Via Chip Collection comes a charming documentary on the production of the 1980 remake of the classic Doctor Who TV theme, by BBC composer Peter Howell. You have to enjoy seeing the Yamaha CS-80 and ARP Odyssey in action. It’s also striking to me how accessible these keyboards made their synth parameters, in contrast to the vast majority of modern synths — either hardware or software. You could really just dial up sounds. (Getting it perfect on multi-track tape, though, took 5 1/2 weeks, though they amusingly have Mr. Howell mime playing along with the polished end take.)

Giving all the credit to Ron Grainer seems a little unfair; while Grainer composed the melody, most of the features of the Doctor Who theme itself were in fact the work of gifted pioneer Delia Derbyshire. Whereas Howell could actually play parts live, Derbyshire had a much harder task: painstakingly piecing the sounds out of repeat passes of tape, with only the simplest test tone generators and processors to produce sounds. Ironically, I think there was a far greater gap in the way synthesizer sounds were produced between 1963 and 1980 than 1980 and 2007, even if Howell brags about a “very modern synthesizer” that can play “8 notes at a time.” It’s cheaper now, but programming most synth patches hasn’t changed in the least. In fact, the CS-80 had more accessible hardware for programming, and never had to contend with OS X updates. Out of tune slightly? Erm, yes … but that’s cool, right? (Better add that to your software emulation. I’ll make no argument for superiority of value or weight. And I’ll make myself feel better by routing through some digital effects.)

See my two year-old roundup, though many of the sound links are now broken:
Doctor Who Theme: Behind the Scenes, Hear the Themes