Along with all inhabitants of The Current Age, Maxistas and their Max for Live cousins are lucky enough to live in a time when the world is full of traditional acoustic and electronic instruments and software versions of them, as well; for the composer and musician, that leads to some interesting new conundrums: should we go physical or virtual? That question has become increasingly broad, too - it’s not just a matter of pitting an upright Steinway or a dual-manual Harpsichord against, say, their Pianoteq physically-modeled doppelgangers. I’m sure that nearly all of you can name the synth of your choice and rattle off any number of plug-ins or applications that do a magnificent job of attempting to reproduce the physical instrument you name, right? And - most recently - the arrival of initiatives such as the open source VCV Rack project means that we can talk about virtual Eurorack setups.
I'd like to spend a little time talking about software and hardware resources for a much-beloved electronic instrument where it's actually rare to find someone waxing nostalgic for the physical original: the Mellotron.
The Mellotron, like its immediate predecessor the Chamberlin, is an early 1960s-era proto-sampler that used recordings on audio tape as its sound source. The method of production was electromechanical - when you pressed down a key, a piece of tape corresponding to that pitch (it was polyphonic) would be brought into contact with a tape head to play back the sampled sound - sort of a keyboard with a one-shot tape player under each key.
- If such a system sounds like it would be complex to design, it was (see the section A Little Background below for more on this).
- If such a system sounds as though it might result in a pretty finicky instrument, um... it was.
- If such a system sounds as though it might not necessarily become an iconic sound, it did. In fact, it's one of those interesting cases where the imitation of one instrument or set of instruments took on such a recognizable form that the playback instrument itself - with all of its vagaries and idiosyncrasies - became an object of desire.
That's not a description of the sound of the instrument though - which is almost immediately recognizable in recordings by any number of artists from the 60s on (we can start with the Prog trinity of Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis, step sideways into pop from The Moody Blues, The Beatles and Oasis and on through to Blond Redhead and Arcade Fire. Its iconic sound is seldom mistaken for anything else (with the possible exception of its forerunner the Chamberlin, which you probably know from recordings like Iggy Pop's The Idiot or XTC's Skylarking).
As a soundtrack to this article, here's a magnificent Spotify Mellotron-o-centric playlist. You're welcome!
I think that nearly everyone I know who ever owned a Mellotron has their own stories, mostly having to do with the physical system. In my case, it's how I first learned what azimuth meant when applied to recording heads and tape, and where I first heard that crumply and darkly garbled string sound that made me crazy back then (my unit wasn't in the best of shape when I acquired it at a bargain price), and then broke my heart when I heard its near relative appear during William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops (funny how things change). In fact, I first thought that that clunk noise that happened when I hit the end of my tape and released the key was something out of whack, too - you can imagine my surprise when I encountered Mellotron samples that included the clunk....
My pal Mike Metlay, who I’ve long appreciated for his particular cocktail of acerbic with and gear-fu, puts the matter rather succinctly:
The Mellotron? I adore the sounds, but my personal quest is to figure out as many ways as possible to get those sounds out into the world without ever actually having to use the hardware.
Note: That about sums it up, with two caveats: First (and most importantly), Mellotrons are still being made by the folks at Streetly Electronics, who’ve manufactured the Mellotron since the beginning. Their current version - the M4000 - will set you back bigtime, but the only person of my acquaintance who's been near one just raved about the thing. His opinion was that all of the things that made us crazy as previous owners of the physical instrument have been seen to. - it is, by all accounts, the instrument that any and all of us who've actually owned one wish we'd had. Second, there are physical instruments that seek to retain the sonic quality of the originals but make use of newer technologies that are an option for those folks who want a keyboard instrument. We'll talk about those instruments later.
A Little Background (Rabbit Hole Trigger Warning)
Regardless of what kind of musical instrument you’re talking about - acoustic or electronic - musical instruments as physical objects are all instantiations of arguments about what the best way to translate small-motor coordination-related input into musical output might be.
Further, the world is full of musicians whose innovations are based in some deep understanding or intuition derived from the study of how it is that a particular instrument does its job.
To that end, if you’re interested in a little down-the-rabbit-hole time, you’ll find ample food for thought in a little reading up on the history of the Mellotron as a series of engineering solutions. I’d suggest starting with the Mellotron entry in the Engineering Wiki for starters, followed by some quality time with the folks at Streetly Electronics, then off to the French or English-language Mellotron histories on the Candor Chasma site (pro tip: take a moment to burrow into the Fairlight CMI stuff there, too), a visit to the Vintage Synth Explorer's Mellotron entry, and a final stop at , Markus Resch’s Mellotron site.
So - if, like me, you're a lover of the instrument (with or without the experience of having owned one), what are your options for Mellotronics that you can fire up and hook up to Max?
Alternately, suppose you've run your budget and you just can't afford one of those magnificent new Streetly M4000s? What are your options?
The Studio, The Stage, and the Rack
Since I opened this article with a discussion of the Mellotron as a physical object, it seems fitting that we'd talk first about non-virtual versions of the Mellotron. You've got a couple of options.
Of course, the Traditional Values approach (apart from finding a used Mellotron that's not already been snapped up for studio use and trying to whip it into shape) would be a brand-spanking-new Mellotron of your own from Streetly Electronics, loaded with the tape racks of your choice....
(Note: You'll be seeing references throughout this article to "the Streetly tapes." That's a reference to the fact that the sounds that went into the Mellotron came from Streetly, and - over time - they really went into the "sample collection" business as they made custom racks for their famous clients. Many of the products listed here list usage of Streetly's original tapes as a selling point, and that's why - they're the originals.) If you still long for the physicality of the instrument, check your budget and start saving. While you're doing this, you might want to have a look at this extensive Mellotron M4000 review from the folks at Sound on Sound, who had a chance to woodshed with one for an extended period of time. It's the kind of review that some of us faithfully read Sound on Sound for.
In the digital realm, you've got a few options for keyboards (and rack mount units) that preserve the original Mellotron tapes in a system that involves digital playback of stored samples. Over at mellotron.com, Markus Resch at mellotron.com has been manufacturing the Mellotron Mark VI since 1999 and the Mellotron Mark VII since 2005 (they are both still in production), and continue to support Mellotrons and Chamberlins with parts for the refurbisher (tape frames, motor controls and other spare parts).
What's more interesting to me has been Markus' move into hybrid Mellotron instruments that combine the original Samples with a streaming digital playback system. As you might imagine, his instruments are somewhat more portable, and you're not likely to knock the tapes out of alignments by dropping the 'tron on your foot. His Mellotrons are available in three different sizes and formate, from the deluxe wooden-keyed Mellotron M4000D , the Mellotron MINI, and the Mellotron MICRO. Resch paid a visit to Westlake Audio and talked about all three of these instruments in considerable detail in this video - I think it'll be a great help to figuring out which one might best suit your needs. Oh - and there's a rackmount version of the M400D, too.
You may know the Berlin-based Manikin folks for their Eurorack modules or the Schrittmacher Step Sequencer they created in collaboration with Klaus Schulze. They're Mellotron fans, too. Their digital version of the Mellotron - the Memotron - comes in two flavors - a keyboard and a keyboardless module. If you'd like a more complete rundown on the instrument with particular attention to its sample contents (they not only provided some of the material for the G-Force M-Tron Pro, but they also include the Streetly Tapes as part of their Sound Collections for the instrument, too) I'd direct you to this review on Sound on Sound. I had a chance to play one at a recent Superbooth, and it's a really nice physical instrument to engage with.
Finally, it's useful to stop for a moment and consider whether or not anyone's treated the sounds of the Mellotron as something that can be mapped onto an existing sample-playback keyboard. While there were some earlier instruments that went for cloning Mellotron timbres, things for current instruments are a little thin on the ground. If you're an owner of a Nord however, you're in luck. There's a wonderfully complete Mellotron Sample Library in their archive for your downloading and playing pleasure.
Standalone Apps and Plug-ins
Those physical instruments may well be interesting, but lots of us are all about the virtual - apps or plug-ins we can plot onto our laptops and haul off to the gig or drop into our favorite DAW.
As we begin this part of the journey, I'll quote my fellow Mellotronista pal Mike Metlay once again:
The most important thing to note about the Mellotron is that the various digital equivalents are primarily differentiated from one another by the content that comes with them. Every company that makes a software Mellotron does so with access to different master tapes, so as a result, a truly comprehensive library is nearly impossible to find. Currently the best one out there is M-Tron Pro by GForce, but even it is not complete… They did the original MTron, which had some samples that have since been blocked by their copyright owners and are no longer available. as a result, you can end up buying six or seven different products in order to try to get everything you need, and still come up short. Nevertheless, a fair number of the available choices have all of the famous ones that people want as a matter of course.
As we enter the virtual realm for Mellotron applications/plug-ins, the motherlode for me is, as Mike suggested, G-Force’s M-Tron Pro. It’s the follow-up to their original M-Tron instrument, with the addition of dual layers, half-speed capabilities and subtractive synthesis filters to extend the instrument. This extended set of controls is all properly MIDI-mapped (which should appeal to the Max user out there interested in generative Mellotron mayhem), as well. You can find Sound on Sound's recap of its features here.
As a plug-in user, I ran through the list I'm about to give you, and fell I ought to be honest up front: my go-to instrument (with a sidetrip I'll describe briefly in a minute) is the M-Tron Pro full stop. The deciding factor for me was G-Force's support for additional sample banks. The add-on sample banks expand the instrument in terms of timbral choices (the Streetly Electronics tape archives are being released in increments, each one providing interesting new choices and a variety of what my colleague Darwin Grosse would certainly not describe as "crap presets." So My M-Tron Pro app includes not only a hefty set of traditional Mellotron libraries, but also a variety of the instruments near and distant cousins - the Chamberlin, the Birotron, the Optigan, and the Orchestron, too (pro tip: if you're a string synthesizer afficionado, you might want to check out G-Force's Virtual String Machine and see if any exotic string synth you can name isn't listed).
In addition, there are a few apps out there that include a nod to the most iconic Mellotron sounds as part of their libraries - the Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.5 library includes a pretty nice subset, as does the MOTU Electric Keys package. They sound good, but we're doing a deep dive into the larger and more expansive Mellotron-based resources out there.
When it comes to audio plug-ins, it should come as no surprise that here's where you'll find the most options in terms of cost and features. The M-Tron Pro runs as VST plug-ins, but there are a host of other options.
I'm going to try to stay close to dual-platform offerings (so you won't see any of the SynthEdit-based offerings for Windows, of which there are a handful out there - most in 32-bit, which doesn't help the Max 8 user) Let's take a quick look at a couple of them (I may have missed one or two plug-in options, so don't hesitate to let me know what I've missed). One great source for the Mellotronista is made possible by the ubiquity of Native Instruments' Kontakt - I'll be looking at a couple of Kontakt libraries here.
Let's start with my favorite freebie: the Leisureland Mellotron for Kontakt is based on a set of Mellotron samples that aren't in any sense of the term "cleaned up." There's no comforting blanket of EQ, the tape rack is wonky here and there, there are crackles, and it sounds like a really really cleaned up version of my old Mellotron from back in the day. If audio verité is your thing, this positively rules.
While I'm personally a die-hard M-Tron Pro user in more ordinary setting, my own artistic practice finds me with Hollow Sun's very snazzy (and recent) NewTron Bomb III in my performance rig. The recent upgrade adds the double/layering abilities I love with the M-Tron Pro, but - since it's a Kontakt instrument, it's got one other thing that I love (something that may not matter to you at all): I love that I have the ability to take a really nice Mellotron and throw it in with Kontakt's microtuning features so that I can use those timbres in my non-western tuning-based work.
Finally, the folks at Puremagnetik have a couple of wonderful Mellotron offerings, too. Since they're also available as Max for Live Packs, I'm going to describe them below in the next section.
Max for Live
Please raise your hand if you'd be surprised to know that there are no native Ableton Live instruments for Mellotron lovers (Author notes a tentative hand or two raised by those who probably thought that having a Kontakt version would obviate the need for anything else and then thought better of it....). That's right - you're in luck. That blank instrument space in your CryptoProg Live set or that unspoken-for .amxd device in your MSP patch is in luck!
Let's start with something free: The nice folks at Sonic Bloom have a couple of free sets of Mellotron-based Live Pack bundles for you! Each pack contains a Simpler preset as well as three fully macro-mapped Instrument Racks (one of them always includes controls to add that all-important reverb). You can listen to samples of them and download the the first Pack here.
The offering must have been interesting or fun or in demand, because they doubled their good karma by offering a second free Pack that focuses of Mellotron choral voices, too. You can listen to samples and download that pack here.
Pure Magnetik’s Microtron packages contain Mellotron 400 samples. There are four versions of them available as Live Packs - three available directly through Pure Magnetik, and one through Ableton:
Microtron Pack 1 contains Mellotron 400 Brass, 8 Voice Choir and String Section samples.
Microtron Pack 2 contains Flutes, Cellos, and octave Recorder samples.
Microtron Pack 3 contains Mellotron 400 Clarinet, French Horn, and Glenn Miller samples.
All three of these are combined in the deluxe Microtron Pack available on the Ableton website.
As I said before, the Puremagnetik Mellotron instruments are available as Ableton Live Packs, Kontakt instruments and as instruments for Logic 9 and above. I expect that as a Max/Max for Live user you’ll be more interested in the Live Pack version for dropping into your Live set or loading as an instrument hosted in an .amxd object. Quite reasonably priced, and they also show up on sale now and then.
On the Pad and Beyond
Are you one of those hipsters or Luddites who wouldn't be caught dead with a computer on stage but not sufficiently wealthy to afford those physical instruments? Never fear. How about something for your iPad? Lest you think I'm talking about a feature-reduced "fun app," I should point out that the last time I snuck backstage for a peak at the King Crimson stage layout, I discovered that their Mellotron was an iPad app. No, really.
The app (and my hands-down iPad Mellotron pick) is the Mellotronics 3000HD. Nicely priced, in-app purchases that let you customize your virtual 'tron to exactly the set of tapes you want, and the famous Streetly Tapes as the source? What's not to love? And if you've got a little more scratch, there's the chrome-and-whitewalls-with-reclining-leather-seats-soft-as-butter M3000 Ultimate Edition. I'm pretty sure that this is the iPad stuff that the Crim hit the road with. Sure sounds good out in the audience....
DIY/Rolling Your Own
So - you want access to just a pile of sample Mellotron stuff for your own devious MSP ends? For this one, there's only one destination: the extensive library of free Leisureland Mellotron samples. We all - all of us - owe this guy a pint, a least. One of the features of the set I particularly like is that the creator makes any EQ decisions on our behalf when sampling the instrument banks - that way, you're free to adapt and filter them to your heart's content as you work.
And yes, this is the same precise set of samples that the free Kontakt instrument uses.
So there you have it - my official ranty Mellotron brain dump. I'm sure I've left things out, in which case you can bring us all up to date.
'Tron for one, 'Tron for all.