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Digital Subscriptions > MusicTech > Oct 17 > THE ULTIMATE STUDIO ICON


The Radiophonic Workshop was founded nearly 60 years ago and over four decades, influenced generations and left an indelible musical legacy. Andy Jones explores its history and speaks to Paddy Kingsland and Mark Ayres about the Workshop’s live revival – and the first new Radiophonic album for 32 years…

Radiophonic Workshop

Pictures Victor Frankowski, Colin Neal and York Tillyer (Real World) Historic photos thanks to the BBC Archives

Desmond Briscoe and Delia Derbyshire, pictured in the early days of the Radiophonic Workshop

The importance of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop can’t be understated. From the 1960s onwards, it not only scored much of the BBC’s TV and radio output – both in terms of sound effects and music – but also became something of a Mecca for bands interested in utilising the equipment and skills there. Its output has influenced countless numbers of today’s producers and was all down to a set of pioneering composers and technicians who employed new, old and even scrap gear to come up with unique sounds.

The first of those pioneers was Daphne Oram. As far back as the 1940s, Oram was a junior studio engineer at the BBC who was becoming increasingly fascinated with tape editing and electronic sound. She composed as she experimented and one of her pieces, Still Point, is seen as the first composition to combine the worlds of an acoustic orchestra together with live manipulated sound – Oram planned to use turntables to play back edited orchestral music along with a live orchestra, but the piece was never actually performed until after her death.

In 1957, Oram produced the very first electronic score the BBC broadcast, for a play called Amphitryon 38, using what could be called a simple synth comprising a Sine-wave oscillator and homemade filters. In the same year, she teamed up with studio producer Desmond Briscoe over a shared enjoyment of the French musique concrète style of music, and the two started producing similarly themed experimental scores and sound effects. So in demand did these become that the BBC gave the pair a budget to set up what would become the Radiophonic Workshop in 1958 at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios.

With £2,000 and access to as much unwanted and disused equipment at the BBC as they could get hold of, the Workshop soon expanded and notable early work included effects for diverse productions, including the sci-fidrama Quatermass And The Pit and The Goon Show.

Brian Hodgson created the TARDIS sound by dragging a door key along a piano’s bass string

The Radiophonic line up would change in the early 60s. Maddalena Fagandini joined and among many scores, she also came up with some incredible effects for a radio version of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. Delia Derbyshire, a third female composer who would make a huge impact on the Workshop’s success, also joined in the early 1960s – although, by this time, Oram had left to concentrate on her own electronic music, some citing her displeasure at the direction that the Workshop was taking as a reason. The numbers were further bolstered by the arrival of Brian Hodgson, David Cain and John Baker. Even a young George Martin briefly entered the fray in 1962, to help turn one of Fagandini’s pieces, Time Beat, into a commercial release, a first for the Workshop. Of course, Martin would go on to taste slightly more commercial success over at Abbey Road Studios a little later in the 1960s…

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About MusicTech

The new issue of MusicTech is on sale from Thursday 21st September where this month we go all out and show you how to record EVERYTHING! Across 12-pages we cover the best ways to position your microphones and accurately capture the vast majority of instruments you’ll ever need to record. To help you along the way, our Beginner’s Guide this month takes an extensive look into the world of dynamic, condenser and ribbon mics. Elsewhere we sate our inner geek with our in-depth interview with the pioneering Radiophonic Workshop, whose rich history begins way back in the early 60s, where they painstakingly created innovative soundtracks for the BBC, most notably the theme for Doctor Who. As if that wasn’t enough we’ve also assembled a special 24-page supplement full of our favourite reader and pro studio interviews, free with this issue.