Mike Dickson

'I would not have believed the mellotron capable of this.' -- Robert Fripp

This has been something I have been planning since I first got my hands on a Mellotron in 1998, via a chance meeting with Martin Smith and John Bradley at the playback for King Crimsons's The Night Watch in a hotel near Hyde Park. It has been a long time coming, between acquiring tape sets, getting the mechanical process of being able to play the (occasionally) stubborn brute, knowing how and when to pedal on and off, knowing the notes to avoid at all costs, knowing which chords sound the sweetest, knowing which inversions work better than others, knowing which voices can be used together...

Those not in the know may scoff at such fanciful notions, but a Mellotron is more than just a dead box of thirty five little tape players linked up to an amp. Woooaaah no. If it were as easy as that then there wouldn't be a breed of roadie out there who recoils in horror when you tell them you used to take these creatures out on gigs with you. What they are not is predictable. Maybe more predictable than their somewhat unfairly tarnished tatter of a reputation allows at times, but nevertheless there is always an element of 'what will it do this time?' when you twist on the little red switch. Sometimes it plays like a charm. Other times it seems to forget that the tuning it liked last time isn't the one it's happiest with this time. Sometimes there are notes that sound quite right together one minute, but when played later sound utterly wrong. The attack and sustain on a note on one playing will sound great and on the next will sound a little different. The stories are legion; the best advice is to disbelieve the worst stories and treat the very best with an equal amount of suspicion. As with everything in this world the answer rather uninterestingly lies someplace in the middle. It's finding just where in the middle that is the engaging experience.

One great Mellotron lover named Julian Cope (a man who I am led to believe Googles himself regularly, so let's all wave at him now) once described himself as a 'righteous Mellotron user' but conceded anyway that they were 'breathing instruments'. Julian has the benefit of being more experienced than some and weirder than most so he probably knows what he is talking about. All I can say is that his assessment is almost completely accurate and that learning to play a Mellotron isn't a matter of anything as pedestrian as a mere musical tuition. It's learning to live with a mechanical personality capable of great power and great beauty, but which is also capable of incredible tetchiness, huge irritation and which can generally take the huff with you over slights you never knew existed. But you persist, because the moments of beauty get better and better the more you can learn to avoid the latter. (Actually this sounds similar to a description given of the last composer named on the album 'proper'. We'll get to him in time.)

So my dream. Robert Fripp once famously wondered what Jimi Hendrix would sound like if he were to play the canon of Béla Bartók on his electric guitar. I have wondered also what the music of Gustav Holst would sound like played on a Mellotron. Not just led on a Mellotron, or phrased on one, but played in its entirety on one. Fripp's unit tried this in 1969, fell foul of Gustav's estate and had to make do with a slightly watered down version that they had to rename. I'm not sure I'm going to be bound by these dull kinds of law so I'm steaming ahead. I wanted to make an album of classics and play it only on the Mellotron. No half measures. Let's just see if it can actually carry the music we all love and which may have indeed inspired us to add the sounds of the Mighty Tron to our musical arsenal in the first place.

I had to decide on the music to play. Some were obvious. Mars was a clear place to start thanks to the aforementioned guitarist's Hot Beat Combo, and Pachelbel ran in at a close second. Barber was suggested to me at an early stage in development and Bach was an inclusion that could not be overlooked, despite nearly being chucked out because I simply couldn't do the job. (Trick: Less is more -- Ignore the score.) Some didn't make it. Vivaldi and Charles Ives sounded great on one level and yet simply didn't work when listened to dispassionately. Aaron Copland actually made me laugh when I tried it (although it may have a lot to do with it sounding like me pricking the bubble of ELP) and Stravinsky started off very well but lost it due to the lack of any usable percussion at my disposal. Bach's Mass in B minor will have to wait and the rest of The Planets likewise.

Back to that lack of percussion. I have cheated only once and sampled snare and kettle drums to use in the first track. These apart, everything else you hear is the voice of a Mellotron in some way or another. I fully confess to playing fast and loose with some things, such as recording at a lower tempo to play particularly rapid sections which the dear old brute could never handle, and I'm happy to say that I have radically messed with tunings to get far lower and higher sounds than the Bradleys and Chamberlins ever saw coming out of their greatest invention. A palette of thirty five notes is a restriction when faced with some very wide ranging string music and the upper reaches of the violin are well in excess of this, so some retuning here and there was needed.

I don't read music at all. At one time I never saw the need as I saw no purpose in playing music that someone else had played before. I still harbour that feeling to some extent, but where there is beautiful music to be played, why not play it? Faced with the scores for these pieces I had to translate them into a series of letters and shapes and (in one case) colour charts to have it make even the least sense to me. After playing the parts and putting them together I had to mix it all down properly - it's incredible just how wild twenty eight Mellotrons playing together at the same time can sound - and get it all limited and capped off without losing dynamics or having to resort to compression. Most of the time I ended up with one track which I then funnelled through a noise reduction system based on Cedar Audio to remove the overwhelming amount of hiss that 20 Mellotrons opened up at the same time can produce. (For those curious of this effect, 20 Mellotrons = 20 x 35 open playback heads which is like listening to the white noise from 700 reel to reel recorders. Thos who still harbour curiosity are encouraged to listen to this 5 second burst (taken from the untreated opening to the Bach piece) just to experience the effect in all its wonder).

Having the music resemble the composer's intent was another hurdle to overcome, and though I made some brave attempts I must thank Martin Smith and Rick Blechta for their experience and suggestions in making this all sound acceptable. I also used the ears of many colleagues and friends for some of these tracks and even enlisted the help of Cyndee Lee Rule in making up an entirely new recording of the viola to avoid me having to use the old one which was a little substandard.

In mid-2009 I added some extra tracks to the web site. These had been scheduled for the original release but which were withheld for a variety of reasons. These reasons ranged from 'I never really finished them', through 'they didn't really fit in' all the way down to 'I made a bit of a hash of the job of recording them'. Of all of the tracks lying on the floor, I decided to make an effort with those that were at least salvageable and addressed the issue of putting them together again. The rather flat tones of the Handel piece were beefed up using half speed organ and masses of choirs, the Beethoven re-recorded by dropping it an octave (thanks again, Rick), and the Elgar by completely revisiting the orchestration from start to finish. I managed to get Strauss sounding substantially less funny than it was at first (but not as funny as the Copland remained)

The result of this burst of activity was five additional pieces that complement the original recordings, but which (in my mind anyway) are not a part of it. Look upon them the same way you might regard the free plastic toys you used to receive in breakfast cereal boxes in the 1970s. (Before small children started choking on them, I assume) A sort of free gift to accompany another free gift.

Finally, a little about the kit used to record this music. I've been asked this question about a dozen times already (and at the time of writing it has only been released for three days) so I may as well add it now. The Mellotron M400 (manufactured in 1973) is played into a Mackie 1202 mixer, which I use because it is very quiet and has a delicate EQ control that can take the edge off some of the white noise coming from the Mellotron without damping out the sound. This leads in and out of an Alesis MidiVerb II effects unit which is used for the reverb and and blooms you hear, and then runs straight into the back of a computer where everything was digitally recorded in Sony ACID Pro, with digital effects coming from the Waves and Timeworks libraries.

Once mixed down to my satisfaction the output was written to an uncompressed WAV file which was then bounced off an Akai 4000DS reel to reel for that pleasing thing we call tape compression. I am happy to say that this is the only compression you'll hear anywhere in the music. Likewise you will not hear any digital editing anywhere other than in places where one take was adjoined to another. Some of the very low notes you hear are being played way off the bottom end of the Mellotron by turning the motor speed down by an octave and upping the lower and top ends of the EQ to compensate for the lack of fidelity. Sometimes I simply doubled the line with the bottom end of the St Johns Wood Church Organ which has bass pedals in the recording. There was very little post-production carried out.

As a listener, my only request to you is to give this music a chance. Listen to it properly. Give it some. Play it loud. Turn up the bass. Try and absorb what it has to offer. I may be playing it but that only makes me the conduit for the genius that lay in the minds of Gustav, Tomaso (and Remo), Samuel, both Johanns, Ralph. Richard, Edward, Ludwig and George. Their combined thoughts from over the last three centuries persist long after their bodies have become dust.

A Microsoft Word version of the artwork is available here and a CD label is available here A full ISO file for the CD is available here as well as the CDT and CUE files required to burn the disc. Download all files to the same folder and then burn the CD. (I recommend IMGBURN but you may have your own personal favourite program for the job, such as NERO.) If you are using an Apple Mac then I suggest you use Firestarter FX which seems to do the trick. Note that burning the file straight in OSX will not work due to bugs with OSX and the use of CUE Sheets. Listeners who only want to stream the tracks live into Winamp (etc) may like to use the playlist available here.

As ever, the music is free for all to hear and enjoy and share. Comments are highly welcome.

Mike Dickson, Edinburgh, September 2008