DAVID KRONEMYER: The first string synthesizer I recall was the Mellotron as heard on early Moody Blues and King Crimson records. This would have been around 1968. Of course the Mellotron isn’t a synthesizer at all. It ingeniously plays back tape loops like a gigantic cassette deck.
There are two ways of mixing the Mellotron: one where it hovers over the entire sonic landscape and a second more subtle variation where it simply is another localized instrument. King Crimson provides illustrative examples of both techniques. Its first two records “In the Court of the Crimson King” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” feature the overarching Mellotron. Whereas on the much-maligned “Islands” its presence in the soundfield is reduced considerably, it is panned off-center without much reverb and it basically sits in a corner minding its own business.
These two contrasting philosophies pervade much subsequent thinking on the subject. Most of the dreaded “pad” backgrounds on 1980s records are wide stereo with varying levels of dynamic modulation. As a result they tend to dominate the mix. They typically are uninventive and musically disinteresting. Almost without exception a better use for pads is if they are recorded dry, reduced in scale and presented to the side.
I remember seeing The Strawbs in concert and they actually were using two Mellotrons, which even then seemed like a bit much.
Robert Fripp once offered to sell me both of the original King Crimson Mellotrons. He said they were sitting in storage and not getting much use. I told him I thought he should get busy with them. Even though he likes to eschew that part of his career they were integral to his musical destiny.
For a while I had a rack of Mellotron tapes that were custom-recorded for Black Sabbath. I bought them from Peter Forrest in a VEMIA auction. I wonder where they went off to.
The next string synthesizer I remember with clarity was the Freeman String Symphonizer. This would have been around 1973. The Peter Sinfield record “Stillusion” captured my imagination with its beautiful music and evocative lyrics. The Freeman was one of the key elements in its musical presentation. Even now as I listen to that record I am instantly transported back to a specific moment in space and time. Music has a capacity to energize texture in a way that no other sense does. The Freeman has a sweet, almost wistful sound. One can manipulate the controls for reverberation, sustain and animation in real time, like playing the drawbars on a B3. I hear tell that its inventor Ken Freeman was one of the few then-contemporary musicians who could play it properly, not just sitting there idly holding chords but interacting with the instrument as he performed.
Then along came many others, including the Logan String Melody and the ARP String Ensemble (this latter entrant in the string synthesizer demolition derby pretty much remaining in post position throughout the later 1970s and well into the 1980s). Here’s a picture showing all three of them set up, which makes for a formidable combination. We would have included a Mellotron M-400 as well but from a logistics standpoint it was too daunting.
All of these instruments now pretty much are obsolete for all but aficionados. Samplers such as the AKAI S1100 and the Kurzweil K2000R took over for about a decade from the early 1990s to the early 2000s. Mike Pinder (of the Moody Blues) released a sample CD of Mellotron sounds in AKAI S1100 that was very nice. On the heels of the samplers came a horde of sample players (“ROMplers”) from Roland, E-Mu, Yamaha, Korg and others. They captured and retained string synthesizer sounds with varying degrees of success. Now the field is dominated by VST instruments such as the GForce Virtual String Machine, which all things considered is impressive. It’s amazing how all of those sounds can live on a small shiny DVD and then come alive in a program like Logic.
None of them however sound remotely like the real thing.