The bass line is the backbone of the Doctor Who theme, driving it headlong like a runaway steam locomotive into an unknown tunnel. For detailed look on the music score itself it’s worth taking a look at “The Definitive Guide to the Dr Who Theme Music”. The theme is built up from the bass line and several other tracks.
- The plucked string bass-line
- The plucked bass is emphasised on the beat with an electronic oscillator slide tone
- Filtered white noise swishes and swirls that sound like steam
- The main melody played on a sinewave oscillator with a lot of reverb
- This is augmented with some higher harmonics
The original composition is 2 minutes and 19 seconds duration and is constructed from hundreds and hundreds of tape splices. The bass line itself is made up of pitch-shifted samples of the original plucked string recorded on small loops of magnetic tape. These would have been made in bulk, probably by Mills, and then hung on the walls of the workshop so they were ready for use later. It was very challenging to keep count of all the tape splices and when it came to mixing the final composition Mills and Derbyshire noticed a timing descrepancy between tracks. Mills describes this, “Eventually, after some pre-mixing, the elements of the entire composition existed on three separate reels of tape, which had to be run somehow together in sync. we had a bum note somewhere and couldn’t find it! It wasn’t that a note was out of tune – there was just one little piece of tape too many, and it made the whole thing go out of sync. Eventually, after trying for ages, we completely unwound the three rolls of tape and ran them all side by side for miles – all the way down the big, long corridor in Maida Vale. We compared all three, matching the edits, and eventually found the point where one tape got a bit longer. When we took that splice out it was back in sync, so we could mix it all down.”
The Workshop did own a Leevers-Rich multi-track machine, however Derbsyhire deemed it to be of lousy sound quality, so all recording and mixing was performed on the three Philips EL-3503 machines, “Crash-sync’ing the tape recorders was Delia’s speciality,” says Mills. “We had three big Phillips machines and she could get them all to run exactly together. She’d do: one, two, three, go! — start all three machines, then tweak until they were exactly in sync, just like multitrack.”
The theme for Dr Who has a certain visceral and dark quality to it – as if it were some kind of live performance played with an odd or perculiar musicianship on unknown instruments – it just doesn’t seem possible that the final recording was the result of painstakingly and meticulously piecing together magnetic tape fragments in a purely electronic environment. Even fifty years later the original theme still sounds cutting-edge, haunting and even terrifying. Derbyshire had created something timeless and unique – a soundscape that had never existed before. It’s worn much better than the numerous rehashed versions made by successive producers of the show – manufactured in an effort to make the music sound ‘fresh’ (a term often used by these kind of people) and exciting they had felt compelled to stamp their mark by “tarting-up” (Derbyshire’s own words) the theme by pasting layers of the latest synth pads or heavy-handed orchestrations on top of the original recording. At best these versions sound dated and cheesy, adding nothing of value to the work and at worst, bury a beautiful masterpiece beneath layers of gaudy tinsel and glitter.