11. Intermission

1989-1990

From November 1989 to April 1990, the author was attached to Radio Projects, whilst his post was filled by Rupert Brun. During this time, Pete Thomas, then in charge of Outside Studios (which included Radiophonic engineering), tried to persuade him to move to Projects, even though the pay and status were lower. Brian Hodgson was said to be ‘unhappy’ and thought that the author would ‘vegetate’ at the Workshop. No doubt he thought the author was disloyal in going to Projects and he probably thought even worse of him when he returned after Rupert’s successful attachment.

Whilst away, the author’s badge for the APRS (Association of Professional Recording Studios) conference was misdirected to the Workshop but finally arrived marked ‘AKA Biggles’.

During this period Malcolm Clarke wanted to play a ‘78’ record that the Workshop ‘grams’ couldn’t accommodate. So he played it with a ‘33’ stylus at 45 rev/min, but with the speed turned down by around 10%. He then recorded it onto tape and played back the tape at twice normal speed!

By this time, the Workshop had moved entirely to commercial audio connectors, usually standard quarter-inch jack plugs and sockets. To allow for these, some devices were fitted with new sockets, although newer jacks conforming to the PO316 standard were modified with a quarter-inch drill!

Computer Developments

Up until now, computers had only been used to process slow-speed data such as MIDI. But a new generation of hardware and software soon emerged that allowed direct manipulation of audio material. One early package, known as SoundTools, was obtained in the summer of 1990. This consisted of a NuBus accelerator card in the Mac and matching software, as well as a magneto-optical (MO) drive connected to the computer via its SCSI port. A ‘dedicated’ machine was fitted in a trolley and later received a SoundTools Pro input/output box. By the autumn of the same year, a sampling system known as SampleCell was tested: this provided four stereo outputs via a special NuBus card. The Speedframe trolley used for the SoundTools computer didn’t last very long. One day in the summer of 1991, Roger Limb, clearly in a state of rapid acceleration, caused it to collapse. The trolley was subsequently replaced by a more robust construction based on Unicol components.

The Mac II machines used in the studios were eventually upgraded to the IIx models, complete with 1.4 MB floppy drives instead of the original 800 KB version. During 1990, AF Computing investigated the use of external floppy disk drives with the Mac IIx computers, mainly because the drives in the machines themselves were often inaccessible. But by the autumn of the next year, the company finally admitted defeat and the five ‘boxed’ floppy disk drives came back to the Workshop. Fortunately, two of these found a use with the SE/30 machines in the engineering workshop.

Access to the computers in Studio B and Studio F was especially difficult, making it impossible to reach the power switch for resetting the machine. This problem was solved by making a ‘reset’ box, containing a button that interrupted the computer’s power feed. Fortunately, these early machines had a mains outlet for peripheral devices, ensuring that all equipment was switched on or off at once.

In the spring of 1989, the engineers became the proud guardians of a pair of Mac SE/30 computers, whilst the Thunderscan scanner had been abandoned in favour of the office scanner. Applications such as SuperPaint, MIDIScope and QuicKeys were in use, as well as Dreams for engineering drawings and Works for word-processing. Things didn’t always work smoothly. For example, when the author used SnapJot with MacDraft, he inadvertently corrupted the machine’s hard disk drive, a result of the infamous ‘hierarchical menus’ under the Apple menu. And the introduction of System 7 in the autumn of 1990 caused more headaches. Around this time, Brian received a new Mac IIsi and was shocked to find that Works wouldn’t run on it. This model was always 'picky' with its software. A 1 MB ‘electronic disk’ also arrived for the office. Today, one megabyte is thought insignificant, but in those days all the engineering information could be kept on a single floppy disk!

The era of the BBC Micro in the engineering workshop was now drawing to a close and by the summer of 1989 these machines almost went for good. Ray Riley, after experiments with Red Ryder and the ‘Communications Package’ in Works, almost persuaded the Workshop’s EPROM programmer to operate via a serial port of a Macintosh computer. As is usual with ‘standard’ ports, this involved lots of messing around with connections and discussions about X-ON and X-OFF control codes. Despite his partial success, a BBC Master 128 machine was still being used with the programmer in 1991. However, by early 1992 he got it to work extremely well with ClarisWorks on the Mac.

Meanwhile, Mark Wilson was experimenting with using the ‘C’ language to program a CMS/PSI single-board computer (SBC) that contained a 68000 processor. This, of course, was the same processor as used in the first generation of Macintosh computers.

Despatches

The Workshop was, for better or worse, shaking off its history. Early in 1989, Studio A was rationalised, but by the summer it had been entirely dismantled, the desk removed and the technical earth installed along a new route. By the summer of 1990, its Soundcraft SCM381-8 8-track was also sent away. However, the Soundcraft Series 800 desk didn’t get to Redundant Plant until the spring of 1991. This area now acted as a storage space, although it also could be used as an acoustic area.

The old gutted piano, once used to create the Tardis sound, was also despatched. And the grand piano, perhaps a much sadder loss, went in September of 1991. Less attractive was the Steenbeck 6-plate viewing machine, which went on to see further service in Bristol. The Sondor Libra sepmag recorder was also happily sent on its way to Redundant Plant.

Tape Technology

The Workshop was now moving away from analogue recording tape. In the spring of 1989, three more DAT machines arrived and the quarter-inch machines were moved around. The B62 recorders soon returned to Broadcasting House, leaving most studios with at least one Studer A80. This increased the space in each area, although the ability to dub quarter-inch tapes was sometimes lost.

A new £5,000 Sony DAT machine was demonstrated. This had four heads and provided off-tape monitoring, allowing operation in ‘normal’ mode (record before playback) or ‘edit’ mode (playback before record). Also, regenerated timecode could be recorded or played back via a selected head and a parallel connector was fitted for a ‘standard’ synchroniser. The machine also had a serial control port, a ‘composite video’ sync input, a word sync input and output, and standard digital audio connections.

Fun in F

In the autumn of 1989, the DMP7 mixers in Elizabeth Parker’s Studio F managed to ‘lose’ their ‘parameter lists’, the information that defined how the mixers should behave with MIDI. The easiest way to reload these lists was by copying them from a DMP7 in another studio via a removable RAM cartridge. Unfortunately, Peter Howell used the Vision sequencing application whilst Elizabeth was using Performer, so the required lists were actually different. Eventually, a new list was created.

Studio F was also used for recording sessions with ‘real’ musicians. Unfortunately, the DMP7 mixers weren’t designed for this kind of operation. Therefore, a very confusing system was employed: the actual recording was made from the combined auxiliary outputs of the ‘main’ and ‘auxiliary’ mixers whilst the musician’s headphones were fed with the studio’s main output.

Detachment

The author’s attachment to Radio Projects coincided with an upgrade to Radio One’s Programme Presentation Suite One (PPS1), a tiny area inside Egton House. The incongruous ‘Egton’ office block was behind Broadcasting House (BH), but linked to it via a curious subway that passed beneath the street at basement level. The studio itself was located alongside the continuity suites that contained the Radio One disc jockeys. It was mainly used for making jingles, those horrid bursts of musak so popular in modern radio, and trailers that promoted forthcoming programmes. In effect, PPS1 was a specialised ‘radiophonic’ area. The improvement scheme, costed at £120,000, was planned to provide it with a Atari computer, two Akai DP3200 matrixes and a Yamaha DMR8 combined multitrack recorder and mixer. The existing Audiofile digital recording system would be retained.

Towards the end of 1989, the author actually spent most of his time on other schemes. For example, he concluded that the £44,000 spent annually on renting television receivers for offices would be better spent on buying them, even if some went wrong and they had to be thrown away. Other projects included a huge number of CD players for studios costing £116,000, office televisions and hi-fis totalling £100,000 and numerous similar schemes. He was also involved in trying to work out the logistics of a complex intercom system that was to link Studios 3G and 3F with the Newsroom.

The beginning of 1990 saw the Philips Report that began a programme of cutbacks in the BBC’s ‘non-core’ activities. Meanwhile, Jonathan Gibbs, having been ‘groomed for stardom’, moved into his new job as Head of Television Post Production. And at Maida Vale, works were in progress on removing asbestos, large amounts of which had been incorporated into the building.

By the spring, it was decided that the Atari computer and Akai samplers for PPS1 should be packaged into flight cases. Meanwhile, the Yamaha DMR8 was abandoned in favour of a conventional Saber console from Allen & Heath . Later, the author heard that Brian Hodgson had been surprised by the choice of computer. No doubt he’d have preferred a Macintosh, but the customer really did want an Atari machine. Pete Graham of Radio Projects also wanted the author to stay, but this was impossible in the stifling atmosphere of a department that managed to suppress most forms of original thought.

By the summer of 1990, Harris Grant offered a tender of £98,000 to do the work on PPS1, an offer that was duly accepted. At this time, the BBC was in talks with English Heritage regarding Studio L1, located in the basement of Broadcasting House. Apparently, this studio hadn’t been touched since BH was built in the 1930’s. It had the appearance of a domestic room and was reputed to have had a tunnel linking it to the Bakerloo line, a feature supposedly used by Churchill during World War II.

At this stage, Ray Riley attended an interview board to get his full engineering grade. Although told that this was a formality, he was grilled for three-quarters of an hour. At the end of this marathon, the board, seriously ‘charred’ itself, decided to modify the questions for later candidates!

Jeff Bottom, manager of the author’s section, often regaled his staff with amusing tales. One concerned the installation of an £80,000 BBC General Purpose desk at Bangor. This had to be lifted through a window using a crane, the desk itself being supported by webbing. Then there was the outside broadcast of a quiz at Newbury where they forgot to bring the microphone cables. In desperation, they visited the local Woolworth’s and bought all the twisted bell-wire they could find! And during the last BBC strike the management was forced to do the broadcasting itself. Simon Shute, then Head of Engineering Operations, messed up a tape ‘changeover’ by switching off the wrong machine, although he quickly corrected his mistake. Finally, as an example of how BBC engineering could go really wrong, there was the story of the RP2/1 gramophone. Originally, it was decided that the impressive wooden cases of these machines could be used as the basis for a new stereo version, the RP2/9. However, it all went horribly wrong and they had to make new cases anyway!

The process of planning PPS1 had taken so long that the author was about move back to the Workshop, long before construction had even started. Meanwhile, he wrote a scathing report on the organisation of Radio Projects, describing the excessively vertical form of its management, the oppressive style and the total lack of delegation of responsibilities. It was later painfully reorganised.

The Monolith

The new circular consoles had made the older Workshop studios appear dated, although the Soundcraft desks were in fact still very modern. Ray Riley therefore investigated ways of fitting a pair of DMP7 mixers and a DP3200 matrix into these earlier installations. During the author’s attachment, he busily modified the ‘effects’ circuits in Studio E to match those of Studio H, making them more suitable for the extra equipment. This involved replacing the two original 120-way Varicon connectors by three 56-way sockets. In addition, he had to create new effects racks for both studios.

Ray then designed a ‘mini-studio’ to accommodate the DMP7s and DP3200, as well as a KX88 musical keyboard, Mac computer, QWERTY keyboard and computer monitor. This innovative creation, known to the author as the ‘monolith’, was constructed from three Unicol stands bolted together. By the autumn of 1990, Ray’s excellent planning was complete. The original effects rack in Studio E, which was over-engineered with its own mini-jackfield, was then dismantled. Parts of its Speedframe structure were recycled to house the noise reduction and desk power supply unit (PSU).

The rear panels on the DP3200 matrixes used for these projects didn’t have jack sockets. Instead they had a set of 56-way Varicon connectors, all wired to the Soundcraft ‘standard’. These were then plugged to ‘umbilical’ cables fitted with jack plugs for connecting to the various devices. Any ‘odd’ connections were accommodated by inline jack couplers and standard double-ended jack leads.

In addition, each studio now had a Philips CM8833 colour monitor for use with samplers or other video sources. The author made a video switch box that allowed the composer to watch the picture fed from the U-matic recorder or the displays provided by two S50 or S550 samplers. The monitor was fitted with a standard SCART connector. Under normal circumstances this took a ‘composite’ video signal, as provided by the U-matic recorder. However, the monitor could be persuaded to accept independent red, green and blue (RGB) signals by applying +5 volts to an appropriate pin on the SCART connector. Fortunately, the 8-way DIN sockets on the S50 and S550 samplers provided a suitable +5 volt feed that could be directed through the switch box. But Murphy’s law intervened in Studio F: one S550 was found to lack the fuseable link necessary for the feed to the socket.

The monitor also contained useful stereo loudspeakers. The video switch box also allowed the input to these speakers to be connected to either the ‘monitor’ audio output of the U-matic video machine or the studio loudspeaker (SLS) outputs of the console. The U-matic’s ‘monitor’ output was usually switched to the ‘non-timecode’ sound track and gave a buffered mono signal. The desk’s SLS output level could be adjusted by a control on the console itself, whilst an alternative source of sound could be connected via the desk’s mini-jackfield. This feature was often used for listening to a ‘click’ track.

By the autumn of 1990, both Studio E and Studio H were equipped with the ‘mini-studios’. The role of Syncwriter had been overtaken by the facilities in recent sequencing applications and it was therefore removed from these areas. Its departure caused little hardship, although one of Roger Limb’s customers missed the ability to trigger the start of a tape machine from incoming timecode.

By the spring of 1991, Studio C was also fitted out with a ‘monolith’. This installation contained 128 DIN plugs for MIDI, and every one had to be labelled! All the studios that contained a Soundcraft 2400 console were now in a form that remained unchanged until the last days of the Workshop.

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©Ray White 2001.