A couple of friends and I went to see the documentary film Mellodrama last night, which was all about my favorite musical instruments, the Chamberlin and Mellotron.

When you press a key on one of these instruments, it plays a tape of a cello (or a flute, or an orchestra, or various other instruments) playing the note you want to play.  They were invented with the idea that organists could play the sounds of the orchestra in their homes, but they quickly found their way into recording studios and rock bands, who liked their haunting, ethereal sounds.

The most famous example of a Mellotron sound is the flute at the beginning of Strawberry Fields Forever. . .

. . .but there are countless other famous examples, like the flutes in “Stairway to Heaven” and the lush string parts in “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues.  It’s all over the Fiona Apple albums, as well as Aimee Mann, Micheal Penn, Led Zeppelin, Crowded House, and. . .well, maybe you should go ahead and check out this playlist on Rhapsody.  Listen to the music around the vocals, and the way the instruments interact.  If you hear things that sound like flutes, or lush orchestras, or solo cellos and violins, or vibraphones, it’s probably a keyboard instrument like this instead.

I wish I was lucky enough to own a real Chamberlin, but for now I’m content to have the sample CD from Mellotron Archives, which gives me a ‘best of’ collection of the most widely used sounds, without the expense and hassle of owning a famously unreliable and cantankerous instrument.  Those sounds continue to be my not-so-secret weapons on many of the songs I produce and play on.  This documentary is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a very interesting set of instruments, which was the first incarnation of the idea of sampling as we know it today.

Whether you’re a musician yourself, or simply a music fan who likes to know how music sounds the way it does, this will offer you some great insights into one of the most influential instruments out there.  Lots of well-known people are in the film, including Jon Brion, Brian Wilson, Michael Penn, Patrick Warren, Brian Kehew, Matthew Sweet, and many others.  I urge you to track the film down and watch it.

I’ll be buying it on DVD.