Paul McCartney wanted one, the story goes; so did Led Zeppelin. Promoted in the 1970s as the “orchestra at your fingertips,” it was an unlikely combination of a piano keyboard and a series of 8-track tape players cobbled together in a Wallingford, Conn., garage by an unemployed musician with no mechanical experience.
The Birotron was going to revolutionize music, and local papers hailed the Wallingford resident as the next Les Paul or Robert Moog. “Birotron Starts Tremor in Rock World: Ragged Inventor Awaits Riches,” read one headline. More than 30 years later, only six Birotrons are known to exist. Its appearance on record has been limited to a handful of albums, including two by the progressive rock band Yes.
But the Birotron has never been completely forgotten. The instrument often described as “ill-fated” has received renewed interest in recent years. Writer Paul Collins detailed the history of the Birotron a few years ago in the literary magazine “The Believer.” David Biro and his creation appear in the 2009 documentary “Mellodrama” (the DVD was released last week). And there’s talk of reviving the Birotron for real.
Part of this might have to do with the “what if?” factor; had the Birotron succeeded, how would it have changed pop music? Biro says he’s surprised by the continuing interest.
“When I first got the idea for it, I only planned on making one for myself,” Biro says. “Making money had nothing to do with it. I wanted it to help further my musical career, but instead it ended up sidetracking my career to the point of no return.”
Cult status, of course, doesn’t pay bills. Today, Biro lives in a mobile home in Bayou George, Fla. He’s been unemployed for the past few months after the car upholstering business he worked for folded.
“It didn’t fail because it was a bad idea,” says David Kean, an electronic music historian and owner of Mellotronics in Calgary, Canada. “It didn’t fail because it was poorly designed. It failed because (Biro) counted on the fortunes of a rock star, and that’s always a dicey proposition.”
That rock star was Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, whose flashy style made the synthesizer seem as cool as the electric guitar in the early 1970s. The lives of the two 20-something men — one an out-of-work factory worker, the other a British musician known for elaborate stage costumes, would soon intersect to create an odd chapter in music history.
Biro first saw Wakeman perform in 1973 in Wallingford and was immediately star-struck. With binoculars, he analyzed Wakeman’s keyboard setup and committed it to memory. Wakeman had a Mellotron, so Biro also wanted one.
Considered one of the earliest music samplers, the Mellotron’s tones come from prerecorded tapes of other instruments. Press a key and, voila! Cello sounds, organ sounds, choir sounds. But the limitations of pre-digital technology made the tones sound like, well, recordings. Biro balked at spending $3,500 for it.
“I think I literally said, ‘I could do better than this in my father’s garage,’” says Biro, now 60. So with a $400 unemployment check, he bought 19 used 8-track players and got to work in his father’s garage. He spent more than 100 hours chopping up and reassembling the keyboard of an upright piano. He opened up 8-track cartridges and replaced the tapes with recordings he made from the Mellotron. Biro had no formal mechanical training, and the process was an arduous one.
“I remember when I got the first two notes, I plugged in the keyboard and played them, and went ‘woah!,’” he says. “And in a few days, I could play a whole chord.”
Because each key sounded the tape loop of an 8-track cartridge, Birotron notes lasted indefinitely. The Mellotron’s notes lasted only 8 seconds before the tapes had to rewind.
He played it for the members of his hard-rock band, Blackwood. One suggested showing it to Wakeman. Biro laughed. Rick Wakeman! It could never happen. But his band’s manager was able to set up a meeting after a show at the New Haven Coliseum in October 1974. Biro threw his invention into the trunk of his Pinto and drove to the Coliseum.
“The escalators were all going down, so I had to run up the friggin’ escalators, seven stories, as fast I could while carrying this thing,” he says.
Backstage, Wakeman gave it a go. He smiled.
“He said, ‘How would you like to make some money with this?’” Biro recalls. “It was surreal, I was on cloud one hundred and ninety-nine. I couldn’t believe it was happening. He was my idol.”
Wakeman also remembers the meeting.
“The Birotron I loved when I first saw it, because it solved a lot of the problems that the Mellotron had, and I could see a future in it,” he said in an e-mail.
Within two months, Biro was in London, part of Birotronics Ltd., Wakeman’s newly minted company. Word got out about the new instrument.
“Everybody who was anybody wanted one,” Biro says. The Beach Boys and Paul McCartney expressed interest, he says. One of his favorite memories is discussing the Birotron over the phone with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.
But after many delays in the instrument’s launch, Biro felt increasingly shut out of the process. “It kind of got out of my control.”
Biro remembers razzing Wakeman about his many marriages. Wakeman was going through an especially costly divorce at the time, a serious drain on funds. But Wakeman’s love life alone didn’t kill the Birotron. The prototype bore a flaw not in Biro’s original design: The 8-track players were placed horizontally, instead of vertically. “Eight-track tapes don’t like standing like that,” he says. “For whatever reason, the tapes jam up.”
But it was digital technology that finally killed the Birotron. The new music samplers boasted sounds much closer to the original sources, and Wakeman figured their product was obsolete. Production of the Birotron, which would have retailed for about $3,000, stopped altogether. About a dozen were made — numbers vary depending on whom you ask. Wakeman had one, but it was stolen.
In 2005, the Times of London reported that one Birotron owner sold his for $35,000. Biro, who owns one, doubts he could get that kind of money for his in this economy.
Craig Wuest of Atlanta is another Birotron owner. He got his from a former member of the German electronic band Tangerine Dream. Wuest’s old band, Earthstar, is one of the few to commit the instrument’s sounds to a commercial recording.
“I was taken by (the Birotron) because it doesn’t sound like anything else, it just doesn’t,” he says, adding that he doesn’t play it for fear of wearing out the instrument’s parts.
Wakeman and Biro last saw each other in 1994 and speak fondly of each other. Wakeman also remembers the Birotron fondly, even though “it almost bankrupted me.” The musician says he invested “a small fortune” in the instrument, but won’t specify how much.
Biro tried working out a deal in the U.S. with some Stratford, Conn., entrepreneurs. That deal was killed by the recession, but Biro earned $5,000 from it, the only money he has made off the Birotron.
But the unique Birotron chorus sound lives on, thanks to the instrument that inspired it. Streetly Electronics, a company based in the United Kingdom, offers it as part of its catalogs of tapes for the Mellotron. The Canadian band Arcade Fire uses it on the soundtrack it recorded for the recent film “The Box.” Does Biro get royalties?
“No, no, of course not!” he says, laughing. “Why do you think I’m broke?”
Chris Dale, a Birotron enthusiast in Toronto who befriended Biro some years ago, thinks that the Birotron could be revived in some form — perhaps as digital sounds that could be downloaded for a fee. “It would be great if Dave could make some money off this,” he says. “I’d like to see the whole problem redeem itself.”
He says there’s enough curiosity about the Birotron to make it work.
“It would have been interesting to see how all these musicians would have used this instrument,” he says. “It’s this unexplored thing that never had a chance to emerge.”
// Notes from the Road
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