Ode to the Mellotron

Mellotrons. I miss ’em.

Anyone familiar with the denser forms of rock music circa 1971 knows Mellotrons, by sound if not by name. Before synthesizers could produce sounds besides simple, generated, electronic tones, before digital sampling became widespread, there was the Mellotron.

I guess you could consider the Mellotron a sort of proto-sampling, but it was very much analog in nature. Mellotrons consisted of an array of audio tape loops that captured real sounds at various pitches, performed with a keyboard. Depressing a key worked a lot like pressing a piano key, activating a mechanism that would play a note. Rather than a hammer tapping a tuned string, however, a Mellotron key pressed a cassette play head to the corresponding strip of audio tape, playing back a recording.

Needless to say, this made for an incredibly cumbersome and difficult device. (The Wikipedia page gives an almost hilarious rundown of just how terrible these things were to rely on for a living.) Anyone who remembers cassette tapes remembers how easily the sound could warp, distort, or even demagnetize; now imagine trying to incorporate that entropic sensation into a live performance. Mellotrons quickly became infamous for their unreliability and the amount of maintenance they required for touring bands. But, back in the ’60s and ’70s, they were the absolute best way to add an orchestral richness to small ensemble (e.g. rock band) sound. Or choirs! Or any number of other effects!

Any number of symphonic, psychedelic, and prog acts incorporated Mellotrons into their mix anyway, from the Moody Blues to Uriah Heep. For my money, though, the master of the form was probably Tony Banks of Genesis, who made the Mellotron a staple of his tool set beginning with the band’s first “real” album, Trespass. The shuddering, tremulous effect of the “strings” in songs like “White Mountain” give the album the effect of having been pulled from a decaying master tape, but in fact the distortion came from the Mellotron itself.

“Watcher of the Skies” above, however, might be the instrument’s shining moment of glory; the first minute and a half of the song is a Mellotron solo. It eventually gives way to Hammond organ once the rhythm section folds into the sound, but it’s kind of impressive that a song (actually, an entire album — “Watcher of the Skies” is the lead track of 1972’s Foxtrot) begins with nothing but prerecorded strings played live. Genesis’ ambitious live shows were infamous for the fact that none of them ever went off without a hitch, and I have to imagine their reliance on Mellotrons played a part in that.

With the closing section here of “The Cinema Show,” recorded in 1976, you can see (or hear?) the writing on the wall for the Mellotron. Banks uses it to lay down a wall  of choral sound, but the lead instrument in this passage is a synthesizer. A few years later, Rolands, Fairlights, and Vocoders hit the scene and Mellotrons vanished nary a goodbye; with 1980’s Duke, Banks switched entirely to synthesizers. A big part of Duke‘s new, modern sound had to do with the production processes involved — this was around the time Phil Collins began experimenting with drum machines and gated reverb — but Bank’s abandonment of ’70s analog devices like Mellotrons and organs had a lot to do with it as well.

Mellotrons haven’t totally vanished today; sometimes someone will drag one out of storage for novelty. It’s charming, but totally inessential. Like filming a movie on a hand-cranked camera, it’s something you do to make a statement. Everything a Mellotron could do, a synthesizer can do better. Maybe not as warmly or distinctly. However, synths are far more reliable. There’s something to be said for keeping the old ways alive, but you can hardly blame professional musicians for not wanting to hang their fortunes on a device that may or may not work on any given day.

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