You are here

Page 3: The Story Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Founded in 1958 By Steve Marshall
Published April 2008

Roger Limb

"I'm 67 this year," Roger declares, "but I like to keep busy. I play keyboards with a rock & roll band and we gig regularly" Roger Limb has always been busy: with his phenomenal output from the Workshop he must count as one of the most prolific composers in history! He spent his first few years with the BBC as a TV announcer. Then, some time in 1972, he bumped into Paddy Kingsland in the street outside Broadcasting House.

"Paddy and I had been studio managers together," he says. "He told me he was working at this fantastic little department in Maida Vale and that I should apply for an attachment — so I did! What they were doing was what I'd been dabbling with at home for several years. I'd been dangling microphones inside pianos and just playing with interesting noises. It had never occurred to do me that this could be a career." Roger had been with the BBC for over five years, but before the Radiophonic Workshop he'd never heard of such delights as tape loops. "What impressed me the most," he says, "was vari-speed. I'd never thought it possible! There was 15 ips [inches per second], seven and a half, three and three-quarters — but it hadn't occurred to me that there could be anything in between!"Roger Limb attacks an empty tank with a mallet.Roger Limb attacks an empty tank with a mallet.

Roger was yet another victim of the dreaded three-month rule: after his allotted time he duly left, and was only able to return when a place in the Workshop was advertised (internally, of course) in 1974. Roger remembers the instruments of the early '70s: "There was the VCS3 and the Delaware, both of them certainly ground–breaking, but not terribly reliable. The VCS3, in particular, used to drift out of tune all the time. I was told that this was due to their being made with poor components. But you must remember that although we now call them all 'keyboards' they were often played, or controlled, without a keyboard, just by twiddling knobs. I do remember there was an attitude back then that using keyboards as controllers was probably just an interesting cul-de-sac, almost a passing fad! I did love the ARP Odyssey, though — it had a decent keyboard and it was very musical. It felt like a real instrument."

Roger says that the mid-'70s saw crucial changes in the way that the Radiophonic Workshop was run: "The original tape–splicers, John Baker and Delia Derbyshire, both left and it became much less experimental. With the likes of Paddy and myself coming in as musicians, it became more of a music-making factory."

The equipment was changing, too. Paddy and Roger began recording their tracks onto the Workshop's two eight-track recorders, which speeded up the business of making music considerably. "In 1985," says Roger, "the Fairlight arrived, and I think that one instrument changed music, and the way it was to be made, forever. I was a big fan of the Fairlight, and once when I travelled to Australia I called in at the factory to meet one of the inventors, Kim Ryrie."

I asked Roger if he had any other favourites. "The Yamaha CS80 was a lovely instrument — very expressive. I had an Oberheim that I was very fond of; I loved the Prophet V. The Delaware was an amazing instrument, but so labyrinthine that you could disappear for weeks just making sounds! We never had any Moogs, you know — although I believe that Mr Moog himself once visited. We did get an awful lot of visitors, particularly musicians who were working in the other studios. One day I was leaving my studio for a coffee break and as I opened the door I almost knocked over Marc Bolan, who was listening outside! He looked very sheepish and apologised. 'I've always wondered what went on in here,' he said, so I invited him in to have a look around. He had an appointment and said he'd love to have a tour the next time he was at Maida Vale, but it never happened. Two weeks later he had his fatal car crash."

So how would Roger sum up his time at the Radiophonic Workshop? "I feel very fortunate that I had the best job in the world for 20 years — I'd have done it for nothing! Well, maybe not absolutely nothing"

Peter Howell

Now a lecturer in Screen Music at the National Film & Television School, Peter Howell started his musical career in the late '60s, playing 'psychedelic folk' with Agincourt and other related bands. Peter eventually got a proper job as a BBC Studio Manager, but after a few years he managed to become a full-time member of the Workshop. "I started in '74 — the same year as Roger Limb," says Peter. "John Baker was still there, but we sort of crossed over. It was a funny period, really. I saw how to do the tape–splicing techniques, and had a go myself, but this was just when synthesizers were becoming available, and that was what really interested me."

Peter later became known for his work on the Fairlight, but he was happy to be the guinea pig for any new gear that came into the Workshop. "What I really found satisfying," he laughs, "was making beautiful sounds from ugly, clinical-looking machinery. The Fairlight was one of the ugliest instruments ever! I enjoyed using the VCS3 a lot; with the eight-track recorder I could make a whole piece using only the Odyssey, which I was very keen on.

Peter Howell with his beloved Fairlight.Peter Howell with his beloved Fairlight.

"Then polyphonic synths appeared. I tried the Polymoog and really didn't like it; I liked the Prophet V, but my favourite was the Yamaha CS80. When I did Jonathan Miller's TV series The Body In Question I really wanted one, as I'd just seen it demonstrated. There was no money for one at the Workshop but we got the programme, which did have a decent budget, to hire one for me. It became a hit series, so later the BBC was later shamed into buying me one. It was a wonderful machine: polyphonic, though only eight-note; it was so expressive, with soft-action pads, and a great long pitch ribbon that you could play like a violin string. My party piece was to play the hornpipe just on the ribbon! I used the swell pedal constantly and this became crucial to my technique. Later, when we got MIDI sequencers, I used a volume pedal in the same way — so I ended up with files that were huge with all the Controller 7 changes."

Peter was an early convert to making music with computers: "I did love having a room full of actual things that made noises, but what appealed to me most about computer instruments was the fact that all the settings could be memorised. Previously, I used to dictate all my studio settings into a cassette recorder, especially if there was a chance that someone else might come in to use my studio and change something. People would call in as they were leaving at the end of the day, and I'd be crawling around on my knees, calling out 'Attack seven; decay three; sustain nine' It could take me 20 minutes to do the whole studio!"

Paddy Kingsland

Of all the composers who passed through the Radiophonic Workshop, Paddy is possibly the best known, because of his prominent credit on the end of each episode of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Paddy was originally a guitarist, playing in several semi-pro bands; after several years as a Radio 1 Studio Manager he joined the Radiophonic Workshop. "When I started in 1970 there were three rooms — 11, 12 and 13 — plus the 'Piano Room' and an 'Organ Room' that housed a great big electronic organ that someone thought might be useful. It wasn't. John Baker was in room 11: he had three Phillips tape machines and the room was lined with hooks that had hundreds of tape loops hanging from them. John had a playback machine (a Leevers-Rich?) with vari-speed, and the speed control had been marked up in semitones. He would play his original loops on this, change the speed and run off copies onto a standard 15ips machine. In this way he'd make all his notes first, then splice them together to make the music. And he used to listen to Radio Four while he did it! I tried his technique myself and really enjoyed it — one track I made used DIY effects like hammers and drills.

"Next door in Room 12 were Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire with a VCS3. They had Electrophon Studios and a connection with EMS, so they'd persuaded the Beeb to buy some VCS3s. I always found them great for effects but not very tuneable. Then in room 10 there was the Delaware. Composer Dudley Simpson used the Delaware a lot for Doctor Who: he would arrive with an eight-track tape he'd recorded with live musicians in Lime Grove Studios, then, working with Dick Mills, he'd somehow sync up to the Delaware and add extra electronic tracks. He used the sequencer a lot."

Paddy, though, along with Roger Limb, was largely occupied with getting as much finished music out of the door as possible — every day. "I enjoyed it, but as I wasn't really into 'weird', I didn't feel I was doing anything that couldn't have been done anywhere else. Not until I started on Hitchhiker's, that is! Then suddenly I thought the Workshop came into its full potential: it was using the place properly."

Paddy Kingsland, today.Paddy Kingsland, today.

The first episode of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy was actually a one-off pilot to test the idea. Actors' voices were recorded onto eight-track tape in the studios at Broadcasting House, then sent over to the Radiophonic Workshop to have the effects added. Paddy really went to town and created some extremely original sounds, many of them using his latest gizmo: the Eventide Harmonizer. "I did use it a lot," says Paddy. "For processing voices, mostly. Marvin the Paranoid Android used it; Eddie the Shipboard Computer, the Vogon Space Captain It was the first real-time digital pitch-changer. The Vogon voice was treated with an echo that went up in pitch with each successive repeat, as the Harmonizer had been patched into a delay line."

Douglas Adams' witty script and Paddy's innovative sound effects proved to be a great combination; the pilot was a success and a further five episodes were commissioned to make up series one. But there was a problem: "All of this took ages, and I'd been moved on to a radio series that was to take six months — I just wasn't available to do it, so Dick Mills and Harry Parker came in and took over." Producer Simon Brett had put the first episode together and introduced Douglas Adams to the Workshop. The writer immediately saw the potential. "The first series was a big hit," says Paddy, "and I came back on board for the Christmas Special — you know, the one where the robot falls down a lift shaft This time I made the music too [apart from the Eagles' signature tune]."

Paddy went on to make effects for another radio series of Hitchhiker's and then the TV series. "My biggest mistake when I did the TV series," he admits, "was to add squiggledy 'computer' noise to the book sequences as the letters drew across the screen. It looked great, though! I did it for the first episode and the director loved it. 'Great effect,' he said. 'We must have it for all the other episodes,' So I was stuck with the laborious task of cutting the sound to picture, using 16mm magnetic track, for the entire series! It took ages, doing it all by hand using an old–fashioned film splicer."

Paddy left the Workshop in 1981 and set up his own PK Studios in London (www.pkstudios.co.uk), where he now works. "It's a great mix," he says. "My son works with me and we do TV post-production, some music, a lot of film dubbing. What I enjoy most is Foley work — making sound effects, live to picture. I could happily do that all day."