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Radiophonic Workshop

For 40 years, the Radiophonic Workshop created new sound worlds for the BBC.

Radiophonic Workshop at »Electronauts« Festival

Go to concert on 17 June 2018

The  BBC set up the Radiophonic Workshop as a sound effects unit in its Maida Vale Studios on 1 April 1958, and no-one at the time could guess that here of all places, in room 13, sounds would be created that would captivate whole generations of TV viewers, bands and disc jockeys.

The new department had a practical purpose: to develop suitable sounds to accompany radio plays and, later on, the BBC's television productions. Furnished with a budget of £2,000 and some fairly spartan technical equipment, the first »sound inventors« started work. Desmond Briscoe, Daphne Oram and Dick Mills had old tape recorders and filters to work with, turntables and oscillators. »We started off with equipment that nobody wanted any more, stuff that other departments were throwing away. Now and again, we were given something of our own to keep Desmond (Briscoe) happy,« recollects Brian Hodgson.

Richard Bird and Daphne Oram, 1958
Richard Bird and Daphne Oram, 1958

The studio used unconventional methods, and the weird new sounds that could be heard through the door caused some frowns in the corridors of the BBC. Hodgson recalls that, »There was even a doctor's recommendation that no-one should be allowed to work in our department for longer than three months. The powers-that-be thought there was a danger of people going mad in here!« At the same time, the strange atmosphere of eccentricity that emanated from the Radiophonic Workshop was a source of great fascination. Dick Mills says, »With our equipment we were specialists for abrupt, fear-inducing, distorted sounds.« These were new sounds that no-one had heard before, sounds that riveted people's attention.

Sound Pioneers – The History of the Radiophonic Workshop

With its new department, the BBC had caught up with a new trend that had already begun in other European radio studios. Several years earlier in Paris, composer and sound engineer Pierre Schaeffer had started cutting recording tapes apart and then sticking the sections back together in a different order and de-familiarising them electronically. Schaeffer invented the term »musique concrète« to describe his work, and in 1948 his »noise concert« featuring recordings of whistling steam engines and manipulated voices was broadcast on French radio. Karlheinz Stockhausen, a pupil of Schaeffer's, released his »Gesang der Jünglinge« in 1956 – a milestone of the genre, recorded in West German Radio's studio for electronic music in Cologne.

The composers and sound engineers of the Radiophonic Workshop picked up these new developments and were soon setting their own standards. The studio expanded, new instruments were added, and in the early 1960s BBC asked if they could create soundtracks. The most famous theme tune of all saw the light of day in 1963: composer Ron Grainer had written music for the new sci-fi series »Doctor Who«, and asked the members of the Radiophonic Workshops to realise it.

We were specialists for abrupt, fear-inducing, distorted sounds

Dick Mills

The Creation of the »Doctor Who« Soundtrack

Delia Derbyshire, Desmond Briscoe, 1965

The Radiophonic Workshop produced more music to accompany the episodes of »Doctor Who« for nearly 25 years, as well as soundtracks for other major series such as »The Living Planet« and »The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy«.

The team had no guidelines or procedures to follow at any time: »We had to follow the principle of trial and error to make the machines do what we wanted them to,« says Dick Mills. They simply tried things out, and the tinkering sound inventors, originally viewed suspiciously by their colleagues, gradually turned into pioneers who kept the development of electronic music under intense observation and expedited it themselves.

John Baker, 1965
John Baker, 1965 © BBC archive

It was like being paid to have fun!

Paddy Kingsland

Worldwide Echo

»After the first few years, when we used tape recorders most of the time, the era of the synthesizer began. Later on we worked with samplers and were able to dig out old recordings again and re-use them,« explains Mark Ayres. The Radiophonic Workshop was always at the centre of the action, and even had a growing influence itself on electronic and pop music. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd all took a lively interest in what was going on in the BBC studios. Martyn Ware, a pioneer of electronica in his own right and the founder of Human League and Heaven 17, says in retrospect: »When we started out, equipped with two borrowed keyboards, the Radiophonic Workshop was a kind of dreamland, a magical place where any sound was possible. If someone back then had offered me the chance to give up everything I'd achieved and join the Radiophonic Workshop at a snap of the fingers, I think I'd have done it. That's how much we admired those guys.«

The Radiophonic Workshop became something of an icon. »It was like being paid to have fun,« explains Paddy Kingsland, who joined the Workshop in the seventies. »We had all the liberties in the world. Obviously the end product had to be good, but we delivered. It was a great atmosphere to work in.«

The Magic Continues

The Radiophonic Workshop was dissolved in 1998 to save costs, but the erstwhile members Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Dr Dick Mills, Paddy Kingsland and Mark Ayres hadn't had enough yet: they reunited to give a concert in 2009, and since then have been producing new music again, mixing old instruments with new digital technologies, writing music for films and special events – and going on tour together, even though some of the members are over 80 now!

»We're a band that was never really a band – we never actually played together like this,« says Paddy Kingsland. But all of them apparently enjoy the band life: after releasing the album »Burials in Several Earth« in 2017, they are currently touring through Europe. And on 17 June they'll be putting in a guest appearance at the Elbphilharmonie as part of the »Electronauts« festival, which brings pioneers of synthesizer music to Hamburg.

Author: François Krämer