Who Likes Mellotron Sound? This Question Sparked A lot of Interesting Responses for Music Forum

I asked this question in the musical section of Craigslist and was surprised by all the discussion:

60s-70s producers with tight budgets and < mellotron_repairmen > 09/18 15:18

they were cool for what they were back in the day, but other than some nostalgia/analog purist street cred factor there’s really no reason to mess with them anymore…

with today’s ability to accurately model every single aspect of what makes them unique sonically, they’re just too bulky and cantankerous to drag around for live work, and too noisy and limited for studio work.

I’m sure someone somewhere will say “oh, but *that* nasty, warble-y, muffled tone, hideous S/N ratio and laughably artificial ASDR just doesn’t sound like the real thing“…

but for everyone else, here’s a few examples-

the mellotron was just < a-keyboard > 09/18 18:43

style of tape playback..each key started a tape loop of the recording of a real instrument..i was in their office in London and saw the one that had human voices recorded..i don’t know if it was ever sold or even used by anyone..so yeah digital sampling is the new way.

but they *weren’t* loops, which was a major < drawback_of_the_design > 09/18 22:32

Each sample was a finite length of tape that didn’t loop, and would only play for 8 seconds before it would need to mechanically retract via springs.

The startup and retraction motions of the tapes were audible, which is part of their unique sound but isn’t a very accurate reproduction of real instruments-

“Imitating The Mellotron-

…The trick is to remain true to the limitations and idiosyncrasies of the original. You should use layers to emulate the initial ‘pfft’ of the key as the tape is taken up by the capstan, the body of the sound, and (on a badly adjusted Mellotron) the characteristic ‘zzzzpppp’ you may hear as the tape begins to rewind when you release a key. Oh yes, and be sure to limit the envelopes to just eight seconds. Also, the addition of ‘Analogue Feel’ can introduce a touch of pitch instability to the sound, imitating the slight speed instabilities of the original.”

Mellotron article

the limited tape length also affected playing technique-

” Each tape could play for no more than eight seconds inspiring a unique ‘crawling spider’ playing technique as you played inversions to keep sustained chords going. ”

Mellotron article

that said the linear tapes had one advantage over loops-

“A major advantage of using tape strips, as opposed to tape loops or cassettes (of the Birotron) is that the Mellotron can reproduce the “attack” transient of the instruments recorded on the tape.”

Princeton mellotron article

Some of the sounds are ok < Oydman > 09/18 20:55

That boys’s choir and the flutes. Available as a VST plug-in now too.

Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is unique because it < not_only_features > 09/18 23:01

the Mellotron, it also uses another quirky electronic instrument of that era, the Stylophone-

it can be heard sliding up very briefly directly after the solo acoustic guitar break in the end of the song.

This is probably the best example ever of someone really using one, and an incredible performance all around-

For that third Newport appearance, on July 4, 1969, the iconic Kirk found himself on an all-rock bill, sandwiched between Blood, Sweat & Tears and Brit guitar hero Jeff Beck. Knowing his audience on that particular Friday night in 1969, the sightless multi-reed virtuoso walked onto the Freebody Park stage and started mock-berating the “jive pot-smoking city slicker hipsters” in the audience for not cheering loudly enough after he introduced his crew, which included longtime piano associate Rahn Burton, trombonist Dick Griffin, bassist Vernon Martin, drummer Charles Crosby and percussionist/vocalist Joe Texidor. Kirk further stated: “You better come on and get with us. You might have your favorites, but you better think that your favorites got something from all of us on this bandstand.”

Rashaan Roland Kirk – Say A Little Prayer

…also pretty sure that’s Bill Wyman in the background at 3:44

Amazing what we did with what we had < > 09/19 11:13

We’re so spoiled today with the technology and equipment we have that we can’t even make good pop records anymore.

While Mellotron was a “sampler” of sorts < Oydman > 09/19 18:05

it wasn’t hooked to a computer. Once computers got advanced enough that you didn’t have to be a musical genius to run one, a whole lot of people with no business making records suddenly became producers. It’s kind of an ugly feedback loop too, since today’s “hitmakers” are influenced by the crappy pop music of 10 years ago.

tron-sampler < beagleamp > 09/19 18:09

Totally agree with that statement.

I love mellotron! < beagleamp > 09/19 11:18

I love mellotron and could listen to it constantly. I was wondering if there are recordings of just all mellotron somewhere?

Mellotron < beagleamp > 09/19 11:55

Oh and by the way the digital sampling is not the same. The sound of the slightly degenerative tape with the samples cannot be duplicated, hence why the mellotron is still used somewhat. Its the upkeep of the instrument that proves challenging.

did I call it, or what? < > 09/19 13:23

I’m sure someone somewhere will say “oh, but *that* nasty, warble-y, muffled tone, hideous S/N ratio and laughably artificial ASDR just doesn’t sound like the real thing”…

Analog tapes “can’t be duplicated”? lol

“The 3 Violins and Combined Brass were sampled in 2003 from a 1973 Mellotron M400S. The String Section, Combined Choir, GC3 Brass, M300A, M300B and Woodwind 2 were sampled in 2008. The MkII Flute and Cello were sampled in 2010…These samples have not been looped so as to retain the need to use the spider technique of playing a real Mellotron. If you want to loop them, that’s your choice. They are approximately 7 seconds in length and retain both the initial attack, and in many cases, the bad endings.”


FYI, digitally sampling shitty analog tape doesn’t regenerate the fidelity of the source material.

Anyway, wonder no more about all Mellotron recordings-



Tron < beagleamp > 09/19 13:54

Ok, not clear on the last post. So why play a mellotron? So they should be obsolete then? Should we just have digital samples? I dunno I just like sound of frikin mellotron. I like the tape sound or maybe just the way the instrument sounds on any popular recording since the 60’s with it. Am I dumb for that?

they *are* obsolete, and nobody called you dumb < for_liking_them > 09/19 15:31

The point was that if someone samples original mellotron tapes, they won’t lose any of the low quality that makes a mellotron tape sound like what it is just because you play the digital files back, if you use the appropriate “spider” technique to trigger them.

It’s not a live violin with very nuanced tonal qualities, its an analog *sample* of a violin (or whatever) on antiquated 3/8″ tape (in mono), and sorry, I guarantee that you could not tell the difference between an original mellotron in a mixed down recording, from a digital sample of one just based on sampling technology having been used to create and trigger a first generation digital copy of the same tape.

And I seriously doubt you could tell the difference with any decent synth emulation either in a head to head comparison.

There’s nothing about what makes a mellotron tape sound like it does that isn’t understood, that can’t be accurately modeled to a degree that makes it virtually indistinguishable from the “real” instrument’s tape recorded sounds.

Read the links posted above and do your own research- even people whose music relied heavily on them like John Paul Jones ditched them as soon as they could for digital units like the Fairlight CMI and never looked back-

“SPS: … You always complained about the Mellotron. I always hear, “Oh, that Mellotron.” [laughs]

JPJ: I mean, it sounded great when it worked.

SPS: You used it every year from ’72 to ’77.

JPJ: But I had no choice! I had no choice!

SPS: There wasn’t much else out?

JPJ: There was nothing else! Nothing else! No string machines and… It was the only thing you could get that had strings and flutes on it. When we used to start “The Rain Song,” I had one foot on the volume control and one hand like a tuning control. So I used to have to come in [quickly hums the guitar intro] just at the start of the guitar, and I’d play [imitates the Mellotron] and I’d try and tune it [makes a tuning noise] before it got too loud. Oh, awful. ’Cause you’d set it up and tune it, and then the crowd would come in. Basically, their heat would make the tapes stretch, and so you simply didn’t know what it would be. We hated each other.

…Oh, it was hell. And the day that I managed to replace it, I did…”


mellotronic < beagleamp > 09/19 18:24

I would have to disagree with a synth sample sounding just like a tron sample. Theres a certain spookier tone to the mellotron than a fairlight cmi just doesnt have. Possibly attributed to the factors that made it such a pain in the ass like heat and temp, speed and tuning. It has a quality I havent heard in a synth, but i suspect if you are saying an actual sample of a mellotron on a synth is negligible in discerning the difference then I would tend to agree. However thats kind of like saying transistor is superior to valve tube technology, which may be negligible to some is not the case for myself. I hope u see my point and hope im getting yours.

transistors *are* superior to tubes if < the_tubes_fail_regularly > 09/19 19:53

just before the gig or right in the middle of it the way tapes and transport/playback mechanisms on mellotrons did.

The idiosyncrasies of analog tape playback like wow and flutter and S/N ratio and effects of improper azimuth adjustments were well known and quantified by engineers who designed analog tape equipment long before anyone was doing any digital sampling at all, so recreating those effects as created by the crude playback mechanism of a mellotron is simply not some big mystery.

then there’s this-

“The adjustments of mechanical parts, such as pinch rollers, pressure pads and tape head azimuth, combined with equalization of recordings sourced from different tape libraries make some notes sound brighter or smoother than others. This quality makes each and every Mellotron instrument unique, and is a large factor in why all Mellotrons will sound different in music recordings, despite the same sound (like the 3 violins) being used.”


-and this, speaking of transistors vs. tubes-

“The use of tube pre-amplifiers (MK II Mellotron used by King Crimson), transistorized pre-amplifiers (MK II Mellotron used by Moody Blues) or modified instruments (Mellotron MK V prototype used by Yes / Rick Wakeman) also enhances the sonic colours of each instrument.”

So there isn’t even any single “mellotron sound” with well defined parameters, but buttloads of understanding of why they sound the way they do-

“Another factor in the strangely haunting quality of the Mellotron’s most frequently heard sounds is that the individual notes were recorded in isolation. For a musician accustomed to playing in an orchestral setting, this was unusual, and meant that he had nothing against which to intonate. Thus, the temperament of the Mellotron is always somewhat questionable when it is used in the context of other instruments.”

It’s just not that hard to emulate a tape recording of three instruments whose relative intonation is slightly off, all being played back on crude equipment that goes out of adjustment when you look at it funny and never sounds the same way twice even on one instrument.

Nobody said that any old patch on a synth sounds like a mellotron playing the same instrument sounds on tape, but it can very easily using well documented data.

I like trons < beagleamp > 09/19 20:08

Ummm… I like mellotrons. Glad there’s a company that still makes them. Other people must like them too. I like mellotrons. : )

nobody disputed that you like them or said < that_you_shouldnt > 09/19 20:23

your subjective opinion isn’t something that can be right or wrong, but absolute declarations like this-

“The sound of the slightly degenerative tape with the samples cannot be duplicated”

-certainly can be right or wrong.

And in this case it’s the latter.

so then… < beagleamp > 09/19 20:34

So then why do they still make them and people still use them?

“nostalgia/analog purist street cred factor” < more_than_anything > 09/19 22:14

“they” still make, and people still use these-

– and more power to them if that’s what they like, but in all but a tiny handful of very specific cases it would be ludicrous to claim that what they do cannot be duplicated using more modern technology.

I use two out of those three impliments… < Silverwinger > 09/20 07:34

except my phone has a rotory dial, not those new fangled pushbuttons.
(rotory phones by the way still work when the power goes out)
Live and let live…………………..

and then there are those who cannot < discern-and-it > 09/20 10:46

doesn’t matter to them.
Mediocre and compromise are the name of the game

tubes fail… < beagleamp > 09/19 20:47

Constantly failing tubes may not be as reliable but the sound may be more desirable despite their dependability.

it’s always a tradeoff but what you are ignoring < is_that_new_technology > 09/19 23:11

improves as a matter of course, but old tech like tubes and analog tape sample playback advances at a much slower rate, if at all.

So the tradeoffs become more pronounced as time goes on, until there is no *rational* reason to stick with the old tech.

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t still use it if you feel like it, just that it’s pointless to try to rationalize it with crazy claims that no other product or technology will work.

Obviously tube amps have their strong points, but the relative sonic quality of tube vs SS amps is simply not static…engineers are advancing SS amplifier tech all the time with a focus on improving their quality, while many of those who champion tubes as the be-all end-all of tone are actively against doing anything to change them in any way, and seek out older tube amps for that reason.

And just to be clear, we are talking about two areas almost exclusively- guitar amps and audiophile stereos…

when was the last time you saw anyone marketing an all tube PA system? A TV with a tube audio amplifier section? An all tube car or communications radio? Tube oscilloscope preamps?

Again, there may be specific applications where those might make sense- many PA’s and mixers have tube mic preamps for the sound and the Russians still use tubes in military aircraft radios because they are less susceptible to EMP damage…but for the vast majority of uses the benefits of SS outweigh the drawbacks of all tube circuits.

It’s really only guitarists and audiophiles who insist that SS is inferior and always will be forever and ever, amen.

And it’s not like there aren’t some *extremely* shitty all tube guitar amps, that sound like a lunchbox.

an interesting article you should check out-

“…every guitarist’s needs are different. As far as putting that old Deluxe up against my modeling rig? Different tools for different jobs. If I am doing a blues festival, give me the Deluxe. If I am recording ambient/freaky/doesn’t-even-sound-like-a-guitar music, give me the solid state. So I win, either way. I am not one of those people that dismisses anything non-tube right away. In the 70s, I could understand. Nowadays, it just sounds like old man ranting.”


close no cigar < beagleamp > 09/20 10:02

Yes, for the most part i agree with u. Different tools for different jobs. I for one use tubes in my audio and gtr rigs. I use tubes for ambient to blues. I do have some ss stuff that sounds decent. However ss i dont believe will ever duplicate tubes . Simply because it isnt a tube. May come close, but in sound never a cigar. Maybe my ears just prefer that. Its only my opinion. Sound is subjective. Its not meant to be an old man rant either. I know I prefer 9 out of 10 times my tube hi fi over my ss audio. Yes modeling can be cool, and im not against it. So until i hear ss gear give me the tone, imaging, s-n ratio, low IM distortion, tactile feel and organic properties that tubes have, I have a feeling i will be buried and long gone. I still think I would also prefer an actual tron over a synth sample, even though the difference might be close to negligible. So its not about who wins in the open mindedness competition, it just what one likes or prefers. So I like Mellotron, and thats what this thread is about. Anything can sample anything, but it will never do that exactly and thats why I guess i like the primitive sampling – tone mellotron. That was my initial point. Sorry if I offend or disagree. If i was gonna record that sound i wouldnt be so snobbish to say i need the MK II or whatever from Streetly, just like I like my Line 6 delay pedal for it SIMULATION of tube echo
Thats all.

Tubes last a hell of a lot longer than < Silverwinger > 09/20 07:39

I’ve bought all original tube amps, with the stock tube in them from the 60’s that still worked.
It’s capacitors that lose their values and most likely need replacing after twenty years or more.
If your experiencing “constantly failing tubes” then there’s probably something else bad in the circutry that’s making them fail.

^^^this is the truth^^^ § < like-it-or-not >

seeing as how truly modern SS guitar amps < with_decent_headroom > 09/20 12:40

have only really been on the market for less than a decade or two, it’s disingenuous to compare them to tube guitar amps that were using already tried and tested technology when the models everyone considers superior first began to be produced in any real numbers.

Vacuum tubes and audio amplifiers using them were around before WW1, but it took another 30-40 years before anything like a truly useable stage amp was available…and while those first practical amps and some of the ones in between like the 30’s Gibson and Rickenbackers can definitely sound cool, it’s absurd to pretend that they are more durable than a modern SS amp, or that the ones still working haven’t needed major repairs and mods.

In fact one of the main reasons that Marshalls became the go-to hard rock amp was because pretty much everything else available couldn’t hold up to real world stage use, not because of their tone. Leo Fender learned how to build amps- and how not to- from repairing old Ricks and Gibsons that were always breaking down.

If tube audio amps were the more durable option, they would be in every theater and concert venue sound reinforcement system where reliability is critical and “better tone” would be an added benefit- but they aren’t.

This is the truth, like it or not.

So is this, speaking of tone-

“One of his most blistering and consistent rigs was his late ’70s set up. At that point King was living up to his already well-established legend with the help of an MXR Phase 90 phase shifter pedal (hey, it was the ’70s!) and either a Roland JC-120 or an Acoustic 270 head with an Acoustic 2×12 cabinet. Both solid state, of course, proving there’s more to tone than tubes.”


I don’t know of any “constantly failing tubes” < ever-anywhere > 09/20 10:44

I second the “not an old guys rant” but…..As a guitar player:My own example I have owned every name brand tube amp and some for 25-30 year stints with no tube failure. The only failure ever was when some ice water hit some hot tubes.
I wish I could say the same for SS gear. Countless failures…lets not even talk about digital…
I am not all anti-SS , one of my all time favorite guitar amps is a SS I used for 9 years on tour 3-5 gigs per week. It was consistent and I received countless compliments on tone-even had some heated discussions with people that didn’t believe it was SS.
Playback systems? We are conditioned to the dry edgy, flat sound of SS. I feel for those who cannot discern the difference between that and a set of mono-block 30 watt class A for stereo reproduction.
Once again, we won’t talk about digital vs. analog. right?

I played my mellotron options for Thumbjam on Ipad here in the first 5 minutes of this video:


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