How A Mellotron Works

In this video, Alison Stout of Bell Tone Synth Works demonstrates how a Mellotron works.

The Mellotron is a unique keyboard, in which every key controls the playback of an individual strip of audio tape, with a recorded sample of that note.

In the video, Stout offers a look inside a Mellotron M400 that she restored and discusses some of the technical details of the instrument’s mechanics and electronics.

12 thoughts on “How A Mellotron Works

  1. For its day, the Mellotron was an ingenious idea with ingenious engineering.

    Thanks for the tour Alison. You did a great job restoring this Mellotron.

    For those of you who may be interested in learning more about the Mellotron and its history, there is a well done, interesting documentary about it titled Mellodrama:

    Get the documentary for yourself or as a stocking stuffer for the keyboardist in your life. The documentary tells a very interesting story (a story that includes the English Mellotron ripping off the technology of the earlier American Chamberlin), and it includes a number of interesting interviews with musicians who used the Mellotron, including Tony Banks of Genesis.

    Speaking of Genesis and the Mellotron, I’m going to go listen to the solo Mellotron introduction on Watcher of the Skies. In the Mellodrama documentary, Tony Banks talked about how he played the Watcher of the Skies intro with his Mellotron selector switch purposely stuck between two tape selection options. So, what you hear is a combination of the tape playback head on each half of two different tape sounds playing simultaneously. Tony Banks also shared some stories of problems that he (and other Mellotron users) had when using the instrument during live concerts.

    Everyone have a great day. It’s a great time to be alive and in to synths.

  2. How cool! Can’t wait to watch that documentary. I knew a guy who worked on fixing Mellotrons for a dude who was trying to resuscitate the company in the 80s on Long Island and created a new prototype. My friend struggled with the prototype for a long time as it was pretty complicated and had a lot of mechanical problems. And about the same time sampling was starting to take off. Kind of amazing and cool anyone even cares about mellotrons these days. But maybe like a Hammond Organ, the quirks and flaws gave them some soul.

  3. It was interesting to hear about all the ground loops in the power supply and motor control board, etc. Cool that she’s got an established process to improve the sound.

    Mellotrons are incredibly clever, and make good use of the technology of the time. However, even die-hard fans have to admit that the Mellotron’s sound, functionality, and even its quirks are easily replicated by many modern samplers.

    The tapes themselves (in essence, the samples) do have strong associations for us, and continue to have added “power” in a track, just because of the wonderful recordings we associate them with.

  4. Very nice job, Alison! You deserve a Nick Batt gold star for clarity. I got to play a real Mellotron once, so I know what kind of muscle- mental and otherwise- is required to play one. It made me feel all the more humble to consider what Banks, Wakeman and others endured. It also makes me want to hug my copy of M-Tron Pro, which offers 98% of the glory with none of the tape snarls, ahem!

  5. Crackin’ vid. Great to see first-hand the things I’ve only ever read about (the capstan etc.). Didn’t realise the tapes were just a vertical strip – I thought they were somehow on a reel that rewound on release.

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