The Melloman, Mk. II

mello

Way back in the 60s, strange electronic instruments were all the rage. The most famous of these made before the era of the synthesizer was the embodiment of musique concrète, the Mellotron. This instrument had an incredibly complex arrangement of magnetic tape that allowed a performer to play a keyboard and have the sound of any instrument come out of a speaker. This system was prone to failure, and there has been a lot of technological improvements in tape over the last fifty years, leading [Mike Walters] to build a new version of his famous Walkman-based Mellotron, the Melloman.

This build is an upgrade over the previous Melloman made in 2009. Like the original, this build uses 14 portable tape players, each loaded up with a continuous tape for each note. The tapes contain two octaves of the same note, one each on each channel, which are routed to the output whenever a key is pressed.

There are a few improvements over the old Melloman. Instead of transistors, [Mike] is using optocouplers to send the recorded sounds to the output. This build is also a whole lot cleaner, with the wiring looking very professional. As for a sound demo, you can check out the video below.

16 thoughts on “The Melloman, Mk. II

  1. This is certainly the most exciting “Useless machine” ever built! The idea itself is insane, and the result is amazing. You’ve got to love it.

    1. But then you miss out the sweet sound of 14 tape players all switching sides at once.

      Do they still even make cassette tapes? I’m sure they’re still used somewhere, but I haven’t seen one in years that hasn’t been gathering dust since the 90’s

      1. There is a shop here in the UK (Poundland) that still sells then, along with VHS tapes and camera film. Apart from that, I’ve never seen them anywhere but I would assume that they are still produced.

      1. There was once, I believe, an 8-track version of the Mellotron. Not by the same company. I think it was meant as a home keyboard.

        There’s actually 4 tracks on cassette tape, L+R for each side of the tape. I’d guess that 4-track heads would be hard to find, being used only for stuff like the Tascam Portastudio. As an alternative, you could just use 2 stereo heads, each aligned with the track for one “side” of the tape. One would have to be “upstream” of the others but that wouldn’t matter.

        I wonder how many tracks there are on dictating machine micro-tapes? I’d guess around 1.

    2. The paragraph above says “continuous tape”. That said, the original Mellotron only had 14 seconds of tape for each key, with a sortof spring-loaded rewind when you let go of the key.

      Dunno if you can still get looped tapes. Were they for answering machines originally? Or automated PA systems? I suppose you could make one from a normal cassette. Cassettes are amazingly fiddly and messy once you take the screws out, but looping 6 inches of tape can’t be too hard.

      Another option might be something using 8mm / Super 8 film. Sort of a linear Optigan. You could optically encode several keys worth on a strip of film, project it onto some LDRs. Barely any electronics at all, they had electronic optical sensors back in the 1920s!

  2. The Mellotron – did in fact use endless tape loops…
    But also significantly – these machines basically led to the development of the Fairlight CMI back in the 80s – using a 6800 based system to store samples – along with a LOT of revolutionary signal processing (at the time) to create pitch modification etc…

    1. Not quite correct. The Mellotron used pieces of tape that could only play for 8 seconds or so. When you released the key a spring pulled the tape back to it’s starting point. In this way each note has the same attack as the real instrument instead of staring somewhere in the middle of a sustained tone.

      1. Sorry – you’re right. I was thinking of a hybrid that a colleague hacked up back in the day
        ( We had a real UK Mellotron in Sydney AU at a video post facility) – weird, fun and fantastic… !

  3. wow! I remember submitting the original tip way back when :D been a long time :D

    I am glad he has kept working on this thing. I find it amazing and kick myself for not coming up with the idea :)

  4. The inventors of the Mellotron tried to make a version that used a row of 8 track tapes plugged into the back. Tape slipping was a problem and they’d get out of sync. IIRC they only built 3 or 4 before abandoning it as impossible to make work.

    A big problem with 8 track tapes was the cartridges used a built in pinch roller. High quality ones used a rubber roller on a decent axle. Cheap tapes used a hard plastic roller. That wasn’t a problem with the previous 4 track design because the cartridges had a hole in the bottom into which a pinch roller in the player lifted into. That made it possible for some players to play both 4 and 8 track tapes.

    What could work now is driving each cartridge individually and recording one track as a timing track, constantly read by the system so it could quickly speed it up or slow it down, technology that in the time when the company was experimenting with 8 tracks would have made it a very non-portable instrument.

    Endless loop tapes were commonly used for the outgoing message in dual tape answering machines and for telemarketing and emergency announcement “robo-call” machines.

    Take those and replace the tape with CrO2 tape and you’ve high quality endless loop tape cartridges.

    1. Not surprised the tapes slipped since they were friction-driven from an idler wheel. That, and the tapes were known to stretch, a lot. Never intended for hi-fi. As long as you didn’t need attack on your instruments, as a previous poster mentioned, it needn’t have mattered though. Certainly the 8 tracks on each cartridge would’ve kept the same pitch relative to each other. And 8’s a nice number for storing octaves.

      That, and the cheapness and ease of handling would mean it’d be pretty easy to just throw out any tapes that wore out.

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