The UK electronic music scene lost its pioneer Tristram Cary this week, so it’s the perfect time to look back again at the marvels of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Low-budget but long-running Doctor Who is unlikely to be remembered for breaking new ground in, say, fancy props, sets, or visual effects (though they did plenty with what they had). But when it comes to sound and music, the BBC’s DIY approach to sound, ranging from Who to "serious" classical music (even my composition teacher Thea Musgrave worked there) remains significant today.

The BBC is again offering a look inside the storied workshop, now at its 50th birthday. (As their designs stand the test of five decades, I think perhaps electronic sound isn’t just about novelty after all.)

And one of their best finds? A lampshade.

Four sound effects that made TV history [ BBC News Magazine; happily this video works worldwide]

Thanks to Andy Tekkaz for the tip.

Yes, the green lampshade pictured above was Delia Derbyshire’s favorite toy to sample, a reminder that sometimes the non-electrified object is an electronic composer’s best friend. Other gems: the room for the largest synth the BBC ever owned, ominously titled "The Delaware" like some kind of WWII aircraft carrier, which wouldn’t fit through the door. Or room #12, in which the Doctor Who theme was born. Or what must be the world’s oddest home-built mixer, encased in plexiglass. Or, below, the suitcase synth the Workshop custom-built. (Note the prominence of EMS VCS3 synths, designed by Tristram Cary.) Updated: Okay, I was confused as well by the terminology "custom-built" in regards to the synth (evidently a Synthi-A), but then again, given the relationship between EMS and BBC, it’s possible the Radiophonic Workshop was the initial customer. Anyone have any idea?

Host and Radiophonic vet Dick Mills also settles any lingering controversy about how you make a Dalek voice: it’s what (I think) is a VCS3, a ring modulator tuned to 30 Hz, and a little bass attenuation (Dick corrects his colleague on that). If that doesn’t sound like a Dalek, you’re probably not shouting enough.


  • michael

    don't quite understand why they say that suitcase synth is custom-built, it's just a synthi-A.

  • Darren Landrum

    Thank you for this! I've been heavily inspired by the Workshop recently, and I've been soaking up everything I can about them.

  • Angstrom

    if you want to see what the Delaware looked and worked like , there's a video here about a restored EMS Synthi 100 (that's what the Delaware was of course)

    I got a chance to sneak around the Radiophonic workshop when I did a Peel session once. Like visiting Mecca !

  • I don't understand what "the crystal palace" is at 3:44… I watched that part a few times and I still don't get what they're talking about. Can anyone explain?

  • @Keith: I think it's some kind of custom-patching mixer, but maybe I'm not right on that? I agree — really bizarre.

  • @Keith and Peter

    See Section 2 of Ray White's "BBC Radiophonic Workshop: An Engineering Perspective" for more details on the 'Crystal Palace':

  • Thanks, James!

    So am I understanding correctly that it's like a mechanical step-sequencer for rotating between a series of inputs?

    Or am I still confused?

    Also, after reading a few paragraphs earlier about the "glowpot", that seems pretty roundabout; wouldn't there have been a simpler way to "lowpass" the fader with a capacitor or something?

    I guess I'm taking for granted that mixing boards have existed in their present form since the big bang, and didn't have to "evolve" like other facets of recording technology. I didn't think faders would have still presented a problem in the 1960s; I thought they were just potentiometers, like ordinary volume knobs, and I assumed that the click-ridden panning effects on Interstellar Overdrive were the result of not using the right tool for the job.