What We Learned
In addition to the usual Mellotron fixing sessions, we got to hear from those in our midst in a few special sessions designed to help us get the most from our precious machines.
Pierre's Keyboard Modification
Pierre Veilleux, a very talented musician who has been into Mellotrons for decades, has always been trying to come up with ways to improve the machines. One improvement is his keyboard modification, which is now used in Dave Kean's Mark VI.
The modification involves taking the pressure pad screw from its point approximately midway along the long pressure pad arms straight across the whole keyboard and moving the screws to the end of the pressure pad arm, much closer to the pressure pad of each pad arm, in a staggered fashion.
As mentioned on the Mark VI page, I found the keyboard modification to play a bit "mushy" and not very fast, but that could've been the way the machine was set up or was playing that day. Nonetheless the feel was very consistent all the way long the keyboard. At some point Pierre will have his Mark V (with keyboard modifications) at one of our 'tron-fests, and it'll be really interesting to see how that plays!
Rick on Mellotron Orchestration
Rick Blechta, a talented musician and arranger in his own right, began his discussion with a break-down of the intro to "Watcher of the Skies," which he painstakingly lifted by ear from the recording (click here for your copy in PDF format (if necessary, download Acrobat Reader to view the document)). If you've been using an arrangement from somewhere else, you will want to check this out.
Ahhh, 3-violins. Everyone agrees they're harsh. So how do you use them correctly? Rick said that we've got to stop thinking like keyboard players. In fact some of the best Mellotron arrangers, as Ian McDonald, aren't keyboard natives. As keyboard players we tend to want to create blocked chords in their standard inversions - C-E-G, E-G-C, G-C-E, y-a-w-n. With a Mellotron the close notes can produce a very thick, solid sound, which does have its use. But then Rick demonstrated leaving out a few notes here and there and spreading, say, a major chord across the keyboard, using more than just a single octave. Maybe you wouldn't put the tonic as the lowest note, or you'd leave out a third somewhere. As he demonstrated the technique with 3-violins, you could hear the sound open up and become more clear and more interesting, and a wide variety of possibilities became apparent.
By thinking more like an orchestral arranger than a keyboard player, the Mellotron sounds, especially the new ones created by Rick and others, can find their place in your mix without becoming muddy or lost. Flutes don't play chords, so think for a second when you reach for that C major in the first inversion on your Bradley B set! But, by all means, if you find something that works for you, use it! Rick just wanted to wake us up to some new ways of looking at things, and he did a cracking job.
Fritz on Recording
Our special guest Ian McDonald spent about and hour with us answering questions about his King Crimson days and life and times with the Mellotron.
Although primarily a player of wind instruments, Ian had a way with the Mellotron, and this is no more clearly heard than in Epitaph on In the Court of the Crimson King. It's a masterpiece of 'tronning, but to Ian the Mellotron was really an extension of what he did with the wind instruments. As noted by others, the 'tron really isn't a keyboardist's instrument; it requires a lighter touch and a mindset more like that of an arranger. Thus Ian was able to get a great deal out of the instrument, as evidenced by his work with Crimson.
A reserved but very nice fellow, it was great of Ian to chat with us and hang out with us for the weekend. Ian also lent his talents to producing brand new flute tapes for Streetly. They are quite different from the 'tron flute tapes we think of. Ian's sounds are lighter and have a wonderful vibrato. Be listening for them on 'tron recordings to come!
Someone asked Ian what he thought of the 'tron fests.
He smiled and thought back to William Shatner in that famous "Saturday Night Live" skit with the Trekkies.
"No, I can't believe that anyone would still be dealing with these things. Would you guys get a life!"