Manikin Electronic Memotron

Digital Keyboard

Published in SOS September 2009
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Reviews : Keyboard

Have you ever longed for the sound and style of a Mellotron without the impracticality, unreliability and team of men required to move it? If so, you need yearn no more — thanks to the Memotron...

Gordon Reid

Manikin Electronic Memotron

The dream of a digital Mellotron has existed since the birth of digital sampling, and the promise of Mellotron chips for the 360 Systems Digital Keyboard had me on tenterhooks for years in the mid‑1980s. Since then, there have been myriad PCM‑based emulations and sample collections, including my own MkII library. I was therefore intrigued when the Memotron was announced, and have watched its progress since its first appearance at the NAMM show in January 2006.

Introducing The Memotron

It's a beautiful instrument modelled on the classic, white Mellotron 400, and even players who don't understand the appeal of the original can't fail to be moved by its deep lacquer, the quality of the hardware, and the obvious care lavished on its construction and appearance.

Starting at the back, there are stereo outputs, a headphone output, an input for the optional volume (swell) pedal, and MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets. The only control on the rear panel is a contrast knob for the small LCD on the control panel.

Like the 400, the Memotron's control panel has knobs for volume, tone (in this case, a passive 12dB/oct low‑pass filter), pitch and sound selection, the last of which allows you to move seamlessly between the sounds loaded into its A, B and C slots. So if, for example, you want to combine a choir and a cathedral organ, you load the two sounds into adjacent slots (say, A and B) and then turn the selector to somewhere between the A and B positions to obtain the desired mix.

There are just three additional controls. The first of these is a half-speed switch. Inspired by an option installed on some original Mellotrons, this emulates the effect that you obtain by halving the speed of the tape transport. This not only has the effect of dropping the pitch by an octave, but also constrains the bandwidth, for the ominous, rumbling, God‑on‑a‑bad‑day sounds beloved of Mellotronists. The second and third controls are the data controller/selector and the Escape button, which work in conjunction with the screen to deliver the Memotron's additional functions: independent volume, attack, release and pan for each of the three slots, plus effects and the MIDI setup for the instrument as a whole.

Modus Operandi

The front-panel controls are very much like those of a Mellotron 400 — except for the LCD screen, Data knob and Escape button, of course.The front-panel controls are very much like those of a Mellotron 400 — except for the LCD screen, Data knob and Escape button, of course.

After switching on, you have to load the sounds that you want to play into memory, and this takes around 15 seconds per slot. You can then tailor these using the edit parameters. Panning two sounds hard right and hard left allows you to direct them down separate outputs, which is useful. The release setting is also interesting. If you release a key before eight seconds are up, the sound releases in the typical 'synth' fashion. However, if the keys are still depressed when eight seconds is reached, or the release is still tailing off, the sound stops dead, as it should.

If you wish to add effects, there are 15 algorithms available, including reverbs, delays, chorus, flanging and a rotary speaker effect. Unfortunately, control is almost non‑existent: you can select the algorithm wanted, and determine the 'send' amount. Although I can see the reverbs and delays being used on stage, I can't imagine that anybody would use the in‑built effects in the studio.

The sounds themselves are provided on a library of (currently) five CDs (see the 'Tape Sets' box). You can load these via the discreet slot in the front of the Memotron but, much more conveniently, you can also store the whole library (with room to spare) on compact flash RAM cards, for which there's a slot on the rear panel. Manikin kindly supplied me with a 4GB card onto which everything was already loaded and, once this was inserted, the whole library of Memotron sounds was available without me having to mess around.

Despite this simplicity, it's a complete pain in the arse having to load the sounds you want and then set up the voicing parameters and effects every time you switch the Memotron on. Fortunately, this problem will vanish when the current v1.2 operating system is superseded by v1.3, hopefully by the time you read this. The new version introduces the concept of Frames, which are complete instrument setups that include all the information regarding which sounds are loaded, plus all the voicing, MIDI and effects parameters you have programmed. If you have the correct flash card or CD inserted, the Frame will then tell the Memotron which samples to load, and configure everything in a single operation. This will be a massive step forward in speed and usability. What's more, a Frame will occupy just a few kilobytes (the sample data is not included in the Frame) so, with a suitable RAM card, you'll be able to store thousands of setups.

The Sounds

The Memotron's ports are all labelled right‑way‑up and upside‑down, which is handy if you're looking over the top.The Memotron's ports are all labelled right‑way‑up and upside‑down, which is handy if you're looking over the top.

So, what of the sounds? I asked Klaus Hoffmann, the man behind them, to reveal the whole story. He told me: "I started getting involved with the Mellotron when I purchased my first one in 1974. I then started searching for additional tape frames and, in the late 1970s, I found 10 still in their boxes at Macari's Music in London. In 1981, I met Norman Bradley [of Streetly Electronics, manufacturers of the original Mellotrons] and his wife, along with the young John Bradley, at the Frankfurt MusikMesse. Because I speak English and German, and because I was such an enthusiast, they asked me if I would assist them at the following year's Messe, which I did, learning even more about Mellotrons.

"The Mellotron lost its magic in the 1980s, and people were selling them — often in poor condition — for peanuts. I bought all that I could and restored them to the beautiful machines that they had once been. Soon I owned six M400s and had a collection of about 140 tape frames, including rare ones like Patrick Moraz's stage tapes for Yes, as well as some of Tangerine Dream's custom tapes. However, having a family to feed, I later sold them. In the 1990s, there was a resurgence of interest in Mellotrons, so I started to help people to buy refurbished M300s, M400s and MkIIs from Streetly Electronics, who brought the instruments to my house and offered me the chance to record them digitally. I also undertook repair jobs for owners, many of whom gave me permission to record their rare — and sometimes custom — tapes. My library of Mellotron sounds grew, and now, with each set comprising the full duration of all 35 notes recorded in CD quality, I have more than 28 hours of recordings. It's this library that forms the basis of the Memotron.”

Klaus also provided sounds for the G‑Force M‑Tron Pro, so there have been rumours that the Memotron is nothing more than a plug‑in wearing sexy clothes. I have M‑Tron Pro on the Mac on which I'm writing this, so I loaded it and chose two sounds that are present within both libraries: MkII Brass. It was immediately apparent that they are not the same. This is not merely different encoding or different D/A stages; some of the characteristic flaws (bumps and grinds that naturally occur when playing and recording a Mellotron) that are present within the Memotron's samples are not present on M‑Tron Pro's, and vice versa. I tried another, the Cello. Again, the two were different in ways that could not be attributed to changes in EQ or other processing of the same recordings.

I queried this with Hoffman, and he explained that about 75 percent of the M‑Tron Pro sounds are his, but confirmed that they are based upon different recordings from those he used for the Memotron. I also checked with the chaps at G‑Force Software about the supposed cross‑compatibility of the two libraries. They told me that the Memotron is compatible with the CPT sound file format used on the CD‑ROMs for the original M‑Tron. The M‑Tron Pro sounds are stored in the newer CPT2 format, and are not compatible with the Memotron.

So what of the sounds themselves? These are not Hoffman's "CD quality” recordings; they have been down‑sampled to a sample rate of 32kHz, and an audio bandwidth of, therefore, around 14kHz. But lest you think that this is a problem, it's not. The useful bandwidth of original Mellotrons (especially in their earliest incarnations) was lower than this, so only tape hiss would have existed above this range.

Secondly, let's be clear that the Memotron does not use unadulterated Mellotron samples. Far from being a criticism, I think that this can be a good thing, and even the chaps at Streetly Electronics cleaned up their library before assembling the tapes for the Mellotron M4000. Wisely, though, Hoffman has kept processing to a minimum, avoiding normalisation, and using de‑noising only when, as he puts it, "the background noise was unbearable by today's standards”. He also removed some of the worst clicks and pops, and corrected some known tuning errors so that different sounds could be blended together. (This was impossible with certain combinations on early Mellotrons.) Obsessives may complain that the Memotron is not authentic, but I'm not too concerned by that. The Memotron is a modern instrument, and I think that it represents an appropriate compromise between the charm and authenticity that nostalgic players demand, and the sound quality that modern listeners demand.

Playing The Memotron

So does the Memotron feel like a Mellotron? No, it doesn't. Let's start with the obvious; the Memotron weighs around 12kg, so one person can carry it easily, and it doesn't need to have a fan‑heater shoved in the back to minimise condensation and ensure that it works on cold stages. What's more, it doesn't have keys that feel like old girders, nor tapes that tangle when the roadies load it into the van on its side, and the chances are that it will never need servicing. In other words, the Memotron is practical.

What's more, while the Memotron's A/B/C architecture is, in principle, identical to that of the M4000 (ie. you have immediate access to three sounds, but with a larger library in the background), the Memotron has the huge advantage of allowing you to mix between any three sounds at any time, whereas the real Mellotron only allows you to select between the three that lie on adjacent tracks on the tapes.

With regard to the playing experience, an original Mellotron has a hugely distinctive character, largely as a consequence of its keyboard and the technique that is needed to play it. But poorly serviced Mellotrons are also liable to respond badly, with artifacts such as wow, flutter or even drop-outs, so what people perceive as character today are faults that we oldies were desperate to remedy in the 1960s and 1970s. It's no coincidence that Keith Emerson's Mellotron ended up in an orchestra pit, Rick Wakeman's was doused in petrol and immolated, and Tony Banks' was ignominiously replaced by a Roland VP330.

In contrast, the Memotron plays beautifully. Like its inspiration, it's fully polyphonic, and it feels like I always imagined a perfectly adjusted Mellotron would, with just the right degree of weight, a slight thunk at the bottom of its travel, but with a slight spongy feeling when depressed that is appropriate for the instrument. Even the Mellotron's instantly recognisable pitch‑bends are perfectly recreated, with a smooth, analogue feel. Unfortunately, Manikin have not gone the extra mile and imitated the slight pressure‑sensitivity of the original (you could slow the tapes a tad by pressing hard on the capstans, thus making manual vibrato possible), nor does it glitch when you play notes too quickly, nor does the pitch droop when you play a whole fistful of notes simultaneously. Are these omissions faults? To be honest, I would like to see the pressure‑sensitivity restored, but otherwise the answer has to be 'no'. While faults may be perceived as character in the bedroom or a museum, they are simply faults in the studio or on stage, and their absence makes the Memotron a much more reassuring instrument to play in any environment.

What's more, the construction quality of the Memotron shines through when you start to use it in earnest. Unlike Keith's Mellotron, I suspect that the Memotron might have survived its journey into the pit and — battered and bruised — been ready for the following night's gig. Think of it like this... a 1915 Model T pickup truck might be a lovely artifact to own, but if your job entails driving a few hundred miles a week, you're more likely to buy an Audi.

Conclusions

Perhaps because of misty‑eyed nostalgia, or perhaps because they have never owned Mellotrons, a number of writers on synth forums have claimed that the Memotron sounds lifeless when compared to the original, and that it is nothing more than a plug‑in wrapped up in a controller keyboard. This lacks insight; there's no way that a controller, a PC and a plug‑in will feel like the Memotron, which screams 'play me' at the top of its voice, although M‑Tron Pro is wonderfully cost‑effective. What's more, the original Mellotron's sharp yet mournful sound still defies perfect recreation via sampling technology, so there's always going to be a place for the original instruments, as well as the new M4000s, which Streetly can't build quickly enough to fulfil orders. Nonetheless, the Memotron comes close to the original, both in terms of sound and performance, and in the real world it is a very practical alternative to the real thing. While players will notice the differences, I very much doubt that listeners will and, if there's one available, I won't hesitate to take it on stage when I next need to use a Mellotron 'live'.  .

Alternatives

There are two alternatives to the Memotron. The first is a real Mellotron, the M4000, manufactured in the UK by Streetly Electronics. Costing £5287, it is, in many ways, a distillation of the finest features of the mighty MkII and M400, and it offers all the charm and quirkiness of the genuine item. The second is M‑Tron Pro, an affordable Mac/PC plug‑in that, in a mix, can sound almost indistinguishable from the real thing. With many additional facilities not present on real Mellotrons or the Memotron, it nonetheless lacks their physical presence and playing characteristics, which will forever (and unfairly) taint it in the eyes of aficionados.

A MIDI‑ot

Despite Manikin claiming a complete MIDI implementation, and that you can use the Memotron as a velocity‑sensitive controller keyboard, it lacks the performance facilities necessary to perform as a controller at anything more than the most basic level. What's more, it's just as basic as a MIDI receiver. Despite being able to host three independent sounds simultaneously, it cannot be used as a multitimbral expander, and you can only play the setup defined by the control panel — sound A, B or C, or an A/B or B/C mix, as determined by the front-panel knob.

The Tape Sets

Although Manikin supply no instructions about how to do so, the company claims that because the CPT file format is PC‑compatible, you can organise a sound library in your computer and then save it to CD or flash RAM for use in the Memotron. In principle, this also means that you could create your own sound sets if you could write CPT data, but I don't know if this is possible.

In the meantime, the company supply the following sounds on five CDs:

  • Vintage Collection (shipped with the Memotron).
  • Vintage Collection 2: 79 Euros.
  • Vintage Collection 3: 79 Euros.
  • Studio Collection: 79 Euros.
  • Berlin School Collection (including Tangerine Dream sounds): 149 Euros.

A complete and very detailed list of the contents of each CD can be found on the Manikin web site (www.manikin‑electronic.com).

Manikin Electronic Memotron 1990 Euros$2699
pros
A timeless design, beautifully crafted: almost a work of art.
Much of the sound of the original with few of the shortcomings.
cons
It's mono‑timbral.
Otherwise, just the price, but hey — art costs money.
summary
The Memotron is a specialist instrument, and if you don't understand why players of all ages go bleary‑eyed when Mellotrons are mentioned, its very existence will leave you nonplussed. But if you have dreamed of being able to carry a Mellotron under your arm to a gig, switching it on, and finding that it plays correctly and in tune, you'll see the attraction. It's an expensive luxury, but there's nothing wrong with expensive luxuries for them wot can afford them, and the stellar list of early adopters suggests that the Memotron may carve a significant niche for itself.
information
1990 Euros including VAT.
TSC +44 (0)20 8400 9400.

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