The Mellotron ranks amongst the instruments that has been able to count on a loyal following for decades. Beyond that, it can serve as a good example that what sounds good needn’t be technically perfect. When I first heard of Manikin’s Memotron a while ago, my first thought was a respectful ‘now that’s bravery for you’! Ironically, in a time where music products are expected above all to be free, but provide number one chart hits worth millions at the push of a button, which is comical when you consider the growing number of illegal downloads, a Berlin-based manufacturer is bringing this uncompromising specialist keyboard instrument to market: the Memotron. Whether the implementation of the design, but above all the quality of the sounds, are convincing is the subject of our test report.
Before we look at the Memotron, a few words about its model, the Mellotron.
The idea came from Harry Chamberlin, who, at the beginning of the 1950′s, started to build his first eponymous instruments in the USA. His idea was simple. On the push of a button a tape is played that, after the button is released, is brought back to the starting position by means of a spring. The length of the tapes limited the maximum duration to eight seconds. To raise the tonal range, a tape width was chosen that enabled the recording of three adjacent tracks. Which of the three tracks could be heard was determined by the position of the audio head.
Harry Chamberlin owes the fact that his idea was brought to England to one of his sales reps. Describing the complications that resulted would exceed the scope of this review by far, so let us summarise at this point that in 1960′s Birmingham the instrument, which was by that point known as the Mellotron, was made. This designation is the most commonly-used amongst musicians, which we recognise with our employment of it.
The Mellotron was initially used to set the black and white films of the era to music. With time, however, it enjoyed a steadily growing following amongst musicians. These included the Beatles – think, for example of the melancholic sounding flute intro to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ – as well as the Rolling Stones, and especially King Crimson, Genesis, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes and many more.
In our part of the world, it was mainly Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze who made abundant use of the Mellotron in the Seventies. But more on that later, when we come to the sound collections.
In the 80′s, and with the advent of the sampler, the Mellotron won less attention, and many instruments changed their owners during that time. But there must be something about the sound of the Mellotron, as from the nineties onwards it enjoyed a renaissance that has continued to this day. Once you have been sensitised to the sounds, you will be astonished to find how many productions they are used in. This is all the more surprising as some of them are anything but technically perfect. But perhaps it is this characteristic that makes the Mellotron so interesting.
Just as the original played the recorded sounds of mechanical instruments, so the Memotron in turn goes back to these recordings. They are digitalised and at your disposal in the Memotron. Somehow I find it difficult to suppress a smile at this point. But enough of that, now the focus is now entirely on the Memotron.
The first impression is very good. The Memotron is primarily available in a white wooden casing, borrowing from its famous model for its form. On request, it is also available in black or charcoal grey. Our test model is contained in a beautiful black lacquered casing. Anyone who is left cold by design should skip this passage. For me the Memotron can be counted amongst the most beautiful instruments and the design is consequently awarded the maximum number of points. It is simply a joy to play this instrument and not reduce it to a mere tool. It is well known that there is no accounting for taste, and the tasteful finish of the Memotron also brooks no discussion, if for different reasons.
On the left-hand side, next to the 35-key waterfall keyboard, there are the controls, comprised of five knobs, a push button and a toggle switch. The knobs regulate the volume, the timbre (‘Tone’, corresponding to a 12dB/octave low-pass filter) the pitch and the crossfading of the loaded sounds (A -B-C).
Left again, but this time viewed from the display, and the fifth knob, the data entry regulator, can be found. This has an additional click function, which, like the button beside it marked ESC, serves to navigate the various menus. All that is missing is the toggle with which the playback speed of the sounds can be halved (HALF SPEED). As might be expected, the halving of the speed produces sounds that will particularly please aficionados of darker tones.
As already mentioned, the finish gives no cause for criticism. Whereas in the case of other instruments knobs can be wobbly, or seem flimsy, in the case of the Memotron there is no cause for criticism. By the way, the pitch knob locks in the middle position, which makes sense. Unusually, however, the same symbol was used for this position as for the transposition by -3 halftones. Well, we can definitely live with that. And also with the total weight of 12kg, when the Memotron has to be introduced to the (more or less) fresh air. However, I would advise live musicians against the black lacquered version in this case.
Now we come to the back side and with it the sockets:
- MIDI trio (in, out and thru)
- Contrast control for the LCD display
- Connection jack for the volume pedal
- Outputs left/right (unbalanced)
- Headphone jack
- Card slot for compact flash memory cards
Returning to the front, the CD tray can be found underneath the controls. Sounds can therefore be loaded onto the Memotron either by CD or CF card . The same goes for operating system updates. As surely as the CF card is completely sunk into the casing, so rarely is it used amongst musicians. A USB port would probably have given more flexibility.
In the 13 seconds of delay between switching on and the conclusion of the start-up process, the Memotron has loaded the current operating system (v1.3). From this moment on the RAM is awaiting the loading of the sound material. This is the time to load the CD-ROM ‘Vintage Collection’, which is included. The sounds that can be found on it, of which one or the other can be called a classic, are loaded as follows into the Memotron. Firstly, ‘sound settings’ is selected using the DATA knob and the next menu level is reached by pressing the same knob. One of the empty tracks, labelled A, B and C, can then be selected. If ‘empty track’ is clicked, the storage medium (CD-ROM or CF card) can then be selected and a sound, for example the ‘violins’ used by everyone from Moody Blues to OMD, can be loaded. In the case of the other two tracks you could in this wayload ‘flutes’, for example, in track B and the GENESIS 8 choir in track C. The loading time for each sound is on average about 10s.
With the knob marked ‘A B C’ sound A can be crossfaded to sound B and sound B to C. This simulates the track selection of the original, by moving the audio heads. As a consequence, a combination of sounds located in the A and C tracks is not possible.
Each of the sounds can be played polyphonically with 35 voices. The length of the sounds is limited to a maximum of about eight seconds. The sounds are – luckily – not looped and are otherwise distinguished by a variety of idiosyncrasies typical of the Mellotron. Differences in volume, variance in pitch, ambient sound, clicks, etc…. they may otherwise be frowned upon, but here they are intended. As strange as that may sound, someone has taken a lot of trouble to do the original justice and to find the perfect blend of authenticity and good sound. This someone is Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock, a Mellotron expert, who has a considerable collection of different tape frames, which we will come back to again towards the end of the test report. Authenticity is undoubtedly in the forefront here and that’s a good thing.
Let us now turn to the parameters of the Memotron. The rudimentary envelope enables it to adapt to the attack and decay characteristics of each sound (track). Furthermore, the volume and position in the stereo panorama can be determined for each sound. In the course of the recordings for this review, in the case of the envelopes, I ended up much more often than expected with the original settings.
The 12dB low pass filter (TONE) is a welcome functional addition. In this way, the treble can be reduced quickly and simply, which is anything but detrimental to the retro characteristics. In the audio file ‘Vintage Collection 4′ at the beginning you hear the effect of the opening of the filter in the case of the 09 Russian Choir. Such strong interventions are likely to represent the exception rather than the rule because they affect all three sounds to the same extent. In the already-mentioned audio file the HALF SPEED function has also been used. If the pitch is to be altered by +/- 3 halftones the PITCH knob, similar to a pitchbend wheel, can be used.
In the interests of completeness, the internal effects will be mentioned briefly here. One or other of the effects may be adequate for a live performance; in the studio preference will be given to alternatives. In our audio files the internal effects were not used.
If you have loaded the three sounds (tracks) and set the parameters according to your wishes, by now at the latest the question of saving your work will arise. With the operating system 1.3 it is now possible to save what is known as a ‘frame’. As the name suggests, not the sounds themselves, are saved, but all of the settings. That means that if after you have turned the Memotron on you only load the frame, for example from a CF card, but the actual tracks are on a CD-ROM that is perhaps still in its case…well, then the Memotron will be pretty quiet.
It is generally advisable to invest in a compact flash card. From the current perspective, 2GB should be sufficient to save all the available sound libraries, which require a total of 1.42GB space at the moment. The backup can be performed very easily, by inserting the ‘sound collections’ CD-ROM into the drive of your computer and then copying the data from the CD-ROM to the compact flash card. I did not perceive any significant shortening of the loading times from the CF card, but just the fact that the sounds are now on a CF card that can be saved and copied with the frames at any time improves what is so fittingly called the handling. With this, it is possible to combine tracks from various sound collections without changing the CD-ROM.
With this we have already reached the sound libraries themselves. They are known as ‘sound collections’ and Klaus Hoffmann-Hoock is responsible for them. To date, six sound libraries are available, a seventh is, at the time of writing of this review, in the final phase. More on this later. On the manufacturer’s website, you can hear the sounds from all the collections individually. For this reason we have decided to offer this service only in selected cases and to focus on other aspects. As usual, you will find detailed descriptions of the respective files in the listening room.
Now to the sound collections.
The ‘Vintage Collection‘ is included. This contains some of the previously mentioned sounds such as the Violins, Flute and the GENESIS 8 Choir and ‘Brass Bo’, a combination of trombone, saxophone and trumpet. The violins can be well combined with the M300 Strings B2, which provide depth. Both can be heard in the audio file ‘Strings VC’. First separately, then as a mix. The Church Organ, the Male/Female Split Choir and the Cello were used in the Vintage Collection. The String Orchestra track was used to demonstrate the influence of altered attack and release times. MKII 3 Violins, String Section (Viola) and MkII Crimson 3 Violins complete this collection.
Anyone who as fallen for the sound of the Mellotron once will – unsurprisingly – want more. To satisfy this wish, as might be expected, ‘Vintage Collection 2‘ followed. This collection contains: 12 Violins, Hammond C3 (Slow Leslie), Male Oh-Choir Custom, MkII Vibes (with vibrato), Moog Brass, Orchestra, M400 Mandolin, Viola M300 Trombone, Clarinet D6, Eminent 310 Unique Strings 8, Eminent 310 Unique Strings 4.The Viola and MkII vibes were particularly pleasing. The latter you can hear in the audio file of the same name.
You have guessed what comes next? Correct! The ‘Vintage Collection 3‘, which in contrast to previous collections features wood, brass and percussion instruments. It offers the Memotron player the following sounds: Bassoon, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, MKII Brass, MkI/ II Piano, M300 Harpsichord, Glockenspiel, Vibraphone (no vibrato), Eminent 310 Equinoxe Strings, MkII Accordion Bass Notes, Moog Taurus Bass, MKII Rock Guitar and Roland Vocoder plus Choir. The Rock Guitar is one of the few sounds that I do not find convincing. However, I consider the Vocoder Choir a nice idea and supplement to the other choir sounds.
The ‘Vintage Collection 4‘ completes the Vintage Quartet. The Memotron owner receives the following sounds: New 3 Violins, Combined Brass, Logan String Melody II Orchestra, Jangle Piano, M300 Flute, Electric Piano Bass, Vox Super Continental Organ, M300 Leslie Organ, Russian Choir, Trombone, Trumpet and Sound Effects. The sound effects mentioned last led to some lightbulb moments, as you have certainly already heard one sound or another in a different context. The Russian Choir was used in the audio file Vintage Collection 4, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the filter (TONE). The final chord of this sound was played to the end of the recording. This was amusing, as not all of the singers could last until this point. Generally I find flutes very pleasing due to their slightly melancholy basic character, but the example on this sampler is my favourite. In the case of the strings this decision is a lot harder. The 3 Violins alone are offered in several variations, as you can hear and compare yourself in the audio file ’3 Violins’. Here you are spoilt for choice.
Fans of choir sounds will get their money’s worth from the additionally available ‘Studio Collection‘. Besides the 3 Violins, Church Organ, MkII (Hammond) Church Organ, GC 3 Brass, Paravini Solo Cello, Flute, Wurlitzer Electric Grand Piano, and for fans of prog rock Moog Taurus/MkII Violins + Brass, also on offer are GENESIS 8 Choir, Boys Choir, and Female and Male Choir.
Manikin’s ties to the music of what is known as the ‘Berlin School‘ is described in the booklet for the same sound library. For fans of this music what is probably more important is the fact that Klaus was the owner of the Mellotrone by Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze and therefore has access to the original sounds. For the contents of this collection, please refer to the photo.
But this is not enough. As revealed in the course of an e-mail conversation Klaus, Manikin is working on a new sound collection. This will be called ‘Harry’s Best‘. Klaus commented as follows: “You can especially look forward to the fantastic ’3 Violins’, which sound so clean and present that you can hardly believe that they were recorded in the early 50s. Furthermore, there will be: Male Voice, 4 saxes, accordion, bass clarinet, electric + Hawaiian Guitar, Muted Trombone, Piano (the first sampled piano in the world!), Sax, Vibes, and many wacky rhythms from the very first tape-based “drum machine”, the CHAMBERLIN Rhythmate 35. As soon as this is available, we will post a short report as an addendum.
Let us continue with the sounds, which must be considered of very high quality and, above all, independence. The curious thing about this is that the quality is shown in part by the fact that inadequacies and quirks have been captured perfectly. Small differences in volume, ambient noises, variance in synchronicity, etc. All this features and is exactly as it should be in this case. If the sound palette currently on offer is not sufficient for anyone, the possibility of importing sounds from the GForce M-Tron is available.
No less important is the quality of sounds in context. Who hasn’t experienced sounds that impress and then leave no room in the mix, or conversely sound perfect on their own but are completely submerged in the mix. Neither the one nor the other is true in the case of the Memotron. Its sounds easily find their place in the arrangement as well as in the mix. Strong interventions are more likely to remain a rarity here.
Let us consider the instrument itself. Anyone who uses the computer as a music production tool will probably feel at first as little enthusiasm as musicians who prefer workstations. Whereby particularly in the latter case, the sounds usually have little or nothing to do with a Mellotron. However, the Memotron can be recommended without restriction to anyone who always wanted to call a Mellotron his or her own, who values excellent operability and processing. Starting with the cross-fading and mixing of the three contemporaneously available sounds, ranging to pitch bending, it is possible to change just enough to stay loyal to the purist concept. Our favorite tool of all, the filter, performs one good, albeit unusual, service. The internal effects are not my thing. In general, I would tend to consider them as the only aspect which does not fit with the otherwise perfectly realized concept.
The fact that in the case of the Memotron we are talking about a digital tone generator, if not to say a sample player, one becomes aware of only when loading the sounds from the CD. By copying all the sounds onto the CF card you can lose this impression. There may also be colleagues to whom exactly this availability of all sounds is not at all welcome and who like to focus attention in another direction through the scarcity of resources.
Originals in good condition are rare – not to mention the prices they reach. The only competitor is the now also available Mellotron M4000D, whose sounds we were able to hear briefly at the ‚Musikmesse’. There is not the space for a serious comparison here. As long as the price that was mentioned to us is maintained, it will be more expensive than the Memotron. And with that we have already come to the price of the Memotron, which is €1,990 for the keyboard and €990 for the rack version. More than just a little. Anyone who values Mellotron sounds, a very good control panel and an equally good finish will be prepared to invest this sum, and will receive a fitting return in exchange.