Welcome to Part 2 of Progulator’s interview with Mellotron’s Markus Resch, who has been running Mellotron since 2001, and whose many years with the company include more than 13 years of building MkVI Mellotrons and 22 years of servicing and making parts for Mellotrons. In this, the second installment of the interview, I present to you many fascinating bits about the newest Mellotron instrument, the Mellotron M4000D.
*Note: MD = Matt Di Giordano, MR = Marksu Resch
MD: After making several really cool innovations to the electromechanical Mellotron, and building MkVI and MkVII tape Mellotrons since 1999, you took on the project of building the ultimate digital Mellotron. Around what time did you start considering building the M4000D? What was your vision of it when you began promoting the idea?
MR: Dave Kean and I had been talking for many years about a digital Mellotron. David bought part of the tape archive, and most of the inventory from a company called Mellotron digital. That was a company that in the late 80’s tried to make a digital Mellotron. That was kind of a scam company in the first place, but that’s what their goal was. So we had that in the back of our heads since the very beginning.
We always had the firm belief that we had to have depth sensitivity to the keyboard, like the original machines; you would be able to change the volume of each note by how much you pressed down the key. And that was something that was not easy to do. And the obvious thing, of course, was that the sound quality had to be really good. I had been talking to Dave Amels, about 8 years ago, about some solutions: to use a Fatar keybed, they make the keybeds for the Moog, to use a keyboard like that for this application. I did some experiments, but I realized it wasn’t the way to go. It was only later, just 3 years ago, that I found out what developments were going to happen on the processor side and on the sensor side, that I could see that it would be possible to do it, possible also [when] thinking about the financial aspect.
Building a digital Mellotron that did all of this, it could have been possible in 2000, but it would have cost like $20,000 or something. So it has to be feasible economically too. So, about 3 years ago I realized all the technical stuff was going to be available, so that’s when I decided to do it. The processor wasn’t powerful enough yet on the first prototype of two. So, the processor that is inside your machine and other machines, that came out 2 years ago. It came out when we went from prototyping to the first series. That’s when it was first presented, so to say. It’s the latest generation of that type of processor. We had already written most of the software, we just had to make use of the increased capability of that processor so we could implement all the features and the original sounds.
MD: We’re all really impressed and happy with the sounds. It turned out phenomenal. Plus, the build is really luxurious. The keys feel really great. One thing I was really impressed with was the depth and sensitivity of the keys. Also the fast action. It has really nice, fast action to play, without losing that sense of depth and sensitivity. You want your keys to feel heavy enough to know they’re there, but you also want them to move quickly also, but without losing the dynamic response. So I was really happy.
MR: It’s one of the few keyboards around that has polyphonic aftertouch via MIDI. When I was experimenting with the MIDI, I had a Nord that I was triggering with the digital Mellotron, and Nord are known for their good sample libraries. The machine I had was a Nord Wave, which has a simpler keyboard, but basically it is the same keyboard as their other series because they all have Fatar keyboards. The digital Mellotron has a real wooden Mellotron keyboard with our own developed depth sensitivity system. When we had tweaked the MIDI parameters and everything and I had connected the Mellotron keyboard to the Nord, I felt like I got so much dynamic out of the Nord samples; I was just surprised. If you have a chance to connect it to a Nord or some other module that has a really good piano sound, I would be interested in hearing what you think. The Nord is maybe multi-sampled like 8 samples per key, but with the built in keyboard I could only get like 4. But, with the Mellotron keyboard there was a really good dynamic, in my opinion. I talked to others about that too. It’s not a very common thing that you would do, like buy a digital Mellotron and connect it to a piano module or something, but it was surprising how well it worked, at least in my opinion.
MD: When people are online reading forums, trying to figure out what the machine is all about, they’re looking for weird things, like adjustments to the attack or decay, ways to get weird or interesting swells, etc. Is there anything that you think some people might overlook that you would like to briefly explain about the M4000D?
MR: Yeah. You can move the start point on the sound. Let’s say, on a vibraphone, you can start the sound like a half second into the sound and then it sounds like some weird wine glasses when you lose the attack on the instrument. There’s also the mandolin sounds, where it starts with a pluck and then goes into the tremolo mode. You can move the start of the sound into the tremolo mode so there’s like 2 sounds in one. That’s also something that Harry Chamberlin was already thinking about in his early machines, where you could hand scroll and hand move the start point of the tape.
MD: I’ve noticed there are a few people on web forums who seem morally opposed to the idea of the M4000D. Why do you think some purists are meeting this with such harsh resistance while others are embracing it nicely? Obviously you’ve made this new product and taken very important steps towards giving it an authentic sound and feel to the original machine. What’s your take on the issue and what would you say to purists who consider the M4000D a grave sin?
MR: You have to look at what kind of people are saying those things. I haven’t read any of those things myself, but if I had to take a guess, I would believe those are people who might be associated with certain British people who are my competition. It’s pretty ludicrous; both the analog and the digital Mellotrons are very valid. If you have a real Mellotron, and you believe you have something that the digital Mellotron doesn’t do, you should be happy that you are the fortunate owner of an instrument that is very expressive. But you should not deny other people, who are not as fortunate, to have access to those sounds in a more convenient package. I would be the first one to admit mechanical Mellotrons have many pleasant, and the way the keyboard feels is much different on a mechanical Mellotron because it has to drive a tape. Or like John Medeski from Medeski Martin & Wood (he’s like a freeform jazz kind of guy), he has the lid open and grabs the flywheel, and makes all kinds of funny noises with it.
I mean, I’m the first guy to say… I’m still making the MkVI Mellotron, which is an analog Mellotron, and I do believe that there’s definitely a place for it. Even if I weren’t making it, I’d still definitely say to people, “If you get the chance to buy an analog Mellotron for two grand, I’d say go ahead, it’s definitely a cool thing to have.” So, I can’t really take that position too seriously, it never fails. When I hear about those purists, so to say, they come from a particular corner. I rarely see anybody at the NAMM show saying “Oh my God, this is so horrible, why did you do it?” Instead, everybody has been extremely positive and enthusiastic. It only makes sense if you’re only doing an analog instrument that is tape based and you want to push that product. In that particular case it serves your own interest to say “Everything that is digital is just crap.”
MD: I figure that if you want the analog sound (and if you can afford it), then you can get it. But, it’s also nice to have the digital in situations where, let’s say, you could take it on the road and avoid certain inconveniences. If you can afford both, you can always have the best of both worlds.
MR: As far as the sound is concerned, if you’re just playing straight up playback of the notes, without any half pressuring of any keys, which is a great thing too… I mean, you can do that, it’s also a way of expressing yourself. But like most people, I’d definitely say 90% of the people are playing it normally, the way you should play it, the way it was originally intended. And I challenge anybody to a blind test, to have a digital Mellotron next to an M400 and compare those two. Especially if you’re using it in a music piece. Then, as far as the sound is concerned, in that use, it’s virtually impossible to hear the difference. It only starts when you’re getting into those half pressed keys and quirky sounds like breaking the fly wheel and stuff like that.
Of course it has certain significance if you want to be in front of the real thing, so to say, with the motor running and everything. It’s like comparing a really good Hammond sound…that’s a bad comparison; the Hammond keyboard has depth sensitivity and there’s no Hammond emulation keyboard that has that. Let’s say a really good emulation of a synth. It is something different to be patching that synth up with the patch cords. It’s a different interaction. But, as far as the sound is concerned, when played in the normal way, that’s where I put my energy to make it sound identical to a well-adjusted, new tapes 400 Mellotron.
It’s also what you do with it. Rami Jaffee of the Foo Fighters, he just can’t deal with tape, and he’s had so many instruments, like Chamberlins and Mellotrons; he’s just fed up with all the problems and he wants to put it on the road. Without the digital Mellotron, this great tune, “I Should Have Known,” would not have had the Mellotron on it, and it enriches the whole musical scene. Just that one song, if you just take that one example, that can’t be bad. Even for the purists, that’s a benefit for them too. If they have an instrument, that will make more interest in the Mellotron just because of that one song.
MD: You’ve talked before about the expansion card for the M4000D. Is there any way you could talk about one of your favorite sounds that’s available on the expansion?
MR: They will be available in a couple of months. The main thing with the expansion cards is the rhythms. I will put all the standard MkI and MkII rhythms on that card, so that would make it possible for people to have, so to say, a digital MkII because otherwise you would have to buy two keyboards to have all those sounds. Also, [there will be] a lot of not so well known Mellotron sounds, like the wine glasses. There’s another version of the strings and cello for the M400 that’s on there. There’s gonna be some more 300 sounds on there…there’s a bit of this and that.
MD: is the bumblebee tape going to be on that one?
MR: No, not that one. That would be for the next card. I have sounds for another three or four cards. The library is really, really big. Those bumblebees will probably be on a card with more like sound effects. There’s a huge library of sound effects.
MD: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for the nice machine that you’ve built, it’s a fantastic product. I just wanted to thank you from my heart for the nice interview. Last question for you: what’s the coolest prog album you’ve listened to lately? Doesn’t matter if it’s classic, could be old, could be new. What comes to mind?
MR: I rarely listen to prog nowadays, but I’ve been listening to Van der Graaf Generator, Pawn Hearts, a bit lately. That’s kind of funny, especially the Mellotron use on that album is very strange indeed. So, that’s what I’ve been listening to lately in the prog area.
MD: anything outside of prog you want to recommend?
MR: Yes, that would be Wilco, definitely progressive in the true sense of the word.
Make sure to come back next week for the 3rd and final part of my interview with Markus Resch. We’ll be sure to follow up with some video reviews of the Mellotron M4000D!