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Mellotron
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Mellotron

The Mellotron is an electromechanical polyphonic keyboard musical instrument originally developed and built in Birmingham, England in the early 1960s.

The Mellotron (and its direct ancestor the Chamberlin) were in effect the world's first sample-playback keyboards. The heart of the instrument is a bank of parallel loops of magnetic tape; playback heads connected to each key enable performers to play the pre-recorded sound assigned to that key when pressed. The tape banks contain three selectable sets of specially-recorded sounds, such as strings, flutes and choral voices, and the sound on each individual loop is recorded at the specific pitch of the key that it was assigned to.

Although tape samplers had been explored in research studios (e.g., Hugh LeCaine's 1955 keyboard-controlled "Special Purpose Tape Recorder", which he used when recording his classic "Dripsody"), the first commercially available keyboard-driven tape instruments were built and sold by California-based Harry Chamberlin from 1948 through the 1970's.

Things really took off, however, when Chamberlain's sales agent, Bill Fransen, brought two of these remarkable devices to England in 1962 to search for manufacturing and design improvements. He struck a deal with Bill and Lesley Bradley of a Birmingham-based tape recorder company, Bradmatic Ltd, resulting in the first Mellotrons. Over the next 15 years, the Mellotron had a major impact on rock music, particularly the 35 note (G-F) M400 which was (released in 1970 and sold over 1800 units, and it is a trademark sound of the era's progressive bands.

The novel characteristics of the instrument attracted a number of celebrities and among the early Mellotron owners are Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers, King Hussein of Jordan and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Mellotrons were normally pre-loaded with string instrument and orchestral sounds, although the tape bank could be removed with relative ease by the owner and loaded with banks containing different sounds including percussion loops, sound effects, or synthesizer-generated sounds, to generate polyphonic electronically generated sounds in the days before polyphonic synthesizers.

Although they were highly prized and enabled many bands to perform string, brass and choir arrangements that had been previously impossible to recreate live, Mellotrons were not without their disadvantages. Above all, they were very expensive -- the official Mellotron site gives the 1973 list price as US$5200. And like the Hammond they were a roadie's nightmare -- heavy, bulky and fragile. The tape banks were also notoriously prone to breakages and jams and those groups who could afford to (like Yes) typically took two Mellotrons on tour with them to cope with the inevitable breakdowns.

The Mellotron was first made famous by The Beatles, who used it prominently on their groundbreaking 1967 single "Strawberry Fields Forever", and it was also used by The Zombies, the Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and others during the psychedelic era.

The Mellotron was widely used to provide backing keyboard accompaniment by many of the progressive rock groups of the 1970s and alongside the venerable Hammond organ it was crucial to shaping the sound of the genre. It features on albums such as In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, "Fragile" and "Close To The Edge" by Yes, and Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound by Genesis. Led Zeppelin used a Mellotron to recreate the flute arrangement for live performances of Stairway to Heaven, and it featured prominently on the song "Kashmir". It was also used extensively by pioneering German electronic music band Kraftwerk on many of their earlier recordings.

Although it appeared to have been rendered obsolete by polyphonic syntheisers and digital sampler keyboards, the distinctive sounds of the Mellotron proved to have a lasting appeal and in the 1990s some bands began using refurbished Mellotrons in order to re-create a 1970s progressive rock atmosphere. Many bands and producers also regularly use digital samples based on Mellotron sounds, and a new Mellotron model has recently been produced.

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