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The Birotron: The Keyboard of the Future
October 1, 2007 12:14 PM   Subscribe

In 1975, armed with a big pile of 8-track car stereos and a whole lot of moxie, Dave Biro set out to change the sound of rock music. He failed spectacularly. This is the fascinating and tragic story of one of the rarest instruments in rock music- The Birotron.

Even if you don't recognize the name, you've probably heard the Mellotron. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Kinks and countless others featured the unusual sounds of the keyboard on many of the most recognizable songs in rock music. However, despite the popularity of the Mellotron, it wasn't without it's flaws- heavy, bulky, slow, and- most important to this post- limited to 8 seconds of sound per key before the tapes which made up the sounds needed rewinding.

Dave Biro decided to improve upon the Mellotron, and by cramming all those 8-tracks in a case and wiring the whole mess together, he was able to create an instrument with virtually infinite sustain. Unfortunately, his timing was a bit off: 4 years after the first Birotron rolled off the line, the world's first polyphonic digital sampling synthesizer was introduced. That, plus some serious technical and quality control issues, was enough to kill off the Birotron after only a handful were made.
posted by 40 Watt (19 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very cool article. Only thing I noticed in it was the mention of a "telltale 400 kHz hum". Unless the author is a bat, there is no way he's hearing 400kHz anything; human hearing tops out at about 20kHz. I'm thinking he means 400Hz.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:21 PM on October 1, 2007


Personally, I think it wasn't the timing that was the problem. It was the Moxie.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:22 PM on October 1, 2007


No one should listen to that much Yes. Or any Rick Wakeman for that matter.
posted by sourwookie at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2007


Personally, I think it wasn't the timing that was the problem. It was the Moxie.

Oh, please. "Moxie contains gentian root, which is the path to the good life." What more do you need?

No one should listen to that much Yes. Or any Rick Wakeman for that matter.

For the record, I agree with you 100%, sourwookie.
posted by 40 Watt at 12:27 PM on October 1, 2007


Also, all the samples linked to from this page (which is linked to in the article, near the end) seem to be dead.

Any other sources for them?
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:27 PM on October 1, 2007


Here's a working link to the samples. Sorry, I should have caught that.
posted by 40 Watt at 12:31 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh man, that is awesome. As someone's who's currently trying to build an ungainly impractical musical instrument right now, I raise a glass to Mr. Biro.

Well-played, sir. Well-played.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:33 PM on October 1, 2007


Great story. Digital has obviously brought us many great things, but analog is where the fun is. I once built a guitar amplifier entirely out of parts from Radio Shack ... even etched the circuit board myself. It sounded completely horrible, but damn if it didn't work, and that's really the point. Building it was way more fun than using it.

I see they still sell the kits at RS, but I wonder if this isn't a dying hobby.
posted by itchylick at 12:54 PM on October 1, 2007


Yes’s 1978 hit single “Don’t Kill the Whale”

???
posted by malocchio at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2007


"i gave it a 72 dick. it's got a good beat and you can dance to it."
posted by quonsar at 1:26 PM on October 1, 2007


I read that as '72 inch dick'. Just so it goes down for future historians to study, I read the above comment as '72 inch dick'.

also: the Birotron is an awesome beast. Too bad about the issue with the tapes wearing unevenly, as the audio quality on a good, working 8-track far surpasses anything that digital audio will ever be able to accomplish in terms of dynamics and warmth.
posted by item at 1:40 PM on October 1, 2007


great article. Can't wait to play with the samples.
posted by Espoo2 at 1:57 PM on October 1, 2007


This is beautiful writing and a truly excellent post. That is not the sound I expected to hear. It's beautiful. I can't quite wrap my head around the idea that this was 1975. It's little wonder Biro thought his fortune was made.

I want more samples, very much. If anyone reading this ever comes across more and you think of it, would you let me know?
I would be grateful.

Thank you, 40 Watt. This made me very happy and rather broke my heart.
posted by melissa may at 3:23 PM on October 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Itchy, I was thinking as I read the article that there are probably a lot of analog multitrack 2-inch tape machines getting taken out of studios as digital takes over, and that one of those machines might make a pretty decent foo-o-tron with the right glue between it and a keyboard.
posted by oats at 3:46 PM on October 1, 2007


Other members of Yes still remember the Birotron, though without fondness; guitarist Steve Howe took revenge on the machine during one recording session by slipping a Seals & Crofts 8-track into the back of the Birotron’s tape set. Thus in mid-solo, instead of a diminished seventh chord, Wakeman would suddenly hear: We may never pass this way aaaa-gaaaain, We may n……

Ha!!!
posted by gimonca at 3:56 PM on October 1, 2007


Great post, 40 Watt. I love early synth history and I had never heard of the Birotron. What a truly 70's kind of invention.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:38 PM on October 1, 2007


Mighty fine, 40watt, mighty fine. Great find, great post.

Small suggestion: add the musicalinstrument tag.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:51 PM on October 1, 2007


Oats: 2-inch tape machines are still very much in demand (and very spendy).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:21 PM on October 1, 2007


If you've read this far, you may be interested in building your own Mellotron out of Walkmans! Via MusicThing, via Make zine...
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 10:26 PM on October 1, 2007


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