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Making of the Doctor Who Theme Music

by Mark Ayres

The Beginning – Rex Tucker and Tristram Cary

The story of the Doctor Who Theme starts in June 1963. It had been over a year since the idea of a new weekly science fiction series was first raised at the BBC, and some three months since Doctor Who had started serious development. In May 1963, BBC staff producer/director Rex Tucker had been placed in temporary charge of the project pending the appointment of a permanent producer. Tucker, a specialist in children’s and “classic” serials, had been working with composer Tristram Cary on a 6-part production of Jane Eyre, and in June he suggested to Cary that he might be interested in composing the theme music to Doctor Who, and the incidental music for the first serial.

Oxford-born Cary is one of the greats of contemporary music and a trail-blazer in the history of electronic and electro-acoustic composition. Unforgivably, to my mind, his contribution is frequently overlooked in favour of the Stockhausens and Cages of this world, but a listen to his CD, Soundings (Tall Poppies Records TP139, 2000), should dispel any doubts as to his importance. He started his working life as a radar officer in the Royal Navy, already conceiving the ideas that would lead him to become a pioneer in a new form of music – tape music. After the Second World War he studied at the Trinity College of Music in London, qualifying in 1950. He composed many conventional works during this time, but from 1947 was starting to build a “home studio”, largely from war surplus equipment. This studio even featured a 78-rpm disk-cutting lathe, replaced by more practical tape machines as soon as they became usable around 1952. His first film score was for “The Ladykillers” in 1955, and he continued a career alternating cutting-edge experimental work with conventional concert compositions and TV, film and radio commissions. In the 1960′s he linked up with two other enthusiasts, computer music pioneer Peter Zinovieff and engineer David Cockerell (later responsible for designing the Akai sampler range), to form EMS (Electronic Music Studios). Between them, they specified, designed and built the EMS VCS3, the first British synthesiser and a seminal piece of equipment still in use by discerning electro-composers around the world. The VCS3 would later be used by Brian Hodgson and Dudley Simpson to great effect in many scores for Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories, and the technology was expanded to form the monster Synthi 100 “Delaware”. Tristram emigrated to Australia in the mid-1970s to take up an academic position at the University of Adelaide. In the year 2002, Tristram still runs his own studio, and produces a steady flow of new work.

But by the middle of June 1963 Verity Lambert had arrived as Doctor Who’s permanent producer. She had been brought to the BBC by Sydney Newman (who, with Donald Wilson, was primarily responsible for creating the new series), and had followed Newman from ABC, where she had been his production secretary on “Armchair Theatre”. Tucker was, at this stage, still assigned to direct the first Doctor Who adventure while another staff director, Waris Hussein, was brought aboard to direct the second story.

Yet at the very beginning of July, schedule changes meant that Rex Tucker would no longer be available, and Hussein moved up to cover. Tucker telephoned Cary to tell him that, as a result, he would not be required to contribute.

We can only guess what a Doctor Who theme by Tristram Cary would have been like: we can be sure that it would have been very different from Ron Grainer’s but equally enthralling! Tristram would eventually provide a pure electronic score for the second Doctor Who adventure, which introduced the programme’s most enduring monsters, the Daleks, and he returned a few times after, including for the one story that Rex Tucker finally got to direct – “The Gunfighters” (1966). Cary’s collaboration with Tucker continued on other productions however, including “Madame Bovary” and “The Mill on the Floss” (both 1964) and “The Million Pound Banknote” (1968).

Les Structures Sonores

In mid-July Verity Lambert, still in need of music for her new series, harboured ideas of commissioning a theme from French avant-guard composers Jacques Lasry and Bernard Baschet, otherwise known as “Les Structures Sonores”. They produced most of their music from elaborate custom-built metal and glass sculptures (sound-structures). Attempts were made to contact their agents but the idea was dropped by the end of the month. Music from a couple of their LP’s would, however, be used to underscore two adventures, “The Web Planet” and “Galaxy 4″, some months later.

Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

It was the head of the BBC’s Television Music department, Lionel Salter, who suggested to Lambert that she meet with Desmond Briscoe of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The Workshop had been formed in 1958 as a department specialising in creative sound for radio, and television had quickly caught on to the potential of what they could achieve. The Workshop was staffed by a small number of “assistants” working under Briscoe. They were all enthusiasts from within the BBC who, before the creation of this dedicated resource, had been experimenting “after hours” with whatever equipment they could lay their hands on. Much of their experimentation involved similar tape-music techniques to those being developed by Tristram Cary and others at the time, and they all took a great interest in each others’ work. But it has to be remembered that while Cary was able to experiment freely in his own time, the Workshop was set up as a service department within a broadcasting organisation.

Lambert’s meeting with Briscoe was fruitful, with the Radiophonic Workshop (in the person of Delia Derbyshire) agreeing to work with Lambert’s choice of outside composer on creating the theme music, and also undertaking to provide special sound effects for the series on a regular basis (Brian Hodgson to be assigned to this task). Lambert’s final choice of composer – probably suggested by Briscoe – was a convenient one: Ron Grainer, composer of theme tunes for such programmes as “Maigret” and “Steptoe and Son”, had just finished working with Brian Hodgson on “Giants of Steam”, a television documentary series about railways.

Giants of Steam had been something of a minor hit for the Workshop. Brian (with assistant Dick Mills) had constructed an elaborate radiophonic rhythm track from tape-sequenced bursts of electronically-generated white noise and metallic thumps derived from a large, battered oil drum (which still survives at Maida Vale!). Grainer had then taken this rhythm track to a session at which he had overdubbed a live orchestra. Well-received, the track was later rerecorded (using the same rhythm track) for release by Decca records.

Lambert’s brief for Doctor Who was that she wanted something with a beat, radiophonic, “familiar yet different”. Ron Grainer composed the theme on a single sheet of A4 manuscript, and sent it over from his home in Portugal, leaving the Workshop to get on with it. With an eye to the fact that the techniques to be used to realise the theme were very time-consuming, Grainer provided a very simple composition, in essence just the famous bass line and a swooping melody. There are few harmonic changes, and these are marked out almost entirely by the movement of the bass line, with only sparing use of inner harmony parts to reinforce where necessary. Any indication as to orchestration or timbre was simple but evocative: “wind bubble”, “cloud” and so on. To a radiophonic composer such as Delia Derbyshire, this was a gift.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry, trained as a pianist, and read mathematics and music (specialising in mediaeval and modern music history) at Cambridge University. She joined the BBC as a Studio Manager and moved to the Radiophonic Workshop in 1962. Her imagination, combined with her mathematical precision and sense of structure, led her to produce some of the Workshop’s most extraordinary output over the next eleven years. She maintained influential outside interests too, forming Unit Delta Plus with Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff in the mid-1960′s (Zinovieff would later create EMS from the ashes of this endeavor) and working with Brian Hodgson and David Vorhaus on the original “White Noise” LP. Delia left the Workshop in 1973, frustrated by the internal workings of the BBC and feeling that her creativity was being stifled by petty bureaucracy. She died in July 2001.

Doctor Who – The Original Theme

Delia Derbyshire, with assistant Dick Mills, created the original version of the theme in August 1963 using techniques, described here, that applied for years, whether the sound sources were electronic or concrete.

In 1963, when the job of producing the Doctor Who theme landed at Delia’s feet, there were no synthesisers. The sound for electronic music came either from pure electronic sources, or from recordings of actual live sounds – the precursor of what we now term “sampling”. But sampling now is easy: capture a sound, assign it to a range of notes on a keyboard, and play. But musique concrete was not so easy forty years ago.

There being no “synthesisers”, the Workshop needed a source of electronic sound. They found this in a bank of twelve high-quality test tone generators, the usual function of which was to output various tones (square waves, sine waves) for passing through electronic circuits for testing gain, distortion and so on. They also had a couple of high-quality equalisers (again, test equipment – equalisers, or “tone controls”, were not that easy to come by at the time) and a few other gadgets including a “wobbulator” (a low frequency oscillator) and a white noise generator.

Each sound in the Doctor Who theme was individually created using these instruments, and recorded to magnetic tape. By “each individual sound” I mean just that – each note was individually hand-crafted. The swooping sounds were created by manually adjusting the pitch of the oscillator to a carefully-timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds were created by filtering white noise to “colour” it, as were the “bubbles” and “clouds”. Examination of the original makeup tapes suggests that one of the two bass lines alone is a “concrete” sound, a plucked string sample.

Once each sound had been created, it was modified. Some sounds were created at all the required pitches direct from the oscillators, others had to be repitched later. This was done by taking the piece of tape with the sound on and looping it. The loop was placed on a tape machine and its playback speed varied until the pitch was correct, then the sound was rerecorded onto another machine. This process continued until every sound was available at all the required pitches. To create dynamics, the notes were rerecorded at slightly different levels.

Now the fun really started. They had all the sounds, all the notes, and now had to create the music. So each individual note was trimmed to length by cutting the tape, and stuck together in the right order. This was done for each “line” in the music – the main plucked bass, the bass slides (an organ-like tone emphasising the grace notes), the hisses, the swoops, the melody, a second melody line (a high organ-like tone used for emphasis), and the bubbles and clouds. This done, they ended up with a number of lengths of cut tape with the individual parts on. Most of these individual bits of tape, complete with edits every inch, still survive.

This done, the music had to be “mixed”. There were no multitrack tape machines, so rudimentary multitrack techniques were invented: each length of tape was placed on a separate tape machine and all the machines were started simultaneously and the outputs mixed together. If the machines didn’t stay in sync, they started again, maybe cutting tapes slightly here and there to help. In fact, a number of “submixes” were made to ease the process – a combined bass track, combined melody track, bubble track, and hisses. Eventually, the piece was finished.

The result is an astonishing piece of work with a magically organic quality to it that belies the many hours of patient work it took to create. As I said at the start, it is a “pure” electronic work – there is no element of “performance” at all, yet it still sounds alive. Even more extraordinary is that you can listen to the Doctor Who theme now, nearly 40 years later, and still not work out exactly how it was done. It must be one of the most timeless recordings ever – still fresh and modern when later versions sound dated and stale.

Delia Derbyshire recalls that Ron Grainer was delighted with the result and, realising that the music worked perfectly well as it stood, abandoned his original plan of overdubbing a small instrumental ensemble (as in “Giants of Steam”). Recognising Delia’s immense contribution, he also suggested splitting his performance royalty income with her, but BBC bureaucracy meant that this was not possible.

The First Broadcast Version

The original August 1963 version of the theme was around 2 minutes and 19 seconds in length, and a complete piece in its own right. You’ll find it as track one on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume One – The Early Years (1963-1969). It was licensed to Decca in 1964 for release as a single (Decca F.11837, 1964 – backed by a popular dance tune of the 1950′s, “This Can’t be Love”, in a bizarre rendition by Brenda and Johnny), and formed the basis of the 1972 stereo version released by BBC Records (see later). Everyone loved it, yet it was not destined for use on the programme.

By the time this first master (the earliest Doctor Who recording of any kind) was completed, Bernard Lodge had completed the opening titles graphics. He had created an inventive swirl of howlaround (or “howlround”) images formed by feeding the output of a video camera optically back into itself via its own monitor – the visual equivalent of the high-pitched whine that results if you point a PA microphone at its own loudspeaker. The theme needed adjustments to match the graphics more closely, and the production team wanted a piece which gave a lot of flexibility as to use from one master tape. Lambert also wanted, it is said, some of the precision removed from the recording, to make it sound more “human”.

So in September, a second master was prepared. A number of different versions of the theme are on this master tape, of which two are broadly similar. They feature an edited version of the theme running to about 1’15″, followed by a repeated bassline loop running up to about 2’00″, then the “wind bubble” to end. The rhythmic hissing that drives the track has also been altered (the main change being that it speeds up and fades out just after the entry of the melody before a brand-new loop reenters) and some deliberate imprecision has been introduced. Of these two mixes, one is a good mix with good edits, and the other is a poor mix with some terrible edits. The pilot episode of Doctor Who was recorded in Lime Grove Studio D on Friday 27 September 1963. And guess which edit of the theme they used…?!

So they used the bad edit version on the pilot…you can hear one very poor edit just before the end of the melody before the bass loop takes over – the bass line sounds as if it is going into the bridge section, when in fact it goes back to a restatement of the opening melodic figure. The bass loop then carries on over the Policeman searching the junk yard and fades out as we see the TARDIS, before the wind bubble would have closed the track.

It is this “bad-edit” version that also found its way onto the Radiophonic Workshop’s 21st birthday celebration album, appropriately entitled “21″ (BBC Records REC 354, 1979). For this recording, however, they shortened the number of repeats of the bass loop at the end, cutting to the wind bubble early, making the track about 1’30″.

For the remake of “An Unearthly Child” in the version finally broadcast (recorded Friday 18 October 1963, again in Lime Grove D), they used the good edit, in the same way as on the pilot, with the bass loop fading as we see the TARDIS in the yard. This version features as track 5 on Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Volume One.

One other curious thing about these first broadcast versions of the theme is that after they made the masters, they added the initial “hiss” at the very start of the theme to accompany the first flowering of the howlaround graphics. And, indeed, the effect was different on the pilot (a low hiss starting just after the entry of the bass line leading to a “thunderclap”) to its final form on the transmitted version (a longer, higher whoosh slightly anticipating the bass line). These effects are not on the original mixes and so do not appear on “21″. There is a band of candidate hisses appended to the end of the master reel – I chose what I believe to be the correct one and added it to the recording featured on the above CD.

This version now becomes the theme master for use from then on. It was used from the start of the tape – with added initial hiss – for the opening titles (married to the titles film print and played in to each studio recording from telecine), and from the entry of the melody (about 14 seconds in) for the closing titles. There were occasional variations in use of the closing titles, with the theme being run from the start (without the added “whoosh”) rather than from the start of the melody – “The Powerful Enemy” (part one of “The Rescue”, 1965) is an example of this. And on at least one occasion (“The Macra Terror Part One”, 1967) the original “pilot” version of the theme was used for the closing titles in error.

Doctor Who was first broadcast on BBC television on 23rd November 1963, at 17-16hrs. At the time, most of the world was still reeling from the assassination of President J. F. Kennedy, which had taken place the previous day.