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World's Rarest Rock Instrument: The Birotron

At The Believer, Paul Collins covers the history of the wildly-ahead-of-its-time-and-therefore-doomed-to-brilliant-failure Birotron. After listening to the Yes prog masterpiece Tales from Topographic Oceans over and over again on 8-track in 1974, recently unemployed (all Yes fans were unemployed, I think) Dave Biro wanted to recreate a Mellotron, the tape-loop-based keyboard instrument featured at the opening of The Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever, Bowie's Space Oddity, and huge swaths of the Yes album in question.

Biro didn't have access to a Mellotron, but he had some steampunk tech smarts, an old piano, and the funds needed to purchase nineteen automobile 8-track decks.

The Birotron's short lifecycle featured financial backing from Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, interest from the Mellotron people, a Japanese collector, technical issues with mounting 8-track decks vertically [tip: not a good idea], a renegade Seals and Croft song, and Eleni Mandell's Wishbone. You sort of have to read the whole article for any of this to make any sense.

Aside from technical issues, the Birotron's development was eventually eclipsed by the development and rapid spread of cheap computer chips that powered sampling keyboards.

A rare audio clip of the Birotron is available at Streetly Electronics' website, which has a Birotron in its collection; the site also features some other very cool Mellotron clips.