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Archive for February, 2010

Mellodrama: a New Documentary about the Mellotron

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the Mellotron? You’ve certainly heard the classic keyboard that subbed for real flutes, choirs, and string ensembles in the ’60s and ’70s. What was its relationship to the Chamberlin? Both were early analog samplers that used recording tape to play back instrumental sounds. Although the Chamberlin came first (Harry Chamberlin actually invented sampling in the late ’40s), the Mellotron got considerably more exposure thanks to such popular songs as the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields? and the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.?

Mellodrama CoverYou’ll discover practically everything you ever wanted to know about the Mellotron and the Chamberlin in Mellodrama ($24.95 from Bazillion Points Publishing), a new documentary directed by Dianna Dillworth. The film was screened at the 2010 NAMM show in January and released on DVD a few days later. It features interviews with the inventor’s son, Richard Chamberlin, and with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, Patrick Moraz of Yes, Ian McDonald of King Crimson, and many other Mellotron and Chamberlin enthusiasts.

Mellodrama traces the history of these groundbreaking instruments from their humble southern California beginnings to their 21st century resurgence and today’s cult of serious collectors. I already knew that the Chamberlin was originally designed as a home entertainment keyboard, and that the earliest samples were recordings of Lawrence Welk’s orchestra. Until I saw this movie, though, I had no idea that Chamberlin’s first salesman took the idea to England, where he claimed the design as his own and found financial backers to start the company that would manufacture Mellotrons. And that’s just one of many stories. If you’re interested in the history of electronic musical instruments, Mellodrama is not to be missed.

Grammy Musings

It was an entertaining, albeit long Grammy Awards show last night. Here are a few random observations.

Auto-Tune was in use for a number of acts, including Jamie Foxx and T-Pain in their duet as well as the Black Eyed Peas. Both of these acts used it as a musical effect, rather than a pitch fixer, though. Alas, I wish that someone had applied it to Taylor Swift’s vocals, as she was consistently off key in her duet with Stevie Nicks on “Rhiannon?—it was pretty brutal. Swift’s voice must need a lot of attention in the studio during mixdown, because, pitch problems aside, it sounded quite pedestrian. Luckily for her, her awards were for her albums, not her live performance skills.

There were a few of the obligatory production numbers with scads of costumed dancers distracting from the music, but luckily, there were many performances where the music was actually center stage. Not in that latter category was Pink’s rendition of “Glitter in the Air.? In the middle of the song, she was raised up off the stage in a harness, and spun around rather rapidly. As she rotated, the texture of her vocal changed not a bit. Hmm, lip-synced perhaps? Then she was drenched in water yet didn’t miss a note. Hmm. Meanwhile the song featured some amazing guitar playing, but the guitar player was never shown.

Beyonce was another big winner, pulling in a passel of awards, but am I the only one who found her vocal performance to be not much more than a way to show off her prodigious singing chops and not very musical? Kind of the vocal equivalent of a shredder riffing aimlessly. It’s ironic, because I saw her interviewed earlier on 60 Minutes, talking about her lack of ego. She’s clearly an amazing talent, but I didn’t think her performance last night was one of her finest moments.

There were some great vocal performances, though, such as Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige’s killer version of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,? and Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood, and Usher absolutely kicking ass on “Earth Song,? the Michael Jackson tribute that also featured the late singer’s recorded vocals during parts of it.

I was glad that Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong thanked his producer (Butch Vig) and engineer (Joe McGrath) during his acceptance speech for the band’s Best Rock Album award. More artists should do that!

Speaking of engineering, Imogen Heap won Best Engineered Album for Ellipse (see our cover story in the October EM) in one of the many awards not given out in prime time.

Jeff Beck was supremely impressive in a tribute to the late Les Paul. He and his band, along with vocalist Imelda May, did a peppy rendition of “How High the Moon,? with the guitarist playing a sunburst Les Paul and doing some killer, swingy soloing (is there anything he can’t play?).

Finally, what was up with the audio cutting out during the otherwise excellent rap performance near the end by Drake, Eminem and Lil Wayne? It was a very crude way to handle the censorship issue—a ham-handed attempt by CBS to keep the bad words away from the TV audience. (Couldn’t this have been handled more elegantly?) The audio cut outs were several seconds long each, and totally disrupted the flow of the song. I thought at first that my cable company was having sound problems.

Interestingly, a lot of artists on independent labels won this year. A total of 43 won Grammys, which probably says more about the decline of the major labels than the rise of the indies.

Overall, an entertaining evening, and there were actually a lot of solid live performances (Bon Jovi, who I’m not normally too fond of, did a strong mini set), enough that they overshadowed the tendency for over-the-top theatrics that often mars these telecasts.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Mike Levine |

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The Bus, EM's editorial blog, features posts from all the EM editors on topics related to gear, recording techniques and much more. It's also home to posts from a selected group of guest bloggers.

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