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The Birotron was an ill-fated tape replay keyboard conceived by Dave Biro of Yalesville, Connecticut, USA, and funded by Rick Wakeman of the progressive-rock group Yes in the mid-late 1970s.

Contents

Technology

The Birotron was a keyboard instrument that used 8-track cartridge tapes to play sounds whenever a key was pressed on the keyboard. It is similar in concept to the Chamberlin and Mellotron, and was a forerunner of digital sampling. Keyboards like the Mellotron and Birotron were mainly used for strings, choirs, brass, and flutes; sounds not easily reproduced on the synthesizers of that era. The major innovation of the Birotron was that it stored its sounds using 8-track tape loops, which allowed it to play the sounds indefinitely, a great improvement from the 8-second limit of the Mellotron. Another improvement was a separate attack and decay envelope for each note (like a VCA on analogue synthesizers) that allowed each note on the keyboard to independently attack and sustain. Sounds could be blended and morphed through changing the track selector after a chord was played. This was not possible on the Mellotron or Chamberlin. A ten turn pitch knob also allowed the sounds to be speeded up or slowed down.

History

Unable to afford a Mellotron, Dave Biro invented this instrument for personal use in early 1974 and showed it to Rick Wakeman in October 1974 after a concert performance in Connecticut. Wakeman noted it sounded "more mellow than a Mellotron" was so impressed by the indefinite tape loop idea that he asked Biro if he'd like to "make some money with this thing" and offered to fund its manufacture. It was developed in 1975 by Birotronics, Ltd which was one of Wakeman's Complex 7 businesses. The Packhorse Road Case company was also part of Complex 7.

The Birotron was introduced in advertisements to the music world in 1976. Costing an estimated 1500-3000 dollars along with the promise of tapes available cheaply at music stores, it was offerred as an alternative to the more expensive (and occasionally unreliable) Mellotron and Chamberlin. Interest and customer orders flooded in from musicians worldwide. These included Roger Whittaker, John Lennon, Paul and Linda McCartney, The Beach Boys, The Faces, Led Zeppelin, Captain and Tenille, Gary Wright, Dudley Moore, Patrick Moraz, and Yes. Over 1000 orders were eventually taken for the proposed B90 model.

Despite the skilled talents of the manufacturing team, (such as Emerson/McCartney Moog technician Phil Pierce who worked on the attack / decay electronics), delays in actual production arose due to issues that became time consuming to solve properly. These included international voltage considerations, tape head alignment, and fitting 8 track tapes into a smaller and extremely robust case. Although the problems were solved it meant that essentially the B90 Birotron was not made to a price and expensive components were used in its manufacture. This, plus the expense of filing for and receiving legal patents (to cover at least 2 incarnations of it as well as the loop recording process), along with hiring musicians to record sounds for the tapes made the Birotron project an increasingly expensive venture.


An entire sound library was recorded for the Birotron including string sections, brass, cello, flutes, organs, choirs etc. The London Symphony Orchestra, and Nottingham Town Choirs were involved in these recordings. Rick Wakeman himself recorded the organ sounds from a church organ both the Rolling Stones and The Who had used. Despite the years of work from 1975 through 1977 and over 1000 orders - no Birotron was ever commercially offered for sale. In the end, less than a handful of musicians actually received a Birotron. Among this number were Klaus Schulze (Earthstar), Tangerine Dream, Rick Wakeman and Dave Biro (who lost one unit after Birotronics went bust and his house was reposessed).

In total, Birotronics made a very limited number of these instruments. There were 2 British versions of Biro's original prototype, along with 2 prototype versions of the B90. The B90 model itself was the "pre-production prototype" and it's estimated that 12 were made. A mockup - prototype "C" version funded by Rudkin-Wiley Co. (investors / owners in Pepperidge Farm Foods / Air Shield manufacturing for trucks) came after the Birotronics business bust. This model was never completed due to the 1981 recession in the USA and only one unfinished and incomplete version of this exists.


It is unknown for certain how many Birotrons were made. David Biro says only 17 were made, including the original and the 4 aforementioned prototypes, while Rick Wakeman claims 35. This discrepancy is partially explained by the fact that parts existed to make at least 20 machines, and that being in the betatest phase the serial numbers on the assembled B90's may not have been in sequential order. Four of these were owned by Rick Wakeman, who noted in a 1999 interview that 2 were stolen, 2 were left damaged beyond repair, and one Birotron was recently sold privately for $35,000. Today only 5 or 6 Birotrons are left in existence.

Two major factors led to the Birotron's demise. The most direct cause was a lack of necessary and consistent funding. The Birotron also suffered from poor timing - originally intended for release in the mid 70's but delayed until much later and very shortly before the arrival of the digital sampling technology (such as the Fairlight CMI) which would render it obsolete. Towards the end of the late 70's, there was a possibility of the Mellotron company people becoming involved but Birotronics abandoned the idea of any commercial production as funds ran short and it was estimated the Birotron would not compete in the marketplace. David Biro returned to the USA and attempted to sustain the project by designing another model that overcame manufacturing challenges in earlier versions and might be more viable. This model C version (invested in by the Pepperidge Farm investors) would have included digital technology, and a remote keyboard that connected to the machine but sustained funding wasn't available for this either and by 1982 all Birotron projects had ceased.

Both Rick Wakeman and David Biro were virtually bankrupted by the project as an estimated 50,000 pounds (upwards of half a million dollars today) disappeared into it. Today the Birotron has been labelled "Rock's Rarest Instrument", not only for the 5 or 6 surviving units (of which only 3 are completed instruments), but also because it remains one of the only instruments in the world with an entire sound library that's never been digitally salvaged. Four sounds have emerged as samples from a surviving Birotron, although all are from badly damaged 8 track tapes inaccurately recorded at the wrong motor speeds due to improper settings of the 10 turn pitch knob. Because of this, accurate software-based Birotron sounds continue to remain unobtainable for musicians, and only the few original Birotrons are representative.

Discography

The Birotron B90 model was used on the Yes albums Tormato (deep in the mix) and Yesshows and Wakeman's solo album Criminal Record. It also appears on 3 albums by the band Earthstar: French Skyline, Atomkraft? Nein, Danke!, and Humans Only; In the 1990s it is used on the track "Lift" by Dave Kean on the Mellotron tribute: The Rime of the Ancient Sampler; and on the song "Nickel Plated Man" by Eleni Mandell on the album Wishbone. Recordings of Biro's original prototype and the later model C version remain unreleased. The Birotron's looped sounds are similar to the sounds of the Orchestron and keyboard section of the Optigan but retain a much cleaner Mellotron or Chamberlin - like timbre because of the tapes. The attack and decay system for each note and the 10 turn potentiometer (for varying the speed of the tapes) makes the sound unique, haunting, and occasionally unrecognizable in the few recordings that feature it. Because of this, people may not always recognize the sound as a Birotron when they hear it.

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