1985 - Technology And The Radiophonic Workshop

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Christopher Morley gets in sync with the Radiophonic Workshop...

It's tempting to see 1985 as the beginning of the end for the Radiophonic Workshop, just as it could be argued that it was for classic Doctor Who. It's true that the Workshop's five year stretch of providing every incidental music score for the series was coming to an end, but was it also a foretelling that they belonged to an earlier age?

They were certainly keeping up with current technological trends, as Jason Ankeny's piece for AllMusic made clear:
"By 1985, all of the Radiophonic Workshop's studios were equipped with samplers, with Apple Macs installed a year later; by the end of the decade, a totally automated studio was up and running, complete with MIDI routing, and by the '90s, hard-disk recording and sequencing were the norm."
And former engineer Ray White can offer an even more technical perspective on that change.
"By incorporating an analogue to digital converter (ADC), the digital synthesiser effectively became an audio sampling machine. The E-mu Systems Emulator II was one of the first machines of this kind. Although it only used 12-bit technology, the sound quality was very impressive. Its place in ancient history is confirmed by the fact that it used two cumbersome 51⁄4inch floppy disk drives.

The Roland S50, with its provision for a VDU, was a pioneering keyboard machine that kept samples on a 31⁄2 inch floppy disk. This was followed by the rack-mounted S550, also giving multiple outputs. However, the ‘industry standard’ for many years in the world of sampling was the Akai S1000.

A new generation of machines soon appeared, with samples that matched the quality of digital audio. They included the E-mu Proteus and Procussion, both playback-only samplers containing a vast repertoire of instruments, showing a high technical quality and sampling artistry. Also, they exploited MIDI to the full, allowing sixteen sounds to be played at any time, each with sixteen-note polyphony."
Unless you dabble in such things yourself, you're probably wondering what MIDI is- let White explain!
"In the early eighties, a group of interested parties issued a specification for the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), a system that allowed universal communication between instruments, computers and other devices. The basis for this standard was purely commercial and within a few months of its introduction the floodgates were overwhelmed by new and affordable products.

One of the first MIDI sequencers was Yamaha’s QX1. This incorporated a single MIDI input for a keyboard and eight individual MIDI outputs for connecting to instruments. Unfortunately, all the sequencing operations had to be monitored through a small liquid crystal display (LCD) device.

Early MIDI interfaces were very simple, conveying a single MIDI circuit over either or both serial ports of the computer. Pioneering software included Performer, a sequencing package by Mark of the Unicorn, and Composer, designed for working on a musical script.

Sequencing software allowed the musician to record a real-time keyboard performance as a sequence in the computer. This could then be edited freely, saved onto disk in various versions, and finally employed to ‘play’ the synthesisers.

The opportunities for editing were almost endless. For example, the length or pitch of any note could be changed, or sections of music could be reversed, repeated or inserted at another point, or the tempo could be changed."
If the influx of new technology then was seen as a coup, just think what could be achieved with what superseded the Eighties answer to cutting-edge. As another former Radiophonic composer, Mark Ayres, has said:
"It is absurd how far technology has come. In terms of the Radiophonic Workshop, it’s about using what you have to hand and being ambitious with it. Whether it’s a lamp shade or a Macintosh computer, as long as you’re using that technology and being creative– and not just allowing it to use you – that’s what keeps us amused."
The end of the Workshop, though, would come. And as Brian Hodgson told the Radio Times:
"It was inevitable. Originally, we were the only place that could do that sort of work. By the 90s, kids had more technology on their own computers."
It's one thing having the technology, but an entirely different thing being able to apply it successfully. Possibly that's the reasoning behind the planned revival of the Workshop itself. As BBC News' Entertainment section reported in September 2012:
"While the first Workshop was based in the BBC's Maida Vale studios, the new incarnation will live online, at The Space, a new digital arts service developed by the Arts Council and the BBC."
Matthew Herbert will lead "seven fellow cutting-edge collaborators" in making new sounds and music. Though computer music-making has moved on a bit since Mac & MIDI, obviously! Which makes 1985 seem more of a dress-rehearsal year in retrospect.

And Herbert himself hit the nail on the head when he said:
"The rapid pace of change in technologies has meant our imaginations are struggling to keep up. By bringing together the people making the technology with people making the music, we are hoping to find engaging answers to some of the modern problems associated with the role of sound and music on the internet, in certain creative forms and within broadcasting."
As he told the Independent:
"What the [original] Workshop achieved was the pinnacle of electronic music in this country, and it is all the more extraordinary given that it was conceived in the 50s."
Is he open to previous Workshop staffers coming aboard?
"We are interested in bringing them with us but we are also keen to find new, young people working in technology."
Which will sound familiar to anyone who remembers the likes of Peter Howell and Paddy Kingsland coming aboard after John Nathan-Turner decided to take things in-house. Only now can that start to be seen as a positive, and 1985 paved the way in a sense! So, watch this Space............. 

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