Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

This was an LP by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1968, that was later re-released as a CD in 2002.

For about 40 years the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used to produce music for TV and radio, often made out of just about anything other than actual musical instruments.

Historian Mark Ayres' CD sleeve-notes explain it far better than I ever could:

These pieces were painstakingly produced using techniques developed from the well-established art of musique concrète, techniques which can only be described as 'analogue sampling'. Each note was individually recorded onto magnetic tape, the playback speed altered so as to produce the correct pitch, copied to a new piece of tape, cut to length and spliced in order. Dynamics were created by copying the notes at slightly differing volumes... With multitrack tape unavailable until 1965 (and even then, rarely), multiple layers were created by repeatedly copying the tapes, or by manually synchronising a number of separate machines. The best takes were then edited together to create the final master recording. The result is that the works have a unique organic quality to them that is almost impossible to achieve in the 21st century world of digital sampling and computer editing. A work like Boys and Girls (composed as a network opener for BBC1 television) would have taken many hours of concentrated effort in 1968, whereas nowadays it would be the work of minutes – other than the many hours you would then have to spend programming the sterility out of the sequencing!

The result is music that sounds real enough, but made out of noises that bear no resemblance to anything I have ever heard in my short 38-year life. (except for on the BBC, obviously) In other words, as well as the potential to feel cosy, unfamiliar, or downright disturbing, much of this sounds authentically alien.

Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO is probably the weirdest track on here, (from an episode of Out Of The Unknown), but by far the most disquieting piece must be War Of The Worlds, which has been made out of human screams. *Brrrrrr*...

And yes, audio from Doctor Who is represented on here, the sleeve-notes from 2002 charmingly quipping that "...the record is not quite as Doctor Who free as we might like!" (this was before the show's revival in 2005, when it seemed that no-one at the BBC was allowed to publicly say anything positive about it. :) )

Also worthy of mention is the jingle for BBC Radio Sheffield, made entirely out of recordings of cutlery that had been forged there – now that's local programming for you!

However the award for the most bonkers track must surely go to the final one, fittingly entitled Time To Go. It starts off seriously enough – with the Greenwich pips – which then become manipulated into a tune, before getting blown-up and transformed into all manner of crazy sounds – and all in a mere twenty seconds!

Listening through to it all tonight, I had to wonder why there was so much tape-hiss present in places. Surely these archive recordings could have been cleaned-up a bit more, especially with someone as expert as Mark Ayres on the case?

Back to Ayres' sleeve-notes:

"Remastering recordings such as these places the engineer in a quandary. With current technology, it would be possible to almost completely remove most of the tape hiss, remake the slightly imperfect tape edits and so on, and it is true that modern ears attuned to rather cleaner sound might find such artefacts objectionable. But I feel that to go too far would be to betray the origins of these historic pieces. The varying levels of noise and the bump of a tape edit on the heads illuminate the techniques employed and the battles that were fought to commit the sound to tape. So I have opted for a very slight noise reduction to take off the top layer of hiss, the filtering of some objectionable mains hum at a couple of points, and the removal of static clicks. Then I left well alone."

I was so wrong - great call!

(available to sample and buy here)

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