An analog tape-based, sample playback machine which was the precursor to, and competitor to, the Mellotron.

A Chamberlin M1. Courtesy of

Early Models, and Lawrence Welk[edit | edit source]

California-based inventor Harry Chamberlin developed his first version, the model 100, of the machine in 1949, using the basic tape mechanism that became familiar in Mellotron designs: a length of tape, anchored at one end, passed over a spring-loaded set of serpentine rollers and then over a tape playback head and capstan. Chamberlin's Model 200, the first commercially successful model, was introduced in 1950. The first few units were assembled in the garage of Chamberlin's house in Upland, CA, then Chamberlin established a small factory in Upland.

These first models used single-track tapes. The Model 300, introduced in 1960, established the pattern for most subsequent Chamberlin and Mellotron models of having a keyboard span of 35 notes, with three tracks on each tape. It was also the first model with a "cycling" mechanism, which wound the tape forwards and back automatically, to change sound banks. A subsequent Model 600, introduced in 1962, was a dual-manual unit with the two manuals and tape mechanisms side by side. For many of its early sound sets, Chamberlin employed members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, a well-known musical ensemble at the time, in Los Angeles. At one point bandleader Welk himself became interested in what Chamberlin was doing and offered to finance the company, if they would name the instrument after him. Chamberlin declined this offer.

The Franson Affair, the Mellotron, and Lawsuits[edit | edit source]

Chamberlin marketed these models as home entertainment systems. The company did little advertising; it depended largely on word of mouth for sales, and only built a handful of units per month. In 1963, a Chamberlin salesman, Bill Franson, took a pair of Model 600s with him to England, in search of both marketing and parts suppliers. Allegedly he removed the Chamberlin nameplates and represented the machines as being his own work. When he showed the machines to the Bradley brothers, they became interested in manufacturing them, and agreed with Franson to establish a company, Streetly Electronics. Thus the Model 600 became the basis of the Mark 1 Mellotron.

By 1965, word got back to Chamberlin of what Franson had done and that Streetly was (inadvertently) infringing on his patents. Lawsuits flew initially, but then cooler heads prevailed, and Streetly agreed to share the improvements that they had made with the Mark I Mellotron design with Chamberlin, as well as make some royalty payments. They also agreed to exchange some master tapes; the well-known "Three Violins" Mellotron sound set actually came from Chamberlin.

Supposedly, one of the Model 600s that Franson took to England is now owned by Todd Rundgren.

Drum Machine Pioneers[edit | edit source]

Chamberlin also experimented with tape-loop-based drum machines. Known as the Rhythmates, the first model was introduced in 1960. Resembling a largish loudspeaker, the machine had a set of 14 continuously running tape loops, with three tracks per tape, containing various two-measure-long drum patterns. A set of levers allowed the playback head to be moved from track to track, and tape to tape. The only other controls were a power switch and a volume control; the machine played continuously whenever it was powered on. Many of the drum patterns were oriented towards styles of music that were popular at the time, or were simply styles that Harry Chamberlin preferred. The loops contain a number of patterns for Big Band, 1950's Latin, and marching music.

The M1 and the Final Models[edit | edit source]

The final and most improved set of Chamberlin models were the M1/M2/M4, introduced in 1970. These incorporated a number of improvements over any Mellotron model. The serpentine tape return mechanism found in earlier Chamberlins and all Mellotrons was replaced with a take-up wheel wound by a spring, which was more reliable and less prone to jam. Another big improvement was mechanically separating the keyboard from the tape playback mechanism; on these models, the key actuated an electrical contact, which energized a solenoid that pressed the pinch roller against the capstan to cause the tape to play. This allowed the creation of the M1 Remote, a keyboard-less expansion unit. Much later, it also made it practical to retrofit these models with MIDI. The M1 was a single-manual model, the M2 a dual-manual. The M4, of which only a few were sold, had four manuals, two side-by-side sets of one above the other.

The company had other sources of income during this time. Mattel had introduced the Optigan in 1971, relying on the use of seveal Chamberlin patents, for which they paid royalties to Chamberlin. Mellotronics Ltd., the property rights arm of Streetly, was also continuing to pay Chamberlin for the production and use of certain master tapes. Despite Chamberlin's lack of interest in marketing to professional musicians, some Chamberlin performances were turning up on well-known recordings. David Bowie and Brian Eno used one on many of Bowie's mid-1970s recordings, and none other than Michael Pinder, the foremost proponent of the Mellotron, decided that he preferred a Chamberlin M1 for the Moody Blues' album Seventh Sojurn.

As was the case of the Mellotron, digital sample playback synths eventually started to move into the Chamberlin's territory, and the company closed its factory in 1980. A few additional units were built by Harry's son Michael in the family garage before production ceased altogether in 1982.

Design and Construction[edit | edit source]

The Chamberlins are noted for seemingly haphazard design and assembly, compared to the Mellotrons. Cases are often built with wallboard and paneling; controls are rather random in appearance and placement, and legends and marking were often either handwritten or done with embossed labeling tape. Some units have audio amplifiers which are powered by enclosed 9-volt batteries, which have to be changed periodically. A notable "feature" is that many Chamberlins are wired such that line (mains) voltage is present on internal metal parts whenever the unit is plugged in, which makes servicing them a hazardous undertaking.

Where Chamberlin did not skimp on quality was in its recordings. While some of the Mellotron recordings are rather naff, Chamberlin took great care in recording his sound sets, using top-notch professional recording equipment and studio treatments. Harry had begun by converting a largish closet in his house to a home studio, and eventually built onto the house for a larger space. His studio was noted for the clarity and precision of performance of the sound sets it produced. The audio amplifiers in Chamberlins are also regarded as generally superior to Mellotrons.

Production and Surviving Chamberlins[edit | edit source]

About 800 Chamberlins of all models were manufactured, less than half of total Mellotron production. Because Chamberlin generally did not bother with marketing, and did little to pursue any market beyond home entertainment, few Chamberlin instruments survive today, most having been scrapped by their owners when they broke down or became passe. However, Michael Chamberlin did take care to preserve the master tapes after his father passed in 1986. Included in these tapes were found several that Harry had made solely for a Model 800 Riviera (1 of 2) that he had built for himself, and were never offered on any production model. The tapes, along with the rights to the Chamberlin trademarks, are now owned by Mellotron Archives. Streetly Electronics has available some parts for the M1 models.

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