Radiophonic Workshop

Oramics to Electronica

E&T reflects on pioneering people and instruments from the history of electronic music

When you first see the Oramics machine, you can’t work out what it’s for, let alone how it works. It’s an old wooden cupboard hung about with so many tubes, wires and strips of 35mm film, it could be anything from a medical scanner to a detector listening hopefully for a signal from ET. With no keyboard, no strings and no mouthpiece, you wouldn’t guess initially that this machine represented a key moment in the history of electronic music.This ramshackle contraption is the centrepiece to Oramics to Electronica, a Science Museum, London, exhibition that tells the stories of pioneers of electronic music in Britain, and the technologies and equipment that brought their sonic ideas to life. From the props and gadgets of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, to the early synthesisers created by Peter Zinovieff at Electronic Music Studios (EMS), and a Roland TB-303 synthesiser-sequencer from the Acid House movement, the exhibition shows the hardware behind some of the world’s most evocative electronic sounds.

Buzzing around the exhibition on the second floor of the museum are recordings of the strange, still-futuristic sounds of the Oramics machine. “Daphne Oram is a forgotten pioneer,” says Tim Boon, exhibition curator. “At that time in the 1960s, people like Daphne could see the potential for there to be electronic music but they had to invent the way to make it.”

Oram’s inspiration came on a BBC training course. “She saw an oscilloscope and asked the tutor, ‘couldn’t you do that backwards, by drawing a waveform?’.” The engineer dismissed the idea, but it stuck with Oram and led eventually to her Oramics machine, which interpreted waveforms painted onto film, while allowing the player to control pitch, volume and reverberation. Oram wished it “to be like an extension of the arm of the composer”, and indeed it was the first machine, certainly in the UK, to combine synthesis and composition.

The Radiophonic Workshop

Daphne Oram joined the BBC in 1942 as a studio engineer - a role only recently open to women - passing up a chance to study at the Royal College of Music. From the early 1950s (and long before her Oramics machine), Oram created other-worldly music for experimental radio. The first of these was a play called ‘Amphitryon 38’, for which she created a score using a sine wave oscillator, an early tape recorder and self-designed filters. It was the first entirely electronic score at the BBC, and led to other commissions. Oram lobbied her bosses to set up an electronic music workshop, and finally in 1958, the Radiophonic Workshop opened under her leadership and with the strong support of Desmond Briscoe from the BBC’s drama department.

“Both Daphne and Desmond were really interested in musique concrète, the kind of experimental music being made in Paris by people like Stockhausen,” says Boon. “They wanted to create a new type of radio programme, between voice and music.” Radiophonics was born, and found its place on the post-war Third Programme. “It was an elite, culture station with only 1 per cent of the listening public,” Boon explains. “One of the first broadcasts they were involved in was a Samuel Beckett play - and then at the other end of the spectrum, they also provided sound effects for the ‘Goon Show’.”

The BBC’s direction for the Radiophonic Workshop - less composition and more effects-related - was what led Oram to leave to set up her own studio later in 1958. But the Workshop itself went from strength to strength. Brian Hodgson joined the BBC as a studio manager in 1960, and went to the Radiophonic Workshop on attachment two years later, ending up staying 11 years.

“The equipment was a weird and wonderful collection. We had one professional reel-to-reel tape recorder, and an echo machine with recording and playback heads that you had to run up the day before to reduce the crackle. The electronic equipment was limited, a couple of standard oscillators to tune against, plus an oscillator that would swoop from one cycle right up to supersonic - great for spaceships taking off. And a load of anything that would make a noise.” The famous metal lampshade on display - a favoured sound-maker of BBC composer Delia Derbyshire - reflects the make-do-and-mend approach of many pioneers.

Hodgson was the original sound designer for ‘Doctor Who’, inventing the sounds of the TARDIS (using a key on piano strings) and the Sonic Screwdriver. “My instruction was that Daleks were strange-looking robots with a funny voice. I invented the voice with the help of the actor Peter Hawkins.” The method of modulating the voice had been heard once before, in a radio programme called ‘Sword from the Stars’, in which Hodgson modulated his own voice in the character of a very polite robot butler. For the harsher tones of the Daleks, Hodgson worked with Hawkins to elongate the vowels and emphasise the modulations.

Doctor Who’ brought the Radiophonic Workshop into the public eye for the first time in 1963. “We were all taken aback by the response, we had no idea it was going to turn into a major opus,” says Hodgson. After a period away from the BBC, he returned to the Workshop in the late 1970s, and oversaw a successful period that included ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. “Douglas Adams would come down and work with Paddy Kingsland, who was a genius with sound and music, inventing voices and doing wondeful things.” Panic almost set in when Kingsland heard that higher powers planned to record all the episodes one after the other in the same week. Hodgson recalls: “They were so exhausted, I personally took the tape to Continuity to make sure it arrived.”

As head of the Workshop, Hodgson was tasked with updating the studios. “Technology was catching up with our ideas, and many of Daphne’s ideas,” he explains. “You could add harmonics, do frequency modulation, create really complex sounds using MIDI, which was straightforward to sequence on computer.” In 1984, and with a decent budget for the first time, he installed Macintosh computers at the heart of each studio, controlling and sequencing all the other equipment.

Experimental music

Other approaches to electronic sound were progressing fast. While Oram was developing her waveform-reading technology, in America Bob Moog had invented voltage control, which led to some of the most influential electronic synthesisers of the 1960s and 70s. In the UK, Zinovieff bought a PDP-8, a commercial minicomputer more often used in laboratories, for computer music experiments.

“Peter worked with us on the exhibition and said he was shown the laborious process for making tape loops for electronic music - but thought there must be a better way,” says Boon. The archetypal EMS synthesisers would become the gadget of choice for pop and rock groups of the 1970s, including Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Jean Michel Jarre. But, says Boon, synth sales were only of interest to Zinovieff because they supported his true interest in experimental computer music.

“Peter had an exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts called Cybernetics Serendipity. You could whistle a tune, and it would play it back, then play it again with variations. He also participated in a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, playing ‘Partita for Unattended Computer’.” Conceptual work with Harrison Birtwistle and Hans Werner Henze also interested him.

Electronic musicians

Among other equipment from the sonic frontier is an Australian Fairlight TMI - an object of desire for every 1980s British electronic musician. It had a huge processor, qwerty keyboard, monitor with light pen (like an Oramics, you could draw a wave form on the monitor) and a large music keyboard. There is also the Koan Pro, software that ‘grew’ a composition from the seed programmed by the user which Brian Eno adopted to create his signature Ambient Music. Perhaps the most high-profile current doyenne of electronic music is Björk, noted for her ‘app album’, ‘Biophilia’.

Boon recruited and worked with a group of current electronic musicians on much of the content of the exhibition - part of the Museum’s project to democratise the histories it tells. From a dubstep DJ to an electropop band member, from a Hammond organ player-performer to someone who creates versions of old instruments in software - a dozen men and women joined the team to co-create the exhibition.

One such musician is Andy Wheddon, who co-runs a record label in Brighton called Plastic Concrete. For him, the history of electronic music is bound up in democratisation. “I have always been interested in music, but I have not been blessed with an ability on traditional musical instruments,” he confesses. “But in my late teens, I discovered there was this fantastic genre of music where that didn’t matter - you could use hardware, synths, and now computers. You could make completely new sounds, such that you were the first person to hear them.”

A highlight of the display for him is the EMS VCS3, the first English synthesiser, the model played by Eno and used by Pete Townshend to create the cyclic backbone to The Who song ‘Baba O’Riley’. “There’s no keyboard,” explains Wheddon. “You set it running and interact with it. It’s semi-modular so you connect points within the circuit using a matrix of pins, and use the dials, controls and switches to sculpt the sound you want.”

Sound synthesising

As computer music and software continued to develop, and Japanese companies began producing polyphonic consumer synthesisers and simpler organs, electronic music became less experimental, as Hodgson explains. “Manufacturers were saying, if they were sent machines to repair by us at the Radiophonic Workshop, they’d find lots of new sounds and changed settings. But pop groups were just using them like glorified organs.”

Boon agrees: “When synthesisers went mainstream a lot of the experimentation disappeared. At the beginning people were fiddling around and making extraordinary, gorgeous noise. In fact, unlike the early days when experimentation was a rich man’s occupation, today it’s more likely to be young kids with a laptop and some inspiration.”

Experimentation - or indeed subversion - is one of Wheddon’s specialities alongside his electronic music composition. For the exhibition, he created an anarchic Speak and Spell using a technique known as circuit bending. “Lots of battery-operated toys have a speech synthesiser that you can short circuit, add switches and resistors and bring in some control. This toy now still speaks; little tiny snippets of vowels and words. It will sometimes say random words or churn out gibberish - rather like R2D2, drunk. If you slow it down, and introduce distortion, it gets quite rhythmical and scary sounding.”

This level of inbuilt randomness and unrepeatibility, so much a feature of Oram’s work too, may be one of the reasons that electronic music has often struggled for acceptance in the musical establishment. When Oram wrote to the BBC’s music division to encourage them to commission experimental music from her, she received a curt reply saying they employed five orchestras for that purpose. The Oramics machine itself had been thought lost, but was tracked down to a barn in Brittany. A collector had it there in storage, after a number of years of it being displayed in a private synthesiser museum.

And what influence did this eccentric machine have on our sound-saturated world today? It’s not entirely clear yet, but it’s something that will be the topic of a PhD project that the Science Museum and Goldsmiths College are jointly organising.

“If you switch on a digital audio workstation, which is what all the computer musicians use now,” Boon says, “what you see is something that looks very much like the top of an Oramics machine. You have places where you put the notes in, where you say what the sound quality should be like, how much reverb, and so on. We don’t know the route, if any, from that extraordinary device to the form of graphic notation used in a DAW. But it’s an exciting coincidence.” 

Oramics to Electronica is at the Science Museum, London, until 1 December 2012.

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