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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. It was closed in March 1998, although much of its traditional work had already been outsourced by 1995. The original Radiophonic Workshop was based in the BBC's Maida Vale Studios in Delaware Road, Maida Vale, London.
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 contributed articles to magazines of their findings, leading to some of their techniques being borrowed by sixties producers and engineers such as Eddie Kramer.
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 shift from the experimental nature of the late 50s dramas to theme tunes 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. Later, in 1967. they were joined by David Cain, a jazz bass player and mathematician.
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.
In 1963 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 electronic music which has become one of television's most recognisable themes. Over the next quarter-century the Workshop contributed greatly to the programme providing its vast range of unusual sound-effects, from the TARDIS dematerialisation to the Sonic screwdriver, as well as much of the programme's distinctive electronic incidental music, including every score from 1980 to 1985.
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 co-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 the workshop was contributing to over 300 programmes a year from all departments of the BBC and had long since expanded from its early two room setup. Its 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.
An excerpt from Whale Theme from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy TV series (music only), BBC Radiophonic Workshop
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By the early 1990s, BBC Director General John Birt decided that departments were to charge each other and bid against each other for services and to close those that 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. Dick Mills, who had worked on Doctor Who since the very beginning, left in 1993, along with Ray White, Senior Engineer, and his assistant, Ray Riley. In 1995, despite being asked to continue, organiser Brian Hodgson left the Workshop, closely followed by Malcolm Clarke and Roger Limb. By the end, only one composer, Elizabeth Parker, remained and the Workshop closed in March 1998. Mark Ayres recalls the Workshop's tape archive being collected on 1 April, exactly 40 years after the department had opened.
Following the decision to close the Radiophonic Workshop, Mark Ayres and Brian Hodgson were commissioned to catalogue its extensive library of recordings.
In May 2009, Dick Mills reunited with former BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell with archivist Mark Ayres for a live concert at The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London, performing as "The Radiophonic Workshop". The composers, backed by a small brass section and a live drummer, performed a large number of their BBC-commissioned musical works including sections of incidental music from The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who (including a medley of Mark Ayres's work) as well as some collaborative compositions written specifically for the Roundhouse concert.
The live performances were mixed in surround sound and interspersed with musical video montage tributes of deceased members of the Workshop including Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire and John Baker. The two and a half hour event climaxed with live performances of the Derbyshire and Peter Howell arrangements of Doctor Who, segueing into a new Radiophonic version of the theme tune. Celebrated attendees included actor/writer/composer Peter Serafinowicz and satirist/writer/broadcaster Victor Lewis-Smith. Multiple cameras recorded the event but it has yet to be broadcast or released in any form, although amateur footage of the event can be seen on YouTube.
In 2013 the original members of the Workshop regrouped again for a more concerted program of live appearances. Performing as 'The Radiophonic Workshop' (dropping the BBC prefix) they were joined by drummer Kieron Pepper (The Prodigy, Dead Kids, OutPatient) and Bob Earland from Clor. They also embarked on a new recording project set for release in Autumn of 2014. This involved collaborations with contemporary electronic musicians, video artists, DJs, remixers, poets, writers and singers. Live appearances in 2013 included Festival Number 6 at Portmeirion, Wales in September and The London Electronic Arts Festival in November. The shows featured archive TV and visuals from many of the TV and film soundtracks that the Radiophonic Workshop contributed to between 1958 and 1998 when the unit was deactivated. The Radiophonic Workshop appeared on BBC television's The One Show on 20 November 2013 playing a unique version of the Doctor Who Theme that combined Delia Derbyshire's original source tapes and Peter Howell's 1980 realisation of the Ron Grainer composition. Radio 6 Music's Marc Riley played host to a Radiophonic Workshop session where they delivered live versions of Roger Limb's Incubus, Paddy Kingsland's Vespucci, the Doctor Who Medley and a new composition - Electricity Language and Me (by American poet Peter Adam Salomon), featuring DJ Andrew Weatherall as the narrative voice for this classic piece of Radiophonic sound design. There were a number of radio, online and print interviews done at the time to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.
The Workshop's early archive recordings were also reissued on vinyl in November 2013 to accompany this renewed activity. In 2014, "The Radiophonic Workshop" appeared at festivals including End of the Road Festival, and the reissue programme of earlier work from their extensive catalogue continues along with a planned exploration of previously unheard or rare archive recordings.
In September 2012 Arts Council England and the BBC announced a joint venture whereby the concept of the Radiophonic Workshop would be revived as an online venture, with seven new, non-original composers and musicians. The new Workshop was based online at The Space, a joint venture between the BBC and Arts Council England. Composer Matthew Herbert was appointed the new Creative Director, and worked alongside Micachu, Yann Seznec, Max de Wardener, Patrick Bergel, James Mather, theatre director Lyndsey Turner and broadcast technologist Tony Churnside.
Composer Matthew Herbert's first work for The New Radiophonic Workshop takes audio from 25 previous projects featured on the website - from theater performances to poetry readings, creating a "curious murmur of activity". It can be heard by clicking on a button labeled "listen to The Space" at the top of any page on the website.
The New Radiophonic Workshop, not to be confused with the reactivated Radiophonic Workshop whose members are original BBC personnel, an entirely separate entity from the original unit, was assembled by Mathew Herbert as an online collective of composers for The Space arts project.
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.
The Radiophonic Workshop published "Radiophonics in the BBC" in November 1963, listing all equipment used in their two workshops, diagrams of several systems, and a number of anecdotes.
British psychedelic rock group Pink Floyd made a memorable trip to the workshop in 1967. They had employed tape loops, sound effects, found sounds and the principles of musique concrete on their debut album The Piper At The Gates of Dawn from that same year. This radiophonic approach was extended once Syd Barrett had left the group and the band began to employ the studio as a compositional tool. Tape loops and found sounds, voices and sound design techniques pioneered at the workshop all found their way onto the group's 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon. Its follow up, Wish You Were Here, began life as an album that utilised household objects such as wine glasses and milk bottles to create music without traditional instrumentation. None of that experimental work has ever been heard except for the atmospheric introductory drone to the track "Shine On You Crazy Diamond".
Other fans of the Radiophonic Workshop included Rolling Stone Brian Jones – who visited in 1968 – and Roger Mayer, who supplied guitar pedals to Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. In 1997 the electronic dance music magazine Mixmag described the Workshop as, "the unsung heroes of British electronica". Phil Manzanera has also cited the Workshop as an influence on the sound of his group Roxy 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 musicians. 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.
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