BBC Radiophonic Workshop  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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radiophonic

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, one of the sound effects units of the BBC, was created in 1958 to produce effects and new music for radio, and was closed in March 1998, although much of its traditional work had already been outsourced by 1995. It was based in the BBC's Maida Vale studios in Delaware Road, London, W9, UK growing outwards from the then-legendary Room 13. The innovative music and techniques used by the Workshop has made it one of the most significant influences on electronic music today.

Contents

History

Creation

The Workshop was set-up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for "radiophonic" sounds from a group of producers and studio managers at the BBC, including Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram. For some time there had been much interest in producing innovative music and sounds to go with the pioneering programming of the era, in particular the dramatic output of the BBC Third Programme. Often the sounds required for the atmosphere that programme makers wished to create were unavailable or non-existent through traditional sources and so some, such as the musically trained Oram, would look to new techniques to produce effects and music for their pieces. Much of this interest drew them to musique concrète and tape manipulation techniques, since using these methods could allow them to create soundscapes suitable for the growing range of unconventional programming. When the BBC noticed the rising popularity of this method they established a Radiophonic Effects Committee, setting up the Workshop in rooms 13 & 14 of the BBC's Maida Vale studios with a budget of £2,000. The Workshop regularly released technical journals of their findings - leading to some of their techniques being borrowed by sixties producers and engineers such as Eddie Kramer.

Early Days

In 1958, Desmond Briscoe was appointed the Senior Studio Manager with Dick Mills employed as a technical assistant. Much of The Radiophonic Workshop's early work was in effects for radio, in particular experimental drama and "radiophonic poems". Their significant early output included creating effects for the popular science-fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit and memorable comedy sounds for The Goon Show. In 1959, Daphne Oram left the workshop to set up her own studio, the Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition, where she eventually developed her "Oramics" technique of electronic sound creation. That year Maddalena Fagandini joined the workshop from the BBC's Italian Service.

From the early sixties the Workshop began creating television theme tunes and jingles, particularly for low budget schools programmes. The dramatic move from the experimental nature of the late 50s dramas to the cheery themes was noticeable enough for one radio presenter to have to remind listeners that the purpose of the Workshop was not pop music. In fact, in 1962 one of Fagandini's interval signals "Time Beat" was reworked with assistance from George Martin (in his pre-Beatles days) and commercially released as a single using the pseudonym Ray Cathode. During this early period the innovative electronic approaches to music in the Workshop began to attract some significant young talent including Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and John Baker, who was in fact a jazz pianist with an interest in reverse tape effects.

In these early days, one criticism the Workshop attracted was its policy of not allowing musicians from outside the BBC to use its equipment, which was some of the most advanced in the country at that time not only because of its nature, but also because of the unique combinations and workflows which the Workshop afforded its composers. In later years this would become less important as more electronic equipment became readily available to a wider audience.

Doctor Who

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Perhaps the most significant recording in Radiophonic Workshop history came in 1963 when they were approached by composer Ron Grainer to record a theme tune for the upcoming BBC television series Doctor Who. Presented with the task of "realising" Grainer's score, complete with its descriptions of "sweeps", "swoops", "wind clouds" and "wind bubbles", Delia Derbyshire created a piece of musique concrète which has become one of television's most recognisable themes. Over the best part of the next three decades the Workshop contributed greatly to the programme providing its vast range of unusual sound-effects, from the TARDIS to the Sonic screwdriver, as well as much of its distinctive electronic incidental music, including every score from 1980 to 1985. Such is the relationship between the two that to many the phrase "Radiophonic Workshop" will always be associated with the programme, often to the detriment of the reputation of the Workshop's other output.

Changes

As the sixties drew to a close many of the techniques used by the Workshop changed as more electronic music began to be produced by synthesisers. Many of the old members of the Workshop were reluctant to use the new instruments, often because of the limitations and unreliable nature of many of the early synthesisers but also, for some, because of a dislike of the sounds they created. This led to many leaving the workshop making way for a new generation of musicians in the early 1970s including Malcolm Clarke, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb and Peter Howell. From the early days of a studio full of tape reels and electronic oscillators, the Workshop now found itself in possession of various synthesisers including the EMS VCS 3 and the EMS Synthi 100 nicknamed the "Delaware" by the members of the Workshop.

In 1977, Workshop founder Desmond Briscoe retired from organisational duties with Brian Hodgson, returning after a five year gap away from the Workshop, taking over.

By this point the output of the Workshop was vast with high demand for complete scores for programmes as well as the themes and sound effects for which it had made its name. By the end of the decade they were contributing to over 300 programmes a year from all departments of the BBC and had long since expanded from its early two room setup. Their contributions included material for programmes such as The Body in Question, Blue Peter and Tomorrow's World as well as sound effects for popular science fiction programmes Blake's 7 and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (in both its radio and television forms) by Richard Yeoman-Clark and Paddy Kingsland respectively.

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Latter Days

By the early 1990s, under the direction of John Birt, the BBC had made the decision to cut departments which couldn't make enough revenue to cover their costs. In 1991 the Workshop was given five years in which to break even but the cost of keeping the department, which required a number of engineers as well as composers, proved too much and so they failed. In 1995, despite being asked to continue, organiser Brian Hodgson left the Workshop closely followed by Dick Mills and Malcolm Clarke. By the end only one composer, Elizabeth Parker, remained and the Workshop closed in March 1998.

Legacy

Whilst the decision to close the Radiophonic Workshop was both regrettable and difficult the BBC recognised its contribution and heritage and as such Mark Ayres and Brian Hodgson were commissioned to catalogue the extensive library of recordings by the workshop prior to placing it into the archive, thus preserving a considerable part of the workshop's work for posterity.

Since the closure many of the Radiophonic Workshops albums have been re-released on CD and some of the incidental scores for episodes of Doctor Who have been made available for the first time.

In October 2003, Alchemists of Sound, an hour-long television documentary about the Radiophonic Workshop, was broadcast on BBC Four.

The Magnetic Fields titled the first track of their album Holiday after the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Techniques

The techniques initially used by the Radiophonic Workshop were closely related to those used in musique concrète; new sounds for programs were created by using recordings of everyday sounds such as voices, bells or gravel as raw material for "radiophonic" manipulations. In these manipulations, audio tape could be played back at different speeds (altering a sound's pitch), reversed, cut and joined, or processed using reverb or equalisation. The most famous of the Workshop's creations using 'radiophonic' techniques include the Doctor Who theme music, which Delia Derbyshire created using a plucked string, 12 oscillators and a lot of tape manipulation; and the sound of the TARDIS (the Doctor's time machine) materialising and dematerialising, which was created by Brian Hodgson running his keys along the rusty bass strings of a broken piano, with the recording slowed down to make an even lower sound.

Much of the equipment used by the Workshop in the earlier years of its operation in the late 1950s was semi-professional and was passed down from other departments, though two giant professional tape-recorders (which appeared to lose all sound above 10 kHz) made an early centrepiece. Reverberation was obtained using an echo chamber, a basement room with bare painted walls empty except for loudspeakers and microphones. Due to the considerable technical challenges faced by the Workshop and BBC traditions, staff initially worked in pairs with one person assigned to the technical aspects of the work and the other to the artistic direction.

Influence on popular music

The Radiophonic Workshop regularly released free journals of its experiments to the public, complete with instructions and wiring diagrams. Amongst those who studied the journals and learned from their techniques was sound engineer Roger Mayer, who supplied guitar pedals to Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix.

Members of the Radiophonic Workshop

Discography

Albums

In 1994, BBC Enterprises also licensed out material, by members of the Radiophonic Workshop, to the Cavendish Music Library for release on CD. Five themed compilations of material were released under the titles Poisoned Planet, Undersea World, Africa, Time And Space and Ethnic Impressions. They featured various works by Elizabeth Parker, Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Malcolm Clarke and Richard Attree.

A compilation, entitled The John Baker Tapes - Volume 1: BBC Radiophonics, containing music and effects created by John Baker at the workshop between 1963 & 1969, is due for release by Trunk Records in 2008.[1]

Singles

  • Ray Cathode - "Time Beat" / "Waltz in Orbit" (1962) (Ray Cathode was actually a pseudonym used by Maddalena Fagandini and Beatles producer George Martin)
  • "Doctor Who" (Delia Derbyshire original arrangement) (b/w "This Can't Be Love" by Brenda & Johnny) (1964)
  • "Doctor Who" (Delia Derbyshire new arrangement) / Paddy Kingsland - "Reg" (1973)
  • Dick Mills - "Moonbase 3"/"The World of Doctor Who" (1973) (both sides composed by Dudley Simpson and realised by Dick Mills)
  • Peter Howell - "Doctor Who" / "The Astronauts" (1980, reissued 1982 and 1984)
  • Paddy Kingsland - Music from "The Changes" (1976) RESL33

Selected other works

Radio dramas

Sound effects and music contributions

Doctor Who incidental music

The Doctor Who theme music was provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from 1963 to 1985. From 1986 to the programme's demise the theme was provided by freelance composers. Between 1980 and 1985 the complete incidental scores for the programme were provided in-house by the Workshop. Below is a complete list of incidental music provided by the Radiophonic Workshop for the programme.

Programmes about Radiophonic Workshop

  • Radio
    • The Sound Makers (1963)
    • The Electric Tunesmiths (1971)
    • The Space Between (1973)
    • Wee Have Also Sound-Houses (1979)
    • Sound in Mind (1979)
  • Television
    • The Same Trade as Mozart (1969)
    • The New Sound of Music (1979)
    • The Electric Music Machine, Five Days at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (1988)
    • Alchemists of Sound (2003)





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "BBC Radiophonic Workshop" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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