A special sound was present in Dave Biro’s head; it was similar to this:
The sound of a drawn-out “Aah” echoed throughout the area.
Biro was a young, aspiring musician in Connecticut in 1974, who had recently spent a hefty sum on a Minimoog. He had no job at the time, yet he was still listening to Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans nonstop, hearing the ethereal, orchestrally-inspired washes and understanding the impenetrable lyrics.
He was determined to achieve that sound.
However, he had no means to do it. Rick Wakeman, the prog-rock magician decked out with a glistening silver cape on stage, was playing a keyboard that had a cost of three and a half thousand dollars when it was brand new. Biro had nowhere near that type of money and his unemployment benefits would not last forever.
For twenty dollars apiece, he was able to get nineteen 8-track decks from the local junkyard and an old piano from a friend, taking out the keys one by one. He would spend marathon thirty-six hour sessions in his father’s garage, toiling away and experimenting–recording, piecing together, connecting, fading from one sound to another, understanding the board, and filing down the ivory of the keys to attach electrical contacts…
He recounts to me, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into; there were no blueprints, no designs, nothing. It was as if nobody believed it would be successful.”
After a month had gone by, he continued to labor, coming up with new ideas and taking them further. Further and further he progressed, with no end in sight.
He remembers how he often used rubber bands and was a frequent shopper at Radio Shack.
Once he had completed his nocturnal task, he’d start up the Stereo 8 and hear Tales as the dawn broke. After which, the nineteen other 8-tracks would commence playing and he’d press a single key on his minimalistic piano piece. Then… and then…
You have heard this sound in your head as well. If you cue up David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to the 1:10 mark, you will hear Ground Control announce liftoff and a peculiar swell of flute-like and cello-like instrumentals. This is Rick Wakeman at work, recording for a Bowie session in 1969, on the Mellotron: the earliest form of an analog sampler. Its keys play back predetermined recordings of, for example, a middle C# on a cello. The flute notes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” are from a Mellotron, as are the strings of “The Rain Song” and the choir of “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.”
It just so happens that the Mellotron is featured prominently throughout Tales from Topographic Oceans.
The BBC were once told by Jean Michel Jarre that it is the most peculiar instrument imaginable. A creative mind had the idea to substitute the strings of a piano with tape and the mallet with a tape head.
The Mellotron was not created with the intent of rocking out; instead, when it was first released in 1963, it was meant to be a home entertainment console, a sort of advanced Lowry Organ. Once the dowdy wooden panels are removed, a complex arrangement of dark brown plastic tape frames, plywood supports, and a dark green servo controller board is revealed. Sitting on top of it is a silver flywheel that produces a 400 kHz hum.
Below the keyboard assembly hang multiple lengths of recording tape, all of which are separated from each other by opaque plastic strips. If a key is pressed, one of the lengths of tapes will be drawn up toward the keyboard assembly and, after eight seconds, be sent back down by a spring-loaded pull.
If one plays a solo across the keys, the tape lengths will move up and down in succession. This mechanism is captivating to watch and listen to, but also quite difficult to maintain.
I was once cautioned by Wakeman that no computer has sufficient memory to store the explanations for why a certain instrument drove me crazy. Poor tuning, an inadequately powered motor, and its frequent breakdowns in addition to its substandard portability would top the list of the causes.
A Connecticut fan took it upon themselves to assemble an aged and grand, yet maddening, Frankenstein-esque instrument out of discarded machines that were mainly recognized for their tendency to abruptly end songs in their midst.
In an interview with Keyboard magazine, Rick Wakeman expressed how powerful the combination of the choir and strings is, claiming it was “really frightening.”
Following a performance in New Haven in October 1974 complete with his trademark cape, an inventor approached Wakeman and asked if he would be interested in a device that was more cost-effective, lightweight, and simpler to use than the Mellotron.
Check this out: the Birotron.
The sight was incredible. After hearing he would meet Rick after the concert, Dave Biro ran up ten flights of stairs in the parking garage to his car and brought back a stack of 8-track players wired to the middle three octaves of an old piano.
He had even fashioned his own tapes by opening 8-track cassettes and looping them with his own samples. The reason for 8-tracks was that they never needed to be rewound. They were set up in a loop and when a key was pressed, a playback head activated. All 19 machines were in a loop and ready to go.
A chorus of long and drawn-out “Ahhhh”s emanated from the crowd.
The samples Biro had worked on were not complete yet, yet they were a work of art. He had taken them from a friend’s Mellotron and then worked to loop each note into a continuous sound. It was not an easy task as musical instruments are not intended to do that, due to having an attack and a decay, and wavering slightly in between.
But Biro put in a lot of effort to cross-fade and splice, double it up in stereo and fix any technical issues like phase cancellation in his father’s garage. Eventually, he ended up with something the world had never heard before.
A never-ending sound of a cello.
As he plugged the Birotron into a Fender amp and began to play, Wakeman gradually lost himself in the music. He stopped to inquire about Biro’s plans, then continued to play. Finally, he shifted his gaze to Biro.
He queried if one would be interested in profiting from this particular opportunity.
In 1975, Wakeman opened a business near London with his colleague Peter Robinson and a mechanical engineer known as Roger Rogers. This wasn’t just a homemade contraption anymore- it was something much greater- the keyboard of the future.
Tangerine Dream was one of the first customers of the Birotron and Rick Wakeman toured with a prototype of the instrument to play “Don’t Kill the Whale” by Yes in 1978. The sound of the instrument can be heard at the end of the song. With this glimmer of success, Birotronics Inc. had to figure out how to make the device mass-producible. To do this, the company found a way to fit nineteen 8-track tapes into the instrument. A single rotating bar was devised such that it ran all the tapes simultaneously. To control the attack and decay of each note, they used various preamps and VCAs, or simple knobs.
For their custom Birotron sounds, they scheduled recording sessions. As 8-track tapes have 8 tracks that run parallel, each tape contained 4 different instrument sounds for 2 keys. Due to the fact that 8-tracks could become misaligned and occasionally play sounds from the adjacent track, they smartly allocated every tape to 2 keys a fifth higher or lower, so any interference would avoid being too off-key.
Fantastic inventions. However, there was an issue: it was not recommended to place 8-tracks horizontally.
When Wakeman’s firm evaluated the 8-track product characteristics, there was only minimal interest in it. Nevertheless, as befitting a musician who eventually destroyed one of his Mellotrons, his enterprise conducted rigorous trials for sturdiness – including, by one account, throwing one out of an aircraft. (The conclusion: not meant to be hurled from helicopters.)
Though not warmly remembered, the Birotron is still recalled by other members of Yes. During one session, Steve Howe took his revenge on the machine by stickering a Seals & Crofts 8-track in the back of the Birotron’s tape set. So in the midst of a solo, Rick Wakeman was unexpectedly met with the sound of: _We may never pass this way aaaa-gaaaain, We may n …… _
Indeed, an appropriate song lyric could be made from the fact that the Birotron unfortunately could not be saved.
Wakeman described something created by a malicious professor as “the chip” and Birotronics ran into serious technical issues that it had caused itself. As digital keyboards emerged, they quickly crushed the Mellotronic variety and the species was wiped out in a few years.
In conclusion, a sum of fifty thousand pounds of Rick Wakeman’s funds, which would be worth around half a million dollars currently, was spent on his 8-track project and was never recovered.
The exact quantity of Birotrons manufactured is uncertain; Nic Lewis asserts it was thirteen, Dave Biro declares seventeen, and Wakeman estimates thirty up to thirty-five. It is likely that all of them are right since Biro’s number includes pre-production models while Wakeman’s includes the machines whose components were already purchased but not yet assembled when the business shut down.
A few years back, when I asked Peter Robinson, a former executive of Birotronics, about his experience with them, he chuckled–“I honestly tried to erase it from my memory,”–but he did remember what became of the absent devices.
He confessed that in the early 1990s, he discarded any unassembled models, speculating that they would never again be popular.
What happened to the machines that managed to survive?
When Robinson was asked where they were, he responded that he had no idea. He even mentioned that he had not seen Dave Biro since 1979, which was the last time he had seen him in New York.
An old companion of his, with a slight note of disbelief in their voice, inquired, “Dave Biro? Is he still alive?”
I received an email from him not long ago.
My gaze is directed at my computer; a photograph printed in the local paper, depicting me and the prototype from a while ago, is faintly visible.
A period of 30 years has gone by since then. Biro relocated to a trailer in Florida, but he didn’t become rich from his invention. Actually, the opposite occurred; his own Birotron was taken away when his house was repossessed. The entire Birotron incident ended up diverting him; as he puts it, “Having Inventor written on your resume is not impressive.”
Dave Kean, the present holder of their previous competitor, Mellotronics, is the reason why Biro still owns a Birotron. By 1991, two Birotrons had been noticed again: #007 in Detroit and #008, which had been unappreciated and partly put together at the original British home of Mellotronics. Kean got hold of the two and then restored them. After that, him and his wife drove #008 to Florida from afar as a surprise present for Biro.
Kean recounts that they were seated in his trailer, and the old-timer displayed his pictures, spoke of times past, and offered them some orange Tang. He was incredibly broke. Kean felt that it was unfair, as Dave had worked so hard on the instrument. So he went to the vehicle, brought the Birotron in, and set it on the kitchen table. This is yours. Tears filled Dave’s eyes as it had been such a long time since he had laid eyes on one.
This was an exceptional item. As it was featured in a popular single and a popular tour, the Birotron can be referred to as the rarest rock instrument manufactured.
It is known that only four of them are still in existence and not one is found in the same country: Dave Biro in Florida (#008), Dave Kean in Alberta (#007), former Birotron employee Nic Lewis in England (#009, and parts from #012 and #015), and Mellotron Studio owner Ryo Sekine in Tokyo (#005). Even Rick Wakeman does not have one anymore. Out of the four owners, only Sekine does not have a business connection to the instrument.
Only one customer remains that utilizes the Birotron, which was once thought to be the next big advancement in keyboard technology.
Interesting to note, the Mellotron has made a resurgence, as it is still in production and has been featured in recent recordings by Radiohead and Modest Mouse. The Birotron, however, has only been seen twice in the last quarter of a century. The first sighting of it was by Dave Kean on a CD titled The Rime of the Ancient Sampler, and then again in 1999. Producer Brian Kehew, who is also half of the duo Moog Cookbook and coproducer of Fiona Apple’s album, used the instrument on Eleni Mandell’s track “Nickel Plated Man” for her album Wishbone.
He sent me an email informing me that the flute cartridge had a peculiar warble that gave it an eerie atmosphere – he thought it was perfect for the tune.
When Kehew first encountered the Birotron, he was already aware of its flaws. After mixing a Rhino reissue of the 1978 Yes album Tormato, he was not impressed with the instrument’s performance. One problem was the decision to stack the 8-tracks on their sides, which caused the tapes to wear unevenly and become misaligned with the tape heads. This led to a strange, detached sound.
Kehew states that none of the Birotron sounds could compare to a Mellotron’s, since they sounded rather “thin” in comparison.
Kehew was impressed by the wide range of tones and notes the Birotron’s controls could create and thought it was far superior to Mellotron technology. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how good the Birotron could have sounded without its master tapes and a way to repair a surviving instrument.
Surprisingly, while on a business trip to Holland, Peter Robinson, a former executive of Birotronics, was informed of a trunk containing Birotron memorabilia. Upon opening it, he was astonished to find the master tapes still in perfect condition. Astonishingly, the recordings featured the London Symphony Orchestra and a choir, as if they had been recorded just yesterday.
I had kept Peter’s story in my memory for two years before I randomly mentioned it to Martin Smith, an audio restorer from Streetly Electronics near Birmingham, UK. He had a Birotron in his shop, but the tapes were ruined. He asked where he could find Peter Robinson, and Streetly soon obtained the masters, beginning the process of restoring 8-tracks. They sent a friend to the local Oxfam thrift shop for “new” tape cases, and he bought all of the 8-track cartridges they had. After emptying out the old cartridges, Streetly attempted to bring back the instrument’s original sounds.
Smith reflects on the difficulty of the task, and remarks that the sound quality was not as good as expected. The machine was notoriously loud, with its nineteen tapes running simultaneously creating a cacophony, “like a Singer machine on acid”. Additionally, it was relatively small and portable, yet a regular of Streetly recalls that it was “incredibly heavy”.
The condition of the master tapes was precarious. They were not only fascinating to listen to, with the musicians and choir members making mistakes and fooling around, but also very delicate. They were made with old Ampex 456 tape, which many recording engineers recognize as having a binding agent that deteriorates over time and gets caught in the tape heads if the tape is replayed after a number of years. The only way to restore the tapes is to bake them in an oven and then play them through a dubbing deck one or two times before the coating wears off.
Despite its obscurity, the Birotron is slowly gaining attention as Streetly, its manufacturer, has posted a clip of a tape-set choir on its website. This evocative, captivating sound brings about a sense of nostalgia, overshadowing the technical difficulties and financial losses that arose from its introduction in the 1970s. For a brief moment, the listener can appreciate the sound that inspired Dave Biro to pursue his impossible dream.
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