2. Early Days

1957-1965

In 1957, a small group of BBC producers and studio managers began using ‘radiophonic’ techniques to create pioneering music and drama programmes. The process consisted of recording real sounds, such as those created by the human voice, bottles, bells, musical instruments, percussion devices or even boxes of gravel or pebbles. These were then manipulated to produce entirely new material. Tape machines provided reverse playback, speed and pitch changes, or were used to create sound loops, whilst reverberation and equalisation could modify the sound quality. Various elements of the work were edited together using tape-splicing techniques, often note-by-note. This was a time-consuming business, requiring endless skill and patience, but the results were often very impressive. These processes, similar to musique concrète, created or enhanced the atmosphere in a programme, but weren’t considered an ‘art in itself’. The leading light of the group was Daphne Oram, a studio manager who was also trained in music, together with Desmond Briscoe and Norman Bain.

The BBC, having seen the potential of this new aspect of broadcasting, established a Radiophonic Effects Committee. This decided to set up a Radiophonic Workshop, using outdated equipment from the BBC’s Redundant Plant, as well as £2,000 that was to be spent on additional requirements.

The Workshop was initially established in a large area created within Rooms 13 and 14 of the BBC’s studio complex at Maida Vale. This building, acquired by the Corporation in the thirties, was originally constructed in 1909 as the Maida Vale Roller Skating Palace and Club, complete with ornamental stucco arches at each entrance. The structure itself was low-lying and built of a steel framework in the manner of a Victorian railway station, making it an ideal housing for stand-alone studio structures. The area allocated to the Workshop was originally part of the skating rink’s viewing gallery that had been previously converted into a long corridor and a series of recording rooms.

In 1958, Desmond Briscoe was appointed as the Senior Studio Manager (SSM) of the emerging department, but in the following year, Daphne Oram left the Workshop to concentrate on ‘Oramics’ music at her own studio.

Between 1960 and 1965, the Radiophonic Workshop was a household name, mainly because of the Doctor Who television series. In 1962, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson joined the department and contributed to the fame of this programme and the Workshop. Delia produced the original theme tune using twelve oscillators whilst Brian created the basis of the Tardis sound by running his keys along the strings of an old gutted piano. In 1963 John Baker also joined the Workshop.

Workshop Operations

Much of the new Workshop’s equipment came as rejects from other departments. Tape recorders included small semi-professional Ferrograph models and the monstrous Motosacoche machines. The latter were particularly difficult to use since these took fifteen seconds for the tape to get up to speed.

Sound mixing was provided by an outside broadcast mixer, originally used during the war at the Albert Hall. Jeff Bottom of Radio Projects once recited a tale concerning a later BBC OBA/8 mixer that had been installed in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral for Winston Churchill’s funeral. For some inexplicable reason, it managed to fall down from the BBC’s commentary position onto the aisle of the church, but was almost unscathed, apart from the glass in its meters and the valves. However, to the credit of BBC engineering, but not to those in the vicinity, it left an embarrassing dent in the floor!

Early on, the Workshop acquired a wobbulator, originally designed for engineering tests but also very useful as a source of raw material. This created a tone whose pitch was continuously varied by a second oscillator, thus providing sweeping waves of sound.

Reverberation was provided by a small echo room located in the basement of the building. This had bare painted walls, was cold and damp, but had a loudspeaker with an amplifier at one end and a microphone at the other. It featured a sloping ceiling, although the author never really found out whether this was for acoustic reasons or simply a structural necessity. Despite having a reverberation time fixed by the dimensions of the room, the actual sound quality was quite good.

Initially, because of the technical challenges and established BBC traditions, the staff worked in pairs. A studio manager dealt with the artistic aspects of the work whilst a technical assistant (TA), such as Dick Mills, who joined at this time, would handle with the more mundane aspects of the hardware.

The Second Room

In 1961, the Workshop gained Room 12, in which the Projects department installed a custom-made mixing desk. To avoid the ‘stud noise’ introduced into tonal material by BBC rotary faders (which were switched attenuators working in 2 dB steps) it was fitted with linear carbon-track faders. These controls were also convenient for complex mixes and could easily be ‘paired’ using mechanical links.

The mixer also included several Programme Effects Units (PEUs), each of which provided adjustable treble and bass cut using simple networks of coils and capacitors. Although entirely passive, these devices provided really drastic equalisation effects.

Unlike later mixing desks, where amplification was built into the console, this mixer came with two 19-inch external racks of amplifiers plus a wider rack containing ancillary equipment. Each BBC Type B amplifier, containing at least one ‘miniature’ valve, was plugged into a matching socket on a rack panel, allowing easy replacement. Connections between various parts of the studio and mixer could be tailored using a frightening jackfield that was spread across the two bays.

In the early seventies, the author was astonished by the amount of background hiss that this desk produced. The problem was solved by simply replacing several amplifiers by dummy ‘linking plugs’ and by shorting out the associated attenuators, also known as ‘pads’.

Tape for Professionals

In 1962, the Workshop received six Philips tape machines, many more of which appeared in other parts of the BBC. These were the first high-quality machines to be used in the Workshop. Although only considered ‘semi-professional’, they were absolutely perfect for fast editing.

Each machine came in a custom-made BBC trolley that had only two wheels: to move it you had to lift one end in the manner of a wheelbarrow! These trolleys also had a ‘script rack’ above the deck, accommodating paperwork and spools of coloured ‘leader’ tape.

A standard BBC editing block and a splicing tape dispenser was also fitted to each machine. The latter was made from large diameter aluminium rod, machined on a lathe to create a recess for the splicing tape and provided with a slot for the tape to be extracted. A circular perspex top was then manufactured with a central hole to match the one in the machined rod. A single bolt then fixed the whole thing to the side of the machine. Single-sided razor blades were used for editing: this was a safety nightmare, requiring ‘razor-blade’ boxes that would ensure their safe disposal.

In front of the tape deck was a BBC-designed panel containing switches that could prime the ‘remote start’ facility provided on the mixing desk. This allowed the machine to be started in playback or record, with green and red indicators on the desk showing the setting. The remote signalling operated with the BBC’s standard minus 50 volt ‘battery’ system, also used for red light relays, other studio signalling devices and internal studio telephone systems.

Each machine also had a rotary fader for controlling the output level. This was fitted with a microswitch that allowed it to be used for ‘fader start’: this meant that whenever the fader was ‘opened’ the machine would start playing. Inevitably, because of the usual ‘stud noise’ problems, the standard BBC rotary controls on Radiophonic machines were replaced by carbon-track devices.

In Room 12, as in the later Room 10, three of these machines were arranged in a line, allowing a tape to pass through the heads of every machine. A special remote control box allowed one or more machines to be started by means of a single switch.

This was an incredibly flexible arrangement, since any of the machines could be in recording mode. The tape could be drawn out as a loop between any pair of machines, or a tape loop could be created that returned from the third machine back to the first. Such a loop was conveniently held at tension by a special spring-loaded ‘loop stand’. This was a modified microphone stand with a sprung arm, the end of which contained a tape guide. Such stands were usually known as a DO NOT FIDDLE WITH, having once been labelled this way by Howard Tombs, then Dave Young’s engineering assistant.

At one time, Room 12 had a Leevers-Rich multitrack machine, although it could only record one track at a time. Later on, it had a quarter-inch machine from the same maker, equipped with an aircraft servo motor for the capstan. This provided both continuous and stepped ‘chromatic’ varispeed control.

Dave Young

In 1963, Richard (‘Dickie’) Bird, the Workshop’s first engineer died. He was replaced by Dave Young, who had apparently made several Hammond organs and thus impressed the interview board.

The skills that Dave brought to the Workshop were undoubtedly gained from his wartime experiences. Having been shot down during hostilities, he became a prisoner of war for the duration, where he applied his technical skills to creating radio receivers that could be used for listening to the BBC News Service. Apparently, he made several different types in disguises such as a gramophone or accordion. Probably, the best specimen was the metal aircraft that hung from the ceiling, every part of which was a component of a receiver: the engines, for example, were capacitors.

All the parts, apart from an electronic valve obtained from a friendly German, had to be manufactured from what was to hand: pieces of wire, paper, pencil lead and the foil of cigarette wrappings. And remember, Dave would have to calculate the dimensions for making these parts from the first principles of electronics. How many engineers could do that today?

When he returned to civilian life, he continued to use and make things from rejected materials. Ray Riley, who later worked at the Workshop, recalled several visits to his home in Havant, where the breakfast room table was covered with a pyramid of junk. Since Dave never actually disposed of his cars, he simply collected them in his back garden. If a car started, he would drive visitors such as Ray around the garden, but if a car failed completely he would simply use it as a garden storeroom!

Ray also recounted the tale of when they visited Dave for tea, during which time Ray and his wife Pat happily accepted a portion of ginger cake. Having allowed them to get some way into it he then announced that he’d found the ginger on Havant rubbish tip that morning! Ray bravely finished his bit of cake whilst Pat was courageous enough to consume a second piece.

Whilst working at the Workshop, Dave would regularly visit the Portobello Road market on Friday mornings, returning with all sorts of strange objects. Presumably, the joystick of a real aircraft that the author discovered in an engineering workshop cupboard came from this source. The author also seems to remember another character called ‘Sticks’ whose main interest at the market seemed to be electric motors. In later years, Ray Riley continued going to the market, expanding his collection of metalworking tools: unfortunately, this eventually caused his garden shed to sink into the ground!

The Glowpot

Dave Young was responsible for some highly innovative engineering. When the Workshop acquired Room 11, an adapted mobile ‘outside broadcast’ console was employed, complete with a trolley of BBC Type C transistorised plug-in amplifiers. Normally, a desk of this type would have quadrant faders, similar to the old BBC rotary faders, and once again a source of ‘stud noise’.

Dave’s solution was both simple and elegant: the faders were adapted so that the attenuator actually controlled the intensity of a pair of lamps. These in turn illuminated a pair of light-dependent resistors (LDRs) that were connected in a ‘bridge’ circuit with two fixed resistors that was inserted into the audio path. The stud noise was therefore eliminated by the thermal inertia of the light bulbs. This modified fader was known as the ‘Glowpot’; therefore the console was known as the Glowpot Desk.

As with all the best ideas, the Glowpot did suffer from some problems, mainly because Dave’s invention was ahead of available technology. For example, sometimes it was necessary to ‘match’ the pairs of lamps, so that the fader would mute the sound properly when fully ‘closed’.

As constructed, the Glowpot Desk had twelve input channels, each with a miniature plug-in PEU and controls for ‘pre’ or ‘post’ foldback, and three output groups.

Key Players

The Workshop actively explored the possibility of employing ‘engineering’ oscillators to create a musical instrument. Bob Windsor, from the nearby Film Unit, and Dave Young each created a device known as a Keying Unit. This consisted of a rack of oscillators and a small musical keyboard containing the special electronics, the latter containing keys removed from a cannibalised piano. One of these units contained nine Jason oscillators whilst the second, with an extended range provided by twelve Advance oscillators, was used by Delia in the creation of the Doctor Who theme tune.

When a note was pressed on the keyboard, a voltage was applied to a variable-mu pentode valve that fed the output of the appropriate oscillator to the final output. Since instantaneous switching would have been unacceptable, adjustable timing circuits for ‘attack’ and ‘decay’ were provided.

Unlike any other electronic instrument, this device allowed each note to be tuned to a unique pitch, allowing unconventional musical scales to be adopted. And, as a precursor to the future, the variable-mu pentode acted as a form of voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA).

Palaces of Perspex

Around the time of the Glowpot fader, Dave also experimented with a quadrant capacitive fader. This contained two wedge-shaped sections of copper-coated paxolin, one of which moved on a pivot as the fader was operated. Since the two sheets were in close proximity, the capacitance between the sheets would vary as the control was moved. Dave now connected one plate to an audio signal and the other to the high-impedance input of a field-effect transistor (FET) amplifier. The result was an exceptionally effective device with smooth operation and few moving parts. Sadly, this never saw real service, although the author once discovered it in a cupboard and was impressed by the results.

Yet the principles of the capacitive fader were applied in another well-known device. At this time, the Workshop was experimenting with various sources of sound, including electronic oscillators, and needed a way of creating audio montages from sounds that faded into other sounds.

Dave’s device was constructed inside a handmade Perspex box, which gave it the name ‘Crystal Palace’. At the base it contained a variable-speed dictation machine motor that rotated a ‘capacitive’ vane, connected to the input of a FET amplifier via the gold nib of a Conway-Stewart fountain pen. The output of this amplifier was connected in turn to a set of four output jacks.

A total of sixteen input jacks were connected to the non-rotating input vanes. These jacks were linked cleverly by connecting the ‘inner’ contact of each socket to the ‘outer’ of a previous input. As the author remembers it, the outer of input 1 was connected to the inner of input 2, and so on. If you plugged a source into jack ‘1’ the same signal arrived at all inputs, but if you plugged another source into jack ‘8’ the original signal only fed inputs 1 to 7, whilst inputs 8 to 16 received the new material.

Dave was enthusiastic about constructing the first of these machines. But when Desmond asked him to build three more, his eagerness definitely began to wane! Even so, this exceptional device inspired Brian Hodgson to use it for the creation of Music of the Brisbane School, part of his score for Philip Saville’s production of The Machine Stops, an eery precursor of other minimalist works. To everyone’s credit, this was the first television play ever to win at a Film Festival.

Dalek Modulations

The robotic voices of the Daleks in Doctor Who were created using a simple device known as a ring modulator. This was originally made in a small metal box, containing two audio transformers and a quartet of semiconductor diodes. Speech was applied to its input whilst a second signal, usually fixed at 30 Hz or lower and provided by an external oscillator, was connected to its ‘carrier’ input. The more sophisticated ring modulators available in later years didn’t sound as good as these early devices, simply because they couldn’t produce such useful levels of distortion!

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©Ray White 2001, 2004.