BBC Radiophonic Workshop live at the Roundhouse
Published in PM July 2009
Technique : Stagecraft
More than 50 years after the BBCs legendary music and sound effects department was founded, five former staff members decided to take their pioneering techniques to the stage.
April 2008 saw the 50th anniversary of the founding of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop — probably the most famous electronic music studio in the world.
From 1958 until its closure in 1998, the Radiophonic Workshop provided music for countless BBC television and radio programmes, including the classics Doctor Who and The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. The Workshop was actually just a small number of rooms in the BBCs Maida Vale studios, a former ice-skating rink in West London. Scores of composers passed through the Workshops doors in those 40 years, including such luminaries as Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, Daphne Oram and John Baker. The Radiophonic Workshop occupies a unique position in electronic music history, so its 50th anniversary was suitably marked by a flood of celebratory magazine and newspaper articles, radio and TV documentaries. It was suggested last year that some of the Workshops musicians should perform in a live anniversary concert as part of the BBCs Electric Proms, but the idea never came to fruition. Eventually though, just over a year later, the concert finally happened! It was worth waiting for
Composer Mark Ayres is well known as the Radiophonic Workshops unofficial archivist. A Doctor Who fanatic as a child, he first visited the Radiophonic Workshop on a school trip, only to return several years later as a composer — now working on Doctor Who himself! Mark was responsible for saving the Workshops huge archive of tapes (its entire 40-year output), which should have been thrown in a skip but, by a lucky administrative error, ended up in a store room in the basement of Maida Vale studios instead. The tapes are now in safe storage and Mark has been slowly restoring and re-mastering some of them. He has been behind many re-released Radiophonic Workshop albums, including last years Retrospective double CD. Mark works tirelessly to keep the Radiophonic Workshops memory alive and was determined that the live concert should happen eventually. In late 2008 he was contacted by Dave Gaydon, the Roundhouses Head of Music, who was planning Short Circuit — an electronic music festival that was originally intended to feature Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre. Dave offered the Radiophonic Workshop the headlining spot — if only they could be persuaded to put together a show! Mark Ayres takes up the story:
“The venue was what clinched it! Who could turn down an offer to headline at the Roundhouse? I was in touch with many of the Radiophonic Workshops composers and first contacted Peter Howell, whom Id worked with before on Generic Sci-fi Quarry (see box, overleaf). Peter was as excited by the idea as I was, and after a couple of meetings we soon had a clear idea of what we wanted — knowing also what the fans would want to hear. The Radiophonic Workshop still has a huge following, so we knew there would be a ready audience. Peter and I became the concert producers and set about making it happen.”
Other former members of the Workshop were contacted and Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland and Dick Mills were soon brought on board. But there was a slight complication: the Radiophonic Workshops composers had always worked independently, with a studio each, and had never even played together before! Peter Howell adds:
“It was seen very much as the reunion of the band that never was... Mark and I had a list of suggestions for what tracks we might play, including some audio playback and video. We decided on surround-sound for some of this and Mark set about re-mixing archive tracks into surround. Once wed all agreed on which tracks to play, we went back to our own studios and started work on recreating them. We now had other players involved — including some of the countrys finest session men — so we had to each write out parts for our own tracks, including brass arrangements.”
Eventually Mark, Peter, Paddy and Roger met up in Marks studio and recorded all the tracks as they wanted them to sound in the concert, with rhythm and brass parts played on samples. Mark and Peter are confirmed Logic users, but Paddy uses Pro Tools and Roger Digital Performer. Logic was chosen as the final format, partly because it includes Mainstage, as Peter Howell explains:
“We couldnt possibly have done it without Mainstage. We knew that wed be expected to use a mountain of vintage gear on stage — I think we had 17 synths in the end — and all those analogue signals were controlled by Mainstage with levels, echo sends and delay times pre-programmed, as well as patch changes. Its a brilliant piece of kit, obviously designed by someone who knows about playing live — it does everything as youd want it to be done. If youre still playing a note when a patch change is triggered, the sound wont actually change until the note is released. The settings are all stored in RAM, so you need a pretty powerful machine to run it, but of course that means that it works instantly. Because wed pre-recorded absolutely everything in the studio, we could pick and choose what would be live, muting the recorded parts as we added the live ones. We originally thought that 50-percent live would be a realistic aim, but in the end it was more like 75 percent.”
All the musicians had a huge amount of preparation work for the gig. Peter Howell composed a new track, Dancing In The Waves, and made an accompanying video. He also edited a video sequence for his The Astronauts piece. Roger provided video for two of his tracks and Mark took care of editing all the archive footage, featuring the Workshops early days.
In early 2009 a week of rehearsals took place in Paddys studio and all the elements began to come together. Paddy had enlisted the help of Mark Phythian, a studio engineer and producer who has won a couple of Grammy Awards for his work with Coldplay, and who just happens to be a life-long Radiophonic Workshop fan. Mark was to be the bands ears out front when it came to the actual performance and it helped that he was so familiar with the original material.
“It was such an honour to be asked to work with these guys” says Mark. “The Radiophonic Workshop was what led me into music in the first place — I had the pink album and the Doctor Who singles when I was six or seven Then I saw the Fourth Dimension sleeve, with a picture of Paddy Kingsland in front of the modular Synthi 100, and decided that was the job for me!”
The week before the gig, everyone moved into a room in the basement of the Roundhouse for final rehearsals. The five spent a gruelling week setting levels and programming changes, using two Macbook Pros. Peter Howells computer ran Mainstage, which controlled all the analogue gear and also housed his soft synths; Mark Ayres ran Logic and provided the surround sound and other playback, including clicks. Aural cues were also sent to the performers through their in-ear monitoring — a recorded vocal gave bar counts and idents into the sections. Not much was left to chance. A third computer, a Titanium G4 Powerbook, provided all the video feeds. For the rehearsal week the Mainstage sub-mixes were all fed to a Mackie 32-track mixer, and monitored through a small Sony domestic hi-fi system.
“We worked at a very low sound level in rehearsal” says Peter Howell. “We didnt want to go deaf before wed even performed...”
Each of the four main performers had a station of equipment — mostly keyboards — that was pre-mixed down to a stereo pair; another stereo pair carried effects returns. This was all done within Peter Howells Mainstage, using a MOTU Traveler Mk3 with two MOTU 2408 Mk3s attached — giving 24 inputs. The mixes were all trimmed in software and flat-fadered, ready for translating over to the PA mixer that would be used for the final show.
For Paddy Kingsland, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the gig was using a vintage Roland Jupiter 8, which he has owned from new.
“I really enjoyed even programming the sounds” he says, “I used the Arturia software synth for the demo and the recorded version, then gradually replaced the parts with the real thing. Its a lovely instrument to play live.”
Paddy is also an excellent guitarist, playing a Fender Strat on many of the live numbers.
“The Strat is an American one, only about 15 years old,” explains Paddy, “and I played through a new Vox 30-Watt amp that Id just bought. Its a modelling amp, with built-in effects, but its got one valve and that makes all the difference. It sounds lovely.” He adds ruefully: “I did once own a 62 Strat that was allegedly played in Hamburg by George Harrison. But I sold it years ago, for 40 quid...”
Peter Howell also played guitar — a 1967 Burns Vistasonic. Its a classic model, the one with a tone button marked Wild Dog.
“Im actually far more comfortable playing guitar on stage than I am keyboards,” admits Peter. “When I played in bands before joining the BBC I was always a guitarist, and playing keyboards live still makes me a bit uneasy! I think we were all a bit worried about what could go wrong in a live setting — so being studio musicians, we went to a lot of trouble to make it disaster-proof.”
Roger Limb gigs regularly “with a rock & roll band” and he used his usual, rather modest setup: a Yamaha P90 stage piano that also has a good harpsichord sound, and another keyboard controlling his Yamaha JV1080 module. For the encore he produced a double bass!
Mark Ayres, at the opposite extreme, had one of the most outrageous collections of vintage kit ever assembled on the same A-frame.
“Someone had to do it!” he laughs. “The Radiophonic Workshop fans are obviously interested in analogue synths, so I felt obliged to satisfy them.”
Analogue synths have one disadvantage though — they regularly go out of tune, so tuning breaks had to be incorporated into the running schedule.
On Saturday, the day before the gig, the gear was all moved upstairs to the main auditorium and the Roundhouse lighting crew were brought in. Mark Ayres had a clear idea of how the show should start:
“It was important,” he says, “to start with a bang, so I worked with them in detail on lighting for the opening. We wanted a sci-fi planetarium feel, with a mirror-ball sending stars all around the auditorium and more stars projected onto the video screens at the back of the stage. Once wed sorted out the first two numbers I just said, You get on with it now — do what you like! They were absolutely brilliant. We had integral video for some numbers but not all — the lighting guys used a video graphics generator to fill in the gaps.”
Sunday May 17th dawned and now Peter, Roger, Paddy and Mark were joined by Dick Mills — a true veteran of the Radiophonic Workshop and its longest-serving member. Dick worked with Delia Derbyshire on realising the original Doctor Who theme and holds the record for most Doctor Who credits. Dicks original VCS3 had been borrowed from the BBC for the concert and was placed centre stage. The other musicians arrived — all world-class session men: Ralph Salmins on drums; Andy Pask, bass guitar; Chris White on saxophone and Gary Kettel on percussion, which included tubular bells and a full set of orchestral timps. The four brass players were led by Hannah Bishop on trumpet, with Matt Lewis on trombone and Mike Kidd and Mark Wood on horns. All had just one previous run through the set on the day before, so were almost sight-reading.
Surround the house
Britannia Row provided the PA, which was based on their usual setup for the Roundhouse, but expanded into a five-channel surround system for the week of the Short Circuit festival. Suspended above the stage were a total of 32 Outline CDH 483 High Pack cabinets — 16 each side for the front left and right channels, and eight cabinets for the centre channel. The bottom end came from 12 Outline SubTech 218s. The rear left and right surround channels were sent to two stacks sited at the back of the raked seating, with three CDH 483 High Packs and four SubTech 218s on each side. A further four CDH 483 High Packs were used as fills. On-stage monitors were Turbosound wedges, and all the performers were provided with Shure and Sennheiser in-ear monitoring. The front-of-house desk was a Midas H3000 with 52 channels, while a 48-channel Yamaha PM5D RH took care of the monitor mix. The entire system output was around 40kW.
Sunday afternoon was spent running through the entire set, with full lighting and video. Britannia Rows Dave Compton was front-of-house mixer, assisted by Mark Phythian, who shuttled between the FOH desk and the stage, making last-minute level tweaks. The sound level in an empty auditorium was very high — particularly the bass end. It bordered on the painful, so I wore ear protectors throughout the soundcheck. I was assured that it would be slightly quieter when the auditorium was full of people and this indeed turned out to be the case. The final sound level with an audience was perfect — impressively loud but not painful, and crystal-clear. I can honestly say this was the best live sound Ive ever heard: it was just like listening to a gigantic hi-fi system. This was apparently because there was such a massive amount of headroom, so there was none of the distortion associated with a system running near its maximum level. Theres a lesson for us all there...
The feed from Mainstage in Peter Howells on-stage computer to the FOH desk was through a horribly vulnerable Firewire cable — something that made the performers very nervous, as Paddy Kingsland says:
“I dont know why they use such flimsy connectors for Firewire, considering that theyre often used for such a crucial job. We heard that just the week before we played, Ultravox had a disaster on stage when their Firewire cable just fell out of its socket and their entire sound went! It happened to us too, but only in rehearsal. We fixed ours tightly with cable ties, just in case. If youre going to rely on Firewire you cant be too careful. Stick it down with gaffer tape — even Araldite!”
Paddy pointed out that a crucial piece of his on-stage equipment was a vintage Hohner blues harp — there just in case the Firewire cable fell out. It wasnt needed.
The soundcheck took longer than expected, and Peter, Dick, Roger, Paddy and Mark were due to appear at a Q&A session at 6pm in the Roundhouses smaller Freedm studio. They made it, but only just, and even though obviously frazzled from the days work, they soon relaxed and entertained the packed room for an hour with anecdotes and funny stories about the Radiophonic Workshop. I was also a Workshop composer for a short time, so Ive known all the other members for many years and come to take it rather for granted. I just had no idea what a huge following they have! As soon as the Q&A finished, a horde of fans descended, eager for autographs and photos — this was real rock star treatment.
“It is very bizarre, all of this.” remarked Roger Limb, “Apart from Mark were all in our 60s, and Dick Mills is 73! It seems that fame comes late for some...”
The show began promptly at 8.30 with a full house; it was almost entirely sold out. The crowd was very mixed, with a surprising number of young fans. For the start of the show the Workshop musicians all wore white lab coats, in the style of 50s BBC technicians. Dick Mills came on stage first, to rapturous applause, and spent some time twiddling the knobs on his spotlit VCS3. Dicks sci-fi warblings were accompanied by a barrage of analogue filter-sweeps and surround-sound whooshes as the auditorium swirled with stars. The audience loved it.
Roger Limb composed music for literally hundreds of educational programmes during his time at the Workshop. The group played a medley of them as the video screens displayed some of the title sequences. Those programmes must still be fondly remembered, as Geordie Racer, Micro Live and Look & Listen raised loud applause.
Paddy walked over to a microphone: “The Radiophonic Workshop was founded in 1958,” he announced, to cheers from the crowd. “And the BBC closed it down 10 years ago.” The crowd hissed and booed. “But were British — so well just continue to blunder along anyway!”
Paddy is best known for his work on The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and treated us to a video sequence from the TV series, “without the music being spoiled by all that unnecessary stuff like sound effects and actors”.
Words And Pictures was one of those silly Radiophonic Workshop tracks that combined sound effects with the music; the live version featured Gary Kettel, probably Britains foremost orchestral percussionist, on duck call, car horn and vibra-slap!
Dick Mills returned to the stage holding a green lampshade. It was the very one that Delia Derbyshire had used to produce the raw sounds for much of her music. The audience, of course, knew this. Who would have guessed that a lampshade could get a standing ovation? Dick pointed out that the musicians on stage were not truly representative of the Radiophonic Workshop as none were female. At least 19 women, he said, had worked there over the years — ending with Elizabeth Parker, who literally turned the lights out when she was the last composer to leave. There followed a tribute to the Workshops women, with music and video of Delia, Daphne Oram and others.
Peter Howell introduced his Greenwich Chorus by demonstrating the vocoder: Mark Ayres operated it as he spoke, turning Peters voice into a heavenly choir. Some of the video sequences alone were stupendous — notably Roger Limbs Sea Trek.
But the most enthusiastic reception, naturally, went to Doctor Who. A sequence from one of Mark Ayres Doctor Who episodes was shown, with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor. We saw all the other Doctors, too. Several different versions of the theme were played, cleverly combined with playback of the original and ending with a monster rock version. It brought the house down.
The gig was a huge success. It was streamed live on the Internet, but the demand was such that it kept crashing. Mobile phone clips of the show appeared on YouTube that same evening; the next days newspapers all carried glowing reviews. A few days later, when the dust had settled, I spoke to all the musicians again.
“It was an awful lot of hard work for one gig,” said Roger Limb, “but what a gig! I knew there was an audience for us, but I never would have imagined anything on that scale. I just want to do it again!”
The others agreed. After all the months of preparation and planning, it seems crazy to not do it again! Nothing has yet been decided, but talks are already taking place about the possibility of a national tour — but only if suitable venues can be found.
“The venue was partly what made it so special” said Mark Ayres, “and wed have to find some around the country that are as unusual. But they do exist...”
Peter Howell agreed: “The work involved in putting on the show was colossal, but worth all the effort. It was expensive too. We even had to insure Delias lampshade for a grand!”
Paddy Kingsland was staggered by the response. “It was truly amazing!” he said. “Ive never played a gig like that before in my life. We were all interviewed the night before by Jonny Trunk, for his radio show on Resonance FM. There was a competition for a pair of tickets and hundreds of people applied — far more than we expected.” He laughed: “The question was very easy: just to complete the title The Hitchhikers Guide To We got some very funny answers. My favourite was: West Bromwich Albion 3.”
I asked Roger Limb if there was anywhere in particular hed like to repeat the show. He replied immediately: “Glastonbury, please!” 0
Generic Sci-fi Quarry
The alien landscape seen in many Doctor Who episodes, and in other BBC science fiction TV programmes such as Blakes Seven and The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, was actually a working quarry in Faringdon, Oxfordshire! In March 2002 artists Rory Hamilton and Jon Rogers staged a performance to celebrate this, and to commemorate Radiophonic Workshop composer Delia Derbyshire, who died in 2001. Music and surround sound was provided by ex-members of the Workshop: Brian Hodgson, Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell and Mark Ayres. Images were projected onto the vertical face of the quarry wall — including one of the wall itself, animated so it appeared to grow and pulsate in 3D! The free event was staged over three extremely cold and damp evenings for a large and surprisingly enthusiastic audience.
The Roundhouse on Londons Chalk Farm Road is a stunning venue with a rather chequered history. Built in 1849 for repairing steam engines, it originally contained a huge turntable for rotating a section of track with a train on it, hence the circular design. After years of disuse the Roundhouse began to be used as a venue in the psychedelic 60s, with theatre productions and bands such as Pink Floyd appearing in all-night happenings. It was closed again for most of the 80s, re-opening in 1996 as the Roundhouse Studios — a creative centre for young people. It closed yet again in 2004 and after a refurbishment that cost almost £30 million it was reborn in all its current glory as North Londons largest performing arts centre. The circular glazed roof lights were re-installed, allowing daylight in after a hundred years of gloom, and the roof now contains seven layers of soundproofing to keep out the noise of aircraft and traffic. Now a Grade II listed building, the refurbishment successfully retained many of the buildings historical features, adding state-of-the-art flexible seating, lighting and sound. It is truly enormous — the main circular space can hold 3000 people standing and 1800 seated.
Roland Jupiter 8
Yamaha DX7 II
Burns Vistasonic guitar
Yamaha NP-30 Piano
Yamaha P90 Piano
Roland Jupiter 8
Roland SVC350 Vocoder
EMU Xboard 61
Emergency blues harp
EMS Synthi A
Roland System 100M
Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus
Published in PM July 2009
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