The idea was to provide access to the sound of real instruments and at the time of its conception synthesizers were in their infancy and affordable digital memory obviously a long way off in the future so the 1960’s solution was to pre record real instruments onto a loop of magnetic tape whose playback would be triggered by a conventional piano keyboard. Each piano key press would advance a tape head onto a loop or ‘frame’ of magnetic tape to play the recording of a real instrument or collection of instruments.
Self recording was not a practical option so players were confined to a library of carefully recorded sounds including brass instruments, strings, choirs etc. Because the instrument was so mechanical it inevitably required careful maintenance and became notorious for not withstanding the rigours of live touring and is equally famous now as much for its idiosyncratic and identifiable sounds and faults than for its true fidelity.
The Mellotron ‘sound’ has its place in history from the opening flute sound on The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever, the string sound on The Moody Blues Nights in white satin and David Bowie’s Space Oddity.
The predecessor to and inspiration for the Mellotron, the Chamberlin continued to be used both before and after the availability of the Mellotron and each are still in demand by music purists and the curious despite the widespread availability of affordable and more reliable and authentic digital sampling instruments.
In many ways the attraction of both these ancient instruments is their iconic status and their quirky faults that maybe make them seem more organic and ‘human’ than their digital counterparts. Their faults were to be lived with and used creatively rather than completely ironed out.