Electro-Harmonix has been on a bit of a roll releasing new effect after new effect that allow guitarists to recreate classic organ and keyboard sounds. In essence, these are synthesizer pedals (though they haven’t yet done one that recreates analog synth sounds). But unlike so many guitar synths before them, they don’t require MIDI capability or special pickups. They are “plug and play” devices and instantly turn your guitar tones into vintage keys tones. Of course, to really sound like an organ or an electric piano, you need to play like an organ or keys player. In other words, if you start bending notes you sort of lose the illusion of having an organ player in the band.
As a new member in the “9” family, the Mel9 is a welcome addition. Mel is short for Mellotron and 9 stands for the nine “patches” available in each pedal in the series. Before we dig too deep, we should start with a little background on just what a Mellotron is. One way to think of it is as a primeval sampler. The Mellotron consists of a bank of pre-recorded tape loops. Each key on a Mellotron plays one of those loops. The original draw of the Mellotron was that it could recreate the sounds of orchestral instruments and even play full chords. Remember that early synthesizers were monophonic. Because of this, the Mellotron lived alongside synths for many years.
One of the coolest things about the Mellotron is actually a design flaw. Not unlike a tape delay, the mechanical movement of tape across and over a tape head in a Mellotron is inconsistent. This movement and the stretching of tape results in “wow and flutter” that adds a beautiful and slightly off-kilter modulation to the sound of the Mellotron. Rather than a flaw, it’s become a much beloved aspect of the Mellotron sound. Luckily, most of the patches in the Mel9 sound like they are being generated by a bank of spinning tapes. There might be a bunch of ones and zeroes churning away inside the pedal, but you wouldn’t know it just from listening. Just like a tape delay, the Mel9 sounds organic and alive.
With the Mel9, Electro-Harmonix set out to give guitarists access to Mellotron sounds—warts and all—in a convenient and easy to use pedal. It succeeded in spades; packing most of the Mellotron sounds that classic, alternative, and indie rock fans dream of: Orchestra, Cello, Strings, Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone, Brass, Low Choir, and High Choir. It sports controls for Dry Volume, Effect Volume, Attack, and Sustain. It also offers an output for Dry signal only and one for Dry and Effect. It’s probably obvious, but the Dry Volume and Effect Volume dials control the blend on the Effect output. Attack controls how quickly the Mel9 fades in. Dialed all of the way to the left, you get an instant attack. Turned right, you get a slow attack that fades in. This setting is especially great for building pads under rhythm guitar parts. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We don’t have enough space to dig into each patch in the Mel9. But rest assured, each sounds awesome and authentic and the tracking is flawless. I’d expect that 99 percent of guitarists who try the Mel9 are going to first try to cop the sounds from the most famous use of Mellotron on a recording—the use of a Mellotron “flute” sound on “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles. It’s the first thing I tried. I turned the guitar signal to zero, set Attack at 9 o’clock and Sustain at 3 o’clock and pulled up the tab for “Strawberry Fields.” I started playing and was blown away by just how accurate the emulation was.
Of course, I’m not in a Beatles cover band. So I quickly got to work trying the Mel9 in various original compositions. I grew up listening the sounds of New Order, U2, and the Cure. I’m always looking for cool “synthy pads” to bolster my clean rhythm parts. The Mel9 shines in this department, especially the Strings, Flute, and High Choir patches. Strings especially sounds like the synth strings you heard on so many ‘80s classics. Flute is cool, because it voiced darkly and sort of bob and weaves with modulation under whatever you play. Because of the darker voicing, you can turn the blend a little higher without drowning out your base guitar sound. As the modulation rises and falls, the effect becomes more and less apparent. It’s pretty special.
The Mel9 also works for lead guitar—both blended with your guitar signal and on its own. Trumpet doesn’t really sound like a trumpet, but it’s cool for bright synthy melodies. Clarinet and Saxophone on the other hand are bright, reedy, and buzzy and sound extremely cool when blended with a fuzz tone, adding extra bite and dimension to your parts.
What We Like
Maybe it’s because the learning curve is getting shallower, but it seems like each step in the 9 series pedals is easier to play than the one before it. I love everything about the Mel9 and it instantly earned a spot on my board.
None, unless you’re lazy and unwilling to adapt your playing style to the way the pedal works. Sloppy playing will lead to sloppy results.