Mellotrontapes. This unique arrangement allowed the instrument to imitate nearly any other musical instrument, voice, or sound imaginable.
The Mellotron was based on a 1946 invention by American inventor Henry Chamberlain. Outside, it looked like an ordinary electronic organ. Inside, however, were 35 separate tape players, each equipped with a short loop of tape. Pressing a key caused a tape “head” to touch the surface of the tape, causing whatever sound was recorded on that tape to be amplified and reproduced.
Although first offered as a home entertainment device, the main customers of this bulky, expensive instrument proved to be rock musicians. Early customers included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Mark Pinder, keyboards player for the band The Moody Blues, worked at the company for several months before becoming a full-time musician, and introduced the group to the Mellotron. The Moody Blues would prove to be one of the Mellotron’s best advertisers. Bradmatic, which underwent several name changes over the years, eventually lost the right to the Mellotron name in 1977 through a complex legal blunder, but continued to sell Mellotron-style keyboard instruments under the name Novachord through the mid-1980s.
However, the Mellotron’s complex mechanical tape players were also the source of great frustration. The wheels and rollers driving the tape rack had to be regularly adjusted to prevent the tape speed from becoming erratic. Further, misalignment between the tape heads and the tapes was common, leading to poor-quality sound. For these reasons, many keyboard players abandoned the Mellotron as soon as digital samplers became available and affordable in the 1980s. More recently, however, the unique, unearthly Mellotron sound (which is difficult to imitate) has been revived, as groups such as Oasis and Radiohead, use the instrument for recordings.