If you want Mellotron sounds in a rack unit, there's only one option: introducing the Memotron Rack...
What did you want when you were 17 years old? Oh, that. Sure. But, what I wanted, what I really, really wanted (as much as a zig‑a‑zig‑ah) was a Mellotron that I could carry around in a Tesco carrier bag. Now, three decades later, in a world replete with Mellotron samples and soft synths, is there still a place for a module that does nothing more than recreate the sounds of an instrument that fell largely into disuse three decades ago? Let's find out.
Unlike the Memotron keyboard, which boasts a beautiful lacquered finish, the Rack is powder‑coated. It still looks nice, but this type of paint is prone to chipping, so it will require care to remain pristine. The control hardware itself seems robust, but is minimal, comprising a volume control, a data-entry knob, an escape button, a huge on/off button and a tiny 4x20‑character screen. Unlike the keyboard version, there's no contrast control for the screen. Likewise there's no physical tone control, no physical half‑speed control, nor any knob to mix sounds, although, as we will see, these functions are available via MIDI Continuous Controllers.
Inputs and outputs are simple. There's a hole at the back for an IEC mains lead that feeds a proper 110/240V 50/60Hz power supply. Bravo! The other holes comprise two quarter‑inch audio outputs, plus MIDI In and Thru. At the front, there's a socket for stereo headphones, and another that receives a Compact Flash (CF) memory card, without which nothing will happen. This is because, lacking any form of internal non‑volatile memory, the Memotron Rack is empty when you switch it on and you have to load one or more sample sets before it will make a sound. However, unlike the keyboard, there's no CD drive, so the only way to do this is from a CF card. Happily, Manikin supply a 4GB card with the Rack, and as well as containing the company's Vintage and Studio collections, this provides ample space for additional libraries.
I covered the operation of the Memotron and the provenance of its sounds when I reviewed the keyboard in the September 2009 issue of SOS, so I won't rehash everything here. However, one thing bears repeating: despite being created by the person who supplied many of the sounds for GMedia's M‑Tron Pro, the Memotron library is not the same, and the Rack is not a hardware implementation of the soft synth. Nonetheless, it's compatible with GMedia's earlier .CPT file format, which means that you can load M‑Tron (although not M‑Tron Pro) libraries into it. You do so by copying them directly from the original CDs onto the CF card, which sounds very straightforward, but may not be, as I discovered. My MacBook Pro doesn't have a CF slot, whereas my older (and long retired) G4 only accepts PCMCIA cards. Fortunately, I had a PCMCIA‑to‑CF adaptor in the back of my Roland Fantom, so I grabbed this, resurrected the G4, and successfully transferred the files. To be honest, it's time that Manikin thought seriously about USB memory.
The Memotron Rack offers six memory slots (called 'tracks') rather than the three in the keyboard, and once you've loaded a sound into any of these, you can tailor it by selecting the MIDI channel to which it will respond, its position on the keyboard, the note range over which it will respond, its relative volume, its attack and release times, its pan, whether it responds to MIDI velocity, and whether it's layered with other sounds occupying the same keys, or whether it's mixed in a way that's analogous to moving the tape heads on a Mellotron. The choice of six tracks, dual outputs, panning and mixing is not accidental; it allows you to recreate setups almost identical to a Mellotron MkI or MkII, making it ideal for all of your 'Watcher Of The Skies' tributes.
When I reviewed the Memotron keyboard, I noted that it was a pain in the arse having to load its tracks individually and then set up all the voicing parameters every time that I wanted to use it. At the time, Manikin Electronic was promising that this would become a thing of the past when 'Frames' (analogous to the Mellotron M400's physical tape frames) were introduced in OS v1.3. These would include the information about which sounds were loaded into which tracks and what their voicing and MIDI parameters were, thus allowing users to recall complete setups in a single operation. Happily, this concept has been implemented in expanded form in the Rack, although the name Frame has been ditched in favour of the more common 'Multi', which I think is a good thing.
I decided to test the Rack by recreating my Mellotron MkI (the one I gave away for nothing in the 1980s and which is now worth more than a Porsche). I did so by loading the Combined Brass, Hammond organ and eight‑voice choir in tracks A, B and C, and the MkII '3 violins', 15‑Voice Choir and Church Organ in tracks D, E and F. I set the MIDI channel of each to '1', transposed the position (not the pitch) of the first group down by an octave and transposed the position of the second group up by two octaves so that they sat side‑by‑side on a 76‑note controller keyboard. I then panned the two groups hard left and hard right, and set up the Mix function (controlled by MIDI CC#1) so that I could mix the two groups as I would on the old beast... except that I couldn't. The Rack only offers three mix positions (A, B and C) for the six tracks, so you can't use this method to blend, for example, tracks A and B while at the same time blending tracks E and F. (Well, that's not quite true. You can, but you then screw up other combinations.) This inconvenience notwithstanding, the results were magic!
Now it was time to experiment with a bit of MIDI control. As expected, CC#7 controls the volume of any tracks on the chosen MIDI channel, and CC#74 (filter cut‑off) controls their tone, proving that the passive 12dB/octave filter has been retained despite the lack of a front-panel control, while any value other than zero on CC#12 switches the tracks on that channel to half speed. Most MIDI controller keyboards and modern workstations will accommodate this with ease.
Having spent some weeks with the Memotron keyboard, I was already adept at programming the Rack, but setting up the Multi described took around 20 somewhat frustrating minutes. This was not a consequence of the complexity of what I was attempting, but rather of the 'load sound, find parameter, adjust parameter, change sound, find parameters have changed with it, adjust parameters again...' operating system. I suspect that I could have accomplished the same on a computer‑based editor or a decent workstation in a minute or two. Fortunately, it's not an operation that one will need to perform very often, and using my 'MkI' as a template, I programmed subsequent setups much more quickly. These included all manner of non‑existent Mellotrons such as a new, triple‑manual 'GR Special', and others with strange combinations of layers, splits and mixes. I also experimented with the velocity sensitivity. This only affects the loudness of each note, but I found it to be an excellent, if historically inaccurate, enhancement. Many years ago, I wrote a track for a Mellotron tribute album and Nick Magnus (who engineered and produced it) selected samples of obscure tapes such as pianos and guitars that I then played with velocity sensitivity. When the CD was released, purists either didn't recognise the Mellotron sounds or cried 'foul', but I loved the novel and expressive results that could be obtained. The Rack achieves the same results with a tiny fraction of the effort. Excellent! If there's one limitation to the Rack, it's that you can't load new sounds or Multis using MIDI commands. From an engineering point of view, this makes perfect sense, but it's a shame nonetheless.
Does playing the Memotron Rack feel like playing a Mellotron? Of course not. Modern keybeds do not feel like old girders, so you may have to concentrate a little to play the sounds in the same way as you would on the original. Does this matter? Well, if it does, the Rack is possibly not for you.
A more pertinent question is how a dedicated 1U sample player can command a price of around £950 when massively powerful 1U samploid synths such as the Roland Fantom XR and Yamaha Motif Rack XS cost little more. The answer is, of course, that you can't justify a specialist instrument like the Rack on the grounds of price/performance, any more than you can an EP200, a Pianet N, a Compact Duo, or any other of a host of instruments that do little but nonetheless do exactly what you want. Of course, there's a huge difference between a Memotron Rack and the products I just mentioned; the Rack is not the revered original, it's a digital copy, but it's not just a copy, it's one that allows you to extend the Mellotron paradigm and create expressive ensembles and multitimbral setups that were pipe dreams when the original instruments were in production. It doesn't sound indistinguishable from a Mellotron and, like the Memotron keyboard, it doesn't recreate the slight pressure‑sensitivity of the original, nor does the pitch droop when you play a fistful of notes simultaneously, nor does it glitch when you play too quickly. But I never viewed these side‑effects as benefits. Rather, they were deficiencies to be overcome, so I'm not sorry to see them go.
In summary, the Rack provides a more than creditable emulation of the Mellotron, and few, if any, listeners will notice the difference if you use one. But your roadies and techies will, and the only people who are likely to be pissed off are the accountant and the owner of the service centre that's been keeping your Mellotron alive. If — like me — you still fancy the idea of a MkII that you can carry around in a Tesco carrier bag, your dreams have been answered.
Depending on how you look at it, there are many alternatives to the Memotron Rack, or there are none. The PCM‑based Mellotron patches in modern workstations can be quite useable, although none exhibit the characteristic flaws of the original and few, if any, grind to a halt after eight seconds. If your needs are more precise, a modern sampler or a workstation such as a Roland Fantom or Korg OASYS will host the samples and offer the polyphony you need to replay a Mellotron library. You could also turn to G‑Media's M‑Tron or M‑Tron Pro soft synths, which are fine in the studio, although perhaps less convenient on stage. But if you want a simple rackmount unit dedicated to doing nothing other than reproducing authentic Mellotron sounds, there's no competition.
Like the Memotron keyboard, the Rack offers 15 preset effects. Unfortunately, you can do no more with these than select the desired effect from the list, choose whether it's on or off, and determine the amount of effected signal present in the output. Furthermore, the effects are always stereo and centred in the stereo field, so they screw up any panning of the tracks, especially if you've hard‑panned them to be presented to just the left or right output. If I were using the Memotron Rack on stage and needed a little reverb or delay to add ambience, these would be adequate. Otherwise, I would ignore them.
- A creditable emulation of the Mellotron.
- Hugely convenient, obviously.
- Double the number of tracks offered by the Memotron keyboard.
- Able to create very flexible multitimbral setups.
- A proper power supply… whoo‑hoo!
- Did I mention how convenient it is?
- Although simple to use, a slightly fiddly editing system.
- Compact Flash is becoming an outdated storage medium.
No‑one else has had the courage to put the mythical 'digital Mellotron' into production, but Manikin Electronic have now done so successfully in both keyboard and rackmount formats. Not a mainstream product by any means, the Rack will appeal greatly to players who want a simple, direct means of playing Mellotron sounds, whether on stage or in the studio.
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