The History and Mystery of The Minitron
Growing up in the Washington D.C. area in the 1980s, I had heard stories from several people about a local band, "Bazilisk," that performed with what many had described as a synthesizer that used 8-Track tapes to make sounds like a Mellotron. I never got to see them play, as the group disbanded by the time I had heard of them.
I forgot all about them and the mysterious synthesizer until Hal McGee of Electronic Cottage started asking around about another Washington D.C. group, "Psychodrama," that shared some of its members with Bazilisk. It was then that I was reminded of the legendary instrument and was not only able to discover its name, but I also learn that the "Minitron" was designed and built by Norman Lederman in the 1970s as part of a graduate thesis project on tape-based loop technology.
The Minitron was an early sampling / looping system that could trigger 48 independent voices of tape-based sounds. Utilizing an array of six analog eight-track "cart" machines with 1/4" tape. The Minitron assigned each of the 48 tracks to a corresponding key on a slide-out keyboard mounted below the carts.
The Minitron had several features that made it more advanced than the Mellotron. The most prominent features were the Minitron's ability to play sounds longer in length, continuously, with amplitude control, and the ability to record its own sounds.
Where the Mellotron had a single strip of tape that played end-to-end, with no sustain, and pre-recorded envelope, the Minitron could begin and end at any point in the loop, and would loop as long as the key was held. Even more impressive, the Minitron could play back loops as long as 40 minutes. By starting and stopping at different points in the loop, the player could play the same recording in different ways. This extra latitude in playback time and accessibility offered a number ways for the musician to play the sounds without them sounding as repetitious as the short samples of the Mellotron.
Just as impressive, is the Minitron could also record its own sounds. Utilizing eight audio inputs, new audio could be recorded to an 8-track cartridge in the left cart slots, then be switched to the right slot for playback. Recording to cartridges made it possible for the artist to build their own library of sounds that could be set up very quickly for use in performance, or recording in the studio.
Finally, the Minitron also featured some level of control over the tape loops themselves, with separate attack, decay and volume controls for each of the 48 voices, allowing the player to be more creative with how sounds where shaped and combined.
I was able to locate Norman, and had the wonderful opportunity to talk to him about how his design for the Minitron came about; how it was developed over years, how it was played in performance, and even some background on the group, Bazilisk.
When was the final version of the Minitron we see today, completed. Or was it always a work in progress?
Primary design & construction of the Minitron commenced in 1970 and was completed in 1974. On-board recording capabilities were added in 1975. Minor refinements continued for several years after.
The standard Fidelipac cartridges were supposedly 1, 2 or 4 tracks. How did you get 8-tracks to playback on the NAB machines?
Consumer 8 track technology was applied to the Minitron’s NAB decks. Initially, this was done on a TEAC A-1200 reel to reel deck, modified with the addition of a movable (up/down) 8 track stereo record head. Tapes were recorded, one track at a time, and then loaded into the NAB cartridges (yes, it was a labor of love!).
Tape speed was twice that of consumer 8 tracks, running at 7.5 inches per second. This resulted in better signal to noise and extended frequency response.
A better arrangement evolved with the addition of record capability in the Minitron’s first deck. Pre-loaded blank NAB carts could then be used with external record electronics providing the proper output to the deck’s record/playback heads (actually 2 stagger-mounted 4 track heads in each deck, manufactured by Nortronics).
Were you aware of the limitations of the Mellotron when you and chose the Fidelipac cartridge for the recording medium?
By the way….if my memory serves me… ”Fidelipac” was the name of a specific brand of NAB cart. In the 1970’s a new & innovative NAB cart was developed that did away with pressure pads, reducing head & tape wear. I believe it was made by 3M or Audiopak.
I was very aware of the Mellotron’s limitations in regard to sample length. I heard reports of musicians modifying Chamberlins/Mellotrons so that they could play tape loops, but of course this approach eliminated the ability to quickly switch banks of sounds. And… I wanted to engage &;mix continuous sampled sounds… up to 48 separate tracks simultaneously.
Was looping part of the design from the start, or was that a bonus effect of choosing the cartridge format?
Continuous sounds and not being limited to holding keys down to play them was a major part of the Minitron’s inspiration and design from the very beginning.
What did the ability to loop a sound offer the performer, compared with the Mellotron's triggered tape strips?
Continuous playback… sound effects and chords that could play without stop. The Mellotron naturally had the advantage of always starting at the same sample point, preserving the natural attack & decay of the source recording.
Can you briefly describe how sounds were loaded into the Minitron?
I was able to obtain a copy of master Mellotron tapes, in particular; various configurations of strings, and male & female choirs. I also recorded many original sounds. After joining Bazilisk, many sounds were provided by the group, usually “special effects” for enhancing our music. All of these samples were transferred, one at a time, to consecutive tracks of the NAB carts, inserted into the record/playback deck 1. A potentiometer was added in series with the output of the external record electronics so that a fairly seamless start & stop could be achieved with the loop recordings.
Because of the looping function, did you have to record (and manage) the sounds in a certain way?
Unless I cued up a specific effect…of course there was no way to know where I was in a tape loop when tracks were activated. For continuous string & vocal/choir sounds, this was no problem. One of the group’s songs ended with the explosive sound of a rocket ship blasting off. For this…and many other special effects… I had the loop cued up and ready to engage by switching on the assigned deck.
What were some of the things you could do with the very long recording time of up to 40 minutes?
As previously mentioned, Bazilisk often created their own special effects and “audio atmospheres” that could run for several minutes. Much longer were samples of nature sounds such as the ocean, wind, thunder, etc.
Can you describe some of the special techniques you developed for playing continuous loops?
I became skilled at cuing the carts and tape splicing (the loops)… but still, playing one or more tracks from the same loop could result in an audible tape splice drop out. Usually, this was masked by using lots of reverb and/or tape echo… and engaging more than one loop to cover the splices.
How well did the Minitron work at sampling and playing back a real instrument like a cello or guitar?
Realistic sampling of musical instruments with characteristic attack & decays was not practical with the Minitron, although in Bazilisk we sampled whole musical passages (fast piano chord sequences, reversed guitar/piano, voices, etc.) for insertion into our songs. Naturally, continuous string and vocal sounds worked very well.
Were there any kinds of sounds the Minitron was NOT good for?
See previous answer.
With 48 different sounds possible. What were the kinds of setups did you use with the Minitron?
The Mintron has 150 knobs/potentiometers: each track has a dedicated attack, decay and volume control. In addition, each deck (8 tracks) has a “manual override” control that turns on all the tracks of the selected deck. This enabled me to set up & mix background sounds while engaging other tracks from the keyboard. Each octave of the 4 octave keyboard was directed to its own audio output, so there were lots of mixing options available to spread the sound (usually set up as a “stereo mix” with one half of the keyboard directed to the left, other half to the right).
How did you use the Minitron in performance, and did you further refine the design to accommodate live performance?
The Minitron wasn’t originally designed to be taken on the road, it was heavy (100+ lbs) and somewhat fragile with its 12 tape heads (that actually stayed in alignment very well). Over time, I trimmed the wooden cabinet down and added hand-holds for transport, and a rack to hold NAB carts directly over the keyboard for fast changes during performances. I became skilled at swapping tapes with my left hand while playing the keyboard with my right. I also found attaché cases that were ideal for holding and transporting the carts. An unintentional bonus… the Minitron fit perfectly in the back of my 1970 VW Squareback!
Basilisk, was a group you performed in with the Minitron. How did Basilisk form?
That’s Bazilisk with a “z”. In the mid-1970’s I started to consider how mutually beneficial it would be to join up with like-minded musicians to create original music together. If my memory serves… Bazilisk’s founder, Brett Kerby, placed an ad in a D.C. arts & music newspaper that caught my eye. He was forming the group and auditioning local musicians. We met, I appreciated his classical training and music ideas… and he saw the potential of the Minitron to support his music.
Who were the members?
The original seven member lineup included drums, bass and wind instruments, and is vague in my memory today. The final version of the group had Brett on keyboards & vocals, me on Minitron (and borrowed Synthi), Alice Mann lead vocals, and David Meschter on guitar (often highly processed with Robert Fripp-ish layering).
How many performances did they do? Please share any interesting stories about Bazilisk.
Most active in the late 70’s, the group performed in a wide range of Washington D.C. area, and Baltimore venues, ranging from D.C. Space, to Madams Organ, to All Soul’s Church. I can’t recall the number of performances.
Bazilisk hooked up with a local sound guy, Ace Pace, who seemed to really like what the group was doing. He generously provided a PA system and ran sound for the various live performances… and was paid when money was available.
During this time, the group pitched in to replace Brett’s aging electric keyboard. For some inexplicable reasons… we purchased a large organ (in heavy wooden cabinet) that weighed around 1,000 lbs (it felt like it when we carried it to gigs). Eventually, we removed the organ’s vacuum tube (!) electronics and carried them from gig to gig. Of course, this was not a sustainable idea and I think his keyboard was replaced one more time.
Our rehearsal and recording space was located in the basement of the Physics Department at Amercan University. My professor, mentor and friend, Dr. Romeo Segnan allowed us free and unlimited access during off-hours.
Can we expect a Basilisk CD or release of some sort in the future?
No, not that I am aware of.
Are there any demonstration recordings of the Minitron for people to listen to?
Nothing readily available.
Did you ever consider developing the Minitron for commercial production?
No. At the peak of my use of the Minitron (late 70’s to early 80’s), interest in this technological approach was fading. I believe this is also the period when Mellotrons & Chamberlins began to disappear… eventually being replaced by “string machines” and digital sampling instruments.
Today, there is huge interest in vintage, analog synthesizers, and even tape. Have you considered building a new Minitron or are there other devices that have covered that ground already?
In recent years I’ve noticed a growing nostalgia for Mellotron sounds: digitally recorded libraries of re-mastered sounds, and even “Mellotron” guitar pedals. I check in with popular music and occasionally hear something Mellotron-ish in the background.
When the Moody Blues were inducted into the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I was delighted to hear Ann Wilson acknowledge the Mellotron in her introductory speech!
No Minitron plans for me at this time. The original instrument was sold to a Colorado collector years ago and he later moved it along. I sincerely hope whomever has it is continuing the adventure that began 50+ years ago.
The Mellotron and Minitron came to light during a decade of tremendous turmoil in our country. It was also a time of tremendous activism, spiritual awakenings and resultant breakthroughs in popular music composition, collaborations and recording studio techniques & technology.
I had many amazing experiences with my instrument and I am thankful to have been a part of those extraordinary times.
Encyclotronic is grateful to Norman for taking the time to speak with us. Today, he still works with new ideas in sound as the Director of Research & Development at Oval Window Audio, a manufacturer of technologies serving deaf & hard of hearing people.
We also wish to thank Craig Patterson of PMI Records for the images of the Minitron in this interview. You can see more about the Minitron at the PME Records page.