Society of Sound: Radiophonic Workshop

Whether it was bespoke alien soundscapes or delicate electronic choral work, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop has been at the forefront of electronic composition for BBC radio and television since 1958. A significant influence on musicians through the ages, from Pink Floyd and The Beatles through to the Aphex Twin, Orbital and Labrinth, the Workshop's unique body of work - over 3,000 hours of it - remains a testament to true innovation in sound.

Though its early history encompassed primitive tape manipulations and primal tones from redundant test equipment, the Radiophonic Workshop has always been at the vanguard of evolution in sound technology. From basic mono tape recordings and early sound-on-sound techniques through sophisticated multi-track tape machines, 3D surround sound, FM synthesis, prototype digital sampling keyboards and today’s computer-based workstations, the Workshop has pushed technologies to their limits and beyond.

In 2013 the Radiophonic Workshop reconvened to play live and to rekindle that spirit of innovation in sound. Building on their legacy and with the benefit of another 16 years of what may loosely be referred to as “progress” since the Workshop closed in 1998 (there are, after all, times when only a tape loop, tobacco tin or malfunctioning sweep generator will do) they have once again taken up residence on the outer boundary of sound design.

There was a problem outputting this video

The time spent at Real World Studios, where most of this work was conceived and recorded, was both invigorating and liberating for the group’s members. Like their old home at the BBC’s Maida Vale (minus the many layers of cheap green industrial emulsion) Real World studios proved to be a creative playground for these lovers of sound. The space in which the work is created has always been important and has a profound impact on the kind of work composers are able to produce. The group took over the studio, filling the iconic Big Room with synthesisers (ancient and modern), gadgets, lampshades, knobs, dials, found objects and children’s toys. It became a Workshop-away-from-home. A stairwell provided both an additional instrument and a wonderful acoustic space in which a Big Idea evolved. In a tiny back room, reminiscent of a BBC broom cupboard, Dr Dick Mills set up Studer and TASCAM tape machines to create loops and labyrinths of feedback into which were fed analogue bleeps and concrête clanks from 8 bit samplers and the objects and sounds found about the building.

Audio was moulded and sculpted. Compositions evolved, dissolved and recrystalised over time, with the studio itself employed as a compositional tool – every part of that experience is integrated into the work. At one point the engineers were persuaded (they didn’t need much persuading, to be honest!) to run cables out to the weir in the studio grounds, recording its gurgles and glugs on a Soundfield microphone. Binaural microphones were set into a pair of spectacles worn by Peter Howell who then sound-mapped his physical journey through the workspace. And, yes, Delia Derbyshire’s infamous green Radiophonic lampshade (used to make many of the tones and sounds the Workshop became famous for in the early 1960s) makes a guest appearance too.

Out of this joyous experimentation emerged the motifs and ideas that became this album. It marks a very creative and special time in the Radiophonic Workshop’s continuing story and may even hint at some of what is to follow. Welcome to our Radiophonic world.

Radiophonic Workshop in the Big Room at Real World Studios

Equipment Used

King Korg | Korg Kronos | Korg MS20 (for pure tones and oscillations) | Korg MS50 | Korg Kaoss Pad (used to degrade and process pure sounds) | Korg Monotribe | Roland Jupiter 8 (original analog circuits) | Roland System 100M (Modular) | Roland JX-3P | Roland D-50 | Roland VP330 | Roland SH-101 (analog mono-synth) | Roland Guitar Modeller | Yamaha DX7II | Yamaha WT11 / WX11 Wind Controller | Akai Wind Controller Novation SL25MkII Master Controller Keyboards | Paddy Kingsland’s Guitars – Fender Telecaster and Peavey guitar (2012) through Vox AC15
 | Peter Howell’s Guitar – Gretsch | Bass Guitar (Fender Precision Bass 1975) | Autoharp (make unknown. Modified with pickups) | Theremin – Moog Industries Inc. | Various lampshades, toy pianos, the staircase, odd percussion and found objects Studer A 807 Tape Recorder X2 | TASCAM 32 Tape Recorder | TASCAM 34 Tape Recorder | Neumann binaural head microphone | Calrec Soundfield microphone

SSL recording console | Apple Macintosh computers running Logic, MainStage, Nuendo and ProTools 
| Plugins by Waves, Izotope, Arturia, Native Instruments. Sample rates were at 48kHz, 24 bit resolution. | MOTU 828MkIII Audio Interface (recording) | Behringer X32 Mixer with Firewire Interface | Behringer S16 Digital Snake (x2) | Behringer Powerplay 16 P16-I Monitor Module (x2) | Powerplay 16 P16-M 16-Channel Digital Personal Mixer (x6)

Kieron Pepper – Hybrid Drum kit: Tama Superstar acoustic kit. | Roland SPDs and D-drum triggers on kick and snare
| Electro Kit hybrid 
| Roland V-drum drum pads into a Simmons rack ‘brain’ and/or Alesis D4
 | Cactus drum ‘brain’ 
| All electronic drums were mic’d up and processed using amplifiers and speakers in the room. Variety of percussion and metal ( bowed, hit and shaken not stirred)
 | Casiotone keys, Suzuki Omnichord and Sequential Circuits Six-Trak fed into the Korg MicroSampler (with Kaoss pad effects) This allowed live looping and human-feel manipulation of electronic and found sounds (recorded through iPhone)
 | Danelectro Bass through a Black Cat pedal and into a Kaoss pad for looping.

Radiophonic Workshop (BW79) released on Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound in December 2014.

By Online Editor

Published on Mon, 15 December 14

Further reading

Jasdeep Singh Degun releases viral hit ‘Aapki Khushi’ ahead of May tour

The song was written for the recent critically-acclaimed Opera North of Monteverdi’s Orpheus.

Classic Sheila Chandra trilogy set for re-issue

British Asian World Music pioneer Sheila Chandra’s landmark trilogy of albums set for re-issue.

Guitarist Salif Koné demonstrates three musical styles from Mali

Rokia Koné and Les Amazones d'Afrique's guitarist demonstrates Mandigue, Bamana & Tuareg music.

Track of the day: ‘Sajanava’ by Jasdeep Singh Degun

Sajanava is taken from Jasdeep Singh Degun's debut album Anomaly.