a sales office based in London. He also was in charge of the recordings of the master tapes, made at the IBC studios. Two machines were created for the sole purpose of transferring tapes to the 3/8″ format, which was specific to the Mellotron. One of these machines was at Mellotronics, the other was at Streetly Electronics.
Although the Mellotron Mark I was an improved version of the Chamberlin, it remained quite unreliable.
In 1964, the Mark II appeared. It was a Mark I, with a better conception. Most of the first Mellotrons were turned into Mark II.
At that time, Mike Pinder was working at Streetly Electronics, where he stayed for 18 months. His task was to control the quality of the manufacturing, and to test the instruments. He soon fell in love with the sound and the possibilities of the Mellotron, and he decided to use it with the band he formed after leaving Streetly Electronics. This band was The Moody Blues. The first hit they recorded with this instrument was Love and Beauty (67), and the Mellotron became part of the Moody Blues sound.
Mike Pinder had the idea to replace the accompaniment sounds of the left hand keyboard by instrument sounds, which resulted in a total of 36 possible instruments.
He also was the one who introduced the Mellotron to the Beatles. Soon after that first meeting, Paul, John, George and Ringo all had their own Mellotron. The most famous Beatles song featuring a Mellotron is probably Strawberry Fields Forever (67), with its flute introduction.
In 1965, Graham Bond Organization was probably the first band to record a single, Lease on Love, and a full album, There’s a Bond Between Us, with a Mellotron. One of the first hit singles featuring a Mellotron was Manfred Mann’s Semi-Detached, Suburban Mr. James, in 1966. Many other bands, such as The Rolling Stones, The Kinks or Pink Floyd, were then seduced by the new possibilities of the Mellotron.
It was the first time that a single instrument could imitate quite closely the sound of a string or a brass section, a vibraphone… Moreover, it was totally polyphonic. The other keyboards of that time were electric organs (Hammond, Vox, Farfisa… ), acoustic and electric pianos (Rhodes, Wurlitzer… ), and the very first monophonic synthesizers.
The BBC was also interested in the Mellotron, and it was responsible for the creation of the FX Console in 1965. It was a technically improved version of the Mark II. The recordings included 1260 various sound effects, which were aimed at illustrating radio and television programs.
In 1968, a new model appeared: the M300. This Mellotron had a single 52 note keyboard, and a brand new tape library, with sounds of better quality. Although it was an alternative to the cumbersome and heavy Mark II, the M300 remained quite imposing (137kg), and hard to carry. Moreover, its image suffered from a misconception of the rewind system, which caused many problems. In the end, only 52 units were made.
1970 saw the release of the M400, which was Streetly Electronics’ most successful machine.
It was the first Mellotron that was really portable, and its mechanism was much simpler than the previous models: its sounds were not stocked on several built-in tape libraries anymore; instead, it used a removable tape frame. Each tape frame included 3 sounds. To change the library, you just had to change the tape frame. Most of the reliability problems were then resolved.
From the end of the 60’s, the Mellotron was used by more and more people, and especially by bands such as Genesis, Yes or King Crimson, which were all part of a new musical trend called Progressive Rock. The Mellotron’s polyphonic possibilities, and its melancholic, bewitching, and almost “dramatic” sounds, fitted this musical style quite well.
Its success led the Mellotron to be distributed in the United States as soon as 1972 by Dallas Arbiter (which would later be renamed Dallas Music Industries).
1975 saw the release of the Mark V, which was basically two M400 in a common cabinet, plus a spring reverb.
Because of financial problems, Dallas Arbiter went bankrupt in 1977, and led to the closing of Mellotronics in London. Ironicallyenough, because of a legal wrangling over the use of the name “Mellotron”, Streetly Electronics had to give up the name, and continued to build Mellotrons under the name “Novatron”, while the ex-boss of Dallas Arbiter, Bill Eberline, created Sound Sales and continued to sell these instruments under the name “Mellotron”!
In 1981, the 4 Track, which was the first American Mellotron, saw the light of day. Based on the same concept as the M400, the 4 Track brought a few improvements, which were never used to their full effect, because of the poor recording quality of its tapes.
In the early 80’s, the first samplers appeared: the Fairlight, the Emulator I, the Mirage Ensoniq… And although they represented a real technical innovation, their sound quality was poor, and they were able to record only a few seconds of sound. However, technical advances went fast, and gave birth to better and less expensive machines (Akai, Roland… ), that led to the end of the Mellotron / Novatron. Streetly Electronics went out of business in 1986.
In 1990, David Kean bought Mellotronics’ stock of spare parts and tapes, as well as the name “Mellotron”, and created Mellotron Archives in the USA, in order to help Mellotron fanatics. Mellotron Archives is now based in Canada.
A few years later, in the suburb of Birmingham, Leslie Bradley’s son, John Bradley, created Streetly Electronics (a name chosen as a tribute to the first Mellotron factory) with his friend Martin Smith. This company restores, repairs and sells spare parts and tapes for every type of Mellotron.
Leslie Bradley, the man who invented the Mellotron, died on January 15th, 1997.
In 1998, David Kean, of Mellotron Archives, and his Swedish associate, Markus Resch, invented a new Mellotron, the Mark VI. Based on the same concept as the M400, this new instrument brings many improvements, such as a tube preamp, a lighter wooden cabinet, a two speed motor control system…
Returning to the double keyboard system of the Mellotron Mark V, the Mark VII is now also available.
From 2010, many digital versions of the Mellotron are available : the M4000D, the M4000D Mini and the M4000D Rack.
Twenty years after the production of Mellotrons stopped in 1986, Streetly Electronics introduced a new model in May 2007, the M4000.
The M4000 is the first instrument in almost forty years to include a cycling tape replay system similar to those of the Mark I, Mark II, SFX and M300 models. This system has been given up with the relase of the M400, in 1970.
A dual keyboard version is also available: the M5000.