BBC Radiophonic Workshop

From Academic Kids

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the sound special effects unit of the BBC was created in 1958 to produce sound effects for radio and was closed around 1996. It was based in Maida Vale in London.

The techniques initially used by the Radiophonic Workshop were closely related to those used in musique concrète; new sounds for programs were created by using recordings of everyday sounds such as voices, bells or gravel as raw material for 'radiophonic' manipulations. In these manipulations, audio tape could be played back at different pitches, reversed, spliced together, or processed using reverb or equalisation. The most famous of the Workshop's creations using 'radiophonic' techniques include the Doctor Who theme music, which Delia Derbyshire created using 12 oscillators and a lot of tape manipulation, and the sound of the TARDIS (the Doctor's time machine) materialising and dematerialising, which was created by Brian Hodgson running his keys along the rusty bass strings of a broken piano, with the sample slowed down to make an even lower sound.

Much of the equipment used by the Workshop in the earlier years of its operation in the late 1950s was semi-professional and was passed down from other departments. Reverberation was obtained using an echo chamber in the basement of the building with bare painted walls. Due to the considerable technical challenges faced by the Workshop and BBC traditions, staff initially worked in pairs with one person assigned to the technical aspects of the work and the other to the artistic direction.

The Radiophonic Workshop has been a major influence on electronic music in Britain and elsewhere. However, it was criticised for its policy of not allowing musicians from outside the BBC to use its equipment in its early days, equipment which was some of the most advanced in the country at that time.

Notable Radiophonic Workshop events:

Radiophonic Workshop people:

The BBC reportedly planned to wipe many of the Workshop's original recordings in the late 1990s. However, thanks to a fortunate piece of bureaucratic inefficiency, the tapes earmarked for disposal were placed in a storeroom to await collection, and then forgotten about until they were rediscovered by an archivist and reassigned for preservation.

Alchemists of Sound, an hour-long television documentary about the Radiophonic Workshop, was broadcast on BBC Four on October 19, 2003 and was repeated several times. One of the co-producers was Victor Lewis-Smith and the programme was narrated by Oliver Postgate.

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