An Orchestra at your Fingertips: The New Sound

Artifact Profile, Part 2 – The Chamberlin and Mellotron Tape Replay Keyboards

If you missed part 1 of this artifact profile, check it out here

Every once in a while, an instrument comes along that changes the course of music history forever. Whether the influence is technical or cultural, some instruments just have the potential to inspire artists to think outside the box and experiment with new sounds and styles. Most of these game-changing instruments are well known and frequently acknowledged for their contributions to music. But outside the realm of the revered piano or electric guitar, there are a few quirky, lesser-known instruments that have had a surprisingly big impact on what we listen to today.

In last week’s blog post, we introduced you to the little known—but widely heard—instrument type from NMC’s living collection: the tape replay keyboard. As discussed in part one, tape replay technology was the earliest form of what we know today as “sampling.” Both types of tape-replay instruments in NMC’s living collection—the Chamberlin and the Mellotron—contain an assortment of pre-recorded instruments, voices, and sound effects held on magnetic tapes, activated with the push of a key and amplified by a speaker.

acrylic-mellotron-2_840pixThe single strips of analog tape underneath each key are visible in this clear acrylic Mellotron M400 from NMC’s Living Collection. Credit: Don Kennedy.

If nothing else, the title of “first sampler ever” is enough to secure the tape replay keyboard’s hall of fame status in music history. But this particular type of keyboard did much more than influence future technology; it also played a heavy role in shaping the sound of a generation.

In part one of this artifact profile, we heard about Harry Chamberlin, the inventor of tape-replay, and his quest to create a home entertainment system that was able to replicate the “big band” sound of the early 20th century through its multiple instrument recordings. Chamberlin successfully patented and manufactured a range of tape-replay instruments in the 1950s, which he made by hand and sold out of his own house.

Model100Rhythmate_840pixChamberlin Model 100 Rhythmate from NMC’s living collection. A precursor to Chamberlin’s tape replay keyboard, the Rhythmate’s recorded loops of drum patterns were the forerunner to modern-day samplers and drum machines. Credit: Don Kennedy.

Chamberlin had run into some trouble with the American Federation of Musicians for creating, what the union felt, was an instrument that had the potential to replace multiple working musicians with just one keyboard. In reality however, the AFM did not have much to worry about when it came to Chamberlin’s line of instruments. All keyboards were hand-built by Harry, and minimally advertised, resulting in only 4 – 5 units being sold per month. Additionally, there were some issues with the mechanics. The electronics were badly supported, the tape guides often went awry, and the instruments were prone to making a humming sound when played.

Although these technical inconsistencies could have been resolved through a re-design or collaboration with a manufacturing company, Harry refused all offers of larger distribution or partnerships. This reluctance on Chamberlin’s part to expand his manufacturing potential did not sit well with his lone salesman, Bill Fransen.

As the story goes, Fransen was a window cleaner for Chamberlin in the late 1950s and, intrigued by the sounds and capabilities of Harry’s newly invented instrument, offered him his services as a salesman. Fransen traveled the country selling the instruments to music stores, parlours, and cocktail lounges. He knew Chamberlin’s line of instruments intimately, and saw that the primary mechanical limitations stemmed from the unmatched magnetic tape heads, which produced an uneven playback from key to key. Recognizing that his employer did not have the resources or desire to mass-manufacture the instrument, Fransen disappeared to England in 1962, bringing with him two Chamberlin 600 Music Master keyboards.

Not only did Fransen flee the country with Chamberlin’s instruments in tow, to add insult to injury he also removed all “Chamberlin” labels and distinguishing markings from the two pieces. Once he had shed all traces of his theft, Chamberlin’s former salesman set about finding a manufacturer that could supply 70 matched magnetic tape heads for his new “Fransen” tape-replay keyboard. Bradmatic, a Birmingham firm specializing in the production of tape recorders, amplifiers and replay heads, responded to Fransen’s request. Curious as to what such a large number of tape heads would be used for; Bradmatic’s owners – brothers Frank, Norman and Leslie Bradley – were understandably impressed when Fransen showed them the Chamberlin instrument. The Bradley brothers realized the potential of tape replay, and offered to buy the tape replay keyboard, fix its mechanical flaws, and turn it into a commercially viable instrument.

Posing as the inventor of the Chamberlin, Fransen agreed to the deal and sold the instrument’s rights to Bradmatic, who then partnered with radio broadcaster Eric Robinson and established a production facility to manufacture their newly designed tape-replay keyboards.

In 1963, operating under the name “Mellotronics” (Melody Electronics), the Bradley brothers refined the Chamberlin 600 design and created the Mellotron Mark 1. Though the Mellotron closely resembled the Chamberlin instrument, it offered many improvements over Harry’s original invention. Most significantly, Mellotronics transferred all the tape guides and replay electronics in the Chamberlin 600 to a more stable internal aluminum frame in the Mellotron Mk1. The changes made to Harry’s design by the Bradley brothers resulted in an instrument that was easier to manufacture, simpler to use, and more reliable. And, thanks to a heightened marketing push by Mellotronics, people in England started to take notice of the Mellotron tape replay keyboard.

A British promotional film demonstrating the various instruments and sound effects that can be accessed on a Mellotron Mark II tape replay keyboard.

Across the pond in California, the original inventor of tape replay technology, Harry Chamberlin, was unaware that his instrument was being mass-produced and distributed to British consumers without his consent. To be fair, the Bradley brothers did not know they were stealing Chamberlin’s idea either; both parties had been manipulated by Bill Fransen, and did not find out about each other until years after the Mellotron Mk1 had been made. Allegedly, Harry first discovered that his instrument had been copied and reproduced when Mellotron’s American distributors contacted him in 1966 about his patent for tape replay technology. Understandably, he was not happy about the situation and took legal action immediately.

When Mellotron’s new manufacturing company, Streetly Electronics, realized that they had unwittingly infringed copyright, they agreed to make reparations with Chamberlin’s company. After lengthy discussions, Chamberlin agreed to sell his technology to Streetly for about $30,000 USD, a hefty sum of money in the 1960s. In addition to the lump payment, an arrangement was made where Chamberlins would only be sold in the US and Mellotrons would only be sold in the UK, with Harry Chamberlin receiving royalty payments from all Mellotron sales. Though undoubtedly awkward, the encounter wasn’t all bad for the two instrument companies. After coming in contact with each other, Harry and the Bradley brothers did exchange technical data and some taped sounds, including Chamberlin’s “three violins” recording that came to define Mellotron’s sound in the 1960s.

A short sample of the famous “three violins” Mellotron sound, a recording originally made for the Chamberlin tape replay keyboard.

Much like it’s American cousin, the Mellotron was seen by its creators as a type of entertainment organ, and its early advertisements were aimed at the old-time and Latin dance audiences of the era. Like Chamberlin, Mellotronics never intended for their instrument to be used by Rock and Roll musicians, and due to the cumbersome design and hefty price tag (£1000 a pop for the MkII), they tended to supply Mellotrons to clubs, theatres, and parlours rather than individual artists. The Mellotron’s audience soon shifted, however, towards the pop and rock community in the 1960s, where it would cement itself permanently in history. This shift in audience was largely due to Mike Pinder, of the band the Moody Blues, and the role he played in introducing the Mellotron’s unique sound to contemporary British music.

Mike Pinder describes how the Mellotron Mark II works.

Pinder worked for Streetly Electronics at the time of the Mellotron’s development, and was enchanted by the new instrument and all the sounds it was able to accurately reproduce. During the design process for Streetly’s second Mellotron model, the Mark II, Pinder had the idea to replace the original accompaniment sounds of the left hand keyboard with additional instrument recordings. This innovation allowed for the new Mellotron MkII to shed the excess sound effects of the original Chamberlin and focus on expanding the number of instruments recorded on their analog tapes.

Aside from contributing to the Mellotron’s new design, Pinder was also a key factor in exposing modern audiences to the unique and unpredictable Mellotron sound. The Moody Blues 1967 hit “Nights in White Satin” was seen as the first song to bridge the gulf between ‘beat’ music and classical orchestration. The distinct “wave and flutter” sound heard on many of the Moody Blues tracks, caused by variations in pitch and amplitude created when an analog tape was replayed on a Mellotron, caught the interest of other musicians. Soon enough, many British artists such as the Beatles, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones began experimenting with the Mellotron in the late 1960s, using the “wave and flutter” effects to great success.

Paul McCartney demonstrates the sound capabilities of a Mellotron Mark II, an instrument responsible for much of the Beatle’s sound and style in the ’60s.

Streetly Electronics continued to re-work and improve upon Chamberlin’s original design with the MkII model, the lighter and more streamlined M300 model, and the best-selling 1970 M400 model.  The Mellotron M400 in particular was designed with touring artists in mind, as it was (relatively) lighter than its predecessors and included another 16 instruments to the MkII’s library. The M400 model went on to sell over 1800 units and became one of the best-known and well-loved instruments for the progressive rock movement of the 1970s.

OakM400_840pixAn oak Mellotron M400 from NMC’s living collection. The front panel has been removed to show the strips of analog tape contained within a removable aluminum frame. Credit: Don Kennedy.

The ease of which the Mellotron instruments could be made and used, combined with the increased marketing push made by the Bradley brothers, allowed for the Mellotron tape-replay keyboard to become a legend in the history of modern music technology, reaching heights of popularity that the Chamberlin would never see. Sadly, both tape-replay instruments would not survive into the 1980s. In 1976 the bubble burst, and the advent of polyphonic synthesizers and cheap, solid-state electronic samplers made it much simpler for keyboard players to obtain orchestral textures. Although Streetly Electronics continued to produce newer Mellotron models into the 1980s, legal and financial woes led them to shut down the company in 1986.

Despite the fact that the Chamberlin and Mellotron tape-replay instruments are rarely seen or heard of today, their place in music history remains permanently fixed. Not only was Harry Chamberlin’s invention the spark behind several technological advancements in music, the unique and unpredictable sounds produced by both the Chamberlin and Mellotron keyboards have come to define the psychedelic and experimental new sound of the ’60s and ’70s. Little-known, but widely heard, its about time this instrument received some due praise.

– Hayley Robb

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Want to hear more about the collections at NMC? Be sure to check out past blog entries featured in Amplify, the National Music Centre’s online magazine.

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