An Orchestra at your Fingertips: the Chamberlin and Mellotron Tape Replay Keyboards

Artifact Profile, Part 1

In this two-part blog post, we’ll step into NMC’s instrument collection and profile two unique artifacts that have had a lasting cultural and historical impact on music. Both instrument types have complex, controversial, and very much interconnected histories. As such, this inaugural artifact profile will be split into two entries, allowing for an in-depth look back at the fascinating development and enduring influence of the Chamberlin and the Mellotron tape replay keyboards.

Audio recording of The Beatles 1967 hit “Strawberry Fields Forever”

You might not have heard of the Mellotron or the Chamberlin instruments themselves, but you have definitely heard the sounds they produce. Perhaps the little ditty “Strawberry Fields Forever” rings a bell? Fun fact: the memorable flute sounds heard at the opening, and throughout, the song weren’t actually a result of multiple flute players, but one Mellotron. Your ears aren’t deceiving you though, those ARE real flutes playing. They are just brought to you via a pre-recorded sound played back through the use of analog tapes.

If this sort of “pre-recorded tape” technology sounds familiar, it’s because it was the earliest iteration of what we know today as “sampling”. Sampling is the act of taking a portion of a sound recording and reusing it in a different song or piece. Samples can consist of one part of a song, such as the rhythm break or chorus vocals, which are then used to construct the beat or melody for another song. Samples can also be taken from all kinds of audio recordings, including spoken words, such as movies, TV shows, or other non-musical media. Sampling is a common music production tool seen in all kinds of music genres today, most notably hip-hop, contemporary R&B, and electronic dance music.

Mashup recording of Ray Charles “I Got a Woman” and Kanye West’s popular hit “Goldigger”, which samples Charles’ 1945 song.

Sampling is not just limited to using someone else’s pre-existing recording. Musicians and composers can construct songs by sampling instrument recordings they created themselves. Many modern synthesizers and drum machines use recorded instrument samples as the basis of their sounds. In this particular sampling technique, we find the roots of our featured instruments, the Chamberlin and the Mellotron.

The earliest form of sampling technology is known as “Tape Replay”, patented by American Harry Chamberlin in 1949. As legend has it, Chamberlin first formed the idea of playback music when he used a tape recorder to record himself playing an organ for his parents. Harry thought if he could put his finger on the “play” button of a tape recorder and get a clear Hammon organ note, then he should be able to get a guitar or trombone note as well. And if all these sounds could be accessed at the touch of a button on a tape recorder, then logic had it that they could be applied under the keys of an electro-mechanical keyboard as well.

Now, it is one thing to conceive of such a unique idea, it’s another thing altogether to translate it into a working musical instrument. Lucky for us today, Harry Chamberlin was something of a genius, and was able to successfully execute this concept of “tape-replay”.

All basic Chamberlin, and its later cousin Mellotron, keyboard instruments begin with a piano style keyboard. Underneath each key is an individual tape-playing mechanism that holds a single strip of “open loop” tape. Each tape is pre-recorded with various musical instruments, voices or special effects. When the player presses down on a key, a pressure pad pushes the tape onto a tape head, and a pinch roller beneath the key catches the tape and pulls it forward onto a roller mechanism. When this occurs, the recorded sound on the tape can then be heard through an amplified speaker. When the keyboard player releases the key, all sound stops and the tape is returned to its starting position by a metal spring. The machine could be loaded with various tape banks, giving the player a number of different sound options with the flip of a switch.

Jerry Lewis demonstrating the various sounds and capabilities of a Chamberlin M2 keyboard

The use of a single strip of tape in Chamberlin and Mellotron tape-replay instruments meant that each recording, or “note”, only lasted for about eight seconds. This limited amount of sound effectively prevented musicians from playing indefinitely sustained notes, like you would hear on a regular keyboard. To hold a note for longer than eight seconds, the player must release the key and re-press it, giving the composition a unique “rolling” sound. In addition to this looping quality of the instrument’s sound, the magnetic particles on the tape heads occasionally altered the speed of the tape slightly, resulting in an eerie, warbling sound quality. Though the unpredictable sound and short playing time of each note and might initially seem restricting, when placed in the hands of the right musician, this distinct feature of Chamberlin and Mellotron instruments can produce some truly unique and endearing sounds. In particular for the Mellotron, this warbling quality helped it find its place in the psychedelic music movement of the late 1960s, and the progressive rock movement of the early 1970s.

In today’s world, the idea of putting a miniature tape playback unit underneath each key in a keyboard seems relatively simple, almost obvious. At the time of its conception however, such an idea was both revolutionary and controversial. Harry Chamberlin never intended for his instrument to function as anything other than a home entertainment device for family sing-alongs. With his invention, Chamberlin harmlessly figured that anyone that knew how to play a keyboard could have access to any instrument recording of their choosing, allowing individuals to replicate the “big band” sound of the day, without having to purchase, or gain experience with, multiple instruments. He never planned to commercialize his product for the mass market, or put any musicians out of work with his invention.

The American Federation of Musicians did not see it the same way. As unionized workers, they saw the advent of the Chamberlin tape-replay keyboard as a direct threat to their industry. Almost overnight, the un-synthesized sounds of dozens of instruments were put at the fingertips of a single keyboardist. Who would want to hire a five-piece band, when they could instead pay one skilled Chamberlin player to replicate the same sound? The terrifying thought of unemployment led the AFM to ban the device from all venues save for cocktail lounges, and in an attempt to dissuade any penny-pinchers, ordered that all Chamberlin keyboardists receive the wages of three musicians.

This ban by the musicians union was a blow to both Harry Chamberlin’s sales and reputation. Musicians weren’t too keen to purchase an instrument they weren’t allowed to play live. And even if the instrument was purchased and used for recording purposes, it often went uncredited on albums due to the owners not wanting their studios shut down over contract violations by the musicians union. For what it’s worth, Chamberlin didn’t believe that his instrument threatened musician’s jobs “because there are too many variables in what a musician can do when he plays his instrument. It’s close, but what (the Chamberlin tape-replay keyboard) is used for, more or less, is to sweeten up the music.”

Curiously enough, this wasn’t the biggest controversy to plague Harry Chamberlin and his newly invented tape-replay keyboard. Thanks to one sneaky salesman, while Chamberlin was pushing up against the Musician’s Union in America, another company was mass-producing his design across the pond without Harry’s knowledge. Check out the rest of the story in Part 2 of this artifact profile.

– 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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