Sampling Evolution, Mellotrons To Midi

“Electronic artists fascinate me, expertly moulding sound into unique rhythms and ambient backdrops, that is impossible without sampling.”

In recent years I have thought more about the evolution of music technology. I’ve also encountered much hostility towards digital technology. This is nothing new, people have always railed against modernity. Which got me thinking about the Mellotron, an early sampling instrument.

It turns out that a Mellotron appears to have more in common with Midi keyboards than I thought. A Mellotron may of course be a nice looking piece of furniture. But it’s the perfect example of how music tech evolves and progress’s into something else entirely.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Mellotrons started out as very expensive toys for wealthy, hobbyist musicians to impress their family and friends. Peter Sellers could pretend he was Mozart or Beethoven, in the comfort of his own living room. The Mellotron was soon adopted (and subverted) by 1960s psychedelic bands to flavour their art rock with ethereal, fairground-like effects. Mellotron samples have a lo-fi, childlike quality.

Sound is produced from pre-recorded samples from acoustic instruments such as organs, strings or even choirs. Each sample is activated by playing a keyboard, much like a piano. The sound is output from tape, much like a cassette player. Notable players of the Mellotron, from the Prog Rock world, have complained how unreliable the machine was.

As the 1970s drew to a close, sampling technology was evolving fast, eventually materialising in the music world as the astronomically priced Fairlight CMI. Which is a Mellotron for the computer age, due to the sample based make-up of its sound output. Computer power also enables the processing of more complex samples and the ability to manipulate frequencies and create new sounds.

Have a listen to the Trevor Horn produced Lexicon Of Love album by ABC. The Fairlight CMI is used throughout the recording via samples and loops of analog instruments. The Fairlight could also be used like a synthesiser.

Musical Instrument Digital Interface

Midi has, since the 1980s, developed within its own evolutionary timeline. Roland were the first to manufacture a Midi drum machine and pioneered early synths. For me, todays software instruments fuse the various technologies together. Including the analog sampling technique of a Mellotron and the frequency manipulation of a synthesiser.

When combined with traditional analog, acoustic or synthesised instruments, Midi is also a very powerful platform in the production of modern music. In the hands of an expert sound designer or hiphop producer the results are astonishing. In the hands of your Aunt or Uncle you end up with a musical version of painting by numbers.

Midi devices can be very cheap, with an array of presets and one finger orchestras. Just as Rich Uncles (or Aunts) from yesteryear could be Chopin or Bach (when showing off the Mellotron), they can now be Jean Michel Jarre or Vangelis with limitless samples and beats at their fingertips. And publish all this muzak on SoundCloud.

The progress of sampling technology over the decades has also reached a point of saturation in sound choices. Being a musician also means you must exercise restraint when recording. Software companies want to keep selling you their plugins. You have to be disciplined and focus on the music you want to create.

As in fine art, the skill is in knowing how to mix the colours.

Footnotes…

That last sentence is a sneaky reference to the excellent (and unapologetically electronic) album by Roger and Brian Eno, entitled Mixing Colours. Give it a listen!

My observations are drawn from music documentaries, memoirs and lived experience as a musician myself. I am certainly not an authority on music technology. As a creative user of music gear, hope you found it useful.