A Mellotron History

Popular music and its culture has given us many famous instrument innovations. The electric guitar, the Rhodes Piano and the synthesizer quickly come to mind . Our capacity for invention seems at times to be limitless when a problem stands between us and our artistic vision. One problem facing all musicians at one time or another is the matter of artistic control and the ability to realize a sound without having the facility to play the instrument responsible for that sound. Multi-track recording gave a single musician the ability to manipulate time by overdubbing a performance to create a multi instrument piece of music but, he still was faced with learning and playing those instruments himself. A major driving force for today's music industry, to be sure.

In 1946, a clever man named Harry Chamberlin saw a solution to this problem. One day, while playing his home organ, Harry got out a portable tape recorder to record his playing for some friends. After having made the recording, the BIG IDEA struck him. He thought, “if I can make a recording of myself playing, why not build a machine that plays recordings of these (and any other) sounds?” Harry had seen the first sampler that has culminated to date in the machine that you, dear reader, are about to load these sounds into. Full circle.

According to Harry's son Richard, Harry's first machine was the model 100 rhythmate. This machine had 14 loops of drum patterns and was aimed at the home organ market. Pleased with the success of this machine, he then built a shop in Upland Ca. and began production of the Model 200 keyboard.This instrument used quarter inch full track tape and the first version of his multi station tape changing system. Oddly, this machine also had a steel subframe that was soon abandoned with the design of the 300/350 series. The lack of a subframe was the major design flaw in all of Harry's subsequent models up to the M series. It's the first thing that the Bradley Bros. would add to this design in producing their first Mellotron.

Harry then built the remotely operated Model 300/350 (two separate cabinets) and the organ style cabinet Model 600/660 Music Master. These machines used 3/8ths in. tape and had thirty five keys, G to F. Harry felt that this range was enough to cover the useable range of most instruments and still left room in the cabinet for another 35 note keyboard that had “combo” rhythm tapes and special sound effects. The 3/8ths in. tape afforded him more sounds and a proprietary tape format that insured replacement tape sales. This was a largely successful design and in 1960 Harry set up a new shop in Ontario California to build and sell these instruments.

After a period of time Harry hired a man named Bill Fransen as a salesman (something Bill was very good at) to help him increase his sales. Bill did this, but there were problems: Harry’s inability to keep up with the orders and the basic unreliability of the mechanism. There were six banks of tape in each keyboard that were scrolled from “station” to "station" thereby giving the player a different set of 3 sounds to choose from. His method for stopping this scrolling had about a 40 % failure rate and caused tape disasters few have ever seen the likes of. Also, the replay heads he used were unmatched, producing a very uneven play back from key to key.

Nine months later, Bill concluded that even though Harry's wonderful keyboard was sound in principle, he was never going to fix the problems that continued to plague the tape shuttling system. Believing that the idea was to good to be left alone, Bill "appropriated" two of Harry's Model 600 Music Masters and took them to England to try and find someone with the engineering and manufacturing talent to bring this idea to fruition.

While looking for this talent in Birmingham, Bill contacted Leslie Bradley of Bradmatic Ltd. and asked if they could supply a set of 70 matched replay heads. Les consulted with his brothers Frank and Norman and replied that they could indeed do this. The brothers were very curious about this strange request ( Frank rightly guessed that they must be for some sort of music machine) and inquired further.The Brothers were impressed when Bill showed them how their 70 replay heads were being used and when asked by Bill if they could improve upon and mass produce this machine, they gave him an enthusiastic “yes”. It should be stated here that the Bradleys at this point believed the idea to Bill's and they had no reason to believe that they were infringing on someone else's patent or intellectual property. This all came to light a year later after Harry got wind of it and hot footed it to England. Boy, was he mad.

When the dust settled, Harry agreed to sell the technology to the Bradleys for a sum of 30,000.00 in 1966. Harry reluctantly shook Bill’s hand and went back home to continue his own path of development that culminated in the Chamberlin M series of the 1970’s. Harry did some master tape trading with the Bradleys and some of Harry’s masters ended up with the Bradleys.They are now a part of the Mellotron Archives collection that this CD ROM was made from.

The Bradley Brothers, Orchestra leader Eric Robinson and magician David Nixon were all partners in Mellotronics, the company set up to handle sales and distribution of the Mellotron. The brothers then renamed their manufacturing outfit Streetly Electronics and proceeded to build Mellotrons and recording tapes for them. This tape recording process was a daunting task. Consider this: For the rhythm side they need thirty five tape recordings of a rhythm section playing in time, in tune and each tape had three of these recordings across the 3/8ths in. tape that had to start at the same time. Multiply this times the six “stations” that were selectable, involve stretching tape, and the fact that it’s 1963. No digital editing. No synchronized tape lock. Just a lot of head scratching and a stubborn will to make it work. It took three months for them to record the first set of Mk II rhythms and fills. The leads sets were next to be recorded because Harry’s leads were not in tune with the Bradley produced Rhythms, remember, one capstan drives both sides of the machine. Once this was done, they went into business and did quite well.

A number of rock groups, the Beatles, Stones, Kinks etc.. helped make the instrument more visible and a young Brumey lad named Mike Pinder went to work for Streetly. Michael's job there was to play the finished Mellotron at the end of the assembly line and make any final adjustments before it was sent to the customer. He fell in love with the sound and decided that it would be an ideal addition to his new group the Moody Blues. Leslie Bradley helped Michael purchase a used Mk II and the group promptly used it to record their hit single “Love and Beauty”. Soon thereafter the Beatles cut Strawberry Fields Forever. The Mellotron sound was on it way to becoming a sonic archetype in our Pop music consciousness.

The development paths taken by Harry Chamberlin and the Bradley Brothers went in two different directions. They both knew they needed to improve reliability, portability and make a larger choice of instrument sounds available. Harry abandoned the multiple “station” idea of shuttling the three track tape for new sound selections and instead changed to 1/2 inch eight track tape with stereo playback capability. This was the M series. The M-1 was a single 35 note keyboard. The M-2 (or M-1D as it was originally called) had two keyboards with a 25 note keyboard being added to the left of the 35 note one. The M-4 had 4 keyboards and the Riviera Model 800 had two M-2 style units in one cabinet and a fifth foot operated 25 note unit. This last machine was Harry’s crowning achievement and is now owned by Mellotron Archives. Richard Chamberlin remembers only 2 of these units being built 4 M-4's and 5 of the M-2’s seeing the light of day. The production numbers for the M-1’s suggest between 100 and 300 units being produced between 1970 and 1981 and is arguably the best sounding instrument of this type.

The Mellotron evolved in a much different way. After many calls to make the Mk II more portable, the Bradleys designed and built the Model 300 Mellotron. This unit (the oddest of the bunch) hints at the direction that would lead to the M400. The 300 had one 52 note keyboard, quarter inch tape and no pitch control! Only the first few had this much missed feature. Imagine.... a Mellotron that one couldn’t tune. The tape library was completely redone for this instrument but only 160 units were made. They realized quickly that even though the 300 was a much slimmer version of the huge Mk II, it still wasn’t portable enough and the sounds available still didn’t satisfy the thirst for more variety. To satisfy this demand the Brothers also abandoned the multi station platform but retained the proprietary 3/8 inch tape format. They then developed a removable tape frame or “cassette” and expanded the original Mk II library to include another 16 new instruments. The new instrument designed to use these new tape frames was the ever famous M400. One couldn’t go to a progressive rock concert in the 70’s without seeing that unmistakable profile. It was also usually the only white keyboard on the stage. At 122 lbs. the littlest Mellotron sold over 1800 units and was the only design that came close to being a marketing success.

Why was the Mellotron more popular than the Chamberlin? A couple of reasons. Firstly, the Bradley Brothers were geniuses in their time at constructing many pieces and assembling the finished product, therefore, in the time it took Harry to build one Chamberlin, the Bradleys built a dozen Mellotrons with standardized parts and adjustment procedures. Secondly, the English groups had our attention at that time and they were using English instruments.

In 1977, Mellotronics was approached by Bill Eberline of Dallas Musical Instruments of Mahwah, New Jersey to act as worldwide distributors for Mellotron. This was done and sales did pick up for a time, but other products picked up by D.M.I. were not doing so well and the company finally collapsed taking Mellotronics with them. Streetly Electronics barely survived this collapse and continued to build Mellotrons. Ironically, they had to change the name to Novatron because Bill Eberline “managed” to buy the name Mellotron in all of the legal wrangling that ensued. Bill then formed a company called Sound Sales to sell xtrons and tapes.

This led to an unusual situation: Streetly would build a tron, call it a Novatron and sell it to you for 3500.00 where as Sound Sales would take shipment of that same machine, call it a Mellotron and charge you 4500.00 for it. Get the picture? Streetly went out of business in 1987 after heroically bucking the synthesizers domination of the market for 4 or 5 years.

The end of this story is in your hands. Mellotron Archives bought the Bradley Brothers master tape collection of Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds and the Mellotron Digital collection that descended from Mellotronics in London. This collection of tapes and instruments was the source for this C.D. ROM. The sounds are exact recordings of Mellotrons and Chamberlins right down to the pressure pad contacting the tape head for 7 seconds. (These are the last sounds on earth that need to be destroyed by looping). All 35 notes were sampled from the most well maintained Mellotrons and Chamberlins on the planet. The renewed popularity of these sounds deserves an accurate volume like this one and we hope you can enjoy them without worrying about fouling a tape.