Although sound was not my first love, it was sound that shouted most communicatively to me from several points:-
• My father's profound deafness focused my understanding on the importance of sound.
(this I discuss later in more detail).
• The effect the war had on broadcasting.
(I was born in January 1943).
• Post-war education.
• The radiogram replacing purely mechanical sound reproduction.
During the war years radio was for my family the most important form of communication and entertainment, whilst in America television had advanced sufficiently to take the dominant role.
Every British home had a radio and we became a country of avid listeners. Our radio was a tabletop [model made by] Pye, veneered in oak, with the speaker grill cut out to represent the rising sun. It took the most important place in the room, to the right side of the fireplace.
Two BBC programmes were available:-
1. The Home Service
This was the vital wartime radio network, and consisted mainly of news and speech programmes. It was here that the very popular radio dramas could be heard. The Home Service was like the house clock. Everything seemed to be timed to it and when it came to evening entertainment we would sit and listen as a family to a radio play, while we each pursued a manual activity, which seemed to aid our concentration. My mother liked to do the ironing, while I tried to do a jigsaw puzzle that was much too difficult for me. Mrs Plumber, from next door, knitted incessantly. Her son Ronnie introduced me to the zany music of 'Spike Jones and his City Slickers'. This music is still astounding and it's influence can be heard in the signature tune [that I created] for 'Believe It or Not'
One of my earliest detailed memories is of us sitting at night in a circle listening to the radio, while we passed from one to another a bottle containing milk, which we shook vigorously to churn butter. This event is stamped on my memory because of a moth that was trapped in the large inverted pale green glass bowl of the ceiling light. It flew round and round as if to encourage us.
2. The Light Programme
This network was designed to lighten the burden of the war. 'Music While You Work' was introduced to entertain factory workers often involved in repetitive work. Music and comedy were the main ingredients of the Light Programme and it was the comedy-variety programmes that became the most popular. In these, the beginnings of 'sound surrealism' can be found. At the start of the war 'Bandwagon', with Arthur Askey and Richard (Dicky) Murdoch, was the most popular BBC programme.
Catch phrases were used as a kind of comic abstraction, many of which are in use today, although their origin is forgotten. 'Big-Hearted' Arthur Askey's catch word 'AYTHANGYEW' was derived from 'I thank you'. The whole programme presentation was slick, and had a specially-composed musical backing and punctuation score, provided by Jack Hilton and his orchestra. The variety aspect of these shows was that the comedy was broken up with songs and features, and it was in the feature sections like 'Chestnut Corner' and 'Mr Walker Wants to Know' that 'Bandwagon' started to do something new and special with sound. It had a 'radio-ness' which would have been meaningless on the stage. The adventures of Murdoch and Askey usually ended violently:-
E.g. Askey sits on a cinema organ bench as it rises through the floor (this was normal), but in this instance it doesn't stop and eventually crashes through the ceiling. The whole sequence is pure Surrealism, enhanced by the use of specially-created sound effects and restricted only by the imagination.
The most famous BBC radio comedy programme of all time followed on the heels of 'Bandwagon': 'ITMA' with Tommy Handley. Its title was extracted from the Daily Express newspaper, who had used the phrase 'It's That Man Again' whenever it referred, not to Handley, but to another fast-talking performer and radio personality, Adolf Hitler. The programme, like 'Bandwagon', developed many catch-phrases and characters, like:-
'TTFN' (Ta ta for now).
'Can I do you now, Sir?' (Mrs Mopp, played by Dorothy Summers): was this an early use of double entendre?
'I don't mind if I do'. (Colonel Chinstrap, played by Jack Train)
Norman the Doorman always said 'Vicky Verky' and Ali Oop said 'I go, I come back'.
Much of what was said was meaningless, except that it was designed to stimulate and amuse the imagination. The use of sound effects increased, and were not only used as audio comic 'shorthand', e.g. for scene change, effects (FX), door open/close, but also to enhance the programme.
The sound of 'geese gobbling' was very popular.
The use of sound in radio reached a peak with the 'Goon Show' in 1951, although it was first called 'Crazy People', and was not initially very successful. It did, however, provide a vehicle for Terence (Spike) Milligan to show his genius as a scriptwriter. Later, in the mid 1950s, the Goons became a cult programme for teenagers (like Prince Charles), who had been brought up in the television age and were now discovering radio for the first time.
The Goons were Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.
An example of a Goon sound sequence:-
Sound FX: Footsteps, from a high distant place begin to slowly descend stairs. They gradually increase in speed and approach, until they are running impossibly fast. With a loud skidding and crash of furniture they stop. There is a long silence. (Total Duration: 1' 48")
Voice: 'That's funny. We live in a bungalow!'
Narrator: '...where the floor was so cunningly laid that wherever you stood it lay beneath your feet.'
At my junior school every classroom had a radio. The loudspeaker was large and mounted across one corner of the room and produced a respectable sound. We had all grown up through the war years and after with the radio tradition, and although most of us, when we started school, could not read, we knew how to listen. Listening was an important part of the curriculum and we would always spend part of the afternoon listening to the 'hurdy-gurdy'. This was what my teacher Mr Pole called the radio.
After the broadcast we would discuss the programme and, most importantly, what we had seen. Visualisation was taken seriously and I was amazed how often our images coincided.
We rarely listened to music, because the school only had one record player and some very worn 78 rpm records of 'The Carnival of the Animals'. The record player did fascinate me, however, and I can remember getting into trouble for rubbing my finger across the pick-up needle and enjoying the very loud sound produced.
POST WAR AND HOME ENTERTAINMENT
During the war all effort was directed towards ending it. The 'Utility' standard and its famous 'Two Ducks' mark was introduced. Fashion and obsolescence became things of the past, as only essentials went into production (home industries like dressmaking and hairdressing thrived).
After the war, there had been six years of technological development, particularly in the world of electronics and thermionics [electronic valves, also known as vacuum tubes]. New commercial endeavours started using these advances. One of the first luxuries to be mass-produced was the radiogram. It was due to these new and better devices coming onto the market in large numbers that old wind-up gramophones became unwanted. Just like a child today being given last year's computer, I felt I had been given something just as valuable when my grandmother gave me a gramophone. I was about five years old.
This gift was crucially important to me for two reasons:-
1. It opened my ears to a lot of new music.
2. I discovered for myself the basic rules that govern sound generation.
The story that follows is just like this:-
A young broadcaster was working for a French underground radio station at the time of the liberation. The record of Edith Piaf that he was about to play had become warped due to poor storage conditions, and when he started the record the pickup jumped, resulting in a repeating groove. This sound, repeating at the rate of just less than one second, fascinated Pierre Schaeffer and made him want to investigate what he called 'the music in between'. He continued his early experiments along these lines, to eventually discover that natural sounds when manipulated by speed change and intentionally made to jump grooves, produced the most rewarding results. By a multiplicity of operations and mixing, the sound produced was called musique concrète .
A major breakthrough came for Schaeffer with the advent of the tape recorder, which used a magnetisable coating of iron oxide on a backing of brown paper, 6.5mm wide (acetate and PVC plastic backings later replaced the paper).
When sound was recorded on tape it became malleable. It set free the manipulation of sound, which had until now been constrained within the shellac groove. Sound could now be cut up and rejoined in a new order (edited). Variable speed was not limited by the mechanics of a coarse groove, and the tape could be played backwards or inside out (inside out gave a useful low pass filter effect when active electronic filters were expensive). The repeating groove had a very limited range of duration, but a tape loop could be of almost any size.
Tape opened up new areas of sophistication. It was now relatively easy to specially record natural sounds, and portable recorders extended this. Pierre Schaeffer invented his 'Phogene' machine.
This was essentially a tape recorder with a wide-ranging variable-speed drive. His close friend Pierre Henri was commissioned to compose musique concrète to accompany texts, ballets, films and opera.
At the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it was normal to see tape loops disappearing off into the distance, to be found again returning from the other side of the room. On its progress it might also go through several additional tape machines and treatment devices. Small loops could produce rapidly-repeated sounds, and a carefully-joined loop of a constant sound could play indefinitely. Tape could be erased and re-recorded and, if a recorder's output was fed back into its input, amazing things could result. If, for instance, a long delay between output and input was arranged, massive walls of sound could be built up, layer on layer. On the other hand, a short delay could be fed back to produce 'flutter echo', giving a sound with a kind of acoustic, the material properties of which could be changed by placing a variable filter in the return circuit.
Tape was not as important to the German experimenters at Norddeutscher Rundfunk [NDR; Northern German Broadcasting]. Here at the broadcasting studios in Cologne, they were mainly interested in using real-time generated electronic sounds. Perhaps it better suited the German temperament that a score for electronische musik could be precisely planned and written down in advance, whereas a musique concrète score was virtually impossible to visualise.
In the early 1950s, Karlheinz Stockhausen, working at the electronic studios of West Germany's Radio Cologne, established himself as the leading composer of electronische musik with 'Mikrophonie I' and 'Mikrophonie II'. Most of Stockhausen's works are not purely electronic. His writing for instrumental parts show the influence of his tutors, Messiaen and Milhaud, especially when it comes to large scale pieces. 'Grupen' (1955) is composed for three orchestras and three conductors.
During my time as a music studio manager (SM) in the mid 1960s, I became involved in a recording of a Stockhausen piece which was purely electronic, and which he attended. It was for twelve transistor radios, which were placed face-up on a standard circular BBC string-topped interview table. The radios were tuned at random, and the performance consisted of a ten-minute recorded section, selected by the composer. It became clear that Stockhausen's main concern was with the spatial elements of the stereo recording, and this has been a common factor in much of his later work.
I have always been interested in the work of Percy Grainger -
- particularly for his experiments using the player-piano and other mechanical devices. Here he touched common ground with Stravinsky and the Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow, in wanting to extend a performance to superhuman levels, producing hitherto unheard combinations of sound. For the centenary of his birth I was asked to realise for the first time his 'Free Music I'. Towards the end of his life Grainger became obsessed with home-made music generating mechanisms, which, like the sculptures of the Swiss sculptor/composer [Jean] Tinguely, had to look as good as they sounded.
(I made two programmes for Radio 3 about Tinguely)
'Free Music I' was composed for Grainger's 'Kangaroo-Pouch' Free Music machine. The pitch and volume of each section was precisely drawn out on graph paper. It could never be performed manually. My realisation took several days and was entirely electronic. The result was stunning. Delia described it as being 'better than menthol snuff'. Although the machine is now lost, Grainger's amazingly detailed drawings survive:
8 oscillators, able to play the gliding tones and irregular (beatless) rhythms of Grainger's FREE MUSIC (first thought of around 1892), are manipulated by paper graphs, towered discs ＆ metal arms. A sheet of light brown wrapping paper, 80 inches high (called 'Main Paper'), is rolled continuously from the 'Feeder' revolving turret on to the 'Eater' revolving turret, passing thru a metal cage on its way (the cage keeps the Main paper, the graphs ＆ the discs in place).
Each of the 8 oscillators has its own special pitch-control graph and sound strength-control graph. To the front of the Main paper are attached four pitch-control graphs (mauve ＆ greenish paper) and 4 tone-strength-control graphs (pinkish paper), their top edges cut into 'hills ＆ dales' in accordance with the intervals, glides and tone strengths desired. These graphs operate oscillators 1,2,3,4. To the back of the Main Paper are attached pitch control graphs ＆ 4 additional tone-strength-graphs, operating oscillators 5,6,7,8. The bottoms of these 16 graphs are sewn into the Main Paper at various heights, but the top of each graph is left unattached. Into each pouch thus formed (between the Main Paper ＆ the graph paper) is inserted a towered disc, the tower riding upon the top edge of it and following its up ＆ down movements. These movements are passed on to the axle and tone-strength-control box of each oscillator by means of metal arms, causing whatever change in pitch and volume are intended. The blue-＆-white discs controlling tone-strengths are smaller than the variously colored discs controlling pitch. In the above sketches the controlling wires are not shown.
In Italy a small experimental studio was set up under Italian broadcasting and organised by Luciano Berio, who combined both the French and German methods. In the early 1960s, Berio and Delia Derbyshire attended a music course at Dartington.
In Holland, Philips set up a sound research studio facility in Eindhoven, and there were several studios in America.
AT THE BBC
The BBC was known to be a conservative organisation, but I was amazed to discover when I joined the Corporation in 1962 that the predominant recording medium was disc [in the form of coated metal discs, with recordings created using a cutter head].
(Archive recordings were kept on microgroove LP discs until the early 1980s.)
Two things prompted the BBC. to recognise that a specialist sound department was needed:-
1. The growing importance of television.
2. The availabilty of transportable semi-professional tape recorders.
At the end of the war television quickly started to take dominance over radio. In 1946 the radio audience was noticeably dwindling and it was thought a good idea to introduce another network, aimed at minority and specialist listeners. This was called the 'Third Programme' and was broadcast from 6 pm each evening. The first programme broadcast on its opening night was called appropriately 'How to Listen'. The live outside broadcast via television of the [Queen's] Coronation in 1953 sold thousands of new television sets, and radio took on a new role. An improved system of transmitting radio programmes had been introduced called frequency modulation (FM). This extended the possibilities of regional broadcasting, but more important to those of us interested in sound, the sound quality was very good and stereo-capable.
Television had taken over the home entertainment role and its plays, in particular, had attracted away many of the radio listeners. BBC Radio's Drama Department realised there was an opportunity to do something new as an alternative to what was being offered by television, and that they could take advantage of the newly-improved transmitted sound.
2. Tape Recorders
[In BBC Radio at this time] the studio output was not recorded locally by the studio manager (SM), but was sent down a tie-line circuit, via the control room, to a remote recording room called a 'channel'. [Typically] each channel contained three EMI BTR/2 tape recorders, each about the size of an Aga cooker. They were very unstable, and needed to be continually aligned and maintained. The recording department was part of Engineering [Division].
Tape machines quickly improved, and no longer needed constant attention, but engineers jealously hung on to the principle of recording to a remote place. They felt that monitoring of the recorded quality had to be done in an isolated area, away from the activity of the studio. As a consequence, SMs were denied the basic tool of sound manipulation until...
Transportable semi-professional tape recorders, Ferrographs, the size of a medium suitcase and weighing about 55 lbs, were placed in drama studios as rehearsal recorders. Actors felt that they benefited from being able to hear back their performance during rehearsal. It was these recorders that were unofficially collected together after hours by a few enthusiasts, producers and studio managers who wanted to experiment, their ideas stemming directly from musique concrète . This was in 1956.
Those enthusiasts included:-
Producers: John Gibson, Douglas Cleverdon, Donald McWhinnie and Michael Bakewell.
Writer: Frederick Bradnum
Playwright: Giles Cooper.
SMs: Daphne Oram, Desmond Briscoe and Norman Bain.
About this time, Donald McWhinnie visited the renowned playwright Samuel Beckett, and discovered that he was enthusiastic about sound experimentation. McWhinnie persuaded him to write a play in English for the BBC (most of his plays were written in French). The play arrived at the end of 1956. McWhinnie recognised it as a work of genius, which would test the medium of radio fully. It was called 'All That Fall' and is recognised as one of radio's classic productions. It was the first programme to contain what later became known as 'radiophonic' sound and was first broadcast on the Third Programme in 1957.
Following this, Donald McWhinnie produced 'Private Dreams and Public Nightmares'. Frederick Bradnum wrote it and it was subtitled 'A Radiophonic Poem'. Like Beckett's script for 'All That Fall', it was written with sound in mind, but in this case the sounds required were written on one edge of the script and the poem on the other.
Earlier experiments had been made by Humphrey Searle and Roberto Gerhard to integrate special sounds in original pieces, but this was the first positive attempt to compose a radio programme specially designed to exploit the new sounds, and be entirely dependent on them for effect.
In his book 'The Art of Radio', Donald McWhinnie describes the piece as:
'an inextricable conception of word and special sound and an exploratory flight into a new territory of sound. The words were designed to evoke, and be reinforced by, new sounds, sounds never heard before, and to be themselves subjected to technical process which would achieve emotional effects (with human voice as basis), quite different from anything the actor can do alone'.
In the same year (1957), Giles Cooper's 'The Disagreeable Oyster' had proved that the radiophonic experimenters could be funny. This surprised most critics, who had not noticed the aural connection with ITMA etc., and associated radiophonic sound only with nightmares, horror and madness.
THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP
The success of these experimental programmes caused the 'Radiophonic Effects Committee' to be formed in 1957, to decide if a permanent department was required. Val Gielgud, Head of Drama, was in favour, but wondered whether the BBC could afford it. Head of Variety, Pat Hilliard, also wondered if the cost could be justified, but was certain that members of his department would welcome a workshop.
Head of Features, Laurence Gilliam, came out 'strongly in favour of this development' and supported 'its immediate and rapid implementation'. Gilliam had one caveat however: he felt that these facilities should be 'most stringently controlled by a small group of qualified producers, working with interested and qualified studio managers and musicians.' In this way, the 'lunatic fringe' could be restrained.
It was agreed that a sum of £2000 be provided [other sources give a figure of £1900] 'for minimum purchase of essential equipment that was not available from Redundant Plant', [the latter being the department where otherwise unwanted equipment was kept or disposed of].
On the first of April 1958, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was set up in room 13 at the BBC music studios, Delaware Road, Maida Vale, London.
When I joined the Radiophonic Workshop in 1969, I was surprised to see that little had changed since 1958. A [typical] studio consisted of :-
• Three full-track 15 ips [inches per second] tape recorders (Philips)
• Some audio test oscillators
• Passive filters called variable correction units (VCUs) [and portable effects units (PEUs)]
• A chromatic variable-speed Levers-Rich tape recorder
• A simple mixing desk
...and a lot of imagination!
The big change was that there were now three studios and four composers. Room 11 was John Baker's studio. Brian Hogdson and Delia Derbyshire shared room 12. David Cain was in room 13.
I notice that from this time onwards, commercially-made equipment (synthesisers) started to come onto the market and for each following decade, a new system of sound synthesis was devised and introduced.
Mass production of small integrated circuits in the late 1960s made it economic to manufacture synthesisers, but it was the fact that each individual device was voltage-controllable that was special. Prior to voltage control, we were limited by how many hands were available at one time, but now one control could be set up to give a voltage output to control any number of devices. Perhaps more important, though, was the possibility of one device controlling another etc. etc.
In America, Robert Moog, who had been a theremenist [the theremin being an electronic instrument operated without physical contact], started making synthesiser modules which became famous for the quality of their voltage-controlled filters. In London, Peter Zinovieff of Electronic Music Studios (EMS) introduced the VCS3. On the domestic front, Yamaha offered the SY1 and SY2. Voltage-controlled systems were developed over the next few years and culminated with the huge 'Delaware' synthesiser that was specially made for the Radiophonic Workshop by EMS [as a variant of their 'Synthi 100' machine]
By the 1980s, the principles of voltage control had led [John] Chowning in America to discover that the frequency modulation (FM) of one device with another could rapidly produce very complex and naturalistic sounds. Yamaha, with their DX7, first commercially implemented the principle of FM synthesis. When I first heard a DX7, I thought the sounds were incredibly real, almost too realistic. The sort of sounds FM synthesis did well, though, were what I would call 'direct sound', like the sound of a harp string plucked, and most percussion instruments. What FM did not include was any form of internal acoustic or resonance within the sound. This problem was mainly due to a lack of filters in the system. Hybrid synthesisers later overcame this.
Throughout the 1980s personal computers were beginning to become important. Computer memory [in the form of] random access memory (RAM) doubled in size each year, while its price remained stable. Inexpensive RAM made possible digital recording and sound manipulation. Some of the first digital synthesisers used pre-defined samples, held in a permanent memory or read-only memory (ROM) as 'wave tables'. The German company PPG made a useful version of this type of synthesiser.
The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI), which had been developed in Australia, arrived at the workshop in 1982. Its ability to store and play back, via a piano-like keyboard, sounds sampled digitally into its memory, refocused the Workshop's attention once again onto natural sounds and musique concrète .
Hybrid systems followed on from here, and continued to be developed until the end of the decade, when 'sound modelling' became the flavour of the new decade. Our contact with this new form of synthesis was mainly through instruments designed by Yamaha. The concept considered sounds not as flat two-dimensional objects, but as something three-dimensionally solid. These instruments generated some very useable sounds, but the control interface was complex and very subtle. To achieve the best results with one of these instruments, I feel, would demand a similar amount of time and devotion as when learning to play a violin or French horn etc.
Digital recording has become the standard for broadcasting, although some purists insist that analogue is the real thing. (Dave Strip, BBC Head of Quality Monitoring, used to insist that mono was the real thing and stereo was a poor fake.)
What digital does give us however is security of quality. A digital copy is not a copy, but a clone of the original, and in an infinite number of copy processes the original data will be exactly preserved.
©Malcolm Clarke 2003