Time Machine Wakeman and the Birotron

January 1, 2011
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sc014440e3.jpgPart of Wakeman’s 1978 touring rig, clockwise from left: Minimoog atop Rhodes, Polymoog atop Hammond, and two Birotron B90 tape loop keyboards stacked on an RMI Keyboard Computer II.

  

Here’s Rick Wakeman’s idea of “seeing how little we can put onstage” for Yes’ Tormato tour, from our February 1978 issue: “I only took the Hammond C-3, the Polymoog, the Sequential Circuits Prophet, two Birotrons, two Minimoogs, a Yamaha CP-30 electronic piano, an RMI Keyboard Computer, and a grand piano.” Birotrons? Even seasoned spotters might recognize every keyboard in the above photo except for the two boxy black ones on the right, which Wakeman personally funded and evangelized.

“There’s a new instrument coming out in 1976 that we helped [designer] Dave Biro develop,” he explained in our March/April 1976 interview. “It’s called the Birotron. It’s really outrageous. It creates all the orchestra sounds; the choir and strings are really frightening. It uses 8-track tapes arranged in loops so there’s no 8-second sustain limit like on the Mellotron. You can program different kinds of attack and sustain, and the keyboard is light—you can play as fast as you like, which you can’t do on the Mellotron.”

Wakeman had the admirable goals of selling the Birotron B90 for between $1,500 and $2,000, and of recording tons of tape libraries for it. Sadly, cost overruns and technical issues precluded commercial success. Current estimates put the number of Birotrons ever made between 12 and 35, and surviving units in the single digits. What might have revolutionized keyboard gigging in the ’70s by being a lightweight, affordable “sampler” that played real sounds now stands as arguably the rarest electronic sc01446d16.jpgkeyboard in the world.

Rick Wakeman from our March/April 1976 cover shoot with (top to bottom) Hohner Clavinet D6, RMI Electra-Piano, and Hammond C-3. Foreground: Minimoog atop custom Mellotron.

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