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Mellotron Anecdotes

I thought I'd share a few of my encounters with various Mellotrons.  I hope you enjoy these anecdotes.

* The quick story of my #805

Kurdt Vanderhoof (Washington state) was in need of cash to purchase a vintage "clear" (see-through) Ludwig drum set (c. 1976), and he decided to get rid of one of his two M400s. He posted it to the Mellotronists list, and I jumped in at the right time to bid for the beastie (after he'd lowered the price enough :-) ), and he shipped it to my house.

I had never seen one before, so when it arrived I had a look-see inside. The bloody thing was nearly empty! Sure, there was some stuff in it, but most was air. Did I get ripped off on an Internet deal??? What the hell!

I poked around some more and began to take inventory. Tapes, frame, motor, motor controller (oops, cable fell off, gotta snap it back on), keys, capstan, switch, knob, cables...I guess that was it.

So I plugged it in (the AC cable being a frazzled mess, like most of 'em---YOU try getting the funky connector on the back of a 'tron power supply!), and I turned the switch, and...Nothing. No whirring, nothing. Uh ohhh...So I shut it off and waited a few minutes and went back to it. Second time was the charm. I guess this thing had a ghost in it that went away, and it spun up without a hitch. Through an old mixer and some 'phones I got my first taste of an in-the-flesh Mellotron: a flat-sounding, out-of-tune, noisy flute. PERFECT! :-)

It's been working fairly fine ever since. I've adjusted the keyboard I don't know how many times. Anyone will tell you that you DO get Mellotronists Hunchback doing that---it can be a several hour long operation adjusting the pinch roller and the pressure pad on 35 keys.

I've threaded up a new frame with tapes, and that took a while, too. It was a set of tapes I got from Dave Kean, and toward the end he'd written me a note on the tape that he knew I'd find well into my threading ordeal: "Hi Ken, Having fun??" Bwaaaahhhh! :-) Hell, he's threaded millions of these things, so he knows...

Are we having fun yet???

* Mellotrons and Girlfriends

When I tell most people that I have a Mellotron, they stare at me blankly or just say, "A what?"  Then I have to explain.  Shortly after 805 came in, I started dating a young lady who was fascinated with what I told her about the machine.  "I've got to see it---it sounds neat!"  Heyyyy, my kinda girl!  She came over to check out 805, and I'd left the panels off for her to see the tapes going up and down in the frame as I played some of my usual drek.  She laid down on the floor behind the machine and watched the tapes, content to stay there and just listen to what I was playing and watching the machine work.  Talk about the right woman!  What a jackpot!

...'til the day she made a recommendation.  "Ya know, Ken, I think 805 would look good painted in a pastel color with a seashell motif."

It was not long after that this girl and I parted company.  805 is still around, though.  White with black feet, no seashells.

Fortunately 805 was in good shape when he arrived almost 2 years ago (April '98).  I had to do a low noise modification in the power supply (with instructions from Dave Kean), but all that took was some soldering.  Aside from that he's in good shape, perhaps a bit dinged around the corners and in need of a good paint job.

* Interesting 'tron 911 calls

1) Muffler man

"Ken, I just took delivery of a 'tron, but the sound coming out is really muffled.  Help!"  I grabbed my usual set of tools (socket for the nylock nuts on the keys, regular screwdriver, alcohol (for cleaning stuff), emery cloth, and a demagnetizer) and headed out to Newton, MA, where the emergency was.

Problem 1:  The amp was plugged into the volume control jack.  "I get nothing when it's plugged into the back, just here."  A wee bit of cleaning up cured that.

Problem 2:  So we'd gotten sound out the proper jack, but it was still massively muffled.  I was quite perplexed, but then I looked into the top of the machine again and busted out laughing.  "Who tossed these tapes in here?"  I asked.  The new owner answered, "The guy who sold it to me."  I let this new owner know that the light brown side is where the sounds are recorded, and it should not be visible from the top...Yep, the tapes were put in upside down.

oops...Upside down...times 35...

No, he wasn't looking forward to reinstalling all the tapes, but I showed him the basics, and he said he'd take it from there.  Last I heard his 'tron was pretty happy and no longer quite so muffled!

2) Being in the 20th percentile

Once a CMC-10 controller starts to go bad, there's nothing you can do to make your Mellotron happy.  It always sounds like a sick dog.  So you shoot the controller (replace it).

So this 'tron owner rung up Mr. Dave Kean, who sent out his last SMS-5 motor controller.  Yours truly got the phone call to wire this up, so I grabbed my desoldering/soldering station (and my other tools), and off I went.

We got the old controller out and put in the new one.  That was the easy part.  I then spent a few hours moving wires around on the power supply.  The type of connector they use on the power supply uses a plug with several wires on it.  To attach wires to this plug, you push the wires into some pins (short, thin tubes with rounded ends) then *somehow* solder them inside there.  Now *that* was a bitch.  I had to crank my soldering iron way up, find a way to hold this plug with all these pins in place, get the solder heated up enough to melt, then pull the old wire out.  After that I had to get the new wire, stick it into the plug, and *somehow* heat up the solder again so that wire would stay where I put it.

A few burned fingers and a few hours later I finally got things in place.  Whew!

We put the power supply back into the M400, snapped on the power switch, and...Nothing. 

We checked and double-checked the power supply and the wiring job we did, and it was all to spec.

A quick call to Dave Kean had his diagnosis:  "Oh, is this particular wire in this location?"  "Yep."  "OK, well that explains it.  You have one of *those* power supplies.  Some 'trons have a power supply that is slightly different, and you've got the one that was in about 20% of the 'trons I've seen."  Nice, we're in a minority.  Dave relayed a new set of instructions, and I went back to the soldering iron and reworked everything.

After checking and double-checking my work, we loaded the power supply into the 'tron, cabled it all up, and it purred to life.  Whew!

805's Power Supply
In which percentile is 805's power supply?
Nobody knows...

3) Shielding?  We don't need no steeeenkin' shielding!

Someone was due to take delivery on a Mark II, newly refurbished by Streetly.  What a beautiful machine it was, too.  We let it acclimate for a little while (get used to the temperature and humidity of its new home while we went out for stouts and lunch), then we were ready to fire it up.  The owner called Martin Smith to have him walk us through a checklist before turning it on (lord only knows what happens to those things during shipping).  So we had Martin on the cordless phone while we walked around the Mark II looking at this and poking at that.

Things looked great, so it was time to turn it on.  I was behind the machine, and I watched the voltage meter on the power supply fire right up, and the box came to life.  We heard the thud in the speaker as the amps kicked in.  Great!!



Beeeeeeep beeeeeeep. ?? 

From the right speaker we got this bizarre beeping sound for a second.  But then it went away.  OK, back to business. 

Martin walked us through cycling the stations, and then we were ready to play the machine.

It sounded just great!  I was congratulating Martin on a job well done, when...


Oh no.  What'n'ell was wrong with the damn thing?

"Martin, listen to this thing!"

We put the phone near the speaker.

Beeeeeeep beeeeeep...

"Wow, that's odd," he said.

"Yeah, we've got no idea."

"Wait!  Are you guys on a cordless phone?"

We all busted out laughing.  Yep, the cordless phone's signal was getting into the amp somehow and coming out as a beep.

The Mark II was just fine.  In fact, John Bradley did a great job on it.  Just a great machine!

4) Sticky tape

Another 'tron owner took delivery of some brand new tapes from Martin in the UK.  Seems his tapes come in two flavors:  the "piss yellow" stuff or the "pink" stuff.  This 'tron owner wired up some of the pink stuff, and tossed the frame into one of his machines.

Well, this pink stuff just doesn't have enough bend to it, so it was often found jammed in the tape take up box.  Loops of it would be flopping around above the capstan, and no amount of yanking on the tape would free it.  You had to remove the lid and the keyboard, then the tape would snap back.

The owner brought his frame over to my place to try the tapes in 805.  I played them for a while, and he played them for a while.  Absolutely no jam---none.

Always one for customer service, Martin replaced the pink stuff with the piss yellow stuff.  Sure 'nuf, even this stock decided that this particular machine belonging to my friend wasn't where it wanted to be, so the piss yellow stock was summarily crunched (although not as often as the pink stuff).

The Yellow Stuff

Third time's a charm.  Martin provided some different stock (a dark gray or black, if I remember correctly), and those tapes have been fine.

Dave Kean provides his tapes on Ampex 456 stock, and I've had only *one* crunch, and that was while I was messing about adjusting the keyboard.  The same tape has been fine ever since.  And it's recommended that if a tape gets a bend or crease in it, just grab your favorite iron and put it on low and iron out the crease.

So, yeah, these things will eat tapes on occasion.  :-) 

Unfortunately it's an expensive proposition if you do lose a tape.  Sigh...

5) Screeching cable rot

Imagine playing your 'tron for a while only to be accosted with an absolutely terrible screeeeeeech in your headphones. I'm talking deafening!  You later discover that wiggling the cable going to your preamp deadens the screech.  And shortly after playing your tapes again, you discover your tapes have been muffled or even erased!

In their effort to cut costs (or in some bout with poor judgment), Streetly went with the cheapest braided copper cables possible for connecting the major portions of the M400:  headblock to preamp, out of the power supply area (where the preamp sends its audio signal) to the volume control jack, then from the volume control jack to the output at the back of the machine.  Over time oxidation destroys the wiring, and any movement (such as switching tracks, which moves the headblock) causes the metal in the wires to turn to dust and fail.

Cabling turned to dust

Result:  Scrreeeeeech!

And in the most unlucky cases when the cable from the headblock to the preamp fails, it's possible to charge the heads.  The next time the tapes flow over the heads, their magnetic content will be screwed, erasing or dulling the sound on the tapes.  At $250 a set, that gets expensive.  The solution to the scrreeeeech is replacing the cables and connectors with some good stuff.

Whenever I work on a 'tron and it involves messing about with the preamp or other major electronic component, out comes the demagnetizer.  Yes, there are ways to shield the headblock from becoming charged (putting a 40K Ohm resistor across the headblock cable or shorting out the preamp inputs with a screwdriver before plugging in the headblock), but why take chances?

I have a TEAC E-3 demagnetizer.  When you plug it in and turn it on (far from the 'tron, mind you), it buzzes, not unlike an electric razor (it also made my "pastel with shell motif" girldfriend's eyes widen, thinking it was something for her).  So on you go demagging the heads:  in straight, wave over the head, out straight---35 heads' worth.  When you switch off the demagger, your hearing is messed up.  All you can hear is a washy, phasey, swooshy sound, and everything you hear is distorted.  It's amazing what the buzzing of that tool will do to your sense of hearing.

At that point you go grab a good stout and wait for your ears to calm down before listening to your 'tron.  I think that should be the final instruction in demagnetizing your 'tron.

6) Creeping Whoosh!

The one mechanical thing that you don't expect to die on you in a Mellotron is the motor.  For some reason those things just keep on ticking.  Until you come across the one in #1037, of course.  Power up the machine, and the motor creeps along.  Then it goes off to the races, spinning ever faster, then faster more, then it immediately cuts out and creeps.

As described by Rod B., the person who sold #1037 to me, when he last tried the M400, it went "Whoosh!".  Well, it also creeps.  And why?  It's not the CMC-10.  It's half the motor dun been cooked.

* Mellotron-related Diseases

- Mellotronist's Hunchback:  A spinal condition developed during extensive sessions adjusting the keyboard on a Mellotron (key pressure pads and pinch rollers).  Symptoms are a stiff, hunched back.  Cure involves stout.

- Wobblies:  The unintentional variation in speed as a Mellotron plays a tape.  Results in an uneven sound.  Cure involves getting Mellotronist's Hunchback.  If that doesn't work, you may need to perform a procedure known as the Merbler Flick as part of freeing up a pinch roller that has become stiff.  If the pinch roller won't turn properly (has become stiff around the axle), douse (or submerge) the unit in alcohol for a while, especially around the axle.  When you remove the pinch roller assembly from its bath, place a suitable finger on the pinch roller and give it a flick.  Think of it like your middle finger resting on your thumb as you snap your fingers---that kind of press and flick, only very hard.  Repeat until the pinch roller is rolling freely.  Yes, this does work.

- Wedgie:  When the played tape will not come out of the take-up box. Symptoms are usually a stuck tape with a series of fan-folds at the entrance slit of the take-up box.  Cure:  Remove keyboard, let the wedgie fall.  If the tape is creased, you may have to iron it.  If the tapes continues to jam, move from the "pink" stuff to the "piss yellow" stuff and finally the dark stuff.

- Spaghettification:  A major failure in a Mark II whose station-changing mechanism has gone nuts.  Symptoms include a mass of tangled Mellotron tapes (usually 35 or---in the worst cases---70 of them).  Cure:  Not even massive amounts of stout will touch this one...

- Strangulation:  Applies to the sound of a Mellotron tape as it runs out.  When tapes run out, they are halted, and it results in a strangulation-type sound, especially with the choirs.

- Stiction:  The hesitation of a tape to return.  Generally you don't know this has happened unless you have the front panel off your machine and observe the tape shuttle halfway up the column.  Symptoms include a very short note duration and strangulation the next time you play the note.  Cure involves reaching in and grabbing the tape, or playing the one next to it, or bouncing the tape (tapping the key until the tape falls), or spreading the pins in the tape frame to give the tape a smidge more room to fall in the column.  Usually happens on the most important chord in your song while in the middle of a major concert or during a very expensive recording session.

- Zip:  The sound a 1/4" tape makes in a Mellotron frame upon return, if you've decided to make your own 'tron tapes on a 1/4" 2-track deck.  Review Einstein's theories on light speed.

- Warpage:  What happens to a key on a Mark II if it's not used to your climate.  Keys can bend so badly they rub against other keys and can't really be played.  Cure:  John B. in the UK has an apparatus to straighten out a warped key.  While the key is away being repaired, your Mark II reminds you of Alfred E. Newman.

- Alumirot:  If you take the time to clean out the station and track select switches on a Mark I or Mark II with alcohol and immediately store the part in a plastic bag, some weird stuff will appear on the aluminum and the mechanism will freeze.

Cure:  Lots more cleaning.

- Cycling sciatica:  When testing an SSCU in a Mark I/II/FX/300, you need to be careful, or you'll wind up with spaghettification (see above).  So you have one hand on the service switch to cut the power just in case, and that's on the back of the machine.  You then stretch the other hand up over the top of the machine to hit the station select buttons.  And you keep your eye on the tapes in the middle, flicking the service switch off just in case something goes awry.

* Recording with a Mellotron

The Mark II with which I am familiar sounds wonderful out its ancient amps and ancient Wharfedale speakers.  Despite line outs (installed by John Bradley of Streetly), the owner of this Mellotron has decided he'll just put a microphone at either of its speakers.  It really has that "'tronny" sound, and he wants to capture it.  I feel that taking the line outs would lose that "sound", so I'm with him on this one.

The M400 requires an external amp.  I plug mine right into a mixer and record it from there.  In addition to some AC hum (just try to get rid of that from analogue gear of any kind), you'll get some noise and other artifacts.  To add to the fun, you need to watch the levels closely, since playing too many notes at once may push you over into clipping.  In addition, a "dry" Mellotron is just that---very dry.  Various artists have used all kinds of processing, from Leslies to reverb units.  I normally throw a little reverb onto #805 and record it like that.  (I have a rack of effects and record to a PC set up with Cakewalk digital audio software and an Event Gina digital audio card, the results of which may be heard on my tunes page (see the link at the top of this page).)

* Playing a Mellotron

Perhaps the most quirky things about Mellotrons is that each one is different.  If Duncan Goddard played his and I played mine, they'd be very easy to tell apart by sound.  Put two modern synthesizers side by side, and they'll sound about the same.  Being made of wood and having a design that's very sensitive, a Mellotron is more of a living instrument.  It is affected by heat, cold, humidity, and even its own mood that day.

I've played #805 on a Saturday with wobblies and all kinds of crap going on---essentially unplayable (or at least not worthy of recording).  By Sunday it's fine and is a completely different instrument, with no adjustment on my part.

If you've never played one, you're in for it.  I won't say you're in for a *treat*, though.  :-)  Because you are pressing down a long, wide key onto a pinch roller and a pressure pad, a lot of power is required to produce a sound.  Most Mellotron keyboards are mushy and inaccurate or stiff and not responsive; the feel just isn't the same as a synth or a piano.  I have played one or two Mellotrons with well adjusted keyboards, and they're nicer than what I've got going with #805, but they're by no means very easy to play.

Mellotronists develop their own styles.  You've got an instrument that's touchy, so you need to listen to what you're playing and make adjustments in your style along the way.  You might be playing a chord only to have one of the notes start to wobble or drop out. You need to press harder on that one note---but not on the other notes you're holding.  And sometimes tapes don't return all the way, meaning a certain note may have a shorter life than others, so you need to lift that finger and possibly re-trigger the note (or just forget about it).  And, yes, you have about 8 seconds, depending on whose set of tapes you have.  With the 8-voice choir it sounds like you're strangling some of them when you run out of tape (see "Strangulation" above).

Considering the recordings of the original tapes back in the 60s, the various generations, any clean-ups, transfers to computers, and the adjustment of the machine that cut tapes for your 'tron, the tapes themselves put in a great many artifacts.  Sometimes you have a breathy flute note, but elsewhere on your keyboard will be one that's not so breathy.  Add in the adjustment of the pressure pad, and you've got 35 notes that sound different in quality up and down the keyboard.  I don't need perfect pitch, since I can tell when you're hitting the low F on 805 because of the way the sound is muffled and sounds like it's straining to come out.

Chords can be a nightmare, especially on full-sounding Mellotron tapes, like the 3-violins or the string sections.  If you hold down too many notes to make a chord, your sound will become distorted.  So you need to lay off.

Then of course there's the thud in the high E-flat in the Cello tape set (as well as the tape sets that use Cello), as well as my B-flat in the second octave of the 3-violins sound that's so badly distorted it's almost unusual.  These are the fault of the source tapes, most likely.  Very 'tron-like.  :-)

* Faking a Mellotron with Samplers

Sampled Mellotrons are always a touchy subject with me.  For me playing a Mellotron is challenging because of what the instrument is.  It's imperfect, and you need to play along with it the way it wants to be played, like walking a husky, which has a mind of its own.  When you press a key on a Mellotron, you'll get a slightly different sound each time.  That's part of the beauty of it.

These days with modern samplers it seems that everyone is playing a Mellotron on a record, yet very few real 'trons are in any of the studios.  Every note that comes out is the same, and you can tell artists who use the same samples.  What's worse is that some artists stretch the Mellotron above its usable range, making for some awful sounding noise.  In fact, there's one CD I can't listen to because the artist decided to do this.  Perhaps he's not aware of the 35-note limit.  Well, he went at least another octave, turning the beautiful Mellotron flute into an awful sine wave.

I feel that the Mellotron is cheapened a little by all those sample users out there, but there are a few artists, such as Redshift, who do such a great job with the Mellotron sounds in the context of the song that I don't really care what they use.  Thankfully those with the real thing (such as Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock (Cosmic Hoffman, RAMP)) are using it.  Those without (like Stephen Parsick) borrow his.  Others use samples (Redshift, Free System Projekt, the Cure, and many others).

So I'm torn on the topic.  One part of me loves to hear the sound, but the other wants the sound to be produced from the real instrument. To that end I have offered the services of #805 to my electronic music friends free of charge, but not free of wobblies.  :-)

I'm just very glad that the Mellotron is making a bit of a comeback, and loads of people seem curious about it and wanting to use it in recordings.  Even my 805, which has been used in Michael Oliver and Go, Dog, Go!'s album "Pop and Circumstances."


The Mellotron:  ...the greatest development in home entertainment since Television.

- Eric Robinson, from the Mellotron Mark I User Manual