The Radiophonic Workshop

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has left an audio legacy, responsible for the vast range of unusual sound-effects for numerous programmes, including Doctor Who’s TARDIS dematerialisation sound, to the Sonic screwdriver, as well as much of the programme’s distinctive electronic incidental music. We take a trip to Miloco Studios to learn about the Radiophonic Workshop’s reinvention as a band, and the tech allowing them to continue their weird and wonderful legacy...

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When you listen to something by The Radiophonic Workshop, it's fair to say you're never quite sure where the sounds have come from: judging by this little film, it's likely to be a combination of synths old and new, squeaky fridge doors, and lavatories..!

"By inner space, I mean 'how would you set a nervous breakdown to music?' That was one of the early Radiophonic commissions...”

Behind the Sonic Screwdriver

“We always used to say that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was good for outer space and inner space, and by inner space, I mean, ‘what’s going on in your brain?’ You know – how would you set a nervous breakdown to music? That was one of the early commissions, I think,” remembers British composer, Roger Limb, who is best known for his work on the television series Doctor Who whilst at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Formed in 1958, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was one of the sound effects units of the BBC which produced incidental sounds and new music for radio and, later, television. The unit is known for its experimental and pioneering work in electronic music and music technology, as well as its popular scores for programmes such as Doctor Who and Quatermass and the Pit during the 1950s and 1960s. The original Radiophonic Workshop was based in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in London, closing down in 1998.

The most famous of the workshop’s creations using ‘radiophonic’ techniques include the Doctor Who theme music, which Delia Derbyshire created using a plucked string, 12 oscillators, and a lot of tape manipulation; and the sound of the TARDIS materialising and dematerialising, which was created by Brian Hodgson running his keys along the rusty bass strings of a broken piano, with the recording slowed down to make a lower sound. These days, the band uses a mixture of old and new gear.

“When we did a gig at the Roundhouse, we worked jolly hard for about a month, putting together material,” says Limb. “And not just Doctor Who, but a cross section of a lot of the stuff we’ve done, including new pieces.”

“We’ve got quite a lot of new material,” nods The Radiophonic Workshop's Peter Howell. “It’s probably about half old and half new. We very, very tentatively introduced new stuff right from the beginning of playing as a band, and people of all ages are now interested in what we’re doing.”

“Some of the older generation are really dedicated fans, and they take things to quite interesting lengths,” smiles Limb. “One guy I spoke to said that after seeing us play the Doctor Who theme, he shed a few tears.”

The band were determined not to become their own tribute band, though:

“We didn’t want to just do all the old stuff,” Limb explains. “We rather enjoy doing new material. Somebody said that the whole of the Radiophonic Workshop as it was in the 1980s can fit onto one laptop computer now. So we’ve come a long way, but we’re still manipulating sound, and we’re still recording good things when we hear them – yes indeed,” he nods.

“I came across a fridge door the other day which you just wouldn’t believe,” concludes Howell. “We are always looking for sounds.”