The elusive Chamberlin Rhythmate

So while on the road this week I was fortunate enough to find a piece of gear I have only heard about around vintage guitar geek camp fires and sparklehorse chat room sessions.. (kidding….not really)

Now, being that I am no stranger to strange gear in my own musical quests, I have already used this piece of gear in my own music. The problem…. I had to use samples of said gear. Like catching “the big one,” on a man’s weekend fishing trip, no one ever expects to see it.. just talk about it their whole life.

So now I have a record with samples of Chamberlin Rhythmate drum loops plastered beneath my songs and will never be able to change the tempos or organically recreate it live…… till now!


Whenever I get the chance to travel and play music, I always have my musicians boyscout map of music stores that I must hit while in town. On this particular trip down the east coast I hit one said spot with only hopes of seeing old friends and maybe pick up a rare pedal.

As I am leaving someone says…”we’ve got this old drum machine…” My ears perked up like a fox on a snowy day. The owner slowly brings out a dusty, battered wooden box. I immediately knew what it was. All the late night scavenger hunts have paid off… I felt like a bull at a dog fight.

“Don’t know what it is… but its been here for ten years…. still works!” he says. I looked closer to find the gorgeous script on top, ‘Chamberlin Rhythmate’

Not going into too much detail… I paid a fair price… (snickering..) and I told my buddy with the keys to immediately start the car… as if we were the blues brothers pulling the old check on dash routine.

So what makes this machine sooooooo great? You can’t sequence it, it has an old and temperamental class a tube amp and tape loops… keeping … time?

Yup! Those same reasons that someone used to the joys of Roland drum machines and reason loops would hate the rhythmate, are why a guy like me loves it. For one… its rare… I mean rare! *check the manufacture info link at the bottom of post* And… if you own optigans and other said instruments and use them widely, as I do, the Chamberlin is the holy grail of drum machines.

Below is a patched together history of the company. Hopefully I will post that I found the matching organ… but another day…. enjoy Maindraggers.

-Matt Welsh

The Chamberlin was invented in the US in 1946 by Harry Chamberlin who had the idea (allegedly) when setting up his portable tape recorder to record himself playing his home organ. It is rumoured that it occured to him that if he could record the sound of a real instrument, he could make a keyboard instrument that could replay the sound of real instruments and thus the Chamberlin was born.

Chamberlin’s idea was ‘simple’ – put a miniature tape playback unit underneath each key so that when a note was played, a tape of ‘real’ instruments would be played. At the time, the concept was totally unique.

In the ’50s, at least 100 Chamberlins were produced and to promote his instrument, Harry teamed up with a guy called Bill Fransen who was (allegedly) Harry’s window cleaner. Fransen was (allegedly) totally fascinated by this unique invention and subsequently became Chamberlin’s main (and only) salesman.

However, there were terrible reliability problems with the Chamberlin and it had a very high (it is said 40%) failure rate with the primitive tape mechanism which resulted in tapes getting mangled.

Fransen felt that Chamberlin would never be able to fix these problems alone and so, unknown to Chamberlin (allegedly), Fransen brought some Chamberlins to the UK in the early ’60s to seek finance and a development partner. He showed the Chamberlin to a tape head manufacturer, Bradmatics, in the Midlands and the Bradley brothers (Frank, Leslie and Norman who owned Bradmatics) were (allegedly) very impressed with the invention and (allegedly) agreed to refine the design and produce them for Fransen but….

Under the mistaken impression that the design was actually Fransen’s (allegedly)!

A new company, Mellotronics, was set up in the UK to manufacture and market this innovative new instrument and work got underway with the Bradley brothers (allegedly) unaware that they were basically copying and ripping off someone else’s idea!

Of course, it wasn’t long before Harry Chamberlin got to hear of this and he too went to the UK to meet with the Bradley brothers. After some acrimonious discussions, the two parties settled with Harry selling the technology to the Bradleys. Mellotronics continued to develop their ‘Mellotron’ whilst Harry returned to the US where he continued to make his Chamberlins with his son, Richard, in a small ‘factory’ behind his garage and later, a proper factory in Ontario, a small suburb in Los Angeles. In total, they made a little over 700 units right through until 1981. Harry died shortly afterwards.

But whatever happened in those early meetings almost 40 years ago is inconsequential – the fact of the matter is that the two instruments are almost indistinguishable from each other. Each key has a playback head underneath it and each time a key is pressed, a length of tape passes over it that contains a recording of a ‘real’ instrument. The tape is of a finite length lasting about eight seconds and a spring returns it to its start position when the note is finished. As you can see from the photograph above though, the Chamberlin is smaller (although some mammoth dual-manual Chamberlins were also produced!).

Many claim that the Chamberlin had a better sound – clearer and more ‘direct’ …. which is strange because the Mellotron was (allegedly) better engineered than the Chamberlin. But there is a lot of confusion between the two instruments not helped by the fact that some Chamberlin tapes were used on the Mellotron and vice versa…. so even though the two companies were in direct competition with each other, they shared their sounds….. weird!

It also seems that some users were also confused and credited a ‘Mellotron’ on their records when in fact it might well have been a Chamberlin that they used (allegedly). However, given the similarities between the two, this confusion is understandable and it’s a tribute to Mellotronics’ marketing that they got the upper hand on the original design.

To be honest, the whole story is shrouded in hearsay and music history mythology and we may never know the truth (especially now that the original people involved are sadly no longer with us) but regardless of this, the Bradley brothers were obviously more successful with their marketing of the idea than Chamberlin himself. Although it was originally aimed at the home organ market with cheesy rhythm loops and silly sound effects, the Mellotron went on to become a legend in the history of modern music technology and the mere mention of its name can invoke dewy eyed nostalgia amongst some people. On the other hand, however, few people have even heard of the Chamberlin which is sad because Harry Chamberlin’s unique invention preceded the Mellotron by some fifteen years or more and by rights, it is the Chamberlin that deserves the title of “the world’s first sampler”.

Nostalgia has a lovely Chamberlin string sound that captures the original Chamberlin character quite authentically. Unlike the original, though, the sound is looped but, like the original, it has the same keyboard range (G2-F5) and is not velocity sensitive.



One Comment to “The elusive Chamberlin Rhythmate”

  1. So is your Chamberlin Rhythmate the same as in the picture above?

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