JUNE/JULY 2007

KER-CHUNK!

A HIT-MAKING KEYBOARD MADE OF 8-TRACK CAR STEREOS? MEET ROCK’S RAREST INSTRUMENT.

by Paul Collins

Dave Biro had a sound in his head, and it went sort of like this:

Ahhhhh-AHHHHHH-Ahhhhhh

He’d been listening nonstop to a new 8-track, Tales from Topographic Oceans; this was 1974, after all, when a Yes double album of four side-long songs could top the charts. Biro was a hopeful young musician in Connecticut; he’d already spent twelve hundred dollars on a Minimoog a few months earlier, only to find himself out of his day job now. But he still listened to that sound: phantom, hauntingly orchestral washes—and yet not quite an actual orchestra—sweeping like an undercurrent below the impenetrable lyrics of Tales.

He had to get that sound.

But how? It was coming from Rick Wakeman, prog rock’s wizard—the guy even wore a glittering silver cape onstage—and the keyboard Wakeman was playing cost thirty-five hundred dollars new. Biro didn’t have anything near that, and his unemployment checks weren’t going to last forever.

But he could get nineteen automotive 8-track decks from the junkyard for twenty dollars each—and an old piano from a friend, pulling the keys out one by one—and he could stay up thirty-six hours at a time in his father’s garage, working and working—recording, splicing, wiring, cross-fading, figuring out the action of the board, grinding the ivory off the keys to glue in electrical contacts…

“I had no idea what the hell I was doing,” he writes me. “No plans… no drawings… nothing. All I remember is that absolutely no one thought it could work at all.”

One month passed. Then another, and another still. Still he kept working—designing, improvising.

“Rubber bands came in very handy,” he recalls. “So did Radio Shack. I was a daily customer there.”

After working all night, he’d listen to Tales as the sun rose, the track selector on the Stereo 8 coming up to the next track. And then the nineteen other 8-tracks would start, and he’d press a key on his skeletal piano assembly, and then… and then…

KER-CHUNK!

The sound has been in your head too. Cue up David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to the 1:10 mark—just as Ground Control announces liftoff. There comes an unearthly swell of… flutes? Cellos? It’s Rick Wakeman again, this time on a 1969 Bowie session, and he’s playing the Mellotron: the original analog sampler, a piano cabinet rigged up with tape frames of recorded orchestral instruments. Press a key, and it plays back a specific tape of, say, a middle C# on a cello. The opening flute notes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” are a Mellotron; so are the strings in “The Rain Song” and the choir in “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.”

And, it so happens, the Mellotron is all over Tales from Topographic Oceans.

“It’s the craziest instrument you could imagine,” Jean Michel Jarre once explained to the BBC. “Somebody thought to replace the piano string with a tape, and the hammer with a tape head.”

The Mellotron was never supposed to rock out: It was launched in 1963 as a home entertainment console, a sort of hopped-up Lowry Organ. Yank off its dowdy wooden panels and you face an assemblage of dark brown plastic tape frames, plywood supports, and a dark green servo controller board. Atop it all spins a spinning silver flywheel with a telltale 400 kHz hum. Beneath the keyboard assembly hang innumerable lengths of recording tape, reaching from the keyboard almost to the bottom of the cabinet; they are separated from mutual strangulation by opaque strips of plastic. Press a key up top, and one of the lengths of tapes starts to disappear upward toward the keyboard assembly; after eight seconds, it reaches the top of the tape frame and then—fffwwiiittt—a spring-loaded pull drags the tape down again. Solo across the keys, and the little lengths of tape go up and down in succession. It’s mesmerizing to watch, beautiful to hear, and an utter pain in the ass to maintain.

“There is not enough memory in any known computer to handle the answers to questions about what drove me up the wall with that instrument,” Wakeman once warned me. “Its tuning, a badly designed and underpowered motor, plus the fact that it broke down on every gig and traveled appallingly would head the list.”

And it was that instrument—a doddering, majestic, infuriating musical Frankenstein—that a fan in Connecticut decided to conjure, golem-like, from a heap of cast-off machines best known for cutting off songs in the middle of a—

KER-CHUNK!

“The choir and strings are really frightening,” Wakeman boasted to Keyboard magazine.

He wasn’t referring to a Mellotron. After he’d played a New Haven gig in October 1974—shiny cape and all—Wakeman was approached by an inventor. Would he be interested in a machine that was cheaper, lighter, and easier to play than the Mellotron?

Behold: the Birotron.

It was an amazing sight. Dave Biro, upon hearing that he’d get to meet Rick after the concert, had run up ten flights of stairs in the parking garage to his car, and dragged down a pile of automotive 8-track players rigged to the middle three octaves of an old piano. Biro had even recorded his own tapes by cracking open a bunch of 8-track cassettes and relooping them with his own samples. Why 8-tracks? Well, 8-track cartridges never needed rewinding. You could set them on an endless loop for notes with infinite sustain. All nineteen machines ran endlessly and at the ready in a loop, and when you pressed down a key, it engaged a playback head:

Ahhhhh-AHHHHHH-Ahhhhhh

The samples were a work of art themselves; they weren’t perfect yet, but Biro had recorded them off a friend’s Mellotron and then carefully looped each note into a continuous sound. That, it turns out, is incredibly difficult, because musical instruments aren’t really supposed to do that. They have an attack and a decay; they waver slightly in between. But Biro had painstakingly cross-faded and spliced, doubled it up in stereo and patiently sorted technical bugbears like phase cancellation, and then—all this in his father’s garage—he had something the world had never heard before.

An endless cello note.

Wakeman plugged the Birotron into a small Fender amp and began playing it, sinking deeper and deeper into concentration. He asked a few questions about Biro’s plans, played some more, and then turned to him.

“How would you like to make some money with this thing?” he asked.

It wasn’t just some guy’s home-brew machine now. It was the keyboard of the future. Wakeman set up shop near London in 1975 with a team that included business partner Peter Robinson and a mechanical engineer with the unlikely name of Roger Rogers.

Tangerine Dream signed on as one of their first customers, and Wakeman toured with a prototype Birotron and recorded Yes’s 1978 hit single “Don’t Kill the Whale” with it—you can hear the endlessly held choir notes peeking through the mix at the very end of the song. So the instrument had some glimmers of success: now Birotronics Inc. had to figure out how to mass-produce it. The first order of business was fitting nineteen 8-tracks tapes into a reasonably small instrument. Instead of having nineteen separate players like Biro had done, they devised a single common rotating bar that ran across and ran all nineteen tapes at once. That seemed like a swell idea: and so, for that matter, was a control that created… swells. Since the endlessly looped tapes had no beginning or end, the attack and decay of each note was electronically controlled with—well, if you’re a gearhead, they had separate VCAs and preamps on every tape, and if you’re not, they had some pretty nifty dials on there.

They then booked recording sessions to create their own custom Birotron sounds. Because an 8-track has eight separate tracks running parallel on each tape, each tape carried four different instruments’ sounds apiece for two different keys. Since 8-tracks could slip out of alignment and sometimes played ghosts from the next track over, Birotronics cleverly assigned each tape to two keys a fifth interval apart: that way, any cross talk wouldn’t sound too discordant.

All splendid innovations. There was just one problem: you’re not supposed to stand 8-tracks on their sides.

This fine point of 8-track product specs passed with little notice at the time. Instead, and suitably enough for a musician who later burned one of his Mellotrons, Wakeman’s company enthusiastically crash-tested a number of early models for durability—including, by one account, dropping one from a helicopter. (The verdict: not suitable for dropping from helicopters.)

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……

And that would be an apt lyric, actually—because the Birotron was doomed.

“Some nasty professor invented the chip,” is how Wakeman later explained it. Dogged by technical problems—largely self-inflicted by Birotronics, and not by Biro’s brilliant prototype—and running short on money, the company began to crumble by 1979. Then digital keyboards arrived to pulverize every mechanical keyboard of the genus Mellotronics. Within a few years, the extinction was complete.

By the end, some fifty thousand pounds of Rick Wakeman’s money—worth upward of half a million dollars today—had disappeared into his 8-track folly.

Nobody’s even sure how many Birotrons were made: Birotronics employee Nic Lewis says thirteen, Dave Biro claims seventeen, and Wakeman counts thirty or thirty-five. In fact, they may all be correct. Biro’s figure includes prototypes, while Wakeman’s number probably accounts for Birotrons whose parts were ordered but still unassembled when the business went bust. Some years ago, when I asked former Birotronics exec Peter Robinson about his time with the company, he laughed—“Quite frankly, for a long time I blanked it all out of my mind”—but he did recall what happened to the missing machines.

“I threw away the unbuilt ones in the early ’90s,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t see them making a comeback.”

So where did the surviving machines go?

“Oh, I haven’t a clue where they are,” Robinson answered. “I don’t even know where Dave Biro is. The last time I saw him was in New York. In 1979.”

KER-CHUNK!

“Dave Biro?” an old friend of his asks, slightly incredulous. “Is he alive?”

“Very much so. I just got an email from him.”

I stare at my screen: Here is an old faded pic the local newspaper took of me and the prototype way back then.

Three decades have passed. Biro moved to a Florida trailer, not exactly having reaped riches from his invention. Far from it: his own Birotron was seized and discarded back when his house was repossessed. The whole Birotron affair sidetracked him a bit; as he puts it, “Inventor on a resume is NOT impressive.”

That he still has a Birotron at all is thanks to another Birotron owner, Dave Kean, the current owner of their old competitor, Mellotronics. By 1991, Kean had seen two Birotrons quietly resurface: Birotron #007 turned up in Detroit, and Birotron #008 had lain neglected and half-assembled at the original British home of Mellotronics. Kean acquired and restored both, and then he and his wife drove Birotron #008 across the country to Florida as a surprise gift for Biro.

“We sat in his trailer,” Kean recalls, “and he showed us his pictures, talked about the old days, and—I don’t know why I remember this—he served us orange Tang. The guy was as poor as a church mouse. And it just wasn’t right, you know…. Dave had put so much work into that instrument. So I went out to the car, brought the Birotron in, and I put it on his kitchen table. There, this is yours. And there were tears in his eyes: it had been so long since he’d even seen one.”

It was no small present. Considering that it was featured in a hit single and a major-grossing tour, the Birotron can be fairly called the rarest rock instrument ever made. Only four are known to survive, and no two exist in the same country: there’s 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). Wakeman himself doesn’t even own one anymore. Three of the four owners have a direct business connection to the instrument: Sekine is the only member of the general public to own one.

The Birotron, once the future of keyboard technology, now has one customer.

Curiously, its ancestor has made a comeback: the Mellotron is in limited production again and turns up in recordings by Radiohead and Modest Mouse. The Birotron, though, has only made two known reappearances in twenty-five years: first by Dave Kean on a now-rare CD, The Rime of the Ancient Sampler, and again in 1999. That time, producer Brian Kehew—also known as one-half of the band Moog Cookbook, and a coproducer of Fiona Apple’s latest album—was working on the track “Nickel Plated Man” for Eleni Mandell’s album Wishbone.

“The flute cartridge had a warble to it (wasn’t supposed to) that gave it an odd haunting feel,” he emails me. “Perfect for the song.”

Even when it was new, Kehew found, the Birotron had its troubles. It was Kehew who mixed a Rhino reissue of the 1978 Yes album Tormato—by far the Birotron’s most prominent outing—and hearing the original mixes up close did not inspire confidence in the instrument. The decision to stand the 8-tracks on their sides has always haunted the Birotron: the tapes wore unevenly and were liable to fall out of alignment with the tape heads. The resulting sound was curiously distant.

“None of the Birotron sounds were that great,” Kehew attests. “Compared to a Mellotron, a Birotron is rather thin.”

Even so, Kehew was impressed by the long notes and swells of sound the instrument’s controls could produce—“a huge improvement,” he says, on Mellotron technology. Without the Birotron’s master tapes and a way to properly fix a surviving Birotron, though, there’d be no knowing whether it could have sounded good.

But then, sometimes the past tosses up unexpected flotsam with the tide. Years ago, while in Holland on business, a tip-off led former Birotronics executive Peter Robinson face to face with his long-forgotten past. “Someone had a trunk full of Birotron stuff. I opened it up, and damned if it wasn’t the master tapes. They were all still there, good as the day we recorded them—and I have to say that they came out very nicely. We had the London Symphony Orchestra on there, and wonderful choir recordings. And there they were.”

I carried Peter’s anecdote in my head for a couple years before I made a chance comment caught by another restorer, Martin Smith of Streetly Electronics, just outside Birmingham, England. He had a Birotron in the shop, it turned out, but the tapes on it were shot. Where, he asked, could he find Peter Robinson? Within days, Streetly had the masters, and the first baby steps had been taken toward a complete 8-track resurrection. They sent a friend to the local Oxfam thrift shop for “new” tape cases—“I bought every last 8-track cartridge that they had,” he reports, adding that the clerks probably deemed him a complete nutter—and after cracking open and emptying out the old cartridges, Streetly tried restoring the instrument’s old sounds.

“It was hard work and the resulting sound was less than rewarding,” Smith muses today. The machine had always been infamously noisy; its nineteen tapes running all at once were “clattering like a Singer machine on acid”—and despite being relatively small and supposedly portable, one Streetly regular reports the unit “weighed a fucking ton.”

And the master tapes, it turned out, were in a precarious state. Along with being curious artifacts—you can hear musicians and choir members screwing up, or just farting around and giggling between takes—they happen to be quite fragile. They’re on old Ampex 456 tape, a revelation that brings a sigh from any recording engineer: Certain brands from the 1970s have binding agents that age poorly and gum up tape heads if replayed years later. The only cure is to literally bake the reels in an oven, and you then get one or maybe two passes through a dubbing deck before your roasted tape sheds its coating.

But the Birotron masters are slowly making their way into the world: Streetly has even posted a clip on its website of a salvaged choir tape-set being played. It’s a gorgeous, haunting sound: and in it, freed of the flaws of 1970s engineering and the damages of time, you can forget the glittering capes, forget the lost money, forget all the 8-track jokes. For a few fleeting seconds, you can hear the sound that filled Dave Biro’s head with a dream.

Paul Collins teaches creative nonfiction at Portland State University. His latest book is The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine.

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