Sunday, 27 April 2014

Mellotrons: the men who (still) make them

Chains, tape loops, springs, lots of odd moving parts, and a lot of love. Two gentlemen boomers keep a key sound of Progrock alive.

If you're any age at all, you'll have heard the mellotron. The Moody Blues used it constantly. There it is at the start of the Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever; it's all over the White Album. King Crimson fans? There it is at the Court of the Crimson King.

The mellotron sounds... weird. That's partly its appeal. Inside, it's a mishmash of bicycle chains, springs, recording tape and, depending on the age of the machine, more or less tech wizardry. It was built in Streetly, a suburb of North Birmingham which can't decide whether it's dead posh or dead rough. There's a blue plaque marking the original factory site in Aldridge Road. That was nearly fifty years ago. Now, the resurrected Streetly Electronics, creators of the first mellotron, have a thriving business. They make new mellotrons; they fix old ones; they even sell digital samples to add to your range of keyboard sounds.

The miracle is that it was invented in the first place; a second miracle is that mellotron use continues to thrive. 

And Streetly Electronics? They're thriving too. I walk in to a small room with two mellotrons set up, and bits and pieces of mellotron guts sprayed around the workshop. John Bradley and Martin Smith run Streetly Electronics between them. John's Dad, Les Bradley had set up the original operation.

Pretty much the first thing Martin does is to give me a blast of King Crimson...

The origins of the Mellotron go back way beyond the 60s, and are ever so slightly murky. A US musician, Harry Chamberlin, had, in the 50s, developed a machine that played tape recordings of individual notes from different instruments – the fundamental concept behind the mellotron – triggered by a piano-style keyboard. If you like, this was akin to an early synthesiser... except it didn't synthesise anything; it was a replicator, playing pre-recorded audio. Of course, it got a very dusty reaction from musicians unions - it allowed different instruments to be imitated from one machine, so it represented a big threat to the existing status quo. .

He called the instrument a Chamberlin, and hired a salesman, Bill Franson, to pitch his instrument to the growing US home entertainment market. Franson decided to discreetly branch out on his own.
John: Bill Franson had brought a Chamberlin to England. He was looking for someone to manufacture it. My dad Les and his two brothers worked for their dad, building tape recorders. Franson was calling around different manufacturers, looking for tape heads, which he needed quite a lot of. Frank, one of the brothers took the call from Franson. He wanted 70 matched tape heads.
'Yes, we can – says Frank – what's it for?'
Franson wouldn't tell them. That got them thinking, and Frank guessed it must have been some kind of musical instrument. Eventually Les and his brother went to look at the Chamberlin. They'd never seen anything like it. It was very noisy, but it worked.
Streetly Electronics, after long negotiations, emerged from those beginnings. The key difference? Mellotrons were, sort of, built as instruments that could go on the road, not as home entertainment systems.

Who was the first customer?
John: Oh, that would be the Graham Bond Organisation. The first to get it on record, anyway. 
Of course the Move had one...
Martin: Blackberry way - that strident violin sound underneath the vocals...
...Jack Bruce was telling me they used to lug the mark 2 mellotron, which is three hundredweight, a massive beast, up the stairs at Mother's club in Erdington, when he played with Graham Bond. Said it used to kill them.
John: One of the really big users of the mellotron was the Moody Blues of course, and if you look over here... (pointing out a photo) it's Mister Mike Pinder. He worked for my dad as a tester.
By this time we're working through the Mellotronics Hall Of Fame photo wall – Paul Weller, George Harrison's son Dhani, Gary Barlow....
Martin: Gary came up here, ordered the kit in the afternoon, sent the bank transfer within an hour once he got to the NEC, and then went on stage and announced he's just bought a mellotron.
How long does it take you to build a new one, with the updates to kit you have now?
John: Difficult to answer, because we make batches of parts, and then assemble. Too long would be the correct answer.
Martin: Twice as long as we thought. 
35 tape loops, 24 sounds, motors, springs and bicycle chains. 
Has new technology made your life easier? You've still got to have reel to reel tape...
Martin: The main problem is that you have 35 tapes, all 60 feet long, in each machine, running at 7.5 inches a second. That gives you eight sets of sounds, eight seconds long, which cue up to set points – we call them stations. Hit a key, the tape plays, then it spools back. The sounds are recorded on analogue decks... which do not keep perfect speed. You need all 35 tapes to line up exactly - so one of our bugbears is getting that digital timing in the analogue world.
If you reduce all this to a chip, you could get absolute precision...
Martin: It's oxide on heads! It wouldn't feel right.
John: It's the way it works. You've got 35 heads, in a row, wired up in a ladder... they are all slightly different. Depending on how they vary, certain notes will sound different. That's why every machine sounds slightly different. The heads shunt back and forth, underneath the tape, picking up one of three tracks.
What about your tape supplies?
John: They're actually very consistent. This is BASF 468 – broadcast standard, it's great stuff. We bought a whole load from a guy in Coventry radio. He was sitting on 1” reels, reels and reels of BASF 468. Never been used, sealed in the boxes. So we split it into two sets of 3/8” - each of those can accommodate three separate tracks. And each tape has eight sounds – so you can have up to 24 sounds in each machine
And Martin dove enthusiastically back to the keyboard....

The original Streetly Electronics eventually went under in the late 70s, a victim of changing tastes and deeply unfortunate business partners. Martin, a Moody Blues superfan, had tracked the factory down in 1970. Eighteen years later, he wanted a mellotron, and got back in touch with Les Bradley, John's dad. Les pointed him to the Moody Blues, and he eventually ended up buying Ray Thomas' mark 2 machine.
Martin: John and Les came up here to service the machine. That evening, over a pint, just down the road from here, we decided to do a mellotron tribute album, inviting people who had first played it. The first person I contacted was Robert Fripp. He didn't really want to play it again, but would we like to service his machines for him? And that was our very first job, working on the machine that made 'In the Court Of The Crimson King'.
So word got out that there were two blokes who knew all about mellotrons?
John: Yes!
Which of course gave you a worldwide specialist market. Would someone in, say, California, go to the trouble of shipping his kit all the way across the Atlantic to here?
Martin: They do. But a lot of people who send us their machines aren't famous. The most famous machine we've done is John Lennon's. But we had to go over there, because it was owned by Jimmy Iovine by then. We spent the week there, working – er, consulting, on behalf of our UK company...
John: Last year, we did a tape frame for Chick Corea. He sent a frame across, with a recording of him and his wife, singing each individual note from the keyboard. We put that on to the new frame. We had to take the tapes off – it was old Ampex 456, which sheds like a bastard. We put fresh tape on, re-laced it, de-noised it...
Martin: One of the earliest machines we did was Bill Wyman's. We made a custom machine with lights in the back, for Jean-Michel Jarre, We sold the Abbey Road machine back to Paul McCartney. We also did Jimmy Page's two machines.

Martin: To be honest, it's everybody's dream to do something unique in the world. John and I have spent a lot of time doing things that weren't unique. John had ten years with the original company; he's also been a metal fabricator. I've been a buyer, a salesman. But now, we've got this little workshop. We produce mellotrons for the world. It is a tiny business.
John: And we have an order book that will keeps us going until the end of next year.

Website: Streetly Electronics
also has a detailed and comprehensive mellotron page

More music tech posts on Radio To Go


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John Ross-Barnard JP said...

I remember the Mellotron being demonstrated in Selfridges furniture department in 1962/3 by the TV illusionist cum quiz master David Nixon. Did anyone buy one from there I wonder and which salesman got the commission? Was it £3000 in those days or was that the price of the Gold bed that sat alongside it?

phil dawson said...

Fascinating story Robin. I was fortunate enough to be asked by the Bradleys Senior. (Les and Norman I believe) to record some string tapes in my studio which was just a couple of miles away from Streetly Electronics, in Aldridge. I think it was Colin Campbell who organised about ten string players, violins, violas and cellos, who all played the required notes in unison. Les provided an oscillator tuned to the exact frequencies of the notes, then they took the tapes away to transfer into the Mellotrons.
Lovely to have had a small part in the history of music!

Phil Dawson

Robin Valk said...

I suspect the gold bed, John - the ballpark figure Martin and John quoted me for a new machine today was still considerably under ten grand.

Robin Valk said...

Well done you! I wonder how far those recordings travelled, Phil? Are they part of the library of samples you can get for Mellotrons on a chip? Which songs did they crop up on? Maybe the Move - the strings on Blackberry way? Or some heavily treated stuff on King Crimson?