The Institute - March 2018 - 7
Delia Derbyshire, a pioneering musician
and composer of electronic music, works
in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The Sound of
BBC studio was among the first to experiment
with electronic music B Y N A T H A N B R E W E R
O U N D D E S I G N , specifically the sound effects and
music used in science-fiction
films and TV shows, helped
introduce electronic music
to mainstream audiences. The BBC
Radiophonic Workshop was one of the
major players, generating many influential and innovative scores for the
The workshop was formed in 1958
in London when Daphne Oram, a
pioneer in the field of radiophonics
(sound effects and music produced
for radio), petitioned her employer,
the BBC, to open a formal production
studio. Its engineers produced music
and sound effects for such works as the
long-running British sci-fi TV series
"Doctor Who" and the sci-fi comedy
radio program "The Hitchhiker's Guide
to the Galaxy." The workshop closed its
doors in 1998 after four decades.
AN E L E C TRO N I C R E VO LU T I O N
The telharmonium (an electronic
organ invented in 1897) and the theremin (a variable-frequency, singleoscillator instrument invented in 1920
with two metal rod antennas that conTHEINSTITUTE.IEEE.ORG
trol pitch and amplitude) each experienced brief periods of popularity. The
emergence of tape recorders in the
1940s greatly expanded a composer's
ability to edit and arrange musical
works. At the time, music composed
specifically for electronic instruments
and electroacoustic devices was
mostly experimental, performed by
innovative musicians including John
Cage and Pierre Schaeffer.
Musician and composer Daphne
Oram entered the scene in 1943 when
the BBC hired her as a sound engineer
at the age of 18. With many men serving in the military during World War
II, she entered a traditionally maledominated space. Oram began to
work after hours building a makeshift
studio equipped with the BBC's tape
recorders and oscillators.
One of the earliest broadcasts
she worked on was the experimental
radiophonic play Private Dreams
and Public Nightmares, composed
with Frederick Bradnum, a radio
dramatist, producer, and director.
The play, which aired on 10 July 1957
on BBC's "Third Programme," relied
on tape effects extensively. The effects,
such as echo, pitch shifting, and reverb,
were produced by the manipulation
and playback of tape. The following
year, Oram produced the music
and sound effects for a televised
production of the play Amphitryon 38,
which aired on 2 March.
With the increased demand for
radiophonic sounds in all genres for
BBC's programming, Oram petitioned
the company for a production studio.
On 1 April 1958 the workshop officially
opened, with Oram as studio manager
and her colleague, composer and
sound engineer Desmond Briscoe, as
senior studio manager.
One of the studio's first efforts was to
produce the otherworldly sound effects
for the third installment of the influential Quatermass sci-fi series "Quatermass and the Pit," which aired in 1958.
Although that and other avantgarde radio plays allowed the studio to
experiment with new techniques for
developing strange music and sounds,
much of the studio's income came
from producing advertising jingles.
LEA DING LA DIES
Oram left the BBC 10 months after
the workshop opened to set up the
Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition. There she furthered her
"oramics" technique, which she had
begun to develop at the BBC in 1957.
Oramics is a method that involves
drawing directly onto 35-mm film
stock. Shapes and designs etched
into the filmstrips are read by photoelectric cells and converted into
sounds. This method of arranging
music predated computerized composition software.
In the 1980s Oram received grant
money from the RVW (Ralph Vaughan
Williams) Trust and the Arts Council
of England to develop oramics as
software for the Acorn Archimedes and
Apple II computers, but the projects
were never completed. From 1982 to
1989 she also taught music part time
at Canterbury Christ Church College
(now Canterbury Christ Church University), in Kent, England.
During her stay at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she composed
and created sound for nearly 200 TV
programs. Oram was instrumental in
establishing a creative environment
with a large equipment collection
for composers. Accordingly, over the
course of its life span, the workshop
attracted many experimental composers and popular artists including the
Beatles and Pink Floyd.
Possibly the most recognized piece
of music produced by the workshop
is the original theme to "Doctor
Who," composed by Ron Grainer
and arranged by Delia Derbyshire.
Derbyshire [see photo, left] joined
the studio in 1962, and the theme
was produced the following year
by manual manipulation of tape
in conjunction with oscillators and
filters. "Doctor Who," which first aired
on 23 November, 1963, became one of
the longest running sci-fi franchises,
with its initial run spanning from 1963
to 1989. The show relaunched in 2005
and is still broadcast today.
Derbyshire's theme music played
over the title cards of the program
until Season 18, which began in 1980.
Derbyshire's compositions "Blue Veils
and Golden Sands," "Nightwalker," and
"The Delian Mode" also were featured
in the program.
LEAV IN G A L EGAC Y
Tape manipulation was arduous and
time-consuming. As synthesizers
became commercially viable in the
late 1960s and the 1970s, the studio
shifted to them and away from oscillators and tape machines. The studio
acquired several synthesizers including one nicknamed "the Delaware,"
an EMS (Electronic Music Studios)
Synthi 100 that was one of the largest
voltage-controlled synthesizers in the
world. It attracted a new generation of
composers and techniques, producing music and sound effects for sci-fi
shows including "Blake's 7," as well as
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
The BBC's investment in cuttingedge studio equipment produced a
wide variety of innovative compositions, but the equipment was expensive both to buy and maintain. In 1992
the BBC appointed John Birt as its
director-general. Birt evaluated each
department for financial sustainability.
He gave the Radiophonic Workshop
five years to come up with a plan to
make itself self-sufficient. The studio
failed to do so and was shut down in
March 1998. The last of the equipment was removed on 1 April-exactly
40 years after it opened. With the studio closed, much of the BBC's sound
production was done with computers.
The BBC's use of the Radiophonic
Workshop's programs introduced
electronic music to millions of viewers
and listeners. Oram's and Derbyshire's
contributions to electronic music were
massive. Several recent anthologies of
their work ensure that it is available for
new audiences to enjoy.
Nathan Brewer is the archival and digital
content specialist at the IEEE History Center.
MAR CH 2018 TH E IN STITUTE