Magnetotron Is An Armonica Mellotron Mashup

[Michael] is a huge fan of old media formats. There’s something special about quarter-inch thick 78s, fragile blue cylinders holding music, and thin strips of mylar that preserve the human voice. He’s had an idea for a tape-based instrument for a while, and now that the Magnetotron is complete, we’re in awe of this glass harmonica and Mellotron mashup.

The Magnetotron is a large rotating cylinder that has dozens of strips of audio tape attached to it. The cylinder rotates with the help of a small motor. As the strips of tape rotate in front of him, [Michael] presses two tape heads up to the instrument, making some sort of sound.

Each strip of tape contains a recording of one note, like the venerable Mellotron. Instead of physical keys, the Magnetotron is played in a much more tactile fashion like the glass harmonica. The output of the Magnetotron is interesting with a whole bunch of wow and flutter. Check out the demo of [Michael] playing his instrument at NIME in Brooklyn after the break.


23 thoughts on “Magnetotron Is An Armonica Mellotron Mashup

  1. cool, saw this on the makelive show…
    I’m not sure why he needs more than two tape players when he’s only playing two notes at a time… maybe he was planning on making different handle things that could play chords

      1. I think it’s funny when people just assume that a post-apocalyptic world will be solely utilitarian, when the basis for most of human culture and technology has always ridden upon the desire of humans to play with whatever the hell they feel like, either by making such amusements and toys, or by developing ways to be lazier about their work.

  2. Hi Zuul (there is no Dana),
    Actually the reason for multiple tape heads is because the audio signal naturally doesn’t take up the entire width of the tape, so I need 4 heads per baton to get a constant tone. It’s basically fighting against intermittence.


  3. I’m pretty sure sure for most of us our post apocalypse musical entertainment will be unplugged. We all better get an assortment of instruments, and get some skills started. We all cant put rocks in a dried hollowed out gourd or find a hollow log to beat on, and expect to join the band.

    1. Thanks for the criticism – the tones were actually recorded on a synth…at a certain point i realized there were some limitations to the instrument that had to be sussed out and compromises had to be made. At lower rpm’s, it started to sound too warbly, so I upped the speed, but at the cost of it becoming screechy. The actual sound output in the video is being run through a whammy pedal that drops it 3 octaves, in certain parts where its screechiest is when I’m pushing the pedal back up and manipulating the pitch digitally. In the next prototype I’m hoping to find a happy medium between drum speed and sound quality. Always be working and iterating.

      1. Sounds like you need a different way of driving the drum, what’s the current motor? A motor that appears to be spinning smoothly might actually have really juddering motion so i think you’d get a lot less warble with a tiny motor at high rpm combined with a really low speed gearbox – or add a heavy flywheel to even out the speed

  4. When i seen the picture i expected loops on the tapes, with loops you could even have extra “hands” holding heads on drum loops etc. like a more physical sampler. Hope that doesnt come across as critical, as still v cool.

  5. i’m using an AC motor from an old Otari reel-to-reel. I think the trick for the next prototype is going to be finding a happy medium speed-wise – i did some tests with a variac and it sounded better at a lower speed but I lost too much torque with the voltage drop. The warbliness is mostly coming from the user and the entire mechanism not being exactly true – which is very tough when making something from scratch.

  6. While not a musical person in any way shape or form I think it would be nice if you had some on-the-fly recording ability could be pretty cool. I’d nail the speed issues. Maybe you could use video tape instead of audio tape [I think you were using audio multi-wrapped?] in a helical form to allow the output from the other paddles to be recorded onto the helix. That way you could use a read paddle to re-play some combination you’ve played, or use a pair of automatically fed read heads to simply repeat the output like a backing track?

  7. I was just thinking, why not make this really old school, and mabye get rid of the problems with the tapes, and make a drum with grooves carved into the drum surface like an Edison cylinder player, only 78 or so RPM, the only major problem would be mating the pick up needle with the proper note groove.

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