By Lorraine Kay
Most people remember the machine from the recordings of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Genesis, and Yes and many more. The Mellotron is forever a part of music history. But now, with thanks to Markus Resch, Mellotron lives again!
One of those engineering genius’, Markus Resch of Sweden, has revived the Mellotron The new machine is a new and improved version of the Mellotron 400 called the MK VI. Of course, the functions and features of the old Mellotron 400 are preserved in the new model. Even the keyboard has wooden keys in the same way as the old Mellotrons and the tape frames are interchangeable.
According to Resch, “the principal was invented by Harry Chamberlain in the late 50s. He made a double manual machine that had rhythms on the left side and solo sounds on the right side. That machine was taken over to England in the early 60s and the whole principle was basically ripped off by a British company that made an identical machine, re-recorded the sounds and also had rhythms on the left side and solo sounds on the right side.”
The British instrument was mainly gauged as a middle class home entertainment system, very much as the small home organs of the same period. But then all the British musicians like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Manfred Mann, Genesis, David Bowie, and Yes, started using the machine. But that machine had problems because there were only three lead sounds that were really useful – the flute, the strings and the brass. All the other sounds were hardly used at all
So the Mellotron Company experimented with smaller versions of the machine until they came up with the model 400 which had just one keyboard but tape frames that could be taken out and exchanged. Each tape frame had three sounds at a time that could be played on 35 keys. The difference was you could buy as many tape frames as you liked and have practically an infinite sound library. Edgar Froese, for instance, of Tangerine Dream, had over 20 tape frames, which translates to 60 different sounds. During the 80s and 90s, however, the machine was barely used at all. A few musicians like Lenny Kravitz and Oasis started using the sounds again, giving hope of a revival for the Mellotron.
In the early 90s, an American businessman and music lover, David Kean bought the whole inventory, which included all the original tapes for the Mellotron, the original master tapes for the Mellotron sounds and the Chamberlain sounds. With the inventory and tapes in hand Kean and Resch, set out on a mission to revive the model 400.
“So we have been making tapes since then,” says Resch, “and supplying tapes for old machines. The old machines had some serious design flaws in them – especially the 400 model. It had a very bad motor control card that made the thing go out of tune all the time.”
“But after we learned what was wrong with the original 400 machine,” continued Resch, “we realized what we could do to improve it. And since in the inventory there was included a whole stash of the original tape heads, we decided in 1999 to make a new reissue of the machine that had all the problems taken out but would still give you the original sounds. And this is what the MK VI is. It has a vastly improved keyboard mechanism. It has a tube balanced output stage and a dual speed switch so you can drop the speed by an octave.”
“The keys themselves have a little roller that drives the tapes. and that roller was a very poor quality in the original machine. The quality of the roller now is basically up to the specs of a studio tape recorder,” Resch explained.
“The other thing we did was the tape transport travel is a lot better now with less friction. And that makes the tapes run a lot easier and that makes it work a lot better.”
According to Resch, they built the machine all new, from the ground up. “All the parts of the new machine are made of higher quality material. It’s more sturdy, making it much more road worthy.”
“Basically it is just like the old one but it works.”
Resch is now Mellotron’s production manager. “I do the whole thing now. I do the tapes, I do the new machines.”
With a master’s degree in physics he had an in depth expertise about how the tapes work, making him the perfect team member for this project. “I have always been interested in music technology, especially the Mellotron. I love the sounds. When I heard it in the late 80s I listened to a lot of 70s records and just thought they sounded great. I didn’t know what it was but then I found out what it was and since then I have just been interested in it. In the early 90s some Swedish bands were using it and the machines were always breaking down. Well because I was good with electronics they would call me in to service them. So that is how I was exposed to a Mellotron. And then I got in contact with Dave Kean here in the U.S. and he was so flabbergasted that somebody from Sweden would even care.”
Resch’s contribution was just what was needed. “I was able to make it work the way that it was supposed to be working from the beginning. And that was because I had some real in-depth technical expertise about how tape machines work. The original tapes had to be played back to be able to record the new sounds on the new machines and to really know how that is done with the right equipment, the right tape heads and all that. It takes some technical background knowledge to be able to figure it out.
Now for all those musicians that thought the Mellotron would never be anything more than a dream from their pasts the Mellotron is available again and the new and improved version can be purchased on-line. It is available in a variety of finishes and tapes and supplies can be purchased separately. Resche encourages those who would like to know more to visit www.mellotron.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org