A long way from the HD and Sky+ world of visual media we enjoy today, the first television programs were crude recordings, with very little in the way of editing, mastering and certainly no digital enhancements. It was a small handful of engineers and technicians back in the 1950′s, all members of a young BBC, who were to change the way we saw and thought about television. The work of those who would form and contribute to the Radiophonics Workshop over the next 50+ years served as a benchmark for cutting edge broadcast sound design and a comprehensive encyclopedia of digital audio production and electro-acoustic engineering. The incredible reach and influence of a department that spent much of its later years struggling to remain open elevated it to an almost cult status within the sound industries. Names such as Delia Derbyshire became standard references for broadcast sound designers, recordists and musicians alike.
Generally the work of your average BBC department won’t achieve worldwide recognition and cult status, so what makes the story of the Radiophonics Workshop stand out? It is the cultural and technological environment of the time that set the foundations for the departments conception. A key word that is still frequently thrown around today is accessibility. It was the natural progression following the development of early television sets to bring them to living rooms across the country and for this new, larger and increasingly demanding audience the programs had to progress to suit. Of course being a rapidly growing, and promisingly integral medium in our day to day lives television productions and studios were enjoying huge amounts of publicity and popularity, and significantly – increasing budgets.
The first line of workshop co-founders’ Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Orams’s obituaries contain the adjective ‘pioneer’, with reference to their contributions to the electroacoustic, and broadcasting industries. Pioneering is an accurate word to sum up the workshops’ 60 year discography, which includes household theme tunes such as Doctor Who in 1963. Written by Delia Derbyshire and commissioned by Ron Grainer, it’s still used half a century later. Despite their substantial successes many would regard the members of the workshop as ‘unsung hero’s’ of sound design. Having started at the BBC in 1943, aged just 18, Oram spent years trying to persuade her employers to allow the workshop to go ahead, and only succeeded in 1958 when the growing popularity and accessibility of the Television industry called for higher production values. The workshop was set up in what is now the renowned Maida Vail Studios, with a budget of just £2,000. In 1959 however, as a result of the huge exposure and popularity of the work Oram took the decision to leave and pursue her music, not before leaving her name in the history books as the ‘mother of this great legacy’.
French composer Pierre Schaeffer was experimenting with a new musical composition technique called Musique Concrète. Another by-product of advancing technology at the time, the nature of Music Concrete lies in recording and cutting together electronic sounds on magnetic tape to create a whole range of sound effects and musical elements the likes of which no-one had seen before. Techniques such as pitch manipulation and echo effects are still important in sound design today. It was this technique that caught the eye of the Radiophonics Workshop and formed the basis of its early productions. Similarly to Schaeffer, the workshop realised very quickly how popular this new sound was, bringing additional public recognition to their work.
The nature of workshops earlier work was consistent with the cultural and technological progressions of the time, utilizing and experimenting with newly developed electronic synthesizers and recordings. By capturing a range of miscellaneous sounds, and using these physical cutting and editing techniques to layer and fade samples the team were able to create sound tracks, add effects and even produce electronic music, the likes of which had never been heard before. Little did they know at this point that their work would be referenced religiously over half a century later across the recording industries. As well as providing the perfect accompaniment to this new age of television programs this new technology opened up a world of experimentation, which would later pave the way for music production, studio engineering and many more media production techniques.
Notably, when considering the increasing speed with which developments in audio technology are taking place, it is significant that many of the techniques first used by the Radiophonics Workshop are used throughout the film sound and music industries today. Similarly parallels can be drawn between the increasing accessibility of audio production equipment that would later contribute to the eventual demise of the workshop. Especially with the evolution of digital technologies the next natural steps are to simplify the techniques and processes involved with audio productions, and therefore bring them to a wider, and ever increasing group of would-be producers and engineers.
The developments and creation of these technologies that brought the workshop so much attention was continued, not least due to the popularity these techniques and hardware was receiving and also became increasingly accessible. In addition, with rapidly increasing demand as another byproduct of the inadvertent promotion of their methods, production costs for the manufacturers declined as they jumped on the commercial opportunities that had arisen. It can be said that whilst these advances and increasing accessibility can be detrimental to certain industries and specialties, they can also provide great opportunities to those who are able to utilize the new equipment and techniques, but were previously unable to access it. This is something that is perfectly demonstrated by the contemporary music industry, with many new genres being shaped by digital technologies and recording/sampling techniques.
Having contributed to over 300 programs such as Blue Peter, Tomorrow’s World, Blakes 7 and The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, and enjoying great success by the end of the 70′s, contributing factors such as over-accessibility and the resulting lack in financial viability marked the end of the workshop in the 90′s. In an unsteady financial climate, not dissimilar to our current recession, BBC Director John Birt was forced to order cuts on several departments, including the workshop. Despite being given 5 years to turn their balance sheets round it became apparent it wasn’t going to happen. A long way from the early years where the techniques and equipment used was the first of its kind and the productions were never previously seen, the inevitable demise became a reality. Many of the causes for which can also be attributed to its initial success. By 1998 only one composer, Elizabeth Parker, remained and the workshop was finally closed. Fortunately, in recognition of its importance, the BBC commissioned Mark Ayres to Archive the work of the Radiophonics Workshop the majority of it has been saved. This unique department grew from a unique set of cultural and technical circumstances, which cannot be repeated yet are often paralleled today, and left its permanent influence on an industry that is a significant part of our every day lives. Interestingly, the pioneers of the Radiophonics Workshop still remain unsung and virtually unheard of.