Procrastination Destination: BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Are you sick of the pleasant hum of jazz and coffee grinders in Espwesso? Does the dull roar of Olin’s main room make you want to peel your skin off? Has the humping of thesis writers in adjacent carrels gotten to you yet? Throw on a pair of headphones (or get ready to annoy your neighbors), because we have a sonic treat for you.

Oye, if you want to skip past the extensive discussion of experimental music borne out of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and get straight to a hands-on procrastination tool, click here and get your experimental music on, ese.

Founded in 1958 in London, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was much more than a Raygun Gothic name and a studio. In the late 1950s, the BBC Third Program—which was eventually folded into BBC Radio 3—was ramping up their dramatic output. Seeking atmospheric, ethereal sounds that couldn’t be produced through traditional sound design or instrumental techniques, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was created in service of exploring then-cutting edge production methods to accompany the BBC’s radio productions. The resulting soundscapes resembled musique concrète and were prescient in the development of the electronic and experimental music that we have come to know and love today.

Click through to see more about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s creative output from the ’50s to today.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop is perhaps known less by name than by the unforgettable sound designs that emerged from it. Most notably, Dalek, the alien cyborg mutant hellbent on purging the universe of all lifeforms other than his fellow alien cyborg mutants, was voiced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Here’s a link to eight minutes and fifty seconds of Dalek repeating “Exterminate! Exterminate!”—that is, every utterance of the phrase from the original run of Dr. Who—which itself comprises a sort of terrifying electronic soundscape that could be the soundtrack to a kidnapping via tractor beam and ensuing anal probe.

Delia Derbyshire is the most widely known and heralded contributor to the original BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Her contributions include the original Dr. Who theme, Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO, which was recorded primarily using a metal lamp shade, and an uncanny ability to beatmatch 35 years before anyone else even thought of it, as seen in the video at the top of this post. Here’s an in-depth report on the various techniques used by the Radiophonic Workshop to make sounds more akin to Barry White for District 9-style giant insect aliens to bump uglies to than music.

As time moved forward, the studio’s oscillators and reel-to-reel tape recorders were replaced with synthesizers and the number of programs they provided sound design for moved well into the triple digits. Despite scoring notable programs like the radio production of perennial favorite The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, cost cutting measures eventually led to the studio’s demise in the early 90s.

Recently, Matthew Herbert, a composer noted for his usage of “found sound,” spearheaded an effort to recreate the methods and sounds of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Most importantly, Herbert and company’s reproduction isn’t in a studio accessible only to BBC employees with a penchant for splicing tape. Instead, anyone can access the newly recreated BBC Radiophonic Workshop at its new online home. Would be experimenters can create sonic reproductions of gunfire, manipulate the “Wobbulator,” putz around with digital tape loops (skeuomorphism eat your heart out) and modulate the shit out of a vocal sample to make their own interpretation of Dalek’s voice.

Herbert is also known for his goal of “turning the world into music through sound,” occasionally by recording a pig from its birth through its slaughter and eventual consumption as dinner and at other times merging mutated vocal samples with traditional big band instrumentation.

Check out the BBC’s 50 year retrospective on the Radiophonic Workshop below, along with Derbyshire and her Radiophonic Workshop peers doing their thang. While we’re on the subject, here’s my favorite vaguely experimental music track that I think more people should here by virtue of the fact that it’s ridiculously out there, consisting of jazz piano, freaky guitar effects and beatboxing.

Don’t forget to play with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop yourself at this link.