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the radiophonic workshop

February 24, 2007

Last week I watched an absolutely inspiring documentary on the unlikely topic of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Set up as an experimental unit back in the days when the BBC had enough spare money to set up experimental units, the Radiophonic Workshop were providing BBC programmes with avant-garde electronic soundtracks years before the invention of the synthesiser.

I’d always imagined the Workshop to be staffed with comic-book stereotypical electronics boffins in white lab coats, but in actual fact most of the staff were experimental composers, with backgrounds in musique concrète and jazz, and the patience to piece together elaborate compositions produced entirely by manipulating and cutting up tape-recordings.

For someone with an interest in electronic music, it was inexpressibly exciting. These people, with only tape machines and basic oscillators, were making music that still — 40 or 50 years on — sounds futuristic, and far less dated than a lot of music from 10 years ago sounds nowadays.

It was also an interesting study in the ways that constraint often enhances creativity: at one point two former radiophonists complain that the day the workshop got its first synthesiser was the day the quality of their output began to decline — that up until that point they’d had only tape to play with, so they’d had to think about exactly what they were doing, whereas from that point on making electronic music began to be about faffing with a machine trying to find a sound you like.

Anyway, if you have any interest in electronic music, it is well worth a watch, and — luckily enough — it seems the programme can be downloaded here. (Thanks to Andrew for finding the link).

posted in the U.K.4 comments


  1. Posted by Alex — February 27, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Awesome documentary! Inspiring indeed!
    Delia Derbyshire is very cool

  2. Posted by lva — March 2, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Glad ye liked it!

  3. Posted by graeme — April 17, 2007 at 6:04 am

    brilliant find! when i was young, i was a mad doctor who fan. i had so many books and videos etc. at that time my mum was studying, and when there was no babysitter she would take me up to the college and i`d have to amuse myself in the college library while she had a class, or studied. there wasn`t much there in the tech college, but they did have the complete collection of radiophonic workshop tapes. i was so excited because i found the doctor who tape… it was like fate! i rented it of course, and i also took a raygun and space weapons tape, wich i imagined would be the coolest thing ever. but it was just a lot of stupid noises wich gave me a headache. not really the stuff a ten year old boy is into really. i took it back and occassionaly listened to some of the others, but they were just noise, so i wasn`t really interested. but oh, how i would love to hear those tapes today!

  4. Posted by lva — April 17, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    I remember those tapes! The public library used to have loads. Never quite understood why or what they were for, although I seem to remember a friend once took out a bunch (also probably when we were about ten). It was a haunted house tape. Cackling laughter and crashing thunderstorms, mostly, I think. I wonder if you can still get them…