Two veterans of the Workshop recreate some of its famous sounds
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
The BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, a pioneering force in sound effects, would have been 50 this month. Ten years after it was disbanded, what remains of its former glory?
Deep in the bowels of BBC Maida Vale studios, behind a door marked B11, is all that's left of an institution in British television history.
A green lampshade, an immersion tank and half a guitar lie forlornly on a shelf, above a couple of old synthesisers in a room full of electrical bric-a-brac.
These are the sad remnants of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, set up 50 years ago to create innovative sound effects and incidental music for radio and television.
Not a laptop in sight: Delia Derbyshire at work
The corporation initially only offered its founders a six-month contract, because it feared any longer in the throes of such creative and experimental exercises might make them ill.
Using reel-to-reel tape machines, early heroines such as Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire recorded everyday or strange sounds and then manipulated these by speeding up, slowing down or cutting the tape with razor blades and piecing it back together.
The sound of the Tardis was one sound engineer's front-door key scraped across the bass strings on a broken piano. Other impromptu props included a lampshade, champagne corks and assorted cutlery.
Ten years ago the workshop was disbanded due to costs but its reputation as a Heath Robinson-style, pioneering force in sound is as strong as ever, acknowledged by ambient DJs like Aphex Twin.
Although much of its equipment has long been sold off, every sound and musical theme it created has been preserved. To mark its 50 years, there are plans for a CD box-set.
Here Dick Mills and Mark Ayres, who both worked there, use the surviving equipment to revive four sounds from the past.
This was a stroke of genius from Delia Derbyshire, who died in 2001 and famously created the Doctor Who theme tune from Ron Grainer's score.
The magic of Delia Derbyshire's lampshade, recreated by Dick Mills and Mark Ayres
She would hit the tatty-looking aluminium lampshade to create a sound with a natural, pure frequency. After recording it on tape, she would play with it to make the desired sound effect.
For a documentary on the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert, she took the ringing part of the lampshade sound, faded it up and then reconstructed it using the workshop's 12 oscillators to give a whooshing sound, allied to her own voice.
"So the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and a green lampshade on their backs," she once said.
The green lampshade has since gained near-mythical status and Peter Howell, who succeeded Derbyshire in the early 1970s and reworked the Doctor Who theme tune, can see why.
"It's a useful thing to cling on to because everyone knows what a lampshade is because it symbolises the use of domestic objects to produce sounds."
The workshop fascinates his music students today because of all the kit used back then, he says, and its influence is still clearly seen - an advert for a VW Golf that uses only sounds of the car, for example.
"The sampling era we're now in is the next generation of the same principle."
The sound that sent youngsters, and many adults, cowering behind sofas was co-created by Mills, a sound engineer who joined the workshop in its first year and left 35 years later.
Creating the voice of the Daleks
"We tried to give the impression that whenever a Dalek spoke, it wasn't speaking like we do, it was accessing words from a memory bank, so they all sound the same - dispassionate, mechanical and retrievable."
He used a centre-tap transformer plugged into the microphone of an actor standing at the side of the set, and the threat in the voice was all in the performance.
Sometimes the tape got played at the wrong speed and the voice came out slightly differently, but the arrival of the EMS VCS3 synthesiser in the late 60s did not signal the end for this tried and tested method.
In other ways, however, the synthesisers changed the way the workshop operated and - despite some resistance by individuals - offered a bigger choice.
Sound effects: Quatermass and the Pit, The Goon Show, Blake's 7, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who
Music: Woman's Hour, Tomorrow's World, Blue Peter, John Craven's Newsround, Doctor Who
"Synthesisers provided a wide open pallet of colours and sounds to play with, but you still had to choose what you wanted to do and learn the discipline of this new technological form," says Mills.
"So on the one hand, it was easy but you still had the original difficulty of thinking of the idea in the first place."
SCI-FI DOOR OPENING
Sci-fi fans will recognise the "swooshing" door from programmes such as Doctor Who and Blake's 7, plus in the odd hotel scene in other programmes.
The suitcase synthesiser was a portable version of the VCS3, useful for jobs out of the studio.
The workshop's suitcase synth
Recalling the early days and influences, Mills says: "We would take a pre-recorded sound effect from the BBC's vast library but treated them to produce cerebral effects. If you wanted a character to appear to be thinking, you got him to read the line and put in a strange echo."
Similar techniques were already used in Europe in "musique concrete".
"They did it for their own investigation and research, but our way of life was we never did anything until a commission. So all our experimentation and research was taking place in the context of that radio or television programme."
One of Mills' proudest creations was the slimy monster sound, which was him spreading Swarfega cleaning gel on his hands and then slowing down the sound.
And he made the upset tummy of Major Bloodnok in The Goon Show, a colonial officer who liked curry, by using burp sounds and an oscillator to give a violent, explosive gastro-effect. Using contrasting sounds very quickly is a trick in audio comedy.
"We did our own thing in the name of artistic creation. Working here was a bit like surf riding. Every so often a creative wave of energy kept you going until the wave ran out."
One pluck of a guitar string became the famous Dr Who bass line. Derbyshire and Mills sped it up and slowed it down to get the different notes, and these were cut to give it an extra twang on the front of every note.
Demonstration of the Radiophonic Workshop's guitar
"It slides up to the note every time if you listen carefully," says Mills. "Delia fabricated the baseline out of two or three lines of tape.
"You'd be scrabbling around the floor saying 'Where's that half-inch of tape I wanted to play on the front of that note?'"
Every sound generated by the workshop and used in radio or television is preserved, partly in thanks to archivist Mark Ayres, who worked there while a student.
He believes one of its greatest legacies is that it made listeners more used to hearing such sounds as part of everyday entertainment and education.
"[It led to] the steady integration of experimental sound into popular culture and the placement of such sound into the mainstream rather than it being confined to various strictly academic studios.
"Certainly, much of this took place in parallel with developments elsewhere - The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon for example.
"Later on, the workshop housed a couple of the most advanced computer-based MIDI studios in the world, but by that time competition from the outside world was too great and, under [the BBC's policy] Producer Choice, the workshop could not compete on price and its demise was inevitable."
Below is a selection of your comments.
Truly a national treasure. That we can do similar things now with a synth costing a few hundred pounds or a cheap software plug-in on our computers should never detract from the importance of these pioneers. Mark Ayres is fully justified in putting the Workshop's output alongside late Beatles and Dark Side of the Moon in terms of its role in bringing electronic music to the masses. Ed Webb, Carlisle, PA (ex-UK)
Only the BBC with endless amounts of money to spend, could disband and destroy the most widely recognised music lab in the world. It's almost obscene that they now pretend to cherish it in some manner. As if the current crop of unimaginative marketing-led managers were connected to its achievements. Hang your heads in shame. Gary Threlfall, Liverpool
This is great. My weekend was just made. Keith Seekwhensir, Brooklyn, NY United States
Absolute giants. Everything that's happened since owes them a colossal debt - the opening "scream" of Doctor Who is surely one of the most iconic sound effects ever created. Ian, Brighton
Oh boy. Just listened to the Dalek voice. I am now 50 years old and it was so strange to be taken back 45 years. Early Saturday teatime-Dad in garden, Mum in kitchen... oh-er, want to watch - don't want to watch...someone hurry up and come to watch with me! Can I come out from behind the sofa yet? Thanks for the memory Beeb. Jeanette Gray, Istanbul
Awesome, a nice quick trip down audiological memory lane... I remember cutting together a "sound story" tape at school (strange music lessons, yeah) using one of the published RPW LPs and much use of the pause button and split-second timing, it seemed so cool at the time! Fair bit easier now with computerised wave editors and the like, but this does show just how much you can produce with some simple materials (and what were probably quite expensive synths..) and a lot of ingenuity and talent. Happy virtual 50th! Mark P, UK
It all sounds so run-of-the-mill these days, but I still remember the awe in which the Dr Who theme tune was held by the young (and not so young for that matter) fans of the very early series. It was like nothing we had heard before, and with Ron Grainer's skilful composition it became a masterpiece. Nostalgia rules OK. Alan, Wootton Bassett, UK
Sadly the money went to the heads of the current generation of Dr Who and they paid for a full orchestra. The result is just not in the same league as the old Dr Who, no atmosphere at all. Shows it is not money but imagination that matters. Stephen, Brighton
Ah yes, the mighty Radiophonic Workshop shame it has now been consigned to the annals of history. Delia Derbyshire is one of the most important, but sadly forgotten, figures in modern music. Her influence is everywhere. I look forward to the box set with relish! Jason, London
This was just terrific. D Chadd Portwine, Albany NY
I still think that closing down the Radiophonic Workshop was one of the most misguided decisions in the Corporation's history. The costs of running the department should have been offset against the creativity and innovation displayed by what was a national institution. I was one of a generation of musicians inspired to create electronic music after listening to the workshop's creations. Even after ten years, reading about its demise makes me profoundly sad, and more than a little bit angry. Chris, Bristol, UK
It is good to hear that the sounds have been preserved by Ayres - he is a real Dr Who freak and the sounds are in good hands with him. Nigel Peacock, Hartfield, East Sussex
Another example of an innovative and successful department that the BBC disbanded. PBOB, London
I remember an intensely radiophonic production of one of Ray Bradbury's Silver Locust stories. Good to know it's still in the archive. Any chance of a download? It would be too long to put on even a generously large CD box set! Tom, Lisbon
Just as the BBC wiped hundreds of video tapes back in the 70s, they also scrapped one of the milestones in modern music. The Radiophonic workshop was THE founder of modern commercial electronic music, and all the synthesiser users of today should owe a debt to this outstanding group of people. There should be a museum to house this and other early electronic music memorabilia for future generations. I just hope the BBC of today are rather more careful what they kill off. Rob Neal, London
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