5. Reawakening

1980-1983

In 1981, Paddy Kingsland departed, eventually moving to Barnes and setting up his own studio in Hammersmith. This was unfortunate, since the Workshop now began to reinvent itself at a rapid pace. This was largely due to Brian’s skills of persuasion, which eventually secured £60,000 of capital per annum from Radio, with similar intermittent funding from Television. The reluctance of Television to pay towards the Workshop wasn’t entirely reasonable, since most of the Workshop’s output was used in television programmes. Oddly enough, the Workshop remained under the management of Radio.

No Glow

The author and Ray Riley were unfortunate enough to inherit a ghastly project to update the Glowpot Desk to modern standards. The result, looking very smart, duly arrived from Technical Services, but turned out to be a total and unmitigated disaster. Basically, many components, old and new, had been plumbed together without any consideration of earthing or system design. And these problems were exacerbated by the existence of the separate amplifier trolley. After an untold amount of time with thick bits of cable and 100 nanofarad capacitors, it was persuaded to work. In practice, it was unsatisfactory, and, like the ‘Glensound’ attempt, found itself on the truck to Broadcasting House.

Sound-crafting

Having disposed of the attractive heap of ironmongery that had been the Glowpot Desk, it was necessary to consider an alternative. This was the Soundcraft Series 2 console, a low-cost product from a newly-emerging company, which made it unpopular with Technical Services. This was rather odd, especially since they couldn’t make a working desk of their own. At the Workshop’s Technical Sub-committee meeting, Rex Belgrove, then in charge of Technical Services, declared that Soundcraft desks would be installed at the Radiophonic Workshop ‘over my dead body’, to which Brian Hodgson’s reply of ‘That can be arranged’ earned a well-deserved ticking-off from Desmond, as well as from George Crowe of Radio Projects.

The proposed mixer featured 16 input channels and 8 groups, making it ideal for 8-track operation. In common with other Radiophonic desks, it had faders that worked in the opposite way to BBC broadcasting consoles. Traditionally, BBC faders were ‘open’ in the downward position and ‘closed’ when pushed away from the operator: presumably this ensured that any faders weren’t accidentally opened by a studio manager collapsing onto the console in a drunken stupor!

The desk also had low-cost busbars, comprising of strips of printed circuit board (PCB) that were plugged into the appropriate modules via Molex connectors. Those in engineering authority didn’t think much of this, although it eliminated the problem associated with expensive desks, such as those produced by Neve, where the connectors on the module often failed to align with the matching sockets in the console. The Soundcraft mixers also used low-cost carbon-track rotary controls that were much frowned upon, although the faders were of the conductive plastic variety.

Eventually, Rex arranged for Alan Stokes to inspect a Soundcraft mixer, but declared him a ‘traitor’ after Alan said it was quite good. So, despite all those supposedly horrific features, the Workshop went straight ahead and bought two desks. And the results, despite the doom-laden forecasts of the ‘experts’ , were two of the Workshop’s most highly-reliable installations.

Studios C and H

By 1981, the ‘two Rays’ had installed Soundcraft Series 2 consoles in Studio C, formerly Dave Young’s office and in Studio H, previously Room 11. Following BBC engineering traditions, the desks were supplied with audio transformers on all external circuits, apart from the channel inserts. This added to the cost of the desks and, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably unnecessary.

These installations followed the basic principles established in Studio E, although they were designed for use with an 8-track (one-inch) machine. Due to the small size of the rooms, the studios were initially equipped with two Studer B62 quarter-inch recorders. Although these machines were fitted with the BBC remote-start feature, they also could be used with Studer’s full-function remote control.

A slim ‘penthouse’ was fitted above each mixer to accommodate the buttons for tape remotes and varispeed controls. Some minor modifications were also made to the desks: these included flashing LEDs to warn that the first two PPMs were monitoring groups 1 and 2 (instead of the main stereo output) and three extra buttons for controlling the studio red light and remote cue lights. The latter were wired to the Piano Room where portable cue lights, with green lamps, could be connected.

Ray Riley devised a special stand that supported the console at each end, allowing it to be swivelled for access to its underside. Since the console didn’t have an integral patchbay, a wall-mounted jackfield was installed. The wiring between the desk and the rest of the studio was in balanced form, connected using standard BBC cable: usually this was PIN/10 (10 core, 5 pair) or PIN/20 (20 core, 10 pair). At the desk end, each pair was covered in a black sleeve to improve its appearance.

The installation in Studio H included a Soundcraft SCM381-8 8-track machine that also worried the Engineering management. Although the prototype did have teething problems, later improvements made it entirely satisfactory. This machine had a built-in full-function control system that be could be removed and used separately: in Studio H it was fitted to the top of a microphone stand.

Studios B and D

Studio installations now followed thick and fast. The year 1982 saw two further installations, both incorporating a Soundcraft 1624 console. This had 24 input channels and 16 groups for use with a 16-track recorder. Unlike the Series 2, it had its own stand and flap-down panels for maintenance. In addition, the busbars consisted of ribbon cable and insulation displacement connectors (IDC). And, unlike the earlier desks, these consoles had unbalanced line-level inputs and outputs. No doubt, those foretellers of doom, the supposed ‘experts’, were waiting for it all to go horribly wrong: it didn’t!

The first installation was in the old Room 38, later known as Studio B. Unlike previous projects, this required considerable building work, mainly associated with removing an unwanted door and associated ‘lobby’ in one corner of the room. From the outset, this area was equipped with a Studer A80 16-track recorder, exploiting the capabilities of the desk to the full.

Studio D was created in Room 35, the site of the original engineering workshop. In turn, the engineers relocated into Room 12 (Studio G). To give access to Studio C and the short corridor into Studio B, an L-shaped passageway was made around the room, enclosing both the south and east sides. The new studio received a Studer A80 8-track recorder that was fitted with an extended ‘penthouse’ for future conversion to 16-track, although this work was never completed. In fact, the area was mainly used by Dick Mills for Doctor Who sound effects that often didn’t require a multitrack machine.

In both studios, minor modifications were required on the mixing desk. A spare ‘module’ panel was equipped with controls for tape remotes and varispeeds. In addition, a mono meter, connected to the circuits feeding the stereo PPMs, was fitted in a spare area on the monitoring module. And the console’s integral patchbay was linked to a wall-mounted jackfield that carried circuits to other areas.

The studio was also provided with the usual switches for the red light and cue lights. According to BBC standard practice, a 50 volt switching system should have been used. This required a 50 volt relay box to control the power to each red light or cue light. Radiophonic studios soon abandoned this practice. Instead, a solid state relay (SSR) was installed in the box containing the main red light or in the box containing the cue light connector. This was then fed from the studio’s power isolator. Any voltage from the mixing desk, usually +15 volts, could then be used to switch the SSR.

Studio A

By 1983, yet another studio had been completed and was occupied by Elizabeth Parker. This new installation was created in an undeveloped room between the Piano Room and the main corridor: according to the author’s workings this should have been Room 40.

Unlike Studios B and D, this installation was for use with an 8-track machine, the Soundcraft SCM8 formerly used in Studio H. Therefore, a Soundcraft Series 800, with 26 input channels and 8 groups was obtained at a cost of £16,000. The total cost of the studio, including building work, was around £60,000. Much of this money was spent on ventilation and electrical work.

Voltage Loses Control

Voltage-controlled synthesisers managed to hang on in the face of digital technology. Indeed, at this time, many old analogue favourites, such as the EMS VCS3 and ARP Odyssey, were still in demand. One neat example of a latter-day voltage-controlled synthesiser was the Roland 100M, a modular system that employed 3.5 mm jack cords for patching connections between the component parts.

However, some later machines employed a microprocessor to provide a ‘front end’ to voltage-controlled workings. One early machine of this type, the Yamaha CS80, looked like an electronic organ, but was actually processor-controlled. Whenever you pressed a note, that key would be assigned to a specific voltage-controlled oscillator, so providing true polyphonic operation.

Other synthesisers in this category must include the famous Prophet 5 from Sequential Circuits and the Oberheim OBX8. Yamaha provided synths such as the CS15, CS40M and SY2, whilst the Casio Casiotone 201, Godwin String Concert, Korg Rhythm 55, Roland Compurhythm CR78, Roland Jupiter 4 and Wasp Deluxe were also used at the Workshop. Some of these machines were very cheap and produced quite ghastly sounds: but sometimes these were really needed!

Phoenix and Ashes

For some time, there was a project to replace the Delaware by a new machine, constructed of rack-mounted Wavemaker modules created by Ken Gale in Poole. This scheme, dubbed the Phoenix by Roger Limb, suffered from many problems: Ken could only produce modules slowly, the Workshop’s engineers were busy with studio installations and, worst of all, voltage-controlled technology was rapidly passing its sell-by date. Only when the author and Ray Riley had ‘demolished’ the Delaware and several years had passed was it finally accepted that the Phoenix was dead.

As a historical object, it could be said that the Delaware shouldn’t have been destroyed. However, to retain it or an unsuitable replacement would have held back developments in the Workshop. The existing Wavemaker units were packaged into 19-inch racks by the author and provided with 3.5 mm patch panels for interconnections. These units included VCOs, VCFs and Envelope Shapers.

Ken also produced a Digital Polyphonic Keyboard and Control Voltage Recorder: the latter allowed a composer to record a musical performance onto a twin-track tape machine. Subsequent layers could be added by ‘bouncing’ the original data to the other track whilst playing the new material on the keyboard. The author created an interface box to use this with a Revox A700 tape machine.

Analogue Sequencing

Before MIDI appeared, sequencing wasn’t greatly used, and for good reasons. For example, not all synthesiser manufacturers used the same analogue control voltages: some used 0.5, 1 or 2 volts per octave or even one millivolt per hertz. Worse still, zero volts could be the bottom note (with higher keys giving a positive voltage) or the centre note (keys each side going positive or negative). The latter made zero volts correspond to middle C or A and was more linear across the keyboard.

As well as a control voltage, a sequencer normally required a gate or trigger signal to tell it that a new note had been pressed. A gate signal, which at rest would be at zero volts, would usually switch to +5 volts for the duration of each note, thus defining both the start point and length of the note. A trigger signal, on the other hand, was a short pulse of positive voltage that only appeared at the start of a note (or at the start of the next note) and therefore couldn’t define the note length.

The 256-step sequencer from the Delaware was extracted and repackaged for use with other devices. Sadly, it contained analogue to digital converters and digital to analogue converters that weren’t linear: they had a banana-like characteristic that matched the Delaware’s keyboard and VCOs but little else.

The only really successful sequencer at this time was the Roland CSQ100.

Fairlight Cove

The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) arrived at the Workshop in 1981. This was essentially a minicomputer expanded to accommodate digital sound generation and processing. More especially, it could sample ‘real’ sounds and play them at different pitches, depending on which key was pressed on the keyboard. In many ways this brought the Workshop full circle to the techniques of musique concrète. The machine had rather clunky software and used a typical green screen of the period. However, the latter had a useful ‘touch screen’ feature that was actuated by a light pen.

The CMI, complete with its musical keyboard, QWERTY keyboard and monitor, was installed on a mobile trolley, allowing it to be used in any of the studios. Although the machine had electronically-balanced audio connections, these were considered ‘suspect’, so an audio transformer box was added for its two inputs and eight outputs. The transformers also ensured that any +48 volt ‘phantom supply’, as provided at the inputs of mixing desks for powering microphones, wouldn’t upset the outputs. This precaution was actually unnecessary and the box was later removed.

PPG Wave

The PPG Wave 2.2 was also computer-based, although its inner workings were a mystery to everyone, including PPG. One of their engineers moved his fingers over the circuit board until a fault stopped and then soldered a capacitor where his fingers had been! Despite its crude software, the Wave produced good sounds and is now considered a ‘classic’ synthesiser, along with the CMI.

New Effects

At this time, Roland produced a range of low-cost effects devices, including the 301 Chorus Echo, RV800 Spring, SBF325 Stereo Flanger, SDD320 Dimension D, SEQ315 Graphic Equaliser, SPH323 Phase Shifter, SPH380 Stereo Phaser, SP355 Pitch to Voltage Synthesiser and SVC350 Vocoder. These devices often used ‘bucket brigade’ technology, a digital-analogue hybrid process that could be very effective, although giving higher noise levels than modern devices. Each studio also had a Roland SMX880 Line Mixer fitted into the effects rack. This allowed the ‘return’ signals from up to four stereo effects devices to be blended before feeding the final result into the mixing console.

The Eventide H910 and H949 Harmonizor, as well as the less-popular MXR Pitch Transposer, were digital devices that made small changes in pitch without upsetting the musical relationships between frequencies. The Deltalab DL4 Digital Delay Line was a cheap device that used 8-bit delta modulation to reduce cost. The old PEUs remained in use, also the Albis Third Octave Equaliser, the Countryman Phaser and the Audio Design F760 Compressor/Expander/Limiter.

Several reverberation devices were used, as well as the EMT plates and the echo room. These included an AKG BX20 spring, an EMT 262 Gold Foil Plate (a miniature form of the EMT 240) and the Great British Spring. The Workshop had three of the latter, all installed in Room 16 to avoid acoustic disturbance. These devices were constructed in a length of plastic drain pipe bolted to the wall!

Tape Lineup

The introduction of stereo brought many complications, mainly concerned with the compatibility of existing mono recordings and signal levels. Originally, the BBC used a simple lineup arrangement for mono signals, with 1 kHz tone at a level of 775 millivolts (mV) as a reference of 0 decibels (0 dB). The standard BBC peak-programme meter (PPM) had a scale calibrated from 1 to 7, with each division representing 4 dB, giving a total range of 24 dB. Lineup was set at 0 dB (PPM 4) and the maximum level for programme material was normally restricted to + 8 dB (PPM 6).

When stereo arrived, mono signals had to be created from stereo circuits. To ensure that the volume of a derived mono signal remained constant across the stereo ‘stage’, a 3 dB attenuator was inserted in each stereo channel, before combining the stereo signals into mono. This meant that for normal lineup each stereo meter would read -3 dB (PPM 314) but the mono meter would still read 0 dB (PPM 4).

Stereo tape introduced even more complications. To give the best-possible compatibility with mono tape machines, the BBC used recording heads that had a narrow ‘guard-band’ (the space between the two tracks used for stereo). However, to minimise low-frequency crosstalk, they employed playback heads with a wide guard-band. In later years these non-standard recording heads caused considerable problems, particularly in BBC Television where ‘centre-track’ timecode was introduced.

Hence, the BBC lineup procedure was quite complicated. Whilst playing a stereo lineup tape, originally at 160 nanowebers per metre (nWb/m), each stereo meter indicated -4 dB (PPM 3), resulting in a level of -1 dB (PPM 334) on the mono meter. But during recording, each stereo meter gave a reading of -3 dB (PPM 314), with the mono meter at 0 dB (PPM 4).

Worse still, to minimise the effect of background noise, the Workshop used a higher lineup of 250 nWb/m. Since the Workshop didn’t often ‘cross-edit’ its tapes with material from other departments, this wasn’t really a problem. In any event, the level of lineup tone at the start of the tape would show the operator that a different recording level had been employed. The Workshop also had a problem with twin-track recorders: should these be lined up for stereo or as two mono machines?

In the end, the author swept all this nonsense away. The 3 dB pad for combining stereo signals became a 6 dB version and all PPMs, irrespective of being mono or stereo, were to read 0 dB (PPM 4) during lineup. Of course, this meant that Workshop machines were now producing a level of 0 dB per channel instead of -4 dB from a 250 nWb/m tape. It also meant that the recording level would be 4 dB lower, in fact the same as the rest of the BBC! To get around this problem, staff were advised to increase the maximum recording level on each channel to +12 dB (PPM 7) whilst ignoring the mono meter. Even higher levels could be used for short ‘hits’, assuming no distortion occurred.

At this time the department had eight Studer A80 RC stereo machines, one A80 VU twin-track, two Studer B62 stereo machines, two B62 twin tracks and six Revox A700 twin-tracks. The latter, although useful, were despatched as soon as practicably possible!

Clear as a Bel

During this period, the Workshop introduced Bel noise reduction, a 2:1 compression and expansion system that roughly doubled the available dynamic range: performance was similar to the dbx system, although it used ‘average’ rather than ‘RMS’ level detection. The Bel BC3 model contained 8 channels of noise reduction in a 3U box. These could be used singly for 8-track working or in pairs for a 16-track machine, although some later studios had a 16-track version with narrower modules.

Later, 1U stereo units were introduced beneath the Workshop’s A80 RC machines. The calibration level for stereo and multitrack Bel noise reduction was + 4 dB (PPM 5), corresponding to the internationally-recognised flux level of 320 nWb/m. This was roughly 4 dB above the level of the Workshop’s own 250 nWb/m lineup tape. PPM 5 also corresponded to the 0 dB mark on a Volume Unit (VU) meter, as fitted to A80 multitrack machines and later stereo recording machines.

As with dbx, this form of noise reduction could suffer from ‘artifacts’ caused by the compression and expansion process. These were particularly pronounced on material that contained both low and high frequency sounds, usually resulting in a distinct thumping sound. Malcolm Clarke found the problem particularly bad in one of his programmes: after that, a copy of this recording was used by the engineers for fine-tuning the noise reduction.

By the end of 1990, tape manipulation was no longer used and Bel noise reduction on stereo machines was unnecessary. The 1U modules were therefore removed from all the A80 RC tape machines.

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©Ray White 2001, 2004.