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Delia Derbyshire: Recording the Future

by Phil Taylor

“What we are doing now is not important for itself, but one day someone might be interested enough to carry things forwards and create something wonderful on these foundations.” – Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire - Radiophonic Workshop (1965)

Derbyshire next to one of the Radiophonic Workshop Philips EL-3503 machines. If you look closely you’ll see Brian Hodgson’s foot – he stood on the desk to get this shot, which quite possibly explains the curious smile on her face. (click image to enlarge) circa 1965

Delia Derbyshire was an inspired and innovative composer of electronic music. For a large part of her career from 1960 to 1973 she worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Maida Vale, London and is best remembered for arranging and producing the ‘Doctor Who’ theme music. However the Dr Who theme was just one of many projects and collaborations for Miss Derbyshire. Much of her work embodied depth, sensitivity and attitude, for example the haunting and mesmerising ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’ composed for ‘The World About Us’ – a documentary about the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert – and many of her compositions, such as her experimental ‘dance’ track were decades ahead of their time. During her time with the Radiophonic Workshop she composed a significant body of material for plays, documentaries, soundtracks and avante-garde music for almost two hundred radio and television programmes. She was also involved in a band (‘Unit Delta Plus’) with her friend Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff that performed on London’s psychedelic underground scene. According to Hodgson in a 2001 interview the Radiophonic Workshop received a stream of visiting musicians, composers and writers – Berio, Stockhausen, George Martin, Brian Jones – and Delia entranced them with her intellect and the joy of her company. She was never starstruck and cheerfully devoted as much time to encouraging young students as to talking with celebrities. She even had an encounter with a very young Pink Floyd – Floyd visited the workshop and she took them in a taxi to see Zinovieff’s setup. Floyd and these other artists were highly curious about the new techniques for creating avante-garde sounds and what it might add to their music.

Musique Concrète

Derbyshire utilised both real-life and ‘artificial’ electronic sounds in her compositions using a musical style known as Musique Concrète. It was French composer, Pierre Schaeffer who first coined the term during the 1940s whilst employed at ORTF – Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française at Radio France, the French equivalent of the BBC. Musique Concrète embodies the idea that concrete sounds from objects ‘found’ in the real world can be used like jig-saw pieces to construct an entire composition. The invention of magnetic tape – that is plastic tape with iron oxide powder lacquered to it – made it practical to manipulate found sounds to create Musique Concrète compositions.

Sound Sources

In it’s early days the equipment at the Radiophonic Workshop was minimal. Delia would utilise any found object that took her fancy, that might be capable of generating interesting sound textures she could weave into the fabric of her compositions. The Workshop had accrued quite a collection of noise making paraphernalia such as bells, bottles, stringed things, clocks, copper hot water cylinder and even a broken old upright piano (used for the TARDIS dematerialisation sound); objects that could generate interesting whooshes, clanks, whirring and the myriad of other sounds heard on a drama or documentary soundtrack. One of Delia’s most cherished found sounds was that of an old industrial metal lampshade which produced a bell-like chime when tapped and she was also fond of using stringed instruments such as in the Doctor Who theme bass line.

Along with natural sound sources Delia would utilise old electronic test equipment that the Workshop had inherited from other departments in the BBC. For example, signal oscillators on which she ‘played’ the ‘swoopy’ sounding melody line on the Doctor Who theme by manually adjusting the frequency control knob – reference marks would be made on the instrument panel around the frequency dial with a Chinagraph pencil to indicate the approprate notes in a scale. She also used white noise generators frequently, again these can be heard in the Dr Who theme as sinister “swishes” and “swirls”. The Radiophonic Workshop also possessed a Brüel & Kjær type 1022 Beat Frequency Oscillator a device originally designed for electrical and electro-acoustical measurements and acoustic research but was also capable generating interesting wobbling sine waves at frequencies from 20Hz to 20kHz – a very expensive piece of kit but it does make very “spacey” sounds.

Jason AG-10 audio generator

The Jason AG-10 audio generator was used to ‘play’ the ‘swoopy’ sounding melody line on the Doctor Who Theme music.

At this time – in the early 1960s – synthesisers did not exist, these vacuum tube sinewave and noise generators were the Workshop’s only source of electronically synthesised sounds. But the Radiophionic Workshop could do a lot with very little and they cobbled together a device they called as a ‘keying unit’. This consisted of a rack of calibrated signal generators – each tuned to a note in the musical scale – and an octave musical keyboard built from keys removed from a cannibalised piano. One of these units contained nine Jason type AG-10 audio generators (available in kit form) whilst the second, with an extended range provided by twelve Advance H-1 sine/square wave generators. The keying unit contained custom built electronics; a variable-mu pentode tube that routed the output of the appropriate oscillator to the final output when a note was pressed on the keyboard. Adjustable timing circuits for ‘attack’ and ‘decay’ were later added – this was an early synthesiser and Delia utilised it play the iconic leitmotif of the Doctor Who theme – Woo wee woo, woo woo wooo, etc. The schematic for the AG-10 was originally published in ‘Radio Constructor Magazine’ in 1959 so was cutting edge technology when Delia Derbyshire used it on the Doctor Who theme.

Manipulation of Sound

Delia Derbyshire - BBC Radiophonic Workshop Room 12

Delia Derbyshire splicng magnetic tape in Room 12 at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with Desmond Briscoe in the background (click image to enlarge)

The Radiophonic Workshop owned several professional reel-to-reel machines. Room 12 housed three Philips EL-3503 machines – the machines on which Derbyshire recorded and mixed the Doctor Who theme. They were arranged in a row to allow the tape to pass through the heads of every machine. Radiophonic engineer, Ray White describes in more depth, “This was an incredibly flexible arrangement, since any of the machines could be in recording mode. The tape could be drawn out as a loop between any pair of machines, or a tape loop could be created that returned from the third machine back to the first. Such a loop was conveniently held at tension by a special spring-loaded ‘loop stand’. This was a modified microphone stand with a sprung arm, the end of which contained a tape guide.” Delia became highly proficient at manually syncing these machines when mixing down, however they could also be started simulutaneously by means of a single switch on a remote control box.

Once sounds were captured on tape the most obvious method of building up a composition was to play them through a multi-channel mixer simultaneously or sequentially, however this was just one small step – there were many more exciting creative possiblities with magnetic tape. Delia would take the recorded sounds and manipulate them by physically cutting and splicing the tape so that the pieces could be sculpted in the following ways:

  • Sampling: A sound captured on tape can be isolated by physically cutting out he section of the tape on which it is recorded.
  • Looping: A section of tape containing a sound sample could then be made into a loop and both ends spliced together. This loop is played continuously to create a rhythmic pattern which is dubbed onto a second tape. This technique eventually found it’s way into the repertoire of the more adventurous rock and pop groups, for example, the track “Money” by Pink Floyd is based on a loop of seven different sound samples – paper being ripped, an old cash till, coins dropped into a bowl, etc – to create a 7/4 time signature.
  • Reversing: The original tape is played backwards. This completely alter the character of a note which, for example, may have a sharp attack and a gradual decay but now builds up slowly and ends with a ‘plop’.
  • Transposition: The original (or reversed) tape is played back at a different speed. For example, a sound can be recorded at 7½ips and played back at 15ips to shift the pitch up by an octave and halve the duration of the sound. Or playing back at 30ips to shift the tone up two octaves and 1uarter the duration. Sounds can also be shifted down in frequency by recording at high speed and playing them back slowly.
  • Filtering: Removal of frequency content by use of low-pass, high-pass or octave filters to drastically alter a sound or even make it unrecognisable.
  • Vibrato: The tape can be played at varying speed to create deliberate ‘wow’.
  • Reverb: Reverberation or echo effects can be added to a recorded sound by playing it through an EMT 140 tube plate reverb or Binson ‘Baby’ Echorec magnetic drum echo-delay machine or the Maida Vale echo room (a small, cold and damp room located in the basement of the building with bare painted walls. It had a loudspeaker at one end and a microphone at the other). A method known as ‘feedback’ was sometimes employed. This consists of taking a feed from the replay amplifier back via a controllable attenuator to the input of the record amplifier. The delay is that of the physical separation between the two heads but can be further increased, and extra echo added, by allowing the tape to pass from the first machine and a cross the replay heads of any number of other machines before being taken up and spooled onto the final machine. Any or all of the outputs of the replay heads in the chain can be fed back in varying amounts to the first record head. A variety of flutter echoes may be obtained using this arrangement. The flutter frequency clearly depends upon the tape transit time from the record to playback heads and the rate of the decrement depends on the overall loop gain. Should this exceed unity, the system will build up to a distorted maximum limited by amplifier and/or tape saturation.
1/4" magnetic tape splice

Tools of the trade: ¼ ” magnetic tape splicing block and razor blade

Splicing compositions together piece by piece was an incredibly time consuming and laborious process. Delia would often work late into the night and the early hours for weeks on end to complete a composition. The process is a magnitude easier today as sounds can be captured (sampled) and stored on a computer hard drive. All the manipulations of speed change, reversing, etc can be performed digitally – the process is exactly the same – it’s only the medium that has changed. Musique Concrète has come of age.

Plastic Sound

By the mid 1960s the first primitive synthesisers were showing up in the Workshop in the form of the EMS VCS3. This device made the creation of sci-fi sound effects quick and easy and became a signature sound of progressive rock groups such as “Hawkwind” and “Floyd”. But Derbyshire was not an enthusiast for this new technology and not without good reason. Although the mathematician, Fourier had theoretically proved that synthesis could recreate any instrument timbre and sound, this promise was not realised by electronic synthesiser technology which invariably ended up generating a rasping sawtooth buzz or something reminiscent of a cat chewing a bee. Derbyshire and other avante-garde electronic music composers such as Louis and Bebe Barron were not seduced by these brash and bland sounds nor the ‘paint by numbers’ approach that the sythesiser promised for music composition. The Radiophonic Worksop’s golden age of music concrete was coming to an end and was dealt a final devastating blow in 1970 when it took delivery of an EMS Synthi 100 modular system – a formidible piece of kit with a bewildering sea of knobs and blinking lights – the EMS Synthi 100 would not have looked out of place at NASA mission control or the helm the Starship Enterprise. This monolithic synth was delivered to the BBC by lorry and was so huge that part of a wall had to be knocked down between the corridor and studio 10 at Maida Vale to install it. This bewilderingly complex and tempremental machine rapidly ushered in a brave new world of technologically driven cheap sound effects and plastic compositions, sweeping away the fine art of Musique Concrète and all who practised it. There was an exodus of Radiophonic staff at this time, including John Baker, Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. They refused to bow and chant “ziwzih ziwzih oo-oo-oo” to this silicon god; they did the sensible thing, fled the BBC leaving the technological madness behind them.

In Conclusion

There is a huge amount of involvement and time required on the part of the artist when recording sounds on magnetic tape and then meticulously sculpting them to form a piece of music. The difficulties and limitations of the medium must help focus the mind on adopting a more minimalistic approach to composition, there simply isn’t time to mess around. There were programming schedule deadlines to meet too and Derbyshire, by her own admission did struggle with them. Her progress of a composition would proceed ever more slowly as a deadline loomed closer as she reached higher and higher to grasp the pinnacles of perfection. And this shows in her most sublime work – it only contains what is necessary or appropriate to convey an emotion or an idea. It’s fine art and fine art demands the process of deliberate consideration only supplied by human involvement not the a ‘paint by numbers’ approach or ‘out of the box’ solution that is all too often marketed and advertised by mass produced electronic effects and synthesiser manufacturers. There’s much to be learnt from taking a look at the approach of artists such as Derbyshire and others such as the Barrons who followed their own paths working with so-called primitive minimal equipment that they often constructed themselves. Delia Derbyshire pushed the boundaries of what could achieved with tape as a medium for creating electronic music, utilising it in weird and wonderful ways to open-up undiscovered sonic territory – she recordrd sounds of the future and out of the unknown.

Thankyou to Ray White for the archive images from various sources including the BBC Radiophonic Workhop. More fascinating, geeky information about the inner machinery of the Radiophonic Workshop can be found on The White Files. Picture of Jason AG10 signal generator courtesy of ScienceMuseumDotOrg. You can find out more about Delia Derbyshire on the ‘Delia Derbyshire Day’ website.