50 years ago this month, the most celebrated electronic music studio in the world was established. We trace the history of the Radiophonic Workshop, talking to the composers and technical staff who helped to create its unique body of work.
I was 10 years old. As the last 'whoosh' of the Doctor Who theme dissolved into a wash of tape echo I sat transfixed by the light of the television, eagerly reading all of the end credits. "Wow!" I exclaimed. "I want to get a job in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop when I grow up!"
"I'm sorry, son," said my father. "You won't be able to do both."
Although it never felt like a 'job', I did eventually get to work in the Radiophonic Workshop. I was only there for three months, but I've never stopped going on about it. Wouldn't you too, if you'd been lucky enough to have worked in the most famous electronic music studio in history?
The story of the Radiophonic Workshop began half a century ago, in 1958. Britain in the 1950s was a bleak place, as the nation struggled to rebuild itself after the devastation of war. Food rationing had continued right up until 1954, when bananas finally came back on sale; anything worth having was still in short supply. We now think of the '50s as the rock & roll years, but the UK charts for 1958 tell quite a different story. Elvis was there for a few weeks; so was Jerry Lee Lewis — but the chart is mostly dominated by the likes of Perry Como, Connie Francis and Vick Damone. It was a dull time for music, but things were about to get more interesting...
One of the few benefits of wartime had been that some women had an opportunity to work in jobs previously denied to them; Daphne Oram was one. Daphne had started working for the BBC as a 'music balancer' during the war, turning down a place at the Royal College of Music to do so. After her promotion to studio manager in the '50s, she began pestering the BBC to follow the lead of the French broadcasters, and to provide a facility for the production of electronic sound and musique concrète. Desmond Briscoe (1925-2006) was also a studio manager, with similar interests, so in 1957 the pair teamed up to produce some innovative programmes for the BBC Drama Department. Using borrowed test oscillators and tape-splicing techniques, they produced sounds that had never been heard before on the BBC.
Their nagging finally paid off, and in April 1958 Desmond and Daphne founded the Radiophonic Workshop in the BBC's Maida Vale Studios (a former ice-skating rink). They were joined later in the year by 'technical assistant' Dick Mills. Brian Hodgson came along in 1962 and he eventually ended up running the place. Brian adds: "Workshop was then a very popular word among theatre 'types', and it gave away the Drama Department origins. It was originally going to be called the Electrophonic Workshop, but it was discovered that 'electrophonic' referred to some sort of defect of the brain, so it had to be changed! A board was set up to see that the place was run properly. Unfortunately, one board member had a doctor friend, who advised that three months should be the maximum length of time that anyone could work there, as staying any longer could be injurious to their health; they'd go mad, or something. This problem recurred throughout the Workshop's history — just as a recruit was getting into the swing of things, they'd have to leave."
Daphne Oram was the first to fall foul of this rule. After three months in her new job, she was ordered back to work in a control room at Broadcasting House. But for some reason Desmond Briscoe was not required to leave: instead he was appointed as the Workshop's Senior Studio Manager. For the BBC's women, it seemed, the war was over. A lengthy and bitter row ensued, and eventually, Daphne left the BBC for good in 1959, moving to an oast-house that she'd bought in Kent and establishing her own Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition. She was replaced by Maddalena Fagandini.
The Workshop's reputation grew over the next few years, and the ranks swelled with the addition of Brian Hodgson, Delia Derbyshire and jazz pianist John Baker. The equipment at their disposal was minimal, to say the least, as Brian recalls. "In the very beginning, Desmond had been given £2000 and the key to 'redundant plant' [the BBC's junk pile] and that was it! The place kept going for years on what we called 'fag-ends and lollipops'. 'Fag-ends' were the bits of unwanted rubbish that other departments had thrown away; 'lollipops' were the much rarer treats that were occasionally sent down to keep Desmond quiet. Like the vocoder, for instance: it was very nice, but we hadn't asked for one and didn't really need it. It was like the icing on a non-existent cake!"
The Workshop's equipment consisted merely of a lot of old tape recorders and a few pieces of test equipment that could make noises. The tape recorders could be used for echo, and reverb was also available — it came from an empty room downstairs with a microphone at one end and a speaker at the other. Maida Vale Studios is an unusual building, long and thin with one of its two floors below ground. The Radiophonic Workshop's rooms were at street level, spanning an extremely long corridor.
One room was occupied by a succession of dedicated engineers who had the tools and the know-how to fix all the broken rubbish that arrived; they also built special equipment to order. First was 'Dickie' Bird; then came Dave Young, and finally 'The Two Rays' (White and Riley). Dave Young started a tradition of visiting the nearby Portobello Market every week to buy bits and pieces for the Workshop, and this continued long after he'd left. In the '60s, a lot of ex-military kit from the war was still being sold off; Dave would return with items such as a genuine aircraft's joystick!
Much of the Workshop's output then was produced simply by using the techniques of musique concrète: natural sounds were recorded and manipulated on tape by editing, pitch-changing, and very often by reversing the tape. There was a standing joke that a Radiophonic composer could enthusiastically churn out original compositions for several years. When the inspiration ran out, all their old tracks could be re-used (and improved?) by playing them backwards!
In the early '60s, synthesizers simply did not exist. Producer Joe Meek was using the monophonic, valve-operated Clavioline but the Radiophonic Workshop, oddly enough, never had one. What they did have, though, was all the test oscillators that they could beg, borrow or steal from other BBC departments. A method was devised for controlling 12 oscillators at a time, triggering them from a tiny home-built keyboard of recycled piano keys. Each oscillator could be independently tuned by means of a range switch and a chunky Bakelite frequency knob.
There was also the versatile 'wobbulator', a sine-wave oscillator that could be frequency modulated. It consisted of a very large metal box, with a few switches and one very large knob in the middle that could sweep the entire frequency range in one revolution. They were used in the BBC for 'calibrating reverb times in studios' apparently. And as far as the Workshop's electronic sound sources went, that was it!
Yet, curiously, it is the work produced in those early years that the Radiophonic Workshop's reputation still hangs on. The Doctor Who theme was first recorded in 1963, and still there are fans who insist that the original is the best of many versions made over the years. What's more, some of the sound effects made for the first series of Doctor Who are still being used! When the newly revamped Doctor Who appeared in 2005, hardcore fans recognised the original effects and wrote to Brian Hodgson: "How nice to hear the old original Dalek Control Room again, after all these years!"
Brian's 'Tardis' sound, dating from 1963, is also still used. "I spent a long time in planning the Tardis sound," says Brian. "I wanted a sound that seemed to be travelling in two directions at once; coming and going at the same time." The sound was actually made from the bare strings of a piano that had been dismantled. Brian scraped along some bass strings with his mum's front-door key, then set about processing the recordings, as he describes it, "with a lot of reverse feedback". (By this, I assume he means that tape echo was added, then the tape reversed so that it played backwards.) Eventually, Brian played the finished results to Dick Mills and Desmond Briscoe; at their insistence he added a slowly rising note, played on the wobbulator.
Brian and Delia Derbyshire were, as he says, "best mates. We used to go on holiday together." In 1966, together with the founder of synth maufacturers EMS, Peter Zinovieff, they formed Unit Delta Plus, a band of sorts, and began performing on London's psychedelic underground scene. As one Workshop member remembers it, "At the end of their day at the BBC they used to race off to the West End, changing into their kaftans in the taxi." Unit Delta Plus split in 1967, but some of their gigs sound like crackers: how about the two-day 'Million Volt Light and Sound Rave' at the Roundhouse? I'm sorry to have missed that one! In 1969 the pair teamed up with David Vorhaus as the White Noise, releasing the cult classic album An Electric Storm.
Meanwhile, the Radiophonic Workshop was going through some changes. The three–month rule ensured a steady throughput of staff, but some managed to become permanent. David Cain arrived in 1967, Malcolm Clarke in 1969; Richard Yeoman-Clark, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb and Peter Howell all joined in the early '70s, just as Brian and Delia were leaving. The association with Peter Zinovieff had already led to the BBC buying three VCS3s, but in 1970 the Workshop took delivery of an EMS Synthi 100 modular system. It was the biggest voltage-controlled synthesizer in the world! Christened 'The Delaware', after the road outside the studios, it had 16 oscillators and even incorporated its own oscilloscope and frequency counter. As with the VCS3, there were no messy patch cords: instead were provided two 60x60-way 'pin patch boards'. There was a digital sequencer too, which could store up to 256 events. The massive control surface presented a sea of knobs to twiddle, but one of them, labelled 'Option 4' was actually a dummy. Not connected to anything at all, it was occasionally tweaked to appease awkward producers who wanted to get 'just the right sound'.
Desmond Briscoe's retirement in 1977 saw Brian Hodgson returning as Workshop Organiser, after five years away. Brian finally managed to prise a reasonable annual budget out of the BBC and he set about systematically renovating the place, eventually providing a customised studio for each of the five composers. Apple Macintosh computers were introduced, and a lot of the new kit was identical to what could be found in any studio of the time; there were growing mutterings about the Workshop having somehow deviated from its original purpose to become a 'music-writing factory'. This was not really true: the Radiophonic Workshop had been founded because the equipment needed for electronic music production was not generally available. Mass-produced synthesizers did become affordable with time, but remember that when the first 8-bit digital sampler, the Fairlight CMI, appeared in the early '80s, it cost over £30,000: you could buy a house for that! The Workshop's composers were all producing work in their own styles, using equipment that may have been available to outside composers, but was prohibitively expensive for most. Elizabeth Parker joined in 1978 and her trademark sound came from the pricey and unreliable PPG 2.2. Richard Attree, who, in 1987, was the last composer to be taken on, made good use of the Yamaha TX816, which was effectively eight DX7s in a rack. Just one DX7 cost £1200 when it was new.
Peter Howell told me: "There's still this prevailing idea that we were somehow almost traitors for using modern gear and computers! Some people still believe that the original Workshop, with virtually no equipment, was the only incarnation that mattered. But we were there to do a job. With the Fairlight I could play something live, in real time; why on earth should I spent three weeks chopping up little bits of tape to get exactly the same result? We had to catch up with the real world — otherwise we'd never justify the time and cost."