Mellotron Myths

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            ...or BUSTED!

Not everything you hear about Mellotrons is the truth.  Let's bust a few Mellotron myths!

Do you know of a Mellotron myth that needs to be BUSTED?  Do you have more information for me about any of these myths?  Drop me a note!

Mellotrons were invented in England.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Mellotrons were invented by Harry Chamberlin of the US.  Two Chamberlins were flown over to the UK and disassembled to serve as the basis of the Mellotron Mark I design.  Eventually Harry and the folks producing Mellotrons came to an agreement, and a sum of money was paid to Harry as royalties for his designs and patents.  Myth BUSTED!

Mellotrons use tape loops.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Most Mellotrons use strips of tape.  I say "most" because Tangerine Dream had a specially modified M400 where they removed the frame and welded the tape rollers from the frame to the underside of the keyboard area.  This allowed Edgar Froese to wrap his tape strips around into a loop so they would play continuously.  However there was a thump when the tape splice came around, which effects were used to hide.  Let's call this myth BUSTED but known to happen in one special case.

Mellotrons are often used for animals.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Mellotrons have been found in various states over the years.  The Mellotron owned by Spring, an early 70s prog outfit, found its way into a barn and was lived in by chickens for years.  Believe it or not, Streetly was able to restore the machine to working order.  My own #1037 had some motor trouble and was retired to a basement for a decade where scores of mice took it over.  It, too, is in working order now.  Myth CONFIRMED, and I'll be glad to send you a Hoover full of mice-rice to prove it. 

Equally as disgusting:  Although unconfirmed, one source said that Bobby Goldsboro's Mellotron was used by his ex-wife as a diaper hamper--apparently it was a messy divorce in more ways than one.

Mellotrons are often used by animals.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

You decide.  :-)

Click here for a 476KB Windows Media file.

The new style Mellotron tape frame from Mellotron Archives will not fit into M400-style machines or a Mark V.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

So you have a Mark V and would like to order a tape frame from Mellotron Archives.  Or you have an old M400 series machine.  But everyone says that the tape frame won't fit.  'Tronbusters busts the myth.  COMING SOON.

Mellotrons are unreliable and prone to breaking down.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Several things have given Mellotrons a bad name:

  1. Horror shows due to cycling issues in the Mark I/II and M300 series machines.  Cycling mechanisms are complex, and, yes, they break down sometimes and result in "spaghettification".
  2. The CMC-10 motor controllers in the M400 units were horrible at keeping pitch and introduced noise into the audio path.
  3. Need for maintenance and adjustment.

The truth is that anything mechanical needs looking after.  If your car doesn't get its regular maintenance, what eventually happens?  The Mellotron was no more prone to breaking down than anything else, but it did require some fiddling now and then to get it right.  You didn't tour with a Mark I/II or M300.  If you did, you got what you got.  For the M400 you replaced the CMC board and took care of the regular adjustments.

Mellotrons have been around since the early 60s.  The remaining cycling machines, when restored by competent techs, will last another several decades.  The M400s are still humming along, and replacement parts are available.  They're simpler boxes better suited for touring.

Duncan Goddard of Radio Massacre International regularly plays and tours with his M400.  Click here for Duncan's thoughts on Mellotron reliability.  You might be surprised.

I'll mark this one as PLAUSIBLE, but realize there are things you can do to increase reliability!

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer never used a Mellotron.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Unconfirmed:  Stories have it that Emo had one and got ready to use it on stage, and it broke down nearly right away.  ELP never touched it again.  So I understand that they did have one, but they didn't have a very good experience with it...

So much for reliability.  :-)  (Well, it was an old CMC-10 motor controller...feh!)

Rick Wakeman preferred his Mellotrons well done.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Apparently in a BBC interview in 1998 Mr. Wakeman admitted to taking the two Mellotrons he'd used for years and in a fit of (undoubtedly drunken) frustration brought them out to a field, poured gasoline on them, and had a bonfire.  Call this one CONFIRMED.

Meanwhile Rick's double-'tron---essentially two M400s on a homemade frame in a homemade case---has been saved from the dump and has been (or is being) restored.  Last I saw it the thing was an electrical nightmare, but I guess that is being worked out (or has been by now).  It's owned now by Mellotronist Chris Dale.

You can't get parts or tapes for Mellotrons.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Streetly has brand new motors, tape frames, and tapes, and they will be building new machines (if they aren't already).  Mellotron Archives has all manner of Mellotron parts and tapes, and they have been making machines for several years now.  This myth is BUSTED!

The Mellotron tape selection is limited.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Mellotron Archives has remastered its tapes of the familiar 'tron sounds and can get you a set no problem.  Streetly has a large collection of Mellotron sounds including newly recorded sounds.  BUSTED!

Mellotron samples are the same as the real thing.

Plausible?  Confirmed?   ...or BUSTED!

You can argue all day long whether samples of a Mellotron sound like the real thing or not, or whether you'd notice, or whatever.  The truth is the electronics and mechanics of the Mellotron affect the sound, something that's not going to happen in a sampler.  A chord in a Mellotron, for example, will have sound playing from several tape heads wired in series and run through a preamp.  The result is a slightly distorted, compressed sound.  A sampler combines digital data.  The Mellotron's tape path mechanicals also affect how the instrument is played and how the tapes sound, adding in bits of wobblies or pitch variance.  This won't happen in a sampler.

Because they were hand made, every Mellotron is different.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

CONFIRMED after playing many of these.  Each Mellotron has its own feel and playability.  #805 is a bit tough to play, has some squeaky notes, and can be a bear in humid weather.  #1037 is a smoother machine.  The Mark I/II/M300 series machines have their keyboards tied directly to the tape transport chassis, and the keyboards feel a little more Hammond-like and are easier to play than the M400's removable keyboards.  Some Mellotrons want to be played fast, some not.  The playability depends a lot on who did the key adjustment.  I adjust things to be light, others prefer the "standard" Mellotron key adjustments.  And, of course, you can have the staggered pressure pad adjustment screw placement modification done to your machine if you wish.  I know of one case where someone purchased a refurbished machine and one straight from a studio, and although both played fine, he kept the studio one because he felt it played better.  These things are all over the place.

The Mellotron FX Console was used for sound effects in the BBC series "Dr. Who".

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Most reports call this one BUSTED.  The Beeb had several FX Consoles (painted in battleship gray), but these were supposedly not used to create the sound effects for "Dr. Who".

Other resources, of course, say the Mark II FX Console was certainly used by the BBC for the "Dr. Who" sound effects.


There's nobody who can fix Mellotrons anymore.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

Let's see...In the eastern US alone you have one guy who can do the basics (that would be me :-) ), one guy who can do that and refinishing work (Frank Stickle), the Streetly East Coast Rep (Jimmy "Moto" Moore), and one guy who can rebuild any Mellotron you throw at him (Mellotron Professor Jerry Korb).  There's a Streetly rep on the US west coast, too, who can repair machines.  In Europe Markus of Mellotron Archives can set you right, and Streetly always has a line of machines in for refurbishing at their UK location.

If you visit the Mellotronists YahooGroup, you'll find someone who can help.

This myth is totally BUSTED.

EMI-made Mellotron M400s were inferior to their Streetly-made counterparts.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

British corporation EMI ordered some Mellotron M400 guts from the Streetly factory and assembled them into cases of their own design.  Often the cases were painted white, which is a shame, as the wood has a nice mahogany finish, so the EMI machines that weren't painted are really stunning.

Mechanically, though, well...OK, EMI didn't have all the squaring jigs and didn't have any experience building these.  Martin at Streetly told me the motors used were suspect as well.  So EMI machines are prone to being very hard to adjust, and never seem to play right.  The only way to fix them, according to the experts, is to rebuild them---take them to pieces, square everything up, and reassemble.  Then they're right as rain.

You may want to see my experience with one as well as Norm Leete's EMI machine.

Unfortunately this is CONFIRMED.

"Sound Sales" Mellotron modifications are vast improvements on the Mellotron M400.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

TOTALLY BUSTED!  Sound sales bodges...uhhh, modifications...include:

bulletSMS3 motor controller (this was the only GOOD thing they did, replacing the CMC-10)
bulletRollers under the keyboard to hold the head block down (unnecessary; made track selection harder, pushed the keyboard up)
bulletChanged the way the tape take up box was mounted---made it fixed instead of floating.  This was probably done for those people who toured a lot in an attempt to keep the take up box from shifting.  Probably not necessary, as the take up box is tied at the bottom, and the wedges originally there could be used to adjust the take up box a little.
bulletBending the pressure pads to get the best sound possible.  This really screwed the machine.  Pressure pads should be straight.  There are ways to adjust pressure pads, and the tape head azimuth is adjustable, too.  You don't need to destroy the playability of the machine to do it!

With the exception of the CMC-10 replacement these modifications are not necessary and an be harmful.

You can't mix tracks on new tapes, as there is too much of a gap between the A/B and B/C tracks.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

The original tape cutting machine, the Mothertron, was made years ago when tape heads weren't as precise as they are today.  Therefore the tracks were a bit wider and had a bit of bleed, meaning you could mix adjacent tape tracks on the Mellotron without much loss in volume.

Tapes produced after the Mothertron was retired to a museum had a bit of a gap between adjacent tracks, so the mixing of adjacent tracks was not as full as in older tapes.  This gap is especially troublesome in the Mark I/II/M300 series of machines.  The Mark I/II track selection is very much like an old radio, and it's hard to adjust.  The M300 is electronic.  (For comparison, the M400 has a manual track select with detents that wear over time, meaning you can put the tape heads almost anywhere you want on the tapes.)

Starting around 2003 Mellotron Archives created a machine capable of producing tapes similar to the old style, so mixing is again possible.  In 2005 Streetly has done the same.  Therefore it will be easier to mix adjacent tracks from now on.

This myth is CONFIRMED for tape sets made from the 80s through the early 2000s.  Is is now BUSTED.

An engine hoist is recommended when working on a Mellotron.

Plausible?  Confirmed?  ...or BUSTED!

I believe you have your answer.

Photo - Jerry Korb, working on Mellotron Mark II #210...Click here for more...