Friday, January 19, 2007

BBC Radiophonic Workshop | II

Next level. "Radiophonic Workshop" – no cognizance? Read the previous post.
Reading some scarps of Ekkehard Ehlers' interiview (cannot clearly recall the source) I've found a line on matter of two questions: "What?" and "How?", both are endlessly relevant for a listener (by the way, in that interview, Ehlers rejects the influence of "How?" question on his own experiments... a slyness, I think). In opposition, isn't it bewitching to look at Thomas Brinkmann cutting and scratching 12'' with a knife (a short video) for his "Klick" or the Staalplaat YOKOMONO 10 vinyl killers - toy car record players, each customised with its own fm transmitter when the sound comes through a set of radios receiveing the signals transmitted by the toy VWs. It's not the problem of spectacularity. Here the process becomes a part of the final result (a short video).
So this post is an extract of the Radiophonic's "tech" history, the history of the process. Cause when in 1959 you're asked to produce "...out of existance..." (citation from Delia Derbyshire (will not link her name – the next post theme!) interview from BBC Radio Scotland's Orginal Masters in 1997) sound, you have no choice but to fail or to become a pioneer.
There are few "tech" facts listed below in no particular order which impressed me while familiarize with BBC Radiophonic Workshop in pre-synth era.

"In 1958, the Radiophonic Workshop began by providing musique concrète material for radio. Using a wide range of equipment, often obtained from other departments, it soon acquired an enviable reputation for the sounds and music that it created for radio and television". © Ray White 2001 (and all texts in quotation marks further).

| M I X I N G
"Sound mixing was provided by an outside broadcast mixer, originally used during the war. Jeff Bottom of Radio Projects once recited a tale concerning a mixer that had been installed in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral for Winston Churchill’s funeral. For some inexplicable reason, it managed to fall down from the BBC’s commentary position onto the aisle of the church, but was almost unscathed, apart from the glass in its meters and the valves. However, to the credit of BBC engineering, but not to those in the vicinity, it left an embarrassing dent in the floor!"
| T A P E M A C H I N E S
"In 1962, the Workshop received six Philips tape machines. These were the first high-quality machines to be used in the Workshop. All incorporated three tape heads (erase, record and replay), allowing the user to check the quality ‘off tape’ whilst creating a recording. Although only considered ‘semi-professional’, they were absolutely perfect for fast editing. A standard BBC editing block and a splicing tape dispenser was fitted to each machine. Single-sided razor blades were used for editing: this was a safety nightmare, requiring ‘razor-blade’ boxes that would ensure their safe disposal. In front of the tape deck was a BBC-designed panel containing switches that could prime the ‘remote start’ facility provided on the mixing desk. This allowed the machine to be started in playback or record, with green and red indicators on the desk showing the setting. Three of these machines were arranged in a line, allowing a tape to pass through the heads of every machine. A special remote control box allowed one or more machines to be started by means of a single switch. 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".
| E F F E C T S
Reverberation "was provided by a small echo room located in the basement of the building. This had bare painted walls, was cold and damp, but had a loudspeaker with an amplifier at one end and a microphone at the other. It featured a sloping ceiling, although the author never really found out whether this was for acoustic reasons or simply a structural necessity. Despite having a reverberation time fixed by the dimensions of the room, the actual sound quality was quite good".
Delay, "discovered first as the delay introduced between the record and replay heads of a tape machine, later been explored running a tape directly from the left hand spool of one tape machine to the right hand spool of another, passing both sets of record and replay heads. By drawing the tape out between two machines on a sprung loop stand (or bottles, if stands weren’t available), the delay on the output from the second machine could be extended. Also, the audio output of the second machine could be carefully mixed back into the input of the first machine, so creating rising and falling ‘waves’ of sound". But still it was impossible to get the delay in range of 1/100 second using the scheme mentioned above. The inquisitive Italian company Binson offered tape echo effects without the hassle of tape. "...Binson Echorec Baby, had a spinning metal drum, surrounded by tape heads that produced multiple delays".
Stretching. "Another device, the Tempophon, was strapped to the side of a tape machine, with the tape passing its spinning replay head. Since the tape speed in relation to this head was set by the Tempophon itself, irrespective of the actual speed, it was possible to vary the pitch without altering the tempo".
Composite effects or processing tricks. "Echo rooms, plates and springs were commonly used. Most echo springs gave awful results, although hitting them could often generate interesting sounds! One popular trick involved copying a tape backwards and adding reverb, then playing it forwards to give a reverse echo. Equalisers, preferably of the "graphic" type, were much in vogue for musique concrète. Passive versions, comprising simply of coils and capacitors, often provided a remarkable degree of quality (Q), enabling dramatic changes to be made to any sound. The mechanical voices were created using a simple ring modulator, consisting of three transformers and a ring of four diodes. An untreated speech signal was connected to the ‘main’ input, with a low frequency (usually upwards of 15 Hz) applied to the ‘carrier’ input. A multiplexer – this specially-constructed device contained of a circle of fixed capacitor vanes, connected to the outputs of the tape recorders. The multiplexer’s output came from a rotating vane, driven by a variable-speed motor. As this turned, each signal was heard in sequence, one sound fading into the next".
| S A M P L I N G
There is no special point in listing the sources of sounds used at the Workshop as such could take "a while". Just wanted to mention an interesting machine, sort of storage – "the BBC’s Programme Effects Generator (PEG) provided ‘spot effects’ for radio drama. This device used a separate tape cartridge for each effect, the tape being pulled out of the cartridge, played and then drawn back in again. A further development of PEG was the Mellotron, a keyboard instrument with cartridges containing sampled instruments".

End. Next level – Delia Derbyshire.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Radiophonic article is now at

with a photo gallery at