After a concert in 1975 at Carnegie Hall, Rick Wakeman (the keyboardist of Yes) met David Biro, an American from Connecticut. Biro presents his invention to him, an instrument capable of playing recorded sounds without the downsides of the Mellotron (sound limited to 8 seconds, impossibility of playing quickly…). It is a keyboard connected to 19 players of 8-track cartridges (“8-Track”, used in the 70s/80s mainly in the USA). These cartridges have looped tapes and do not need to be rewound.
Seduced by this prototype, Rick Wakeman created with Peter Robinson, Birotronics, a company located in England, for the manufacture of the Birotron. More than 1,000 orders are registered for a sale price of £1,000.
But the Birotron arrives too late. At the end of the 1970s, the first polyphonic synths (Polymoog, Prophet V…) and the first samplers (Fairlight…) appeared on the market and immediately made the Birotron obsolete. After a production of 13 machines, Birotronics went bankrupt in 1979.
Today, only 5 or 6 Birotron would still exist.
Only one model was manufactured between 1975 and 1978: the Birotron B90.
It has a 37-key keyboard.
The available settings are: Volume, Attack, Decay, Pitch Control and a track selector.
19 8-track cartridge readers (one reader for 2 keyboard keys) are each controlled by a servo board. Each card has 2 preamps, 2 envelope generators and 2 VCAs.
A cartridge is used for 2 keys of the keyboard: there are thus 4 tracks per key, therefore 4 sounds available. The sounds marketed were as follows: violins, string ensemble, cello, organ, male choir, brass, wind ensemble, transverse flute, recorder.
Rick Wakeman owned 4 Birotrons. Two of them disappeared, and the other two were accidentally damaged during tours. The Birotron can be found on two Yes albums, Tormato and Yesshows, and also on Wakeman’s solo album, Criminal Record.
Tangerine Dream and Earthstar are the only other famous bands who have used a Birotron.
- US 4,018,127 – Electronic musical instrument
Filed: 06/02/75 – Issued: 04/19/77
- US 4,182,214 – Electronic musical instrument
Filed: 01/27/78 – Issued: 01/08/80
Articles and links
- Ker-Chunk! A hit-making keyboard made of 8-track car stereos?
Meet rock’s rarest instrument – The Believer – June 2007
- David Biro’s interview – 24 january 2013
- Help Save The Birotron – Rock Music’s Rarest Instrument
- Yes and the rarest musical instrument in the world with Chris Dale
- Rick Wakeman’s interview – International Musician – September 1975
- Music News – International Musician – September 1975
- Wakeman Goes Into Business – International Musician – October 1975
Photos: Streetly Electronics