3. Voltage Control

1965-1975

In 1958, Robert Moog presented his paper to the Audio Engineering Society (AES) on the subject of voltage control. At first, voltage-controlled synthesisers weren’t always received very well, and were often rejected by those who espoused musique concrète. Undoubtedly, the sound was harsh, probably because all the tonal sounds were created from sine waves (without any harmonics), square waves (odd harmonics) and sawtooth waveforms (even harmonics). The results therefore lacked the amazingly complex and changing harmonics, also known as upper partials, that exist in real sounds.

These instruments were also locked into an even-tempered scale and were often monophonic, meaning that only one note could be played at a time, although some keyboards did incorporate the necessary trickery for duophonic operation. With such limitations, it was hardly surprising to find that the proponents of these machines often preferred Bach! Yet with a little bit of practice, it was possible to create sound and music very rapidly. And it could be a lot easier than musique concrète.

By the late sixties, the position of Desmond Briscoe was elevated to that of Organiser, whilst those who slaved over the hot machines were promoted to Assistants, both clearly in recognition of their achievements.

Malcolm Clarke joined the Workshop in 1969. Although contrary to the original Workshop ethos, he believed that ‘radiophonic’ music should be ‘fine art’, a view that sometimes received a rough ride! But he experienced an even nastier journey when his Bond Bug (a tiny vehicle of times past) slid into a ditch. In the 1990’s he constructed a Bugatti car from the chassis of another vehicle and a kit of parts. By all accounts the result was very smart: in twenty years he had progressed from Bug to Bugatti!

Between 1970 and 1975, the Workshop was unsettled and there were few technical improvements. In 1970, Richard Yeoman-Clark joined the department. He initially dealt with technical facilities, providing a link between composers and the engineer, and also made a small mixer for the Studer A80 8-track tape machine used with the Delaware. Later, he was to do more composing work, particularly for the Blake’s Seven television series. In the same year, Paddy Kingsland joined the Workshop. Paddy was an accomplished guitarist, highly skilled in producing a commercial musical sound. Unlike anyone else, he could record music at incredibly high levels without any audible tape distortion.

In 1972, Brian Hodgson left the Workshop to set his Electrophon studio, whilst Desmond was promoted to Head of the department. Meanwhile, Dick Mills began working on effects for Doctor Who. Dick, who was technically knowledgeable and very down-to-earth, devised some innovative methods for making impressive effects at an amazing speed. Roger Limb also joined the department at this time. In later years he developed a knack of creating suitable music at a breakneck speed. Clearly, he didn’t consider his work to be art, but his many clients thought none the less of him for that!

Two years later, it was the turn of John Baker to leave and for Peter Howell to arrive. Despite lacking any formal ‘training’ Peter’s work was highly musical and always very well constructed.

EMS VCS3

It wasn’t until 1965 that the Workshop bought its first synthesiser from Electronic Musical Instruments (London) Limited, more commonly known as EMS. This was the VCS3, an unassuming little machine consisting of a box with two sloping panels and a plug-in keyboard. Another version, the Synthi A or Suitcase, was similar to the VCS3, but as its name implies, it was built into a suitcase, making it very convenient for Radiophonic talks and demonstrations.

Although compact, the VCS3 contained three voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs), a ring modulator, a voltage-controlled filter (VCF) that could be made to oscillate, an envelope shaper, reverberation from an an inbuilt spring, a white noise generator and a joystick controller. External devices were accommodated by two controllable audio inputs and outputs, with filters. In addition, a 16 by 16 pin-actuated matrix provided for connections between all of the audio and voltage-control elements.

These machines weren’t always used for music. In fact, for many years Dick Mills used his VCS3 to produce some very speedy and impressive sound effects for Doctor Who. Also, these synths could be used with more traditional ‘radiophonic’ techniques, giving a more balanced sound quality.

Delaware Dinosaur

In 1970, the Workshop received into Room 10 the largest voltage-controlled synthesiser ever built, a modified version of the EMS Synthi 100. This was renamed the Delaware by virtue of the name of the street on which the Maida Vale studios were located.

This was a massive machine, four racks wide, with a sloped lower surface containing two huge pin-matrix panels, one for audio signals, the other for voltage-control circuits, as well as an integral eight-channel mixer. In the vertical surface above, there were twelve oscillators with an appropriate number of other voltage-controlled elements, as well as an oscilloscope and frequency counter. A free-standing two-level musical keyboard enabled the composer to play two lines of music at a time.

Finally, at the right-hand end of the vertical section, there was a 256-event sequencer. This incorporated its own analogue to digital converters (for receiving control voltages) and digital to analogue converters (for sending control voltages to other devices). As the author remembers it, this device accepted continuous control voltages on three layers, designated A, C and E, whilst any associated ‘trigger’ signals (usually from the keyboard) were recorded on layers B, D and F.

However, the most useful feature was the Option-4 control. This was really an extra control that wasn’t wired to anything but on several occasions it was adjusted, and the customer was thoroughly convinced that changing its setting had made an impact on the sound!

Elizabeth Parker recalled her first encounter with a Synthi 100, in which she found the machine totally alien to creating music. It was certainly a daunting machine, and the user had to approach it a mechanistic and non-artistic way. After all, what real musician knows the sound of a square wave?

Stereophonic Radiophonic

To allow the Workshop to work in stereo, a Glensound DK/1 mixer was installed in Room 14. This was unique in that it had a pan-pot built into each fader knob. This innovation, attributed to Desmond, allowed the operator to change the level and position of a sound with a single action, although this was an acquired skill. The wires to the pan-pots also had a habit of falling off at the most awkward times!

This studio was also equipped with a Studer A80 8-track, with a ten by five push-button matrix connected to its inputs. An old BBC DRD/5 gramophone deck was in use, as well as Studer B62 and Ferrograph Series 7 quarter-inch stereo tape machines.

This studio retained the original echo room but also had access to an EMT echo plate that resided in Room 16. Originally, this was a mono 140 version, although in later years it was converted to the stereo 240 model. It was essentially a long wooden box, within which was suspended a large steel plate. At one end there was a transmitting transducer whilst the other end was fitted with a corresponding receiver (or receivers in a stereo plate).

The reverberation time of the echo plate was adjusted by a motorised mechanism controlled remotely from the studio. Both the ‘send’ and ‘return’ audio wiring incorporated a ‘phantom circuit’, created by making a connection to the centre tap of an audio transformer. Whenever the ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’ button on the remote control unit was held down, an appropriate voltage was applied to the send circuit and the motor would rotate in the correct direction. A special meter was also provided on the remote control, showing the reverberation time and fed via the phantom connection on the return circuit.

Captain and Crew

The relationship between Desmond and his staff wasn’t always easy, although working in the department seemed more like being a member of an exclusive club, in which your progress would be carefully followed by Desmond’s kind but schoolmasterly eye. Val Gaffney, the long-term secretary, would sometimes whisper ‘Black Tulips’ to warn of any impending call he might make.

Desmond was also involved in the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), an excellent organisation promoting Britain’s rivers and canals, and had a boat on the Thames at Wraysbury. One day he bought a loud hailer for the boat and asked Dick to try it in the long corridor. Dick pressed the lever and there was an ominous tinkling noise, followed by Desmond exclaiming ‘Sometimes, Dick, you could make me scream!’, to which Dick calmly replied ‘With one these, Desmond, you don’t need to.’

The author also constructed an intercom for Desmond’s boat, using a high-impedance headphone insert as a microphone and a ‘741’ amplifier. A couple of years after Desmond had retired a cardboard box duly arrived, containing the intercom that now needed a repair! Cheeky, perhaps, but it was this kind of determination that ensured that he always got his way.

At one time he required a set of blue lamps in the corridor to show if the power had been left on in a group of studios. The author protested that this would involve a tremendous amount of work, including cutting through a concrete slab, but he remained adamant. Yet there was a solution: a single lamp, controlled by a solid-state relay (SSR) fed with low-voltage signals via a diode network.

Those who move in elevated circles often think themselves to be isolated from other people. Desmond fell into this trap when accompanying Dick Mills to BBC Television Centre (TC). On the way, Dick claimed that he already knew the Head of Television but Desmond simply wouldn’t believe him. On arriving at the bar in TC, the first words uttered by the Head were ‘Hello, Dick!’

Inevitably, there was a dividing line between those of an artistic disposition and the engineers. Towards the end of each mid-monthly meeting Desmond would often ‘dismiss’ the engineers whilst he and the composers would go on to talk about higher things. Indeed, the BBC management was still split along functional, rather than operational lines. Therefore, although the department only contained around a dozen people, the engineers worked to a remote manager at Broadcasting House.

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©Ray White 2001, 2004.