First Listen: A Review of the Mellotron Micro Digital Synthesizer
I recently got to play with one of my new favorite toys, the Mellotron Micro. I’ve always been a huge fan of the way a Mellotron sounds, as they are truly the key to capturing the audio mood of melancholiness. Made famous by The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” and The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”, the Mellotron sound has been a favorite of many professional keyboardists since the early 1960s.
The original Mellotron evolved from a similar style of instrument, the Chamberlin, but could be mass-produced more efficiently, making it have way more of an impact on the market. The keyboard uses actual reels of tape within the unit to trigger a sampled sound.
Unlike a tape machine that has just two reels that play from end to end, the Mellotron samples are looped on a smaller piece of tape and has a reel-per-key within the machine. The tape loop has rollers and springs, so as you press the note on the keyboard, the sample begins to play and the tape starts to rise in a vertical motion. Once you let go of the key, the tape drops back down to its original position and is ready to be played again. A Mellotron is like having an entire orchestra in a single synthesizer.
Over the years, I’ve got to play with a couple vintage Mellotrons as well as a modern reissue that works in the same fashion as the older models. I was blown away by how responsive the keyboard is to the reels of tape within. There is virtually no lag between hitting the same note repeatedly, and the sound is unmatched by any digital synthesizer I’ve ever heard that tries to copy it. That is, until recently.
I never thought I would hear a digital synthesizer that would match the sonic quality and vibe of the vintage Mellotron. I had heard of the M4000D over the past couple of years, but never had the chance to play with one or even hear what they sound like. The M4000D was the first keyboard by Mellotron to be completely digital and still offer the same unique sound quality as the original tapes. The Mellotron Micro has many of the same features as the M4000D, but in a smaller sleek package.
Watch our new video below to see the Mellotron Micro in action and hear just a few of the 100 sounds that this synthesizer can bring to your studio and the stage. Continue below the video to the read rest of this review.
The Mellotron Micro comes stocked with 100 instantly accessible Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds, all captured from the original first-generation tape libraries. They are 24-bit and completely uncompressed. When I first plugged the Micro into my DAW, within a matter of seconds I was creating custom patches and song ideas were flowing.
With the A and B sound bank, you can do a blend between your two chosen sounds. With just a little bit of pipe organ coming through Bank A and violins as the dominant sound through Bank B, it’s easy to adjust in real time and smoothly switch the louder sound to be the complete opposite. The choice of sounds featured includes acoustic pianos, organs, choirs, guitars, accordions, strings, horns, percussion, mallet instruments and many more.
The Mellotron Micro features a high-quality 25 semi-weighted keybed. The feel of this synth is on par with any other professional brand on the market. With the octave selector switch, you have the ability to bounce back and forth in real time between three different octaves ranges. If you are holding down a note as you switch the octave, it will continue to play, then the next note you trigger will start from the new range. The middle octave will play all 25 keys, but the higher and lower octaves cut off at the F key.
The frame is constructed from two pieces of metal. The main portion of the frame is a solid piece which protects the back and sides of the synth, the second smaller piece is placed on the top and allows the back-lit LED to shine through the keybed. On the master section, a solid piece of metal with the knob functions printed on houses all of the Mellotron control.
The master section includes high-quality knobs for selecting your patches on the A and B sound bank, octave selector switch, blend control between the two banks, master volume, tone, and pitch up and down adjustment.
It has two full color, very bright, back-lit LED screens that display your selectable patches. A picture is displayed for whatever instrument you have selected. By pressing down the knob for the B bank, the screen allows you to view the patches in three different modes; Manual, List View and Playlist Mode.
Manual shows one patch per screen, as it will also tell you which library the source is being pulled from, as well as offering a meter that shows the amount of blend you have between the A and B sound bank. This mode was fun to use when creating patches on the fly, since I didn’t know what was coming up next, I was just scrolling through until I found something that caught my ear.
List View removes the pictures from both screens and displays all the available samples in a single column. By holding down the A bank selector knob in this mode, it will give you three different display options, index by category, index by machine and index by name. This feature allows you to pull up a sound very quickly without having to cycle through every patch.
The final mode of finding patches is Playlist Mode, which allows you the ability to save custom presets you’ve come up with, offering up to 16 playlists and 32 entries.
The rear panel has a pretty simple layout but some really cool features. On the far left is the on/off switch and the power supply connector. It comes with a preferred power supply that is pretty lengthy to comfortably fit in any keyboard configuration or stage setup.
Next to that is the LED Mellotron logo, which is one of the coolest aesthetic features of this synth. The LED can be seen on the key bed from the front of the synth, and depending on the mood you are in, has the ability to change colors. To change the color, hold your fingers on the logo until you found your favorite one. The first time this happened in the studio everyone jumped up out of their seats. After all, it’s the little things that make you feel a connection with a new instrument.
The three 1/4” jacks on the right side are for headphone output, sustain pedal, and the master output. Having a headphone jack has been a nice bonus feature for messing around with the Mellotron late at night, it also puts you in a different world when you are surrounded by the sounds of the synth.
The master output is mono, only using a single 1/4” instrument cable. At first, I was a little bummed that it didn’t offer a stereo output for some of the more complex sounds, but once I heard the Mellotron Micro through a nice set of monitors, I realized there was no need for a stereo output.
Between the MIDI ports and the headphone jack is an SD card slot. It is labeled “SD Card for Update,” so I’m assuming later down the road there will be expanded libraries available that can be added on top of the 100 stocked presets.
Last, but not least, we have the MIDI ports with In, Out and Thru connection types. Not only is the Mellotron a stand-alone synth, but it can also be used as a high-quality MIDI controller in the studio or on the road. It also allows you the ability to trigger the Mellotron from an external source. You can have some pre-recorded MIDI data or a drawn in complex MIDI sequence, then sit back and have the Mellotron re-trigger that data.
This is a powerful function where the Mellotron can add layers of depth in a recording you already have some other instruments recorded through MIDI, and rather than having to replay the part over and over again, the Mellotron and MIDI connections can do all the work for you.
The Mellotron Micro is priced at $990.00 through Vintage King. I think this is a steal for how this synth sounds, as it will surely add a whole new level of creativity to whatever project you are working on. I mean right out of the box, this synth has a sound library that has stood the test of time for over 50 years.
If you are interested in picking up a Mellotron Micro, please feel free to contact an Audio Consultant at Vintage King via email or by phone at 888.653.1184.