4. Changes

1975-1980

Dave Young retired in 1976, although in his later years at the Workshop he had a leisurely existence, continuing to commute up from Havant, but sleeping in his office each afternoon to the sound of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Yet his mind was bright: one day at the canteen table he did an impression of a BBC manager going through a list of departments and exclaiming ‘Radiophonic Workshop? Don’t need that!’, and crossing it off. Perhaps he was right, as history eventually endorsed his view.

Without doubt, the Workshop had to change or it would die. And things did change when Brian Hodgson returned to the Workshop as its Organiser in 1977. Brian had enthusiasm, and it was this that enabled Desmond to retire, knowing that the Workshop was in safe hands.

In 1978, Richard Yeoman-Clark left the Workshop and, surprisingly, decided to pursue a career in the field of engineering, eventually working for FWO Bauch, the broadcast supplier. Elizabeth Parker then joined and took his place working on Blake’s Seven. Dick Mills once said of Elizabeth: ‘In that slim girl there’s a fat girl trying to get in’. Since Dick was of a ‘rounded’ appearance, the author can only assume that this was a complimentary remark. Elizabeth’s work was of always of the highest standard, even though in 1986 she was seen throwing tape spools into the gutted piano for effects!

Awards

In 1977, Desmond was assisted by Peter Howell in the making of an award-winning programme called A Wall Walks Slowly, which evoked the landscape and atmosphere of Cumbria. The production process was accelerated by using a keyboard-controlled ‘panning unit’ that instantly positioned a mono sound in stereo whenever an appropriately-positioned key on a VCS3 keyboard was pressed.

Whilst creating this programme, Desmond seemed oblivious to an horrific background hum that came from this device: the author assumes that he was so engrossed in artistic considerations that he couldn’t hear it! In desperation, a ‘bench’ power supply was hurriedly connected to it and all was well. Some months later the author found that the Philips tape machine used to master this programme had a low-frequency recording fault. So it probably wouldn’t have recorded much of the hum anyway!

In the same year, Malcolm Clarke’s August 2026 also received an award. The most exciting part was produced using the Workshop’s EMS Vocoder, in which Malcolm successfully made a slow transition between a human voice and robotic speech. The Vocoder was a very difficult machine to operate, although it was also used by Peter Howell for his Greenwich Chorus. The machine divided the spectrum of an incoming sound into its elemental parts and then created a set of control voltages that could synthesise a new sound or could filter the spectrum of another sound. Unfortunately, the result, according to Peter, often sounded rather too much like Sparky’s Magic Piano!

The Workshop in 1976

In 1976, when the author first appeared at the department, the technical conditions of the Workshop were dreadful, most areas having been last updated during the 1960’s.

On entering the long corridor, the main office was to the left, containing a large ten-station intercom that Dave Young had constructed inside the case of an old radio. The workings of the communications system were Byzantine: each studio was equipped with a telephone for outgoing calls, two telephones for incoming calls (marked red and green respectively) and an intercom station. If a phone call was received in the office, the secretary would push a key on her intercom that allowed her to listen-in to the studio, to decide if a was a convenient time. She would then press her ‘speak’ button and say ‘Call for you on the Red!’. The composer would press a button on the studio’s intercom box, acknowledge the message, and then take the call. When the office wasn’t manned, all the red and green phones rang, except when recording was in progress, when the bells would be switched off manually.

Desmond’s office, to the right of the secretary’s office, was fitted out with a full audio system. As well as the standard BBC audio ‘ringmain’ selector, allowing him to hear all the BBC Radio networks and the main Maida Vale studios, he also could listen to any of the Radiophonic studios. Many composers weren’t too keen on this feature (hopefully for legitimate reasons) and it was removed soon after Desmond retired: this was one less worry for the engineers!

Further along the corridor, Room 10 was occupied by the Delaware, Room 11 contained the Glowpot Desk and Room 12 remained as installed. The latter had an EMI TR90 tape machine, onto which was bolted the Tempophon, a device with rotating heads that could change the pitch of a sound without modifying its tempo. Another useful gadget was the Binson Echorec Baby, consisting of a spinning metal drum surrounded by several tape heads. One head recorded material onto the drum whilst the others played it back with varying amounts of delay, depending on the speed of rotation of the drum.

Room 13 contained a 4-plate Prevost 16 mm film viewing machine and an Acmade Picture Synchroniser. The latter device was for working with sepmag, a special magnetically-coated film used in sound recording. The Synchroniser allowed a sepmag recording to be adjusted in time to the associated picture film: the sprockets in the media then kept sound and picture together.

Room 14 was almost disused and still contained its original bays, the ‘Albert Hall’ mixer and an elderly Ampex tape machine. The huge EMI BTR/2 tape recorder, fitted with an extra feed spool on its side for easier editing, was a descendent of the BTR/1. The British Tape Recorder 1 was the first tape machine developed in Britain and was based on German recorders used for Hitler’s World War II propaganda. The BBC once attempted to convert the BTR/2 machines into a modern transistorised stereo model known as the RD4/4: this was a total and unmitigated disaster.

Room 15, with a 1930’s viewing window through to Room 14, was an acoustic recording area. The adjacent Room 16 was a store for many noise-generating devices, including Desmond’s drum kit! It also contained the Workshop’s EMT echo plates, although these were relocated in later years.

Opposite Room 15, on the other side of the corridor, was Room 35, the original engineer’s workshop. This acted as the BBC’s Maida Vale control room during World War II: it’s original ceiling, complete with glazed skylight, had been covered by a concrete slab containing a steel plate. This wouldn’t have prevented bomb damage but would at least keep the shrapnel at bay! The room contained innumerable benches, a pillar drill, a lathe and several wartime equipment bays, some containing hardboard blanking panels, since in wartime the metal was required for munitions. Some of these bays were of the wider 22-inch variety and therefore couldn’t accept modern 19-inch rack-mounting equipment. One particularly interesting device was the BBC Standard Level Panel (SLP): this contained a specially ‘aged’ light bulb that could be used to calibrate audio devices to exactly 0 dB (775 mV).

When Dave Young extended the intercom into this area he ran out of circuits and had to install a relay. He decided to take advantage of this by fitting a box on the wall containing a light-emitting diode (LED) that glowed menacingly whenever anyone tried to listen-in to his conversations!

At the other end of Room 35 was Dave Young’s office, containing several large cupboards, mainly full of ancient electronic valves. High up in one corner there was an ‘infinite baffle’ loudspeaker that provided the background material for his afternoon relaxation.

Also at the end of Room 35, a doorway (for many years blocked by accumulated old equipment) led to a short corridor and two further rooms. Room 38, reached via the left-hand of two doors, had only recently been equipped with the Glensound ‘pan-pot’ mixing desk. The nearby Piano Room, unsurprisingly, contained a piano, although it was also used as an acoustic recording area.

Engineers, Engineers…

Following Dave Young’s departure, the engineering situation became unsettled. For a short time, Richard (‘Corny’) Cornwall took the post in an acting capacity, also Mike Dixon, who later moved to the Modifications Group in Technical Services. Mike and the author began clearing up the accumulated mess. For example, Room 13 contained a cupboard full of ‘tree’ connection blocks, mainly disused, apart from a few circuits for the Film Unit Studio (V8) and Projection Room (V7), and others carrying 50 volts or 0 dB tone. These blocks, presumably part of the original 1930’s installation, were connected by lead-covered cable, the lead giving protection and an electrical screen for the pair of cotton-covered wires. Most of the blocks and a huge amount of wiring in the roof were removed by the author and Mike. Simultaneously, the back suspension on Mike’s car developed a curious sag!

The old bays in Room 14 were also removed and replaced by a small wall-mounted jackfield that gave access to tieline circuits between the Workshop areas and the main Maida Vale studios. The jack panels of new jackfield were fitted together and hinged at the bottom for easy access to the wiring.

During this period, the author came and went, spending some time at Radio Brighton, which seemed as chaotic as the Workshop. One day, at the very moment his hammer struck the shelves he was demolishing, all the lights went out and the fire alarm went off. He ran down the stairs to the main studio to find the presenter working in semidarkness, with the mixer powered by a PP9 battery. Facing him was Bob Gunnell, the Station Manager, who demanded that he abandon the studio, since the fire alarm had gone off. But as the presenter said, it was a power cut that had started it!

There seemed to be some sort a tug-of-war between Ken Tink, then Engineer in Charge of Technical Services, and Desmond. In any event, it was implied that the author didn’t want to return to the Workshop, so a subsequent interview board appointed Ian Jolley as the Workshop’s engineer. During this period a mixing console was made from two Glensound MX6/2 outside broadcast mixers and a DK2/21 monitoring unit. These were built into an enclosure, complete with hinged a jackfield. Sadly, the result didn’t meet Radiophonic requirements and soon found its way back to Broadcasting House.

The author then returned once more on attachment, after which Ian soon departed, and in 1979 the author was interviewed and got the job. This, however, was almost a foregone conclusion, as the interview had already been ‘rehearsed’ in front of both Desmond and Alan Stokes, then Senior Engineer at Maida Vale. As Dick Mills once remarked: ‘everyone who works here is here for two reasons: they wanted to come, and Desmond Briscoe chose them to stay’.

Around this time, Ray Riley, a former maintenance engineer for the main Maida Vale studios, joined the Workshop. This was undoubtedly convenient for the management of Technical Services, since they had recently set up a new shift system of working that conflicted with Ray’s established position. Ray was also in a difficult situation, as the management refused to give him an appropriate engineering grade without him attending a residential course at the BBC’s Training Centre at Wood Norton. This he had declined for perfectly reasonable family reasons.

Studio E

Ray’s expertise was vital in the installation of Studio E, constructed for Paddy Kingsland’s production of a pop/rock blockbuster musical called Rockoco. The new installation was to be created in Room 14, part of the original Workshop, now divided-off from Room 13.

The installation was supervised by Alan Stokes, who, although easy to work with, would occasionally get extremely annoyed, a state of affairs that Ray denoted as a ‘pink fit’. One day, for some forgettable reason, he came through the door of Studio E with a long piece of wood about which he was seriously upset. As he went to leave he waved this huge object in all directions, nearly toppling a loudspeaker in the process!

Harry Hill of Radio Projects was involved in the provision of the Neve 8066 mixing console. Unfortunately, he didn’t consider the size of the studio door. Now Jeff Bottom, also from Radio Projects, had often cut desks in half to extract them from a studio, but Harry didn’t do this to install the console. Instead, the desk was manoeuvred onto its back, an unfortunate action that slightly distorted its frame, introducing module ‘seating’ problems that continued throughout its life.

Studio E was a ‘classic’ BBC installation, based on the engineering methods used in Maida Vale’s main music studios. This meant that it had its own complications. For example, two sets of trunking ran around the periphery of the room, separated by a wooden insulator. The metalwork of the upper trunking, containing the mains wiring, was joined to the ‘general services earth’, whilst the lower trunking, containing audio wiring, was connected to a ‘clean earth’, also known as ‘technical earth’.

The general services earth, which was also joined to conduits containing lighting and other general-purpose mains wiring, wasn’t considered clean enough for audio purposes. To provide the audio equipment with a clean earth, the 13-amp sockets were wired to the technical earth, with the straps between the mounting screws and the socket cut to prevent a short between the two earthing systems.

Balanced audio wiring and XLR connectors were used throughout, with the desk wiring skilfully adapted to the Workshop’s needs by Ray Riley. The desk had 20 input channels and 16 output groups: it also featured a mini-jack panel that minimised the need for wiring to the main jackfield on the wall.

A Studer A80 16-track (two-inch) tape recorder was provided, with audio connections via four XLR pattresses, each containing eight record or replay circuits. Unfortunately, the BBC adopted its own ‘outputs are on sockets’ arrangement for these XLRs, flying in the face of the ‘pins point in the direction of signal’ convention used by commercial organisations. The BBC even went to the lengths of reversing the connectors on the A80 to conform to the BBC standard: in later years the Workshop adopted commercial practice but then needed reversing cables to use the modified A80s! Connections for a ‘full-function’ remote control and ‘time elapsed’ clock were provided via a 35-way Amphenol connector: the machine’s varispeed control was wired via a 15-way Amphenol connector.

Two A80 RC stereo machines were also installed. Unlike earlier Workshop recorders, these didn’t have output faders or a BBC remote-start facility, but were provided with Studer’s full-function remote control. This employed separate wires for functions such as ‘play’ and ‘rewind’, as well as a set of wires for the matching indicators. Each machine was connected at the wall via a 50-way Hypertac connector, which carried audio, remote control and varispeed control circuits. At the console end, Ray Riley installed illuminated push-buttons and multi-turn varispeed controls for the three machines, although the third machine was originally an incompatible Revox A700.

Connections for external devices were provided via XLR connection boxes, this time conforming to commercial conventions. In addition, provision was made for up to four stereo effects devices that were located on shelving to the right of the console. In reality, at this time, the studio had very little in the way of synthesisers or treatment devices.

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©Ray White 2001, 2004.