Manikin have shrunk their Mellotron emulator down to desktop module size, but how will it measure up?
It’s no secret that I like Mellotrons. It should therefore come as no surprise to find that I like things that purport to sound like Mellotrons, provided that they do the job well. Two previous products that fall into the latter category are the Manikin Memotron keyboard, which I reviewed in Sound On Sound in September 2009, and the Memotron Rack which appeared the following year. Over half a decade later, these have been joined by the third in the series: a desktop design called the Memotron M2D. At this point, you might be forgiven for asking whether there’s room for yet another sexy white box from Germany that sounds like a Mellotron. You may not think so, but the M2D has some tricks up its sleeves that make it rather more attractive than you might imagine, even to existing Memotron users.
Unlike the Memotron Rack, the M2D looks much like the control panel of the Memotron keyboard. It shares the traditional controls derived from the Mellotron M400, the same half–speed switch, the same screen, and pretty much the same editing system. It’s a beautiful bit of kit, and the construction and finish make it clear that, like the Memotron keyboard, it hasn’t been designed to meet a price point. If you appreciate an expensive look and feel to your equipment, it won’t disappoint. But once you move away from the superficial similarities, some significant differences between the two models start to appear — and I don’t just mean the omission (or not) of the keyboard itself. Most visibly, the Memotron’s CD–ROM drive has been cast into the pit of historical oblivion. Less obviously, the slot on the rear panel of the M2D now accepts SD cards, whereas that on the rear panel of the Memotron hosted the earlier Compact Flash variety.
Nonetheless, the biggest changes lie inside the unit. The M2D now boasts an internal memory that holds up to 738 Mellotron sounds after you switch it off, so they’re available again as soon as you switch it back on. One hundred of these slots are filled by the sounds provided with the instrument. These include the Memotron Studio Collection (which contains many of the most important Mellotron sounds, including 3 Violins, Flute, 8–Voice Choir, Church Organ and MkII Organ) and the Vintage 1 Collection (which adds Mixed Brass, Split Choir, Cello, String Section, MKII 3 Violins and more). There’s also a selection of sounds from each of the other Memotron collections, plus 57 new ones, so that’s a huge amount of Melly–ness available even before you consider importing further sounds from the various other collections. But be aware that you have to keep the supplied SD card inserted into the back of the M2D if you want to save and later reload any of the setups called Frames (see box) because there’s no internal memory for these, only for the sounds themselves.
Further differences become apparent when you look at the effects offered by the M2D. The keyboard has a single effects unit into which you can load one of 15 algorithms: eight reverbs, two delays, chorus, flanging, rotary speaker and two chorus/reverb effects. In contrast, the M2D has three effects processors, the first offering 12 amplifier models, the second offering six modulation/delay effects, and the third offering 26 reverbs and echo effects. Early Mellotrons contained valve amplification, so a tiny bit of crunch is often beneficial. Meanwhile, the ability to combine, say, phasing and delay is an important factor in recreating many classic Mellotron sounds, especially when you step into the sphere of German avant garde and electronic bands. What’s more, whereas the keyboard offered just a single parameter for all of its effects (a send level that determined how much of the effect was applied), the M2D offers a broader set including rate, depth, time, damping and feedback, the combination of which is decided by the type of effect selected. Sure, these are the bare minimum offered by simple stompboxes, but you shouldn’t underestimate the improvement that they represent. Unfortunately, the order of the effects is wrong. The amp should come after the chorus/flanging/phaser effects, not before! Also, the rotary speaker effect has been lost, which is disappointing.
Yet more changes are to be found in the Sound Settings menus, to which three useful functions have been added. The first is a bipolar Velocity parameter that makes any selected sound velocity sensitive. The second is Mix, which allows you to determine the ‘track’ on which each sound resides. As you may be aware, genuine Mellotrons allow you to slide the playback heads from tracks A to B to C, so you can create mixes of adjacent tracks. In contrast, the M2D allows you place your sounds freely on any of the virtual tracks you choose. So if you want, for example, to place organ, strings and a choir on a single track, you can now do so, mixing them in any proportions using the Volume parameter. In the past you needed two Mellotrons (or a dual–manual Mellotron) to play three sounds, and the results could be hit–or–miss to say the least. Now, it takes just moments to set this up on the M2D, and without fear of tuning problems and unreliable mixing.
Finally, there’s a Place parameter, which allows you to truncate the range of notes played by any given sound and then place the resulting range of notes wherever you wish on your controller keyboard. This means that on (say) a 76–note keyboard, you can place the M2D under your left hand, leaving you free to widdle with your right, or place two ‘virtual’ 35–note Mellotrons side–by–side to create something akin to a dual–manual Mellotron. You can also create narrower ranges of notes for certain sounds, or even overlap ranges of sounds if you choose. Of course, these extra functions necessitate a larger menu structure, but everything has remained easy and intuitive.
To test the M2D, I placed it on top of the Arturia KeyLab 88 keyboard that I was reviewing at the same time (you can read that review elsewhere in this issue), and was stunned by how good the two looked together. (As an aficionado of the Fairlight IIx, I like white keyboards in the studio!) It was then simple to set up the knobs and faders on the keyboard to send the appropriate MIDI CCs to control every aspect of the M2D, and I was very happy with the combination of the two. I was marginally less happy with the choice of SD cards as the storage medium for the M2D’s memory but, given their low cost and small size, and the way that the card tucks safely inside the unit, I was willing to overlook the fact that I had to buy a USB/SD converter to be able to load additional sounds into the M2D. It took about half an hour to load G–Media’s M–Tron Volume 1 but, while it was a bit laborious, I have to admit that everything worked perfectly. Mind you, the whole issue would evaporate if the M2D had a USB input that was capable of accepting the ‘.CPT’ files that contain the samples. Or, indeed, any USB input at all!
Once I started playing, the improvements to the M2D over and above the earlier Memotrons became immediately apparent. The increased speed of accessing sounds was very significant — the Memotron keyboard takes up to 15 seconds to load a sound from CD–ROM, whereas the M2D is almost instantaneous — and the addition of the triple effects processors makes a huge difference. In the studio, you can use Memotron keyboards and Racks with a handful of stompboxes or effects processors feeding a suitable amp or combo but, for stage use, it’s good to be able to set everything up and then save it as a Frame for almost instant recall. Sure, you’ll obtain a higher-quality sound if you use a bunch of expensive effects processors and then play the results through an even more expensive valve combo, but how many of us have the luxury of those in our live rigs?
Moving on, even the velocity–sensitivity parameter has its place because, while the results of playing at different velocities are different from those you’d experience with a genuine Mellotron (the original spits at you, while the M2D gets louder or softer), it’s great to be able to inject a tad of expression while playing. Call me a Philistine if you wish, but I like it.
Inevitably, there will be those who suggest that, despite its use of well–respected sample libraries, a Memotron doesn’t sound exactly like a real Mellotron. And they’ll be right. If I stick the M2D next to the Half’A’Tron (see SOS March 2015) and compare the two, the original instrument has a presence that the modern one can’t quite emulate. An original Mellotron is also ‘organic’ in a way that modern technology can only dream about. Forget about the existence (or not) of a few pops and bumps, or even a bit of tuning drift — say the wrong thing to a Mellotron and it may well grind to a halt in retaliation! But ultimately, none of this matters. If I were to join a Genesis or King Crimson tribute band in 2016 and you offered me the choice of a Mellotron, a Memotron, a Memotron Rack or an M2D, I would be very tempted by the small, light and eminently practical M2D. Sure, I would notice the difference, but the majority of the audience wouldn’t. Even in the studio, it would be hard to ignore the M2D because of its speed of use, reliability and lack of noise.
So why wouldn’t the choice of the M2D be a foregone conclusion in every case? While it exceeds the performance of the Memotron in every way (apart from having its own keyboard, of course) there’s one area in which the Memotron Rack still reigns supreme. It’s the only one of the three able to load six sounds and then position them and mix them as two sets of three, somewhat like an original Mk1 or Mk2 Mellotron. This will very rarely be an issue, but it’s possible that there could be the odd occasion when you want more than three Mellotron sounds simultaneously.
I can’t justify the cost of the M2D to you. There are some very powerful keyboards and modules available at this price, many of which have patches that make passable attempts at sounding like a Mellotron. But the M2D isn’t an instrument that you’re going to buy because of its price/performance ratio. If you’re a fan of the Mellotron but you don’t want to ask three mates to help you carry one around, you prefer not to try to untangle its tapes before a gig, and you don’t want to have to build a fan–heater into it so that there’s a chance that it will work at festivals, the Memotron is a fine solution, and the M2D is by far the best version yet.
The M2D uses the same sample library as other Memotrons, which means that its sounds are not based on raw Mellotron samples. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there are numerous sounds that can’t be combined successfully on genuine Mellotrons because the tunings of the recordings are slightly different, and this would be unacceptable on a module that allows you to mix all of its sounds freely. Secondly, the hiss, crunches, pops and other artifacts on some of the raw sounds might be considered charming on the original, but it’s likely that they’d be viewed as faults by users of a modern digital instrument.
Although the editing system is simple to use, there are a small handful of areas in which I find it to be a bit frustrating. In particular (and in common with previous Memotrons) you lose the Frame parameters associated with a track when you load a new sound into it. This means that if you want to replace, say, the MkII’s 3 Violins with the M400’s 3 Violins to see what difference this makes in a triple–sound mix, you have to step through the menus and set things up again before auditioning. This isn’t really acceptable nowadays and should be addressed.
Frames are setups containing the three sounds you’ve selected, plus any effects and other parameters that affect their playback. Before their introduction in the original Memotron OS v1.3, it was very laborious to switch between one virtual tape frame and another because you had to reprogram everything from scratch every time. This was more time–consuming than lifting a physical frame out of a Mellotron M400 and replacing it with another, and (obviously) much, much slower than pressing a single button to cycle a Mk1 or Mk2.
- It sounds like a Mellotron — albeit an artificially clean and well behaved one.
- It boasts significant improvements over previous Memotrons.
- It’s easy to use.
- It’s very stylish.
- You need one hand to carry it, not four roadies.
- One or two areas of its operation could be polished up a bit.
- The effects are in the wrong order.
- There’s no USB, either for MIDI or for sample management.
There are numerous ways of reproducing Mellotron sounds, but the M2D offers perhaps the best compromise yet between sound quality, speed of use and convenience. It also looks and feels gorgeous. Some players will buy one because it’s exactly what they’ve been waiting for. Many more will, as always, wonder what all the fuss is about.