1995: A RADIOPHONIC REQUIEM - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Christopher Morley presents a requiem for the Radiophonic Workshop.

1995 saw much of what was left of the Radiophonic Workshop's traditional work outsourced. Indeed within three years they would close their doors for the final time, on April 1st 1998, almost exactly 40 years since it had opened with the mission statement of providing new & innovative music/sound design for radio.

The rot had been threatening to set in since the early Nineties with the advent of BBC Director General John Birt's policy of "producer choice", under which the Workshop failed to break even - the cost of the whole enterprise proving too much. Meaning that in 1995 alone several key composers would pack their bags; including Brian Hodgson, Malcolm Clarke and Roger Limb.

As former engineer Ray White puts it:
"By the summer of 1991, John Birt had been appointed as Director General of the BBC. In November of the same year, the Corporation launched a two-pronged initiative that was ungrammatically known as Producer Choice.

In this, programme-makers would be encouraged to use the services of outside companies, whilst ‘in-house’ departments would become ‘business units’ that had to create enough revenue to cover their operating costs. In the process, the Corporation would shed around 8,000 jobs.

On the surface, this seemed similar to the introduction of ‘market forces’ in public services, such as ‘competitive tendering’ used by councils. However, closer examination revealed that Producer Choice was designed to consign ‘non-core’ parts of the BBC to the scrap heap, whilst leaving management free of blame.

Many departments couldn’t cover their overheads, some of which were outside of their control. Worse still, their customers and profits would be siphoned away by outside agencies.

Being at the edge of BBC activities, the Workshop was to become a business unit. Although each composer generated enough revenue for a comfortable lifestyle, there wasn’t enough money for the maintenance, heating, lighting and security of a building such as Maida Vale."

Those with fond memories of the Workshop's contribution to Doctor Who's classic years might strongly disagree with the idea of it having been consigned to the BBC's metaphorical dustbin! But so it proved, with Mark Ayres the man appointed to take care of the tape archive. Indeed, the very fact that the unsung pioneers of electronic music even had such an archive in the first place made their situation unique, a fact which didn't escape Sound On Sound. As Ayres himself later remembered:
"I suddenly got phone calls from Brian, then Peter Howell, then Paddy. They all said 'Someone's got to get in there and save the archive before it ends up in a skip!' — so I did."
How was that eventuality averted, you may well wonder should you be a keen student of all things electronic and indeed musical?
"Having messed up the archive, the BBC paid me (not very much, I might add) to sort it all out again."
Now, happily, the tapes nestle in one of the Beeb's main archives. Huzzah! Still work to be done though.
"They all need properly digitising and cataloguing but it takes forever to do. There are three and a half thousand reels of tape.
"Ten of the reels are John Baker's sound sources — his sample library, if you like. But they're 40 years old, and full of splices that are either dry and falling to bits, or gone sticky. You have to copy a little bit, clean the heads, copy another bit."
Which by the sound of it is quite some undertaking when you're working on Doctor Who!
"There are about 250 reels of sound effects each up to 40 minutes long and containing about 100 sounds. It's an enormous task."
But his work paid off when the programme was rebooted ten years on from our featured Geek Year, elements of Delia Derbyshire's original arrangement forming part of the make-up of Murray Gold's updated version. As the man charged with looking after the music for Doctor Who since its revival later told Sound On Sound:
"They decided they weren't happy with using the old theme. They kept saying things like 'We still haven't found something, so if you've got anything...' But I really didn't want to have anything to do with it.

That piece is so complete on its own, it's like a piece of electronic art. And also, it's a piece in which the arrangement of the tune is everything, with no disrespect to Ron Grainer.

So doing a new arrangement of a piece where the arrangement is everything... it's quite difficult, really!"
In meshing the old with the new, he turned to Ayres.

"One day, the parts turned up on a CD; Mark must have sent it over. I used the electronic 'scream' at the start, the famous swooping top line, the organ harmony underneath, the bass line, and the 'time tunnel whoosh' at the very end."
His role as archivist had in turn given him the chance to go back to where it all began by studying the original theme.

The nuts & bolts of which are...
"To combine the individual instrument parts, Delia Derbyshire had to manually play back two recordings at once, and record the combined output on a third machine. Multiple bounces were required before all the instruments were layered on top of one another, and as there was no means of sync'ing the playback machines, it had to be done manually, by starting playback at the same time with both loops precisely cued and cut to the same exact length on both playback machines.

Not surprisingly, many, many attempts and sub-bounces were required to get the multiple parts down to one precisely synchronised mono recording."
Luckily Mark had no such troubles when it came to assisting Gold.
"Two reels found by Ayres years later contained the individual instrument loops in isolation, as well as the completed composite mono reduction. Mark was able to digitise both reels, and create a 'virtual multitrack' on his DAW with all the individual parts sync'd on different tracks.

This also meant that when the new Doctor Who team decided to commission Murray Gold to produce an updated version of the theme for the 2005 series, Mark was able, in his position as the show's archive sound consultant, to supply Murray with WAV files of the individual parts making up the Derbyshire arrangement."
Which leads us to summise that that Radiophonic spirit wasn't quite as dead as the passing of those key ten years from 1995-2005 would have us believe, possibly?

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