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Published in PM October 2007
Reviews : Keyboards+Synths
The new M4000 Mellotron is based on the best of the classic Mark II and M400 models, featuring a single-manual 37-note keyboard, with three sounds available for selection. But is there still a place for a big, heavy mechanical keyboard that relies on playing back bits of magnetic tape?
No matter where you are amongst musos, everyone has an opinion on Mellotrons. They're either outdated rubbish, fundamentally unreliable and outpaced by a half decent sampler and some CD-ROMs. Or they're iconic; the Shangri-La of keyboards, with an indefinable mystique that sounds like nothing else. It's that magical combination of metal, wood and plastic (yes, Mellys even have their own smell) that is so beguiling. If you've ever owned or played one, nothing else will do, despite all the blandishments of the digital fans, and the Yahoo! Mellotronists group is one of the most enthusiastic set of navel gazers on the web. Well, now there's a brand new 21st century model that will have Melly fans everywhere raiding their bank accounts, and will probably sound the death knell for all those wildly inflated prices on eBay — the M4000.
The new M4000 takes a radically different approach to previous 'new' models, being the result of much brainstorming by Martin Smith and John Bradley, of Streetly Electronics. This new keyboard takes the best of the classic Mark II and M400 models as it's basis: a single-manual 37-note keyboard, with three sounds available for selection, but combined with the Mk II's banks of sounds on extended tapes (there are eight banks available). And, if that's still not enough for you, there's a double keyboard version available — the M5000 — with twice the features of the M4000.
Why not digital?
Okay, you may be wondering why Streetly have returned to the original technology that dates back nearly half a century. According to Streetly, when using tape technology, things happen that will never happen in the digital world. To model them, which Streetly investigated, was too complex to really bring out all the inter-modulations, capacitances and 'oddball things'. Sampling a Mellotron will produce results, obviously, but it's the interplay of adding notes together through replay heads and preamps that can produce unexpected results. The true Melly fan (or anyone with a good pair of ears) can detect the difference.
Initial thoughts by Martin, John and Norm Leete (Mellotron enthusiast par excellence and the deviser of the digital controls on the M4000), were for a VST instrument, but were quickly dismissed as not the type of technology that they were associated with. It would have sounded like any other Melly VST, with a high probability that the program would have been cracked in days. The next idea was for a tabletop solid- state replay machine. This initially seemed promising and a prototype was built, but A/B tests with an original Melly showed that, while convincing on single notes, block chords were incapable of recreating the nuances of the tape technology.
On reflection, it was sensible to return to the original technology. Streetly have many years experience of restoring the originals back to pristine condition, meaning the M4000 is fully compatible with existing machines as regards the parts used. So, on the hardware side, the technology is tried and tested, and fully proven for its longevity. Despite what detractors have said, a regularly maintained Mellotron is no worse than any other mechanical keyboard instrument, for reliability.
The thinking behind the M4000 is to take the best aspects of the Mark II: its height (you stand up comfortably to play, rather than stooping with consequent strain on your back); light and fast keyboard action and cycling system of six banks of three tapes; and the improved tape motor, preamp and (relative) portability of a single manual M400. In addition to this, the tape heads are fully adjustable for azimuth settings. One of the problems mentioned with Mellotrons is the relative dullness of the sounds. This is not a nature of the instrument itself, but inconsistencies between tape alignment and tape stock. Other companies developing Mellotrons have been criticized for the sound and the lack of easy adjustment. On the M4000, this problem has been overcome by using the tape stock of the originals — EMI tape. Streetly have a carefully hoarded store of genuine tape and have discovered that it gives exactly the right sound. After all, if EMI tape is good enough for Beatles master tapes at Abbey Road (which haven't shed oxide and don't need restoring after 50 years), why not here? In fact, experiments with more modern tape formulations produced variable results, although the mechanism is designed to work with other makes when Streetly's stock is exhausted.
Not so much a keyboard, more the sounds of life
At first sight, the M4000 looks identical to an M400 in its Birch Ply cabinet, until you realise that it's taller, both for playing style and to take the full mechanism. The 35-note keyboard is built to the same specs. In fact, many of the parts are still made by the same companies that provided the originals back in the '60s. In some cases, only one person was left still working for these companies who remembered how they were built.
The keyboard action is very light and more easily adjustable than the originals, with the pressure pads and pinch rollers only needing a third of a turn on the pad and one turn on the roller adjusting screws, rather than one turn on the pad and two whole turns on the originals. The keys themselves have re-sited pressure pads to stop the tapes stalling and improved leather key stops, giving a lighter and vastly improved touch response.
Wherever possible, all the parts are hand-made in-house, and it shows in the beautiful and lovingly assembled engineering. Just observing the innards makes you realise that this sort of handcrafted work is no longer produced in the UK to any great extent. Each instrument's mechanism is hand-adjusted to the keyboard and case, so each one is slightly different, as you might expect with instruments as complex as these, that are essentially hand-built from the ground up. In fact, Streetly admit that some of their parts are 'over-engineered' with traditional technology to make sure that the part's life can be measured in decades. One example of this approach is shown in the fact that Radiohead's restored Mellotron hasn't put a foot wrong in nearly 10 years and needs no maintenance!
On the Mk II, the tapes were 42 inches long, with six banks (or 'stations') on tap. The addition of another two banks means that the M4000 weighs in at 60 inches of tape per key! John Bradley was told that such a feat would be impossible to keep in time and tune under tension. This impossible feat has been achieved with an outrigger and extra flywheel that keeps the tapes in tension along their full length, and totally accurate to a quarter-inch along the entire length — a considerable feat of engineering!
The tapes are stored on rollers, as on the Mk II, which are linked by Reynolds bike chains to keep them fully in sync. This supposedly Heath Robinson system has been found to be a 'belt and braces' system that locks the rollers and is a reliable and foolproof method of working — the original Mellys are now approaching their half century and restored versions are still running as well (and, in many cases, better) than the day they were built. In fact, one of the decisions to use bike chains and Meccano gears is that they are easily available, off the shelf, and are traditionally long-lived items. If it ain't broke, don't fix it...
The motors come from E & D in Romford and are based on washing machine motors (if you can believe it!). They have more torque than ever before, and are very stable in running both the capstan and stepper mechanisms for the cycling system. As a result, playing two-fisted chords on the M4000 will not defeat the motor and lead to tapes slowing and going out of tune — a common fault in the early days.
Set the controls for the heart of the Tron
It's when we get to the control panel that we see the more profound changes that have been made to the Mellotron. The volume, tone and tape speed controls are still the same, but in the middle of the panel is an illuminated two-digit display and four control buttons that work the cycling mechanism. On the original Mk IIs, these used push buttons on the upper control panel to operate the Station Select Control Units that used a separate sync tape — state of the art in the 60s, but rather old-fashioned nowadays, and full of Germanium transistors that could drift and upset the settings. The first attempt at the new system used a servo driving a DC motor, which proved unreliable. So, with some help from former Steve Hackett keyboardist, Nick Magnus, Norm Leete developed a 3 x 2-inch microprocessor card with a software program.
The audio is muted on power-up, to eliminate the 'bang' that you used to get on the originals, and is also muted when cycling between banks. When playing, you don't get the 'zip' of the originals when the tapes are returning, and the key click has also been eliminated.
On the left side of the display are up and down increment buttons and you press the relevant buttons to select the tape banks, or 'stations'. On the right side are two buttons marked Cycle and Inch. If you press Cycle, having selected the desired bank, the M4000 does an impression of a spin dryer (with soft start), while the tapes revolve to the desired bank and the two-digit display shows that the instrument is cycling. When the chosen number is shown, you're ready to play.
On the original Mk II, if you played the keys when cycling between banks, the tapes would jam and break. So, a large warning notice was printed on the top: 'Don't Play while selecting banks!' On this new unit, there's a failsafe that automatically stops the cycling. At this point, the display will show '0' (error), and you can start again.
The Inch button is an ingenious feature. Pressing this literally 'inches' the tapes along from their start points, giving you the option of different attack points in each sound. With re-timed tapes, the recorded attack of each note is actually available for the first time! Badly adjusted tapes on the originals might start well into the sound and lose definition. Custom start points can be saved, and are memorised on power- down.
One of the fun aspects of the Mellotron is the track select control. On the original Mk II, you had the option of intermediate settings between the three tracks that would give you combined tones from two sounds. Genesis', 'Watcher of the Skies', is the classic example of this — a mixture of strings and brass. On the M400, you could set the track select control between sounds and it would give the same results, but could be rather imprecise. On the M4000, the control is smoothed in response, so that combination tones can be achieved smoothly and with no loss of volume.
At the bottom of the case is the Filtron system. 'What's this?' you ask. The idea came from Henry Dagg, keyboard player with Genesis tribute band, In the Cage. As the band use stage smoke and dry ice (no prog tribute band should ever be without smoke generators), he had problems with tapes hanging up inside the mechanism and not returning. Cleaning with meths cured the problems for a while, but then they returned — the smoke was being sucked into the mechanism through the holes in the M400 base and deposited on the mechanism. Henry Dagg designed a unit to block the holes, suck air in through a filter paper, and pump the clean air under pressure through the mechanism, thereby eliminating ingress of anything else into the cabinet. He now makes Filtrons for Streetly, which can also be retrofitted to any M400 Mellotron, keeping the tapes clean and sounding excellent.
The M4000 is a classy act from the moment you look at it. It's got the look and the feel, with space on the top for much more than the standard Minimoog that used to grace the top of Mellotrons in days of yore. It's also got the smell (readers of a certain age will recognise it as the aroma you always got in recording studios in the tape era). Switch on, and you hear the main motor hum smoothly up to speed.
The keyboard action is as light as a synth, which may be a surprise to anyone who ever played an M400, where you had to occasionally fight the action if you wanted to play fast solos. Here, you'll find that the articulation on each note is superb, and you can play 200mph solos to your heart's content.
The pitch bend still has the same range — nearly two tones in either direction, allowing for up to a fourth between the stops. The EQ is the same, and with re-mastered sounds, EMI tape stock and properly aligned azimuth heads, gives a rich and full sound, miles away from the 'frozen string' tones you might have heard in the past. As stated above, the track select control gives a very smooth transition between sounds with clean combination tones and the output signal is beautifully clean. The cycling mechanism works perfectly, and although you may think it takes a while to run through the banks (it IS tape and not RAM, after all), you soon get used to it.
As for the sounds themselves, this is the combination of the timeless and classic sounds that made the Mellotron's reputation, with some unusual and new tones that could easily be the basis of future classic tracks. Although Streetly have over 100 sounds in their library, they've found that the same 20 or so are the ones most people want: Strings, Brass, Choirs, Orchestras, Organs and Woodwinds. That said, you can always specify your own selection and, for the more wealthy owner, there's always the opportunity of the M5000 twin keyboard, with 48 sounds on tape for your delectation. Trying out the sounds is nothing less than an emotional experience — you're playing a sizeable slab of rock history, with a tradition that goes back to Harry Chamberlin's recordings in the early '50s, taking in The Beatles, Prog-rock and Ambient music on the way. No other instrument, I would suggest, has this 'Stradivarius' quality of linking you to history in such an uncanny way. The sounds breathe. They are human, emotional and, in their own delightful way, imperfect. It is this very quality that gives the Melly its appeal.
Do I want one?
Various keyboards have iconic status in music: Rhodes, Minimoog, the Hammond C3, and Prophets. You name it — they all have their adherents. Mellotron fans are probably the most enthusiastic of the bunch, and once you've played one, you can see why. The M4000 is a throwback to the days of mechanical as well as electrical engineering, and it shows in each lovingly handcrafted component lurking inside the case. You can spend hours with the lid up, just looking inside and marvelling at the invention and dedication of the original designers, as well as all the people involved with its development over the years. As a tried, tested and proven technology, it has no equal. Whilst those who think that everything can be done by computer technology will turn their noses up and walk past, the muso with eyes to see and ears to hear will have no problem loving the instrument for what it is, and all its foibles. The M4000 is a wonderful instrument. A carefully thought out development of the original design, fully backwards compatible with previous technology, and designed for decades of use without hassle or tears. The look, the feel and the sound is truly timeless and outside the vagaries of fashion. And M4000s are designed to still be ticking over when today's PCs and VSTs have gone the way of the dodo.
Yes, it's not cheap, but Rolls Royce build quality never is. What you have here is the product of dedicated people who believe in the highest quality and personal service to the owner, built to exacting standards rather than volume. The Mellotron maintains it's mystique amongst fans — twenty people sent in deposits on instruments as soon as it was announced, even before anything was made. At the time of writing, the first one is being used to record in Sweden and the next few lucky owners are about to take possession of what is simply, for me, the classic keyboard of all time.
And if you think I've gone overboard on this instrument, you're perfectly correct! As a former Melly owner, I loved the originals, but this is even better. A timeless classic, improved out of all recognition — I want one. 0
M4000 Standard Tape Set
Bank 1: Mk II Flute/ Mk II Violins/ Cello — the archetypal Melly tape set.
Bank 2: String Section/ 8 voice choir/ Church Organ — the combination strings, classic choir and the infamous St. John's Wood church organ, which will endanger ears and speaker cones at 20 yards.
Bank 3: Mk II Brass/ Mk II Tenor sax/ Mk II Trombone — the famous GC (for George Chisholm) layered brass.
Bank 4: Male Choir/ Female Choir/ Boys Choir — the renowned choir sounds in all their glory. The boys' choir is much brighter and punchier than the ex-Barclay James Harvest set I used to have on my M400.
Bank 5: M300A Violins/ Russian Choir/ Sad Strings — the somewhat different string mix from the Mellotron 300, the sonorous Russian choir, and the new Sad strings mix.
Bank 6: Mk II Church Organ/ Ian McDonald Flute/ Mk I Clarinet — the Mk II Church organ, which is actually a Lowrey/Leslie combination and was used with pitch bend on the Moodies classic, 'Thinking is the best way to travel'. The Ian McDonald (King Crimson) flute is a new addition, with a controlled and delayed vibrato that's very expressive, and a nice contrast to the Mk I clarinet next door.
Bank 7: Vibes/ 'Watcher' Mix/ Orchestra — vibes combined with the iconic Genesis' 'Watcher of the Skies' Mix (itself a combination of Mk II Strings and brass) and the Orchestra Mix, which is another cabinet wrecker of astonishing sonority.
Bank 8: Bass Clarinet/ Cor Anglais-Oboe/ Mediaeval Woodwind — the unusual bass clarinet, which can sound synth-like at times, the Cor Anglais/ Oboe Mix, and Mediaeval Woodwind, which has an interesting fifth harmonic overtone in the middle.
Of course, you can specify any combination of 24 sounds that you like, from the 100 or so on offer. See Streetly's guide to sounds, with MP3 audio examples, on their web site at www.streetly.com
Published in PM October 2007
In this article:
Mellotron M4000 £4500
It's a genuine Mellotron, with proven mechanical technology that's good for another half century! Hand-built and beautifully constructed, as a musical icon should be.
Real tapes give the real sound, and they're brighter, richer and more wonderful than you ever thought possible. Eight tape banks give a wider choice of sounds than ever before, in any combination. Superbly thought-out tape bank system with failsafe means no more broken tapes. 'Filtron' air cleanser keeps the dust and dirt out of the works. The downside is you'll have to wait for one, as they're all hand-made.
+44 (0)1889 504211
8 stations, 24 sounds.
Inching facility for alternate start points, which are storable.
Cycling option failsafe when changing banks/stations.
Mk II keyboard feel; lighter than the M400.
Mk II playing height, for a comfortable standing position.
Filtron positively pressurised cabinet to keep grot out of the works.
Azimuth-alignable tape heads.
Choice of standard 24 sound sets, with the option of any sounds from the extensive tape library.
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