Sunday, April 26, 2009
"The original 1963 recording of the Doctor Who theme music is widely regarded as a significant and innovative piece of electronic music, recorded well before the availability of commercial synthesizers. Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used musique concrète techniques to realize a score written by composer Ron Grainer. Each and every note was individually created by cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down segments of analogue tape containing recordings of a single plucked string, white noise, and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators which were used for calibrating equipment and rooms, not creating music. The swooping melody and pulsating bass rhythm was created by manually adjusting the pitch of oscillator banks to a carefully-timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds, "bubbles" and "clouds", were created by cutting tape recordings of filtered white noise.
Once each sound had been created, it was modified. Some sounds were created at all the required pitches direct from the oscillators, others had to be repitched later by adjusting the tape playback speed and re-recording the sound onto another tape player. This process continued until every sound was available at all the required pitches. To create dynamics, the notes were re-recorded at slightly different levels.
Each individual note was then trimmed to length by cutting the tape, and stuck together in the right order. This was done for each "line" in the music - the main plucked bass, the bass slides (an organ-like tone emphasising the grace notes), the hisses, the swoops, the melody, a second melody line (a high organ-like tone used for emphasis), and the bubbles and clouds. Most of these individual bits of tape making up lines of music, complete with edits every inch, still survive.
This done, the music had to be "mixed". There were no multitrack tape machines, so rudimentary multitrack techniques were invented: each length of tape was placed on a separate tape machine and all the machines were started simultaneously and the outputs mixed together. If the machines didn't stay in sync, they started again, maybe cutting tapes slightly here and there to help. In fact, a number of "submixes" were made to ease the process - a combined bass track, combined melody track, bubble track, and hisses. Eventually, the piece was finished.
Grainer was amazed at the resulting piece of music and when he heard it, famously asked, "Did I write that?". Derbyshire modestly replied "Most of it". Unfortunately, the BBC — who wanted to keep members of the Workshop anonymous — prevented Grainer from getting Derbyshire a co-composer credit and a share of the royalties."