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The Chamberlin is an electro-mechanical keyboard instrument that was a precursor to the Mellotron. It was developed and patented by Iowa, Wisconsin inventor Harry Chamberlin from 1949 to 1956, when the first model was introduced.[1] Various models and versions of these Chamberlin music instruments exist. While most are keyboard-based instruments, there were also early drum machines produced and sold. Some of these drums patterns feature Harry Chamberlin's son Richard on them.



Harry Chamberlin's idea for inventing the instrument came from his recording himself playing an organ. He formed the idea of playback music coming from an organ as a source of entertainment. He soon set about designing the first Chamberlin instruments as early as 1949. The intention was for the instrument to function as a home entertainment device for family sing-alongs, playing the Big Band standards of the day. The Chamberlin's use as a commercial instrument in rock (or rock and roll) music was never given consideration, as Harry Chamberlin generally resented rock music and rock musicians.

The basic Chamberlin has a piano-style keyboard. Underneath each key is an individual tape playing mechanism. Each tape is pre-recorded with various musical instruments or special effects. When the player presses down a key, a pressure pad pushes the tape on to a tape head and a pinch roller beneath the key catches the tape and pulls it forward into storage box, (or on to a roller mechanism). As this occurs the sound of the tape is heard through an amplified speaker. When the player releases the key, the sound stops, and the tape rewinds by either metal spring rods (as on the early Chamberlins) or by a return roller mechanism (as on the later M1 models). Each tape is only a few seconds long (8 seconds on many units).

Harry Chamberlin spent considerable time (usually from sunrise to sunset) experimenting with sound and had converted a walk-in closet as his first home studio. After obtaining the right acoustics in the room and changing the acoustics of other rooms in his house, the first Chamberlin recordings were undertaken. All Chamberlin recordings were contracted and performed by members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra in the late '40s and throughout the 1950s. Welk was impressed with the idea of a tape playback instrument and offered to fund its manufacture if it was called a "Welk" machine. Chamberlin refused Welk's offer.

Chamberlin used Neumann U 47 microphones to record the sounds. The sounds are characterized by a very clean output and heavy vibrato which was customary of the music styles of the time. The Chamberlin sounds have little compression and possess dynamics true to the instruments recorded on the tapes (such as the air in the flute, or the flow in of the strings). The Chamberlin instruments were designed to accurately replicate the sound of the instrument recorded on the tape. They were also meant to be physically set in one place and not moved around. Because of this, there was less attention paid to making the instrument robust and many early Chamberlins have no internal chassis and are prone to go out of adjustment.

As Chamberlin refined the build of his instruments, he began to bring them to music trade shows and competitors such as Hammond and Lowrey were often curious about the origin of Chamberlin sounds. In an effort to compete, these companies were forced to create drum rhythms and manufacture plastic tabs with orchestral instrument names on them. These tabs would generate tones that simulated the sound of the instrument selected. The American Federation of Musicians also took notice as well and tried to limit live performances of Chamberlin instruments fearing that their members would be put out of work. Despite the controversy, musicians worldwide embraced the Chamberlin and "Mack the Knife" singer Bobby Darin was one of the first customers, buying a customized model 300 without the rhythm section tapes.

Chamberlin's company eventually grew with his own children working for him, and his window cleaner Bill Franson offering to become his salesman. Franson travelled the country offering the Chamberlin instruments to music stores, parlours, and cocktail lounges. Offers of larger distribution were made, but Harry Chamberlin preferred word of mouth advertising and did not like the terms and conditions of distributorship and eschewed it. Chamberlin also preferred and favoured doing business with lounges, nightclubs and musicians who embraced big band music, and disliked having his instrument associated with rock and roll music or rock musicians.

In 1962 Bill Franson had gone missing for several months. A radio could be heard playing music in his apartment but attempts to contact him proved futile. Franson had left for England by boat taking two Chamberlin 600 models with him. (One of these eventually became the possession of Todd Rundgren's studio and appears on XTC's Skylarking album). Franson placed an ad asking for a company that could manufacture seventy standard playback heads. Bradmatic Ltd. (an engineering company) responded to the ad.

Franson removed the Chamberlin labels and sold the now re-badged "Franson" instrument to them without Harry Chamberlin's knowledge. Refining the 600 design into the Mellotron Mark 1, Bradmatic eventually became Streetly Electronics and began manufacture of the Mellotron Mark 2 in 1963. In 1965 Harry Chamberlin became aware of this after being contacted by Mellotron distributors in America, and forced a legal arrangement with Streetly Electronics. After visiting owners Frank, Norman, and Les Bradley in person (and having an intense discussion with Franson), an arrangement was made where Mellotrons would only be sold in England and Chamberlins would be sold in the USA. Chamberlin would also receive royalty payments from the Mellotron company though this apparently ended in the late '60s. Through this same royalty system, Harry also allowed the Chamberlin "3 violins" sound to be used as the violins sound in the Mellotron library. This violin sound became the Mellotron's main sound used on much of the output of British Mellotron music beginning in the mid-1960s. Consequently, it can be difficult to tell whether a recording features a Mellotron or Chamberlin when the 3 violins tapes are used, other than by the country of origin of the recording. Mistaking Chamberlin sounds for real instruments is common with of all Chamberlin sounds because of the way they were recorded (no processing) and because there were fewer mixdown master tapes made compared to the Mellotron library. The M series Chamberlins also have greater bandwidth playback heads, which enhances this quality further. It is important to note that Chamberlin instruments were never distributed for sale outside North America (USA / Canada markets). This also is helpful in determining Chamberlin and Mellotron use on records.

Chamberlin Co. continued to refine and sell their products and invested more serious effort into reliability as they had now had to compete with the Mellotron, and rock bands had adopted the instruments as a sound colour. Their sales of units to major U.S. studios resulted in Chamberlins being heard on many pop records of the 1960s including recordings by The Lettermen, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Goldsboro ("Honey"), The Beach Boys, and educator Edmond S. Bordeaux.

A new Chamberlin design emerged in the late '60s and effectively and permanently ended the use of rhythm tapes in the units. This model was the M1 which emerged in 1970 and was made much more durably and had a flawless tape return roller system. This model had higher quality playback tape heads with no tape warble and greater bandwidth than the Mellotron. The unit was a table-top version of the earlier models and much smaller than the competing M400 Mellotron model. About 130 Chamberlins were built using this system and many musicians and studios embraced the improved design.

These musicians included Disneyland/Disney Worlds' live performance artist Michael Iceberg in his shows featuring electronic instruments. Others include Skip Konte with Three Dog Night, Olivia Newton-John, Leon Russell ("Carney"), Neil Merryweather, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Ambrosia, Mike Pinder with The Moody Blues on the album "Seventh Sojourn", American progressive rock band Ethos, David Bowie (Low through Scary Monsters), Edgar Winter ("Jasmine Nightdreams"), Joe South, Iron Butterfly, Chip Taylor, New York session player Barry Frederick, Canadian musicians Joe and Gino Vannelli, jazz/fusion group Shadowfax ("Watercourse Way"), and Bob Seger keyboardist Robyn Robbins.

The Chamberlin M1 was the most reliable version of the instrument to date. Chamberlin Co. also continued to earn revenue by licensing certain Chamberlin patents to Mattel for their Optigan keyboard, which used the pre-recorded loop designs by Chamberlin as well as some of the Chamberlin music tapes for the Optigan library. By the end of the 1970s, digital synths took away the market for tape based keyboards and Chamberlin ended M1 production in 1981, building the last few units out of an Ontario, California factory, and later in the family garage with sounds that were never previously released. Harry Chamberlin died in 1986.

In the 1980s Chamberlin use was minimal with only producers like Mitchell Froom (Crowded House) and Todd Rundgren (XTC's Skylarking) using the instrument.[2] The Chamberlin experienced a strong revival in the 1990s with a new generation of musicians using them and appreciating the unique sounds produced by playing them in unorthodox ways. These included Michael Penn and Patrick Warren ("March", "Free For All", "Resigned", "MP4" as well as Penn's film scores like "Boogie Nights"), and singer/songwriter/producer Jon Brion on the soundtrack to the film I Heart Huckabees. Tom Waits also used the instrument on albums such as The Black Rider and Bone Machine. Starting in the late 1990s, Chamberlin sounds were released as software samples for the first time. With the appearance of tape drop-outs, and poor analogue to digital conversion - many of these vary in quality. These sounds were embraced by musicians who could not locate original Chamberlin instruments. Only a total of under 700 Chamberlins were made from 1951 to 1981, and fewer than 50 working models are accounted for today. Because of this, most appearances of Chamberlin (dubiously or dishonestly listed in liner notes) on records made after the year 2000, are most highly likely from digital sources, and not the actual Chamberlin instruments. As a result, music students and historians generally refer to music made in the Chamberlin's heyday for authentic, pure examples of the sound. Notable exceptions include recordings made by confirmed Chamberlin owners and regular users such as Patrick Warren, Michael Penn, Jon Brion, Chris Dale, Lars Fredrik Frøislie - Wobbler, and producer Brian Kehew.


Various models exist of the Chamberlin.[3] There are both keyboard-based instruments as well as drum machines (which are called Rhythmate). Approximately 500–700 units were made, but the exact number is unknown.

Model Years produced Number made
Chamberlin 100 1948–1949 4–10
Chamberlin 200 1951–1959 100 +/-
Chamberlin 300/350 remotes 1960–1969 200 +/-
Chamberlin 400 1961 1
Chamberlin 500 1961 2 or 3
Chamberlin 600/660 1962–1969 200+
Chamberlin 25/35/45 Rhythmate 1960–1969 100+
Chamberlin 20/30/40 Rhythmate 1975–1980 10+
Chamberlin 800 Riviera 1970 2
Chamberlin M1, M2, M4 1970–1981 100+


  • Keyboards: Marimba, Piano, Vibes (w/vibrato), Bells (glockenspiel), Organ, Tibia Organ, Kinura Organ, Harpischord, Accordion, Electric Harpsichord and Flute/String Organ.
  • Brass: Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Trombone, Trumpet, French Horn, Do Wah Trombone, Slur Trombone and Muted Trumpet.
  • Wind: flute, oboe, and bass clarinet.
  • Voice: Male Voice (solo) and Female Voice (solo).
  • Strings: 3 violins, Cello and Pizzicato violins.
  • Plucked strings: Slur Guitar, Banjo, Steel Guitar, Harp solo, Harp Roll, Harp 7th Arpeggio (harp sounds were not available to the public), Guitar and Mandolin.
  • Effects: Dixieland Band Phrases and Sound Effects.


  1. ^ Phantom Orchestra at Your Fingertips interview of Harry Chamberlin by Len Epand, Crawdaddy! magazine, April 1976, accessed 12 July 2009
  2. ^ "2004 Uncut Magazine article "All Time Classics: Great Albums that have Fallen Off the Critical Radar"". Retrieved 24 January 2009. 
  3. ^

This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.

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