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Page 2: The Story Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Founded in 1958 By Steve Marshall
Published April 2008

The Cost Of Everything

Ultimately, it was costs that killed off the Radiophonic Workshop. The controversial appointment of John Birt as the BBC's Director–General in 1992 was the writing on the Workshop wall — for Birt brought 'producer choice' to the BBC. The asylum would be run by lunatics no longer: the accountants were taking over.

With 'producer choice', staff producers at the BBC could now either use the BBC's carefully costed in-house facilities, or they could choose to go outside — all that mattered was the cost. And everything in the BBC was costed. So what happened? In London, staff producers and directors cleared off to Soho in droves, to work with their old mates who'd already taken redundancy and gone freelance. For about a year, many BBC buildings felt empty. Everyone was eventually recalled and producer choice was 'modified', but the damage was done — it resulted in a catastrophic lowering of morale within the BBC.

Brian Hodgson struggled for a long time to keep the Workshop alive, but it was a losing battle. Under the Birt regime, every BBC department was assessed for profitability, and if running costs were found to be greater than profits, extermination followed swiftly. The Radiophonic Workshop had been doing a fine job providing quality music for many programmes that didn't have big budgets — schools programmes, in particular. But now the Workshop was expected to compete on the 'open market' with freelance composers like myself. Brian spent many months calculating the cost of finished music per minute and searching for ways to reduce it. I didn't even bother costing my music per minute: I didn't have to. If a director asked me for a quote, I could just say "Well, it depends How much have you got?"

Despite this approach being the most obviously competitive, it was not permitted under BBC rules, and so in 1998 the Radiophonic Workshop finally closed its doors. John Birt was awarded a Life Peerage, by the way, and now sits in the House of Lords.

Daphne Oram (1925-2003)

There would have been no Radiophonic Workshop without Daphne Oram, despite the fact that she worked there for less than a year. She was a remarkable woman and a true pioneer, whose achievements have never been fully recognised. As well as her work in electronic music she also composed many orchestral pieces, all of them as yet unperformed. This year though, Sonic Arts Network (www.sonicartsnetwork.org) are to mount an exhibition and concert celebrating her life and work. Details will be announced in SOS, or see www.daphneoram.org.

Daphne left the BBC in 1959 and moved to Tower Folly, a Kent oast–house that she had already started converting into a home and studio. Here she produced music for film and theatre, using the techniques of musique concrète and primitive electronics. Over the next years she was to develop her own Oramic Synthesis, an extremely novel way of producing electronic sounds.

Daphne Oram with the wobbulator (centre of shot), 1958.Daphne Oram with the wobbulator (centre of shot), 1958.

At that time, the most advanced electronic instrument in existence was the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark II. Built in 1957, it consisted of a huge array of steel racks and was bigger than the average living room. The machine (which still exists) was controlled, or 'programmed' by means of a roll of paper, punched with holes. It also offered an alternative: the parameters could instead be drawn onto transparent film that passed over a series of photo-cells. Daphne's Oramic system was similarly controlled by drawing, but for each parameter there was a separate roll of 35mm transparent film (known as 'clear leader' in the film industry). The 10 rolls of sprocketed film were mechanically linked, and passed over a horizontal 'drawing table' where the operator could make marks on the film to control pitch, envelope, intensity, and so on. Additional rolls of sprocketed recording tape or 'mag track' could be used to record the results; this section was referred to as the 'multitrack' recorder.

Daphne seems to have preferred to draw onto the film using a brush and special ink, but felt pens or sticky tape could be used. Her machine had several oscillators with variable waveforms, again controlled by photo-electric cells. This part of the machine was even more bizarre: a selection of glass plates, each with a cut-out pattern, could be fixed to 'cathode ray scanners' to change the waveforms. It was effectively an oscilloscope in reverse! Reading contemporary accounts of how the Oramic system worked is confusing nowadays [see photo and diagrams, courtesy Sonic Arts Network], as the words analogue and digital are used, but not in the sense that we know them. Continuously variable parameters were regarded as analogue, while those that could only be switched on or off were 'digital'. However, Daphne did eventually go digital in the modern sense.

The unique Oramics synthesizer was controlled by drawing onto 35mm photographic film.The unique Oramics synthesizer was controlled by drawing onto 35mm photographic film.

I met Daphne Oram once, in 1989, and inquired whether she still used the Oramic system. Surprised and delighted that I'd even heard of it, she laughed "Oh no, not that old-fashioned thing!" She then explained that her old Oramic system had been swept away and replaced by something far more modern! She'd been working with 'some clever young chaps' who had helped her to build a new, computer-controlled synthesizer. "It's a huge improvement!" she said. "Now, when you draw the parameters, they're digitally scanned into a micro-processor"

Yes, it still used rolls of 35mm film!

Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001)

Although her name will be forever associated with her 'realisation' of Ron Grainer's Doctor Who theme, Delia Derbyshire (pronounced 'Darbyshire', by the way) proved herself to be an extremely original and sensitive composer. She had a degree in Music and Maths from Cambridge that may have accounted for her unusual and analytical approach to sound: she is reputed to have always carried a book of logarithm tables that she used in her work! During her time at the BBC, the Workshop composers were not always properly credited, so consequently there is no complete catalogue of her music. She also 'moonlighted', producing library tracks under various pseudonyms. Some of her music is available on CD, though, and she has a MySpace tribute page. Blue Veils & Golden Sands and The Delian Mode, two pieces that she made in the Radiophonic Workshop, are particularly outstanding, featuring organic sounds that seem to 'shimmer' as their harmonics slowly change. She claimed to have made the sounds by analysing the partials of her favourite metal lampshade and replicating them with sine-wave test oscillators! Before Delia, electronic music had a reputation for sounding 'ugly'; she proved that it could also be extremely beautiful.Delia Derbyshire, with Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe in 1965.Delia Derbyshire, with Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe in 1965.

In 1973 she left the BBC and gave up composing, working for a short time with Brian Hodgson at Electrophon Studios. Then followed a series of curiously directionless moves: she went to Cumbria to work as a radio operator on the gas pipeline; was briefly married; she ran an art gallery, and made a disastrous attempt at teaching music in York. Eventually she settled with a partner who brought much–needed stability. In the late '90s her interest in electronic music returned and she began working on an album, but sadly, it was never finished, as she died at the age of 64 after cancer treatment. In a 2001 obituary Brian Hodgson wrote of her: "One night many years ago, as we left Zinovieff's studio, she paused on Putney Bridge. 'What we are doing now is not important for itself,' she said, 'but one day someone might be interested enough to carry things forwards and create something wonderful on these foundations.'"

Dick Mills

Dick Mills spent virtually his entire career in the Radiophonic Workshop and holds the record for the most Doctor Who credits. Now retired, he finds himself increasingly in demand for Doctor Who and sci-fi conventions.

"I joined the Workshop in November of 1958, after it had been going for only about six months, so I'm now the oldest surviving member. As a duty engineer, I'd worked once with Desmond Briscoe on a very silly drama thing he'd done, which was set on the moon! It was about a couple of astronauts who went there and fell in love with a moon woman and when they got back to Earth one of the men was pregnant... It had weird sound effects and was great fun to do. So when I saw a notice asking for someone to help out at the new 'Radiophonic Workshop' I jumped at it. I stayed there until I retired in 1993."

Dick's speciality at the Workshop was sound effects — not just sci-fi ones, but outrageously funny ones too. I asked Dick where his interest in effects came from. "From the early '50s there used to be a Saturday night DJ called Jack Jackson who did amazing things with records — cutting and mixing between music, comedy and sound effects. He was much appreciated by those in the business. Then there was the Goons — remember, all that stuff was done live, with a studio manager spinning in sound effects from 78rpm records."

For the Goons, Dick famously produced one of the best comedy effects of all time: 'Major Bloodnok's Stomach' was an outrageously long impression of a tortured digestive system. It has appeared on several BBC FX discs and was even sampled by the Orb! Dick remembers recording it: "I always wanted to work on the Goons, but Desmond Briscoe was in charge and he said no, because he thought they'd be unreliable and a nuisance (he was probably right). Anyway, Desmond was away on holiday that week A producer came in and asked if we could do something for the Goons, so I just said yes! The finished thing was hysterical, and originally even longer, all cut-up burps, gloops and explosions. We just fell about laughing every time we played it. The producer sat and listened in silence, then said 'Well, it's all right, but we've only got half an hour for the show. We can't spend 30 seconds on one effect!' So we had to cut it down to 10 seconds for him."

Dick Mills (left) and studio manager John Harrison attempt to control a very long tape loop!Dick Mills (left) and studio manager John Harrison attempt to control a very long tape loop!

Because the Workshop had a couple of in-house technicians, some of Dick's experiments would involve them building custom pieces of equipment. "I got obsessed with crossfades at one time," he laughs. "I wanted to be able to do longer ones, so I got them to make me a splicing block that was 18 inches long! No, it didn't catch on. We tried all sorts of variations on tape loops: I once tried splicing a Moebius strip. That didn't work either. The tape changed sides at the splice, so half of it was bright but the other half had top-cut because the tape was now upside down. Someone else invented a vibrato unit for tape! It consisted of a gramophone motor, attached to a biscuit–tin full of sand, to make it heavy enough; the motor had some sort of gearing, probably Meccano, to make an arm press periodically against the tape and give the vibrato effect. It worked, sort of."

Eventually, the Workshop began to be seen as uneconomic and unnecessary. Doctor Who had finished and there was no need for sci-fi effects any more. What could the Workshop provide that couldn't be found in studios anywhere else? The answer turned out to be intelligent noise removal: it was new and extremely expensive in the '90s (even hard drives cost a fortune then). So Dick's last few years at the Workshop were spent running a Sonic Solutions No-Noise system. No-Noise was a useful tool for TV production — from one small sample it could automatically remove hiss, camera noise, hum, and so on. Dick was set up in a brand-new new computer studio and was kept busy with archiving work, remastering video sound for DVD. "It was very interesting and satisfying work," says Dick, "but quite ironic really. I started my career with the BBC paying me to add horrible noises to their programmes; then in the end they were paying me to take them off!"