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Page 4: The Story Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Founded in 1958 By Steve Marshall
Published April 2008

Mark Ayres, Radiophonic Archivist

A life-long Doctor Who fan, Mark Ayres first visited the Radiophonic Workshop as a schoolboy! He kept up contact and eventually returned years later as a freelance composer, now working on Doctor Who himself. Mark is now a member of the BBC's unofficial 'Doctor Who Restoration Team' — a group of dedicated fans, some of whom are BBC staff. The team has been responsible for restoring 'lost' episodes and remastering many DVD releases. Mark Ayres has done much of the audio restoration, and was also responsible for rescuing the Radiophonic Workshop's tape archive when the place was closed in 1998. "I suddenly got phone calls," says Mark, "from Brian, then Peter Howell, then Paddy They all said 'Someone's got to get in there and save the archive before it ends up in a skip!' — so I did."

Doing so took a great deal of time and effort, almost costing Mark his career. "I'd just done my first feature film score," he says, "and I should have been out promoting it and trying to get another. But instead, I spent 18 months in Maida Vale, cataloguing tapes."

The Radiophonic Workshop was unique within the BBC, as it was the only department to hold its own archive. Absolutely everything was kept. When DAT tape came along in 1988, composers were ordered to continue making quarter-inch copies, as no-one knew then how long DAT tapes would last. The tapes were all stored in three cold, dark, tomb-like rooms. "The Workshop had closed and no longer existed," says Mark, "but they had a system whereby it was still being charged rent by the BBC for storage! So all the tapes were taken out of the three store rooms and crammed into Dick's old studio. And they were now all out of sequence." Mark was told that some of the later tapes had been thrown out to save space, but that wouldn't matter, because "it will all be on DAT anyway".

"So," says Mark, "having messed up the archive, the BBC paid me (not very much, I might add) to sort it all out again." He started with the oldest tapes and worked his way through the pile. When he got up to 1983, all the rest of the tapes were missing. "They'll be the ones that are on DAT," he was told. Pointing out that DAT had not yet been invented in 1983, he set about scouring the building. The tapes, he discovered, should have been put in a skip, but by some fluke the paperwork had not been done — so they must still be in Maida Vale somewhere. "It took a whole week," he says, "of borrowing keys and opening rooms that no-one had been in for years. Eventually I opened a room labelled Band Store and there they all were!"

The tapes are now safely stored in the BBC's main archive, but are 'non-accessioned', meaning that no-one apart from Mark really knows what is there. "They all need properly digitising and cataloguing," he declares, "but it takes forever to do. There are three and a half thousand reels of tape. Ten of the reels are John Baker's sound sources — his sample library, if you like. But they're 40 years old, and full of splices that are either dry and falling to bits, or gone sticky. You have to copy a little bit, clean the heads, copy another bit"

He started by concentrating on the Doctor Who tapes. "There are about 250 reels of sound effects," he says, "each up to 40 minutes long and containing about 100 sounds. It's an enormous task."

Mark has remastered four CDs of Radiophonic music so far. He started by pulling out the quarter-inch masters for the first two albums that had originally been released on vinyl, and discovered that they came with extra unreleased tracks. He hopes to continue, but as he says: "The funding just isn't there. I started remastering them as a labour of love, really. I'd work slowly on remastering an album, then deliver it to BBC Music when I'd finished. I phoned them up one day and said that I'd got another album ready for them, after several months of work, and there was an embarrassing silence. 'Sorry,' they said, 'we don't have a label any more!' Mark hastens to add that this problem has been resolved: BBC releases are now licensed to other labels, and he also has the support of an enthusiastic music department. "What this project needs, though," he says, "is lots and lots of time. And some money!"

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Radiophonic Workshop, Mark is compiling a two-CD set of Workshop music. It will comprise the two classic Workshop compilations 21 and Soundhouse, as well as an hour of previously unheard material. Details will be announced in SOS, and you can find out more at Mark's web site:

Ray White, Engineer

"I had several attachments to the Workshop," says Ray, "They interviewed me a few times for a permanent job, but I was very bad at interviews. Desmond Briscoe really wanted me to stay, so eventually he just fiddled it! We had a 'rehearsal' for the interview and sure enough, next time I passed."

Ray spent most of his BBC career as an engineer in the Radiophonic Workshop, fixing, building and modifying anything electronic. Arriving in the early '70s, he stayed for 20 years. "In the early days it was almost like a club," he says. "It was great fun, going to work. If they thought you were right, the management would welcome you in — then recommend that you join the Union! That would just not happen nowadays."Ray White, whose engineering expertise made many of the Workshop's experiments possible. Ray White, whose engineering expertise made many of the Workshop's experiments possible.

Ray is proud of his association with the Radiophonic Workshop but points out that not all the music produced there was good. "There was some awful dross came out of the place at times," he says, "and no-one mentions that. I think it was at its most successful when it combined electronic innovation with something more traditional. Like a tune The Doctor Who theme is the best example. Could you imagine anything like that ever coming out of, say IRCAM in Paris? They've produced so much stuff in that place that is clever, and pushes the limits of music technology, but it all sounds horrible! You wouldn't want to listen to that in your lounge, would you?"

In 1993 Ray decided to take early retirement. "As soon as Birt was appointed, I could see what was to come," he says, "The Workshop had gone as far as it could and it had served its purpose. Looking back, it was so difficult for those early pioneers to achieve what they did." Ray cites film composer Tristram Cary: "He was making electronic music in his home studio in the '50s - building his own gear too. He'd get stuck halfway through a composition, then have to get out his soldering iron and build some new machine, just so he could finish the track! By comparison, it's so easy to make electronic music today. But that means it's even easier to produce rubbish!"

Ray White's web site contains the most detailed account of the Radiophonic Workshop and its equipment:

Better Late Than Nedder

My own three months in the Radiophonic Workshop in 1988 were spent in Malcolm Clarke's Studio C, which was at the end of a short corridor running past Dick Mills' Studio D. I was covering for Malcolm, who was off sick, so I never got to know him (Malcolm died in 2003). Dick's approach to sound work was extremely practical and no-nonsense: his small studio was brightly lit with fluorescent tubes and resembled a laboratory. Malcolm's studio, on the other hand, was dark and moody; decorated entirely in red, at his insistence (something to do with the primal nature of creativity, apparently). Some witty technician had installed a tie-line box on Malcolm's studio wall; it included a dummy jack socket embossed with the words Fine Art Output.

One morning, Dick showed me his party trick. "Have you ever seen this before?" he chirped, producing a full 10-inch NAB spool of quarter-inch tape. In the centre of the hefty aluminium spool was a large circular hole, with three more sharp indents. Holding the spool balanced on the flat of his left hand, he deftly laced the tape into a Studer A80, winding it onto an empty take-up spool. He jabbed a button and put the Studer into fast-forward. The Studer is a huge, heavy beast of a machine, mounted flat on its back in a wheeled caddy. The enormous size of its reel motors means that 'fast forward' is terrifyingly fast. As the machine whizzed into action, Dick gently patted the full NAB reel into the air and kept patting to make it hover just above his hand as it spun faster and faster. As the spool emptied, it began spinning even faster still. "Now the tricky bit!" shouted Dick above the whooshing and whirring sounds that rose steadily in pitch. The tape had almost all come off the spool; it was spinning dangerously fast already. The last bit of tape came off and whipped the spool like a top. With that, Dick tossed the reel up into the air above his head, then suddenly clapped his hands together and caught the empty spool between them. The spinning and the noise immediately stopped. "You do have to be careful not to catch your fingers," he said.

Finally, an opportunity to work with Dick Mills came with a radio sci-fi show for BBC Schools called Slambash Wangs Of A Compo Gormer. Dick was to make the sound effects and I was to start with the music and make some effects if I had the time. Eventually, schedules slipped and all I managed was a signature tune. One of the effects was the sound of 'a galloping Nedder'. A 'Nedder' was a six-legged horse, in the alien world in which the series was set, and Dick and I agreed that whoever had some free time first would make the Nedder effects. I kept thinking of complex and sophisticated ways to do this, most of them involving samplers and/or coconut shells.

One day I saw Dick as I passed his studio. "I've done the Nedder," he said, and proceeded to play me it. It was perfect — exactly like a six-legged horse.

"How did you do it?" I asked. "Samples? Library discs?"

Dick reached out to his bench and picked up an empty plastic cassette box. He held it close to my ear, then rapidly drummed his fingers on it.

"Voila!" he said. "There goes a Nedder!"

The New Atlantis

"Wee have also Sound-Houses" became the Radiophonic Workshop's motto. Taken from The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, it was rediscovered by Daphne Oram, and for many years was pinned to the Workshop's office wall. It is an extraordinary piece of writing, seemingly a vision of some recording studio of the future; yet, incredibly, it was written in 1624.

"Wee have also Sound-Houses, wher wee practise and demonstrate all Sounds, and their Generation. Wee have Harmonies which you have not, of Quarter-Sounds and lesser Slides of Sounds. Diverse Instruments of Musick likewise to you unknowne, some sweeter than any you have; Together with Bells and Rings that are dainty and sweet. Wee represent Small Sounds as Great and Deepe; Likewise Great Sounds, Extenuate and Sharpe; Wee make diverse Tremblings and Warblings of Sounds, which in their Originall are Entire. Wee represent and imitate all Articulate Sounds and Letters, and the Voices and Notes of Beasts and Birds. Wee have certaine Helps, which sett to the Eare doe further the Hearing greatly. Wee have also diverse Strange and Artificiall Eccho's, Reflecting the Voice many times, and as it were Tossing it; And some that give back the Voice Lowder then it came, some Shriller, and some Deeper; Yea, some rendring the Voice, Differing in the Letters or Articulate Sound, from that they receyve. Wee have also meanes to convey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes, in strange Lines, and Distances."

Recording The Doctor Who Theme

"We got a phone call from Verity Lambert, the first Doctor Who producer," says Dick Mills. "She said she had a little sci-fi series that would only run to six episodes, but she'd like some special electronic effects. So me and Delia went along to Ealing for a meeting with her, and we said we could do the effects, but we could probably help out with a signature tune as well, as we'd just been working with Ron Grainer — a composer who was coming quite into vogue (he'd done themes for Steptoe and other shows). So Ron was hired to write the sig, and us to record it. Ron had originally come to us first, so we were returning the favour. We'd done a TV show called Giants of Steam and Ron had got us to make loops of train effects and process them to different tempos for his musicians to play along to. He had great confidence in us — for Doctor Who, he just handed Delia one foolscap sheet of manuscript paper and said off you go! Then he cleared off to Portugal for a fortnight — he said it was for the sake of his health"

So how was the theme recorded? "Well, we started with the bass line. You know those 19-inch jack-bay panels? You could get blank panels too, to fill in between them. They were slightly flexible, so Delia found one that made a good musical twang, and played it with her thumb. We recorded it then vari-speeded up and down to different pitches, copied them across to another tape recorder, then made hundreds of measured tape edits to give it the rhythm."

And what was the main tune played on? Was it some early synthesizer? "No," says Dick, "it was just a load of oscillators — signal generators — that someone had connected to a little keyboard, one for each note. Again, we had to make lots of tape edits."

But what about that distinctive portamento? How could you bend the notes like that without a synth? Dick sighs: "Well you just twiddled the frequency knob, of course — how else? It was all done with actual knob-twiddling then — there was no other way! We did it in lots of little pieces, then joined all the bits of tape together."

Eventually, after some pre-mixing, the elements of the entire composition existed on three separate reels of tape, which had to be run somehow together in sync. "Crash-sync'ing the tape recorders was Delia's speciality," says Dick. "We had three big Phillips machines and she could get them all to run exactly together. She'd do: one, two, three, go! — start all three machines, then tweak until they were exactly in sync, just like multitrack. But with Doctor Who we had a bum note somewhere and couldn't find it! It wasn't that a note was out of tune — there was just one little piece of tape too many, and it made the whole thing go out of sync. Eventually, after trying for ages, we completely unwound the three rolls of tape and ran them all side by side for miles — all the way down the big long corridor in Maida Vale. We compared all three, matching the edits, and eventually found the point where one tape got a bit longer. When we took that splice out it was back in sync, so we could mix it all down."

Ron Grainer returned from his holiday and famously asked if it was the same piece of music that he'd written. The theme was an instant success, as was the programme. But success brought its own problems, as Dick remembers. "The trouble was, because it was a hit show, every producer wanted to put their stamp on it, so they'd ask us to record another version. We did loads and no-one ever liked them. One was laboriously done on the Delaware. The sounds were great, but no-one liked it. I remember Delia did one version herself, where there was very heavy tape echo on the rhythm that gave it a new and different groove. The first time it was played in a dub all the technicians complained. 'Oh no — what's wrong with that?' they all said. 'Let's have the old one back!' And we also had to make a 45-second version when the show got popular. Anyone who's worked in TV music knows how difficult it is to turn a 30-second sig tune into a 45 — it's a very unnatural thing to do, musically."

As a footnote, there is still a difference of opinion on how the Doctor Who bass sound was created, 45 years ago. Dick Mills remembers Delia twanging a blanking panel in a rack, while Mark Ayres offered two versions — a plucked string and a rubber band (he heard both from Delia!). Peter Howell, meanwhile, told me: "The bass twang was a plucked bass string on a home-made electric pickup device (a piece of wood with a string on it). That sound appears on several early Workshop recordings."

The Voice Of The Daleks

One of the most famous Radiophonic Workshop effects was the voice of the Daleks in Doctor Who, which was created by Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson. "We used a ring modulator," explains Dick, "the old-fashioned type, with two centre-tapped transformers and four diodes. Same as a bridge rectifier. They were 'improved' years later with a transformerless design, but the old ones could be distorted better. We spent a long time finding the right frequency to modulate the voice with, and eventually settled on 30 Hertz. But it's not as simple as all that, because they needed the actor who did the Dalek voice to perform live as they filmed. We set them up with a ring modulator in the studio (which they eventually lost!) and provided a reel of tape with a 30Hz tone on it. They'd run the tape, the actor spoke into a mic, both went through the ring modulator, and it sounded like a Dalek.

"But if the tape was supposed to run at, say, seven and a half inches per second, they'd sometimes run it at 15ips by mistake, or at three and three quarters. So that's why, for all you Doctor Who anoraks, the Dalek voices are slightly different in some episodes — if so, it was a mistake! I did other experiments with modifying the tape containing the tone — distressing it and removing bits of the oxide. It was a good effect, but was never used."

The Radiophonic Workshop's Greatest Hits

When asked for a discography of the best ever Radiophonic Workshop releases, Mark Ayres came up with his top seven 'in no particular order'.

  • BBC Radiophonic Music (aka 'the Pink Album')

Early Radiophonic wonderfulness from Delia Derbyshire, David Cain and John Baker. Originally released as a mono vinyl album in 1971, catalogue no. REC 25M; now also on CD (BBC REC25MCD), remastered with two extra tracks.

  • The Radiophonic Workshop

Compilation of material from the early '70s, released as a stereo LP (REC 196) in 1975; remastered CD (BBC REC196CD) includes two additional tracks.

  • 21

Don't be put off by the terrible birthday-cake cover, this is a quality compilation of material from the Workshop's first 21 years. Released as a stereo LP (REC 354) in 1979.

  • Fourth Dimension

Theme and test-card music from Paddy Kingsland. The Workshop goes lounge. Stereo LP (RED 93S) from 1973.

  • Through A Glass Darkly

Peter Howell's solo album from 1978 (stereo LP, catalogue number REC 307). Side one is 'a lyrical adventure' (ie. one long track, done 'after hours' for the fun of it). Side two is comprised of shorter tracks, including Peter's classic The Astronauts.

  • Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Volume One: The Early Years

CD compilation of Doctor Who music and sounds from the '60s. Originally released by BBC Music, later re-released on the Grey Area sub-label of Mute.

  • Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Volume Two: New Beginnings

Continuing from Volume One, this dives into the '70s. Includes Malcolm Clarke's music for the 1972 story The Sea Devils. In effect: 43 minutes of Malcolm fighting with the Delaware. The jury is out as to who won.