Melloman tape-looping keyboard

[Michael] tipped us off about an incredible build from back in 2005. The Melloman is a keyboard that uses a different tape loop for each key. The instrument is generally known as a Mellotron, and consists of a different looping tape for each key. When a key is depressed, the head comes into contact with the key and plays the sound sample.

This particular implementation uses 14 Walkmans to supply the tape loops. The Walkman units are constantly playing but the audio output is not enabled until a key is depressed. The main description of the instrument is on the final project page linked above but there are many construction photos available in the build log.

Update: After the break we’ve embedded a video that will take you on a tour of the components of the Melloman. To clear up the looping issue: a Mellotron uses tape loops, but the Melloman uses tapes that are 30 minutes on each side instead of loops.

[Thanks Michael]

24 thoughts on “Melloman tape-looping keyboard

  1. Original Mellotrons are awesome and I love the sound, but they are expensive and extremely hard to maintain after all these years.

    This is a great and very simple solution to do the same thing. Nice project!

  2. I really like this, but can someone explain to me why this is done like this? I think I am missing the point perhaps, perhaps someone can refresh my mind. Is this done like this using casettes because it is otherwise hard to synthesize sound? Like for example the electric piano i have downstairs in my living room? I am finding it hard to explain myself, perhaps this is the only way of doing this. But to me, it sounds like a nice organ/keyboard, why is this called melloman? Thanks

  3. it was done for the joy of being done. a modern synthesizer can do exactly the same thing without running out of tape, but this guy just likes to hack. btw the girl playing is “very pleasing” ;)

  4. damn, damn cool.

    and just think- you could record anything on those tapes and play them back with the keys- drum beats, samples, whatever.

    I think it would be cool to build something similar to mix songs like dual turntables, but with several tape loopers instead..

  5. This would be much cooler if it was done with turntables, not nearly as usefull but much cooler. Manatee Militia there are cheap walkmen ($1 a piece) from china in some dollar stores, but you get what you pay for.

  6. I had an idea to build something very similar to this the main difference was that in my design each cassette deck would be able to play 2 notes instead of one.
    (One note would be stored on the Left and one on the Right channel)
    Now I wonder what Im going to do with the 16 Cassette players I’ve collected?

  7. The original Mellotron did not use tape loops. It used short strips of spring-loaded tape. When a key was depressed, the tape was brought in contact with the corresponding head, and a pinch roller would start pulling the tape across the head. When the key was released, the head and pinch roller pull away from the tape, allowing it to spring back to the beginning. This allowed the samples to be more than simple loops and actually have “attack” since they would always be played from the beginning on each keypress. As a side effect, though, you could only play a note for about eight seconds before you hit the end of the tape and the sound stopped until you let go and hit the key again.

    Looks like this one doesn’t use loops either, but it is using looping samples, since the tapes are playing continuously even when the key is not pressed.

  8. I only recently learned about these things listening to a BBC radio documentary on the Beatles.
    In one part they talked about how the tape length influenced the intro to strawberry fields, pretty awesome.

    Makes me want to do it in java or flash…perhaps midi controlled.

  9. I remember this awesome project from years ago. I also attempted to build one, but was only able to find 3 identical tape players, which is pretty boring. I like that he used the recording from a real mellotron for his tapes. But the kicker is that the real mellotron had 3 different voices to use (violin, cello, and choir) which was recorded live onto master tapes. So it is possible to hear small nuances between the choir singers, violin players, etc for each note played. very surreal

  10. OP’s site really is worth a visit for the originality and finish, not to mention his drool collection of keyboards in the background, a Hammond, Moogs, &c. Hat tip.

    Thanks to @Freax and @Brian for explaining the difference between this Mellowman and the original Mellotron. Apart from providing attack and limiting the play time per note, the original Mellotron pull-back system avoided the problem of dropout and thump when the tape loop splice passes throught the heads. OP is actually quite clear about the difference between the Mellotron and his build, and the splice problem.

    @The Manatee Militia – how much cheaper than $8/note do you expect to build a synth? Even the best tape mechs can be difficult and if I had a rank of them I’d want reasonable basic quality for playability. Given the nature of mechanical tape transports even the original Mellotrons practically needed a tech with every instrument.

    @action_owl – I’d be careful with the L-R idea since tapes don’t have great crosstalk specs and cheap players can have a lot of crosstalk, could be really nasty if the samples are not harmonically related (as OP has done).

    @SeBsZ – Mellowman = Mellotron + Walkman (and…)

    @mj – gets the point of a *sampling* synth. It is *way* cool. I’ve used an Ensoniq ESQ-1 which is a Z-80 based electronic version of the Mellotron, and sampling allows the use of anything from a grand piano to a tin can, even a spoken phrase such as “the horses are on the track” on a single key, and because it auto-rewinds it can even be “stuttered” like “The … The .. The horses … The hor…” etc. Imagination is your limit.

    @HIrudinea – as for doing this directly with turntables, a stack of 25 turntables would certainly look impressive but I think it would rapidly get out of control. The simpler and more controllable way would be to *sample* the required material, playing it indirectly.

    I have several conventional synths, but I’d still love to add an ESQ-1 or similar *sampling* synth because it opens up the world of natural sounds as a keyboard voice library, sounds that are difficult or impossible to programme and which still have good original fidelity. Some that have been used in songs include a dog barking, a jet landing, a childrens playground, and tires screeching.

    Now here is a project that could do with an Arduous or two. As the ESQ-1 shows, there are considerable reliability and flexability advantages to translating this idea into silicon (and a possible role for the dual Ardious, one to scan the keyboard and one to play the samples). Give it a computer port for sample library management and you’ve got a serious performance instrument.

  11. Sadly I’ve been playing and repairing keyboards from some time before “forever”. :(

    People have flashed a LED before too, even used toy cars as a switch, but building a sampling synth has to be a more interesting use of an Arduous (or whatever). It is worthy of being “done for the joy of being done” (@alan).

    Correction: the keyboard I was referring to above is an Ensoniq DSK (6809 based, custom format 720k FDD, no cartrage, no oscillators thus no native voices) and preceeded the ESQ-1 (’84 v ’86?).

    The Casio SK series are fun, but really only toys with short keyboards and a sample rate of only 9kb/s against 32kb/s for the DSK. Fidelity is important to tonality, but my basic point is that a sampling keyboard adds a whole new area to the keyboard pit.

    OP is obviously an experienced keyboardist with a wide-ranging collection of keys, yet still felt the need to build the Mellowman, and far from rubbishing OP I’d like to see a more reproducable (and performance robust) form with MIDI. A Mellard? Picatron?

    Thoretically a synth can be programmed to produce any waveform, but practically it starts at “difficult” and gets to “impossible”. Given the source, creating samples for the DSK is more straightforward, if tedious.

  12. Actually this can already be done on an existing turntable. The Vestax Controller 1 turntable has midi control as well buttons representing each note, plus major/minor flat/sharp buttons.

    There are locked groove loop records available for it of instrument sounds (UPR 4).

    You can control the speed of the turntable with a midi keyboard, thus playing 1 sample back in an very large range of notes.

    Examples In Order of Complexity, simple to advance

    Midi Keyboard Controll

  13. This is something I would buy. I wonder about evolving the design to work on the electronic guts of all those 4-track Tascam PortaStudio’s. Meaning that you could use the 4-track heads, and make 4-track loops. That would bring the design closer in line with the Mellotron – – having strings, brass and so on.

    But hey, I am an Engineer’s worst nightmare (I have ideas).

    Anyway, very, very cool and thanks!

  14. In my mind I also thought of this version where basically each key of the keyboard had a little 4-track tape head at the end. The tape loop would be travelling away at normal speed, with the tape facing up. When you played the key, it would drop the head down onto the tape. More of a mechanical design I guess. Less elegant.

    Don’t forget to add Dolby . . .

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