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Electro Harmonix MEL9 Tape Replay Machine

All the cool sounds, but no tape, no weight hassles - and no keyboard!


by Phil O'Keefe



We take sample-playback keyboards for granted today, but back in the 1960s such beasts simply did not exist - at least until the first tape-playback keyboards such as the Chamberlin and Mellotron appeared on the scene. These early "sample playback" units were all-analog. Using pre-recorded 8 second tape loops as the sample storage medium, each key had a dedicated tape head and transport mechanism associated with it, making these classic keyboards mechanically complex and quite heavy. Put to use by numerous '60s era innovators such as the Beatles and countless '70s era Prog-Rockers, Mellotrons have a long and rich musical history, but their complexity has always made them rather expensive, not to mention they're keyboard-based instruments - even with the availability of modern samplers guitarists either had to learn to play a new instrument, adapt to the quirks of a dedicated guitar synth, or were left out completely - until now.

 

EHX has brought us several guitar & bass (yes, they can be used with bass, and even keyboards too!) stompboxes that are designed to emulate the sounds of various keyboards, such as the EHX KEY9 and the EHX B9. Now Electro Harmonix has turned their attention and efforts towards replicating the sounds of those early tape replay machines with the MEL9.





What You Need To Know

  • The EHX MEL9 is a guitar stompbox and like the Mellotron, is housed in a white case. The MEL9 has a graphic image of a tape-playback keyboard on it, and measures 4" W x 4.75" L x 2.25" H.

  • The MEL9 is fully polyphonic and requires no special pickups or modifications to your guitar.

  • Power is provided through a industry-standard 2.1mm center-negative jack located at the top of the pedal. EHX provides you with a 9V DC 200mA wall wart type power supply with the pedal, which is always welcome. The MEL9's current draw is rated at 100mA.



  • Bypassing and activating the MEL9 sounds is done with the buffered bypass footswitch; its red LED lights to indicate when the pedal is active. There is no provision for battery powering, and no switches or internal trim pots.

 

  • Nine different presets are selected with the white Preset knob. All nine sounds are based on original Mellotron sounds, which makes the MEL9 a bit different from some of the other pedals in this series such as the KEY9, which also has mallet and organ presets included to go along with the electric pianos that make up most of its sounds.

  • The nine presets cover many of the most popular Mellotron tape set sounds. Orchestra, Cello, Strings, Flutes, Clarinet, Saxophone, Brass and Low and High Choir presets are provided.

  • The 1/4" input is on the right side of the pedal, and while it's designed for guitar, it can be used with just about any electronic instrument. Input impedance is 1MΩ. The lowest input note it can track is open A on an electric bass (A1 or 55Hz), and the highest note depends on the patch, with some tracking up to a high G# (high E string, 16th fret) and others going up to high Eb, or the 23rd fret on a guitar's high E string.



  • The MEL9 should usually be the first pedal in your chain. If you have difficulty getting it to track consistently, or if you are using a guitar with fairly low output pickups, a compressor or clean boost running before the MEL9 can help. But other than that, effects like dirt boxes, modulation pedals and delays should all be placed after it.

  • You get a bit of flexibility in the way you run the output of the MEL9. With a single amp, just connect to the  Effect Out jack. This allows using the Dry and Effect Volume controls to dial up just the right balance between your regular guitar sound (Dry) and the simulated Mellotron (Effect) sounds.



  • If you have two amps, you'll love the dedicated Dry Output jack. This provides an "always active" buffered copy of the input signal that can feed your other pedals and an amp, while still using the Effect output to send the tape replay machine sounds to a dedicated amp whenever you activate the pedal's footswitch. The output impedance of both jacks is 500Ω.

  • For most patches, the Attack and Sustain knobs have the same basic functions. Attack controls how quickly a sound begins when you play a note - from very little or no ramp-up, to ramping and fading in more slowly as you turn this knob clockwise. Setting this for a gently ramped-up sound that is a bit quieter than your guitar can provide a nice thickening accompaniment that doesn't get in the way of what you're playing.

  • The Sustain knob controls the other end of the note - the decay after you stop playing. Set this higher to make sounds ring out and gradually fade away, or lower to make notes cut off as soon as your guitar notes do.



  • Both the Attack and Sustain knobs function differently with the #7 Brass preset. With that preset, the Attack knob sets the speed of a swept filter that determines how quickly the sound gets bright, while the Sustain control is more subtle and sets the amount of simulated "lip buzz" at the beginning of a note.

  • While the sounds produced are remarkably reminiscent of the sounds made by a Mellotron, they're not actual samples. So how exactly do the pedals in this series do their magic? While the folks at Electro Harmonix are understandably somewhat hesitant to reveal all of their secrets, they did confirm my suspicions that they're using pitch shifting (a la the HOG and POG) and envelope and frequency filtering, as well as applying some other effects to simulate various keyboard sounds.



Limitations

  • It can sound a bit bright running direct into a mixing board. Since it's optimized for guitarists and designed to be used with guitar amps, this is totally understandable. Using a speaker simulator or adjusting the high frequency EQ when recording direct can help alleviate this.
  • While the tracking is excellent even if you bend notes, more authentic-sounding keyboard emulations require thinking and playing more "keyboardistically," which is a skill that can take some thought and practice to master.



Conclusions

The MEL9 offers the greatest sonic diversity of any pedal in the Electro Harmonix keyboard emulation pedal line. The sound quality of the emulations is very good, and will instantly bring to mind the original tape playback instruments. Remember - they were tape-based and the MEL9 emulates the various aspects of that sound, warts and all, so you can expect some wow and flutter, grunge and other lo-fi characteristics. That's essential for a good Mellotron emulation, but if you're expecting pristine sounds, you may be disappointed. There's also a bit of pitch-shifting artifact weirdness to the high frequencies if you listen close, but it's relatively dismissible except when going direct to the board or DAW, where a speaker sim can help significantly.

Still, the variety of useful sounds here, from the iconic flutes to the very Beatle-esque Brass and Saxophone presets, not to mention the Prog-approved Orchestra, Cello, Strings and Choirs - all of which give your guitar completely new sounds that previously would have been impossible to nail like this without a guitar synth of some sort - are highly impressive, and useful for far more than mere nostalgia and cover gigs. Do you use a looper live? Wouldn't it be cool to be able to layer a "keyboard" sound in with your guitar loops too? Now you can - giving your performances even more sonic diversity. Live isn't the only place where this handy box will find uses. I can already envision using it a lot for various keyboard flavored parts in the studio. Layering the Sax and Brass presets and adding a bit of distortion leads to a thick, very Beatle-esque section that I really like.  


While I was really impressed with the Electro Harmonix B9, I am even more impressed with the EHX MEL9. It truly is amazing to have keyboard sounds that are so eerily similar to the originals coming out of your guitar, without any of the tracking issues or special equipment hassles that triggering Mellotron samples from a traditional guitar synth controller would usually entail. I, and many others have noted that Electro Harmonix has just been killing it the past few years. This pedal is just another example why that opinion is so prevalent. It's another big winner that's sure to be very popular. -HC-



Resources

Electro Harmonix MEL9  Tape Replay Machine ($295.00 MSRP, $221.30 "street")

Electro Harnonix product web page    

You can purchase the EHX MEL9 from:

Sweetwater  

Guitar Center

B&H Photo Video

Musician's Friend

If you'd like to discuss the EHX MEL9 Tape Replay Machine, please check out this thread in the Effects Forum right here on Harmony Central!









__________________________________________________

 



Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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Phil O'Keefe  |  February 15, 2017 at 8:37 am
Thanks for checking it out Jorhay!
Reply
jorhay1  |  February 14, 2017 at 10:20 pm
Great review. Thanks.
Reply
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