In 1967 The Beatles released the song Strawberry Fields Forever which forever defined the psychedelic rock genre. The recording was complexly pieced together from multiple live takes or different arrangements, and although most of the song's genius is a product of John Lennon's writing and George Martin's production prowess, it's Paul McCartney's use of the Mellotron in the song that I'll focus on.
Strawberry Flutes Forever
The Mellotron produced its sound by replaying tapes containing recorded audio, usually multi-sampled orchestral instruments. This was an early form of sampling, which means that the Mellotron's sounds are really easy to recreate using modern sampling. Some great modern Mellotron samplers are GForce M-Tron Pro, SonicBloom's free Mellotron Live Packs and Logic Pro X's Vintage Mellotron instrument.
Paul used a Mellotron Mk.II that was hired by Abbey Road Studios, and he used a pretty common Flutes tape set that was also favoured by King Crimson. The Mk.II flute sound is now a classic Mellotron sound and can be found in most Mellotron samplers. Here's what the flute sounds like on a couple of the samplers mentioned above:
Compare these to the original Strawberry Fields Forever recording and you'll notice that these samplers are much brighter than the original recording. This could either be down to the sonic quality of the Abbey Road Mellotron, or the original recording could've been mixed for less brightness. Either way we can get the same effect in a modern DAW by using a low-pass filter set around 550Hz to darken the sound. Here's the Sonic Bloom samples processed with the low-pass filter:
Magical Musical Analysis
Something to note about Strawberry Fields is the harmony during Paul McCartney's intro; The Beatles were masters of interesting harmony and one of their writing tricks was to use chromatic bass movement. The bass notes in the Strawberry Fields are E - D# - D - C# - B - A. Chromatic bass movement can help tie together otherwise angular sounding chords, as well as making musical parts sound smoother. Try using inversions by rearranging chordal notes so that the lowest notes in each chord are closer together, and the chords will sound much more musical than if arranged as blocks built up from the root.
Ever wondered what the intro to Strawberry Fields would sound like if Paul had chosen another Mellotron tape bank? A great benefit of using samplers is that you can easily audition different instrument sounds to work out what sounds best for different songs. Some songs may demand the lusher string patches to compete in big arrangements, whereas other arrangements may require more subtle patches such as the subdued Mellotron Cello patch. Check out the intro played using the infamous Mk.II Strings that I covered in my Flaming Lips article, as well as the Mk.II Brass patch.
After Strawberry Fields Forever fades out, it fades back in and the Mellotron makes another appearance, this time with some phrases from the Cha Cha / Swinging Flute tape set played in reverse. This tape set was a bank of pre-recorded flute phrases that could be played alongside some prerecorded piano phrases to create the sound of a full band. The Beatles would use a sample from a similar Mellotron bank to open the song The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.
The Swinging Flute sample in question plays on loop a few times, either due to the Mellotron's keyboard being pressed repeatedly or the recording being cut up on tape. It comes in right at the end just before John says "Cranberry Sauce" or "I buried Paul". Here's the original sample in its entirety:
And the sample in reverse:
And finally, the sample cut up to resemble the way it's used at the end of Strawberry Fields Forever. I've sped the sample up and after that just used Ableton's edit tools such as split, cut and paste to rearrange the musical material.
As always, thanks for reading! My next article on Mellotrons will cover Radiohead's use of the instrument on their album Ok Computer, so stay tuned for that. Also be sure to check out my Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds article for more 60s psychedelic sounds.