MainStage: Vintage Mellotron overview

Vintage Mellotron overview

Vintage Mellotron recreates the features and a number of sounds from this famous keyboard instrument that has featured on dozens of classic rock and pop songs from the 1960s, ‘70s, and beyond.

The Mellotron is considered a precursor to modern sample-playback instruments. It uses a number of magnetic tapes that are drawn across a tape head when a key is pressed. Each key has an individual tape playhead and pressure pads on a spring-loaded mechanism. Rollers for each key are driven by a constantly turning capstan that spans the keyboard range.

Each key has a tape strip with up to three different sounds running in parallel. Sound length is limited to eight seconds, at which point the sound abruptly stops. Tapes return to their start position when the corresponding key is released. By offsetting the playheads with the racks that hold the tapes, a musician can switch the entire keyboard between a string and choir sound, for example. Partial offsets of the tape heads result in a layered blend of two adjacent sounds on each tape strip.

More advanced Mellotron models can use longer tapes, with different sounds allocated at precise positions along their length. This is similar to switching between banks of presets on a modern synth. Even then, a maximum of around 24 sounds is possible. If you require different sounds, the machine needs to be dismantled, and a new tape rack is used to replace one already in place. Not ideal, and certainly tough to accomplish during a live performance.

The original library sounds were recorded note by note, with varied performances and pitch fluctuations. This makes Mellotron instrument mapping somewhat inconsistent across the keyboard range, which is an essential part of its sonic character and charm.

The mechanical complexity of early Mellotrons—tape stretching, head alignment problems, and environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity fluctuations, smoke, dust, and magnetic fields—made them difficult to maintain. Even when new, no two Mellotrons sounded exactly the same because of these variables.

Vintage Mellotron features painstakingly sampled versions of each note from the original Mellotron sound library tapes, capturing the full sound length and performance quirks. Unlike the originals, Vintage Mellotron sounds are looped, enabling you to indefinitely sustain notes. Looping isn’t static, so sounds retain their “organic” flavor and mirror the continuous sonic movement of the original instruments.

Vintage Mellotron also allows you to blend any two sounds together, including combinations that weren’t available in the original tape library. A further bonus is control of the balance between sounds, a feature not found on the original machines.

A tape speed control mimics the tonal fluctuations caused by this feature on the original instruments. Also included are octave transposition and tone controls. See Vintage Mellotron controls.

Published Date: Aug 8, 2019
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