Chip to be Scared: the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

By Andrew Ayres

As a child born in the seventies and who grew up in the eighties one of my biggest memories is of the long running BBC science fiction show Doctor Who. It was pretty much always being shown, with repeats of previous series both plentiful and common. Weirdly I always imagined what it would be like to be inside a Dalek, but not as a monster, I imagined myself as a person in a Dalek shell, and also not evil, in my mind I was a good, human, Dalek.

But I digress…

In 1958, pioneering electronic musician Daphne Oram and her colleague Desmond Briscoe convinced the BBC to set up the Radiophonic Workshop, one of the first specialised studios for creating sound effects, atmospheres and background music. However, her male colleagues at the Workshop called her difficult to work with (presumably because she didn’t take their crap) and she was forced out in 1959.

Part of storytelling is building the world in which the tale is being told, with books you can build the world with the words, describing enough to bridge the gap between the words and the readers imagination. For television, and more so, radio, the sound plays a huge part in bringing the story to life for the viewer or listener. The sound can help stimulate and emotional response to the story being told and draw you further into the story being told. Sound can lift you up, or send you scurrying behind the couch in fear. All this helps build a world in your mind, tapping into your imagination to put the icing on the world building cake, and transport you to unexplored realms.

The soundtrack of a TV show or movie requires a lot of work to get right, you need to understand where the story is taking you, and what sound can bring to the journey. In the case of TV shows, the opening theme also plays a huge part in setting up the tone of the show being watched.

I remember sitting down in front of the TV as a child and waiting for the Doctor Who theme to start, possibly one of the most recognizable theme tunes ever broadcast, and one born of the BBC’s Radiophonic workshop; the institution that has been responsible for music and sounds of some of the best Sci Fi shows to come out of the BBC. The era I remember was of the older traditional theme, with its dun dee dun dun dee dun bass line leading into the rising crescendo of sound with seeping noises and earie sounding music, all a product of the department founded by the BBC, the Radiophonic Workshop.

Founded in 1958, the workshop was setup with a minimal budget, reportedly just £2000, and access to surplus equipment at the BBC, from this would be built the studio that would produce music and effects for many of the BBC’s Sci Fi shows, most notable among them Doctor Who and Blakes 7.

These days we take for granted big budget special effects and music productions in movies, but Doctor Who had its origins in the sixties, and was a relatively low budget BBC production, so how did they produce both the music, and the sound effects for what became a cult Sci Fi show.

This was in the days before synthesisers were around, meaning all the sounds had to be physically produced somehow, and then manipulated to achieve the desired result.

The workshop was founded to allow the BBC to produce audio that was not commonly available, to service the productions they were working on for both radio and television. In a time before computer generated sounds were a thing you needed people who understood how to get sound out of the things around them. Even today’s big budget movies can have sound effects produced by an interaction of physically produced sounds and electronic post processing.

In the case of the Radiophonic workshop, it was understanding the types of things that would give you a soundscape suitable for the type of programming being produced that would allow them to innovate and capture some of the definite sounds of modern science fiction television.

The story of how the workshop was about taking what you can get your hands on equipment and repurpose it to perform a different task entirely. The workshop when it was founded did not have a budget, so they had to scrounge equipment that could be used to realise the vision they were trying to achieve in sound.

During the 1950’s the BBC was producing more and more programming that called for more experimental sound tracks to suit the content that was being broadcast at the time. In France workshops had already been set up to produce music and sounds for a more modern style of story telling, and it was after this that the BBC would model the workshop.

So in 1958 Desmond Briscoe with Daphne Oram were able to finally convince the BBC to found the workshop, which started in a space previously occupied by an ice skating rink. Having been given a small budget and access to surplus equipment they set about creating something that would endure until the late nineties.

The iconic theme tune for the series was originally composed by Australian composer Ron Grainer, which was then realised by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills. Grainers score gave an idea of tune as well as descriptions of sweeping sounds he envisaged, not a traditional way to score a theme at the time. The theme was assembled in three components, the rhythm, the melody, and the other incidental sounds, each track being initially assembled, literally, on mono tape. Each of these tapes was hand cut together out of the individual sounds to make the complete tune.

The distinctive rhythm of the theme tune was formed using a string stretched tight across a box, and being plucked, creating a single note which could then be manipulated to achieve varying tone and pitch, but it started out as a single note. From this single bass note, the other required notes were created by varying the speed of the recording to alter the pitch. This was then painstakingly stitched together to create the distinctive and memorable bass line we know today.

To create the main theme on top of the bass the Radiophonic Workshop utilized a series of tone oscillators, known as the Wobbulator, which was also used to augment the bass track. The Wobbulator consisted of twelve oscillators controlled by a small keyboard, which was made from scavenged musical keyboard parts, and could in its own way be played like a miniature, futuristic sounding piano, albeit a very short one.

Finally the incidental sounds in the theme were created, you can hear those as the wooshing sounds and the like during the music, providing the audible equivalent of icing on the cake.

The level of effort was staggering, when you also realise that they had to create each individual note that was needed from scratch, and then to produce the tune they actually cut and spliced pieces of recording tape together, in the correct order, to make the tune.

Then, all three tracks were merged by literally hitting play on the three players simultaneously and recording the output. An incredibly laborious and time-consuming way of assembling the final tune.

The track had some echo effects added and along with the incidental sounds formed the base of the theme which has become iconic.

This was then played back to Grainer, who was happy with the outcome, reportedly exclaiming “Did I write that?” in surprise, and the rest as they say, is history.

To think that arguably one of the most iconic themes in television history was created on equipment that was basically taken from surplus bins and junk piles is something quite remarkable, and a real testament to the imagination of those involved being able to take things and give them a different purpose and use that to produce something so incredibly memorable. These days we take modern synthesizer technology for granted, but none of this was available at the time, so a lot of thinking outside the box was required.

From there a legend was born, and in the second ever story one of the great villains of Doctor Who appeared on the screen, for which the workshop would again play a key role, the Daleks. Part of what made them so memorable and a long lasting villain was the sense of dread they could inspire, and part of that was down to the vocalization, and that was down to the work by the workshop which defined the sound of the Doctors first enemy way back in 1963.

Peter Hawkins and David Graham were the original actors to voice the Daleks, giving them the speech pattern we know today through the choices they made in performing the lines of dialog, the harsh, statico speech patterns, which have become synonymous with the Daleks, came into being at this time. Their performances however were augmented heavily by the workshop. The process used for this is known has ring modulation, and at it’s simplest level is taking one signal, in this case the recording of the actors playing the Dalek’s dialogue, and multiplying it with another track to produce an output. In the case of the Daleks, the actors performances were mixed with a 30hz sine wave to give us the performance that set the standard to this day for the voice of the Daleks in Doctor Who. To this day, the actor Nicholas Briggs who voices the Daleks for both Big Finish Audio and BBCs current run of Doctor who uses a ring modulator to produce the correct voice. In fact when Nicholas Briggs was asked to perform the Dalek voices for the modern series of Doctor Who, the BBC had to ask him to bring his own ring modulator as they didn’t have one, but Briggs, who had already voiced many a Dalek for Big Finish audio books, did.

The third, but not least, sound to be produced for Doctor Who is the sound that the Doctors ship, the TARDIS, makes when materializing and dematerializing. It is an iconic sound in its own right, and one that is instantly recognizable when it is heard. Believe it or not, this effect is actually based upon the sound a key makes being scraped along a piano wire, the bass string to be precise, and with some reverb added to the mix, and that is how the sound of the TARDIS taking off was realised.

When Doctor Who launched in 1963 there was not the technology yet toy artificially create the effects for the series, and so it was left to the imaginations of talented sound engineers to create the effects from things they could lay their hands on. It is perhaps a great example of how limitations of resource lead to inspired creativity, and make something that is quite remarkable, even now fifty six years later. The genius of the Radiophonic Workshop team was in understanding what they had, and how to put it to the best use.

The workshop would go on to provide music and sound to numerous other BBC productions, Blakes 7 and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy notable among them.

But as technology moved on, so did the workshop, and electronic synthesizers became more common place, and while the soundscapes produced are still remarkable, they perhaps lack something in the sheer determination to make something out of nothing from which the workshop was born.

The workshop was sadly closed for good in 1998, however it had not done any real work since 1995. Its legacy includes one of the most easily recognized themes tunes of the twentieth century, as well as contributions to countless shows produced by the BBC, and redefined the possibilities when it comes to producing unique sound to aid in story telling.

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