Part 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 keyboard 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.