Gear Geek: Streetly Electronics Mellotron

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Prior to the bestselling Model 400 (shown here), most Mellotrons— including the one The Beatles played on “Strawberry Fields Forever”—had two side-by-side keyboards and were designed for home entertainment.

If you''re a fan of British rock from the late ''60s and early ''70s, you''re certainly familiar with the Mellotron. Made famous by the Moody Blues, King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis (not to mention Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles), it almost sounds like real strings, flutes, brass, and choirs, but with a distinct timbre all its own. That''s because the Mellotron plays magnetic tape recordings of the original instruments.

The technology behind the Mellotron was developed not in England but by Iowa native Harry Chamberlin, who invented sampling more than 30 years before the first digital sampler. He recorded members of Lawrence Welk''s orchestra playing one note at a time—a technique still used today—and then played the tapes on a keyboard instrument he called the Chamberlin. Each key was attached to a 6-foot strip of tape pulled across a playback head by its own individual tape transport. To reproduce transient attacks, the spring-loaded tape instantly returned to its beginning when a player released a key. After years of tinkering, Chamberlin began shipping his first handmade instruments in 1948.

In 1962, a shady salesman took two of Chamberlin''s instruments to England and claimed the invention as his own. He sold the design to an engineering firm later called Streetly Electronics, which refined it and devised techniques to efficiently manufacture the Mellotron Mark I. Streetly was unaware it was actually Chamberlin''s invention until 1965, when the company first showed the Mellotron at NAMM. When contacted by Chamberlin''s attorneys, Streetly quickly hammered out an agreement: Chamberlin would sell his instruments in North America, and Streetly would sell Mellotrons in Europe and pay royalties.

Like the Chamberlin, the Mellotron was originally designed for home entertainment and not for use onstage or in the studio. The Mellotron reached its height of popularity with the Model 400, a marginally roadworthy model designed for professional use. It had a 35-note keyboard, pitch bend, and interchangeable tape frames that allowed users to swap out three sounds at a time relatively quickly. Beginning in 1970, approximately 2,000 Model 400s were built before Streetly Electronics closed its doors in 1986.

The Mellotron sound is still popular thanks to virtual instruments that play original Mellotron and Chamberlin samples, such as Mellotronics M3000 for the iPad and IK Multimedia SampleTron for Macs and PCs. I reviewed a Mellotron sample library in these pages more than 15 years ago, and many sample-playback synths today feature Mellotron among their stock sounds. Two companies that restore old models—Mellotron Archives and the resurrected Streetly Electronics—also manufacture new tape-based instruments designed to satisfy dedicated purists. These updated Melltrons are pricey, but a slew of technical enhancements make them considerably more dependable than their forebears.

EM contributing editor Geary Yelton lives in Asheville, N.C., where he recently returned from a roadtrip across the entire United States.