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.
Mark I 1963
The Mellotron Mark I is marketed at the end of the year 1963.
The name Mellotron, proposed by Bill Fransen, is the contraction of the words MELOdy and ElecTRONics.
Resuming the concept of the Chamberlin 600 Music Master, several improvements are made in order to produce in series a more reliable instrument.
The Mark I has two keyboards of 35 notes side by side: the left keyboard for harmonic accompaniments and rhythmic among different musical genres, the right keyboard for solo instruments.
This model is a living room instrument, intended for wealthy clients, allowing to create a small personal orchestra at home.
In order to finance its manufacture, an advertisement is published in a local newspaper in order to raise funds. Conductor Eric Robinson, magician David Nixon and other personalities from the UK show business join in on the adventure.
Eric Robinson sets up Mellotronics Ltd, a commercial agency based in London, and oversees the recordings various instruments made at IBC studios (International Broadcasting Company), which he owns with George Clouston, conductor for the BBC.
Two EMI machines are used to cut the 3/8″ format tapes specific to the Mellotron, one at Mellotronics, the other at Streetly Electronics (nicknamed Mothertron).
Despite improvements to the design of the Chamberlin 600 Music Master , this first model remains a machine for improvement.
Mark II 1964
The design of the Mark I was redesigned to lead the following year to the Mark II. The majority of Mark I will then be changed to Mark II.
Mike Pinder works at Bradmatic Ltd for 18 months on quality control. Shortly after, he acquired a Mark II which would become the cornerstone of the group he had just founded: The Moody Blues. Love and Beauty appeared in 1967 and became the group’s first hit with the Mellotron.
With his experience acquired at Bradmatic Ltd, Mike Pinder brings some technical improvements to his instrument. It also replaces the accompaniment sounds of the left keyboard with instrument sounds like the right keyboard, allowing it to have a total of 36 instruments.
The Beatles first discovered the Mellotron during a visit to IBC studios in London on August 9, 1965. Totally enthusiastic, John Lennon ordered a Mark II which was delivered to him on August 16, 1965.
The most famous Beatles song featuring the Mellotron is undoubtedly Strawberry Fields for Ever (1967) with its introduction to the flute.
Geoff Unwin, official Mellotronics demonstrator, travels across Europe and South Africa to present the instrument. He also demonstrated it in the Harrods store where the Mark II was sold.
Peter Sellers invites him to present the instrument at his home at a party attended by Princess Margaret. Seduced by the Mellotron, Mellotronics delivers a special version, black and gold. This copy will finally be returned a few months later. Six Mark II will be produced in this finish. Among the owners of this rare version: John Lennon, Graham Nash (The Hollies, Crosby, Stills & Nash), Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), Jon Lord (Deep Purple).
In 1965, the Graham Bond Organization was the first group to record a single, Lease on Love, and an album, There’s a Bond Between Us, with a Mellotron.
One of the very first tubes containing Mellotron is certainly Semi-Detached, Suburban Mr. James by Manfred Mann, in 1966.
The new possibilities offered by the Mellotron will attract more and more groups: The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, King Crimson …
The Mellotron is then the first fully polyphonic instrument which allows reproduction rather faithfully the strings, the brass, the flute, the vibraphone … The other keyboards available at this time are the electric organs (Hammond, Vox, Farfisa …), the acoustic and electric pianos (Rhodes, Wurlitzer …) and the very first monophonic synthesizers (Moog, ARP …).
The growing success of the Mellotron calls out to Harry Chamberlin, who decides to travel to Great Britain for a visit to Bradmatic Ltd in 1965.
A financial arrangement will be made with the Bradley brothers allowing them to continue manufacturing the Mellotron and to use the famous sound of strings (3 Violins), the only sound common to Mellotron and Chamberlin.
FX Console 1965
At the request of the BBC, Streetly Electronics is developing a new model, the Sound Effects Console or FX Console, a Mark II whose technical characteristics are adapted to the specifications of the BBC.
The recordings include 1260 various sound effects to provide sound for radio and television broadcasts.
With a single 52-note keyboard and the elimination of the amplification part, the M300 is a scaled-down version of the Mark II, but still remains a large and difficult instrument to transport. He is benefiting from new, better quality recordings for his bands. But a bad design of the scrolling of the bands causes many problems which somewhat tarnishes the image of this model.
Only 52 copies will be produced.
Bradmatic Ltd changes its name several times to successively become Bradmatic Productions, Mellotronics Manufacturing, Aldridge Electronics and finally Streetly Electronics Ltd. With the growing success of the Mellotron, Streetly is gradually marketing the Mellotron directly. Mellotronics delegates marketing to Dallas Arbiter.
The M400 is the first Mellotron that is relatively easy to transport.
Its mechanism, greatly simplified compared to previous models, allows the use of interchangeable tape frames. Each tape has 3 tracks, a frame is a bank of 3 sounds. It is possible to order additional frames with other sounds. Many new recordings will be made for the M400, including the famous choirs (8 Choir).
The M400 is Streetly Electronics’ biggest commercial success.
From the end of the 60s, the Mellotron was used more and more, especially with the advent of a new musical movement: progressive rock. The Mellotron is very present in the most famous representatives of this genre like Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson. Its polyphonic possibilities and the melancholy, bewitching, even dramatic color of its sounds lend themselves particularly well to this musical style.
Building on this success, the Mellotron was distributed in the United States from 1972 by Dallas Arbiter (later to become Dallas Music Industries) until 1976.
Mark V 1975
The Mark V is the equivalent of two M400s in a single cabinet, with the addition of a spring reverb.
In 1976, Mellotronics transferred the distribution rights of Mellotron to Sound Sales Inc for the United States, which acquired the registered name Mellotron during the bankruptcy of Dallas Music Industries; bankruptcy which will result in the closure of Mellotronics in London.
Paradoxically, in Great Britain, the instruments manufactured by Streetly Electronics will no longer be able to be called Mellotron but will henceforth be manufactured under the name by Novatron.
4 Track 1981
The 4 Track is the first American Mellotron, manufactured by Sound Sales Inc. Taking up the concept of the M400, the 4 Track can play 4 tracks on 1/4″ format tapes and has an equalization for each track, volume and pan. This model will be served by poor recording quality of tapes and only five copies will be made.
Harry Chamberlin died in 1986.
At the beginning of the 80s, the first samplers arrived on the market: the Fairlight CMI, the Emulator I, the Mirage Ensoniq … Although being a real technical innovation, these machines still suffer from poor fidelity sound with a recording capacity of a few seconds. But with rapid technological advances, more efficient and less and less expensive machines (Akai, Roland …) make the Mellotron totally obsolete.
Streetly Electronics ceases its activity definitively in 1986.
In 1990, David Kean acquired Mellotronics’ stock of parts and tapes, as well as the name Mellotron . He founded Mellotron Archives in the United States to provide support to Mellotron enthusiasts.
Mellotron Archives is now located in Canada.
A few years later, John Bradley, the son of Leslie Bradley, founded with his friend Martin Smith, in the suburbs of Birmingham, Mellotron Archives UK which would become Streetly Electronics in homage to the first Mellotron factory. John and Martin offer remodeling, maintenance and the sale of parts and bands for all Mellotron models.
Leslie Bradley, the designer of the Mellotron died on January 15, 1997.
Mark VI 1998
The Mark VI is the first Mellotron designed by Markus Resch, Swedish collaborator of David Kean.
Based on the concept of the M400, this model brings some new features such as a tube preamp, a lighter wooden cabinet and two motor speed settings.
A version with double keyboards, inspired by the Mellotron Mark V, is also proposed under the name of Mark VII.
As of 2010, several digital versions of the Mellotron are available: the M4000D, the M4000D Mini and the M4000D Rack.
In Great Britain, twenty years after stopping production of the Mellotron, Streetly Electronics markets the M4000.
After almost forty years, the M4000 is the first instrument equipped with a multi-bank mechanism inherited from the Mellotron Mark I, Mark II, SFX and M300, abandoned in 1970 with the release of the M400.
A dual keyboard version is also available under the name M5000.