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BBC Radiophonic Workshop Meets Soft Machine

BBC Radiophonic
Workshop Meets
Soft Machine

On August 17th, 1970 the Soft Machine collaborated with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, legendary for its electronic music and soundtracks, and best known for Delia Derbyshire’s realization of Ron Grainger’s theme Doctor Who (1963). Subsequent sessions at Olympic Sound Studio occurred on August 27th, and again at the Radiophonic Workshop, Maida Vale, London, on September 1st. The complete program was broadcast October 6th, 1970 on the Radio 3 program ‘Study Session’. The following transcript, taken from a lo-fidelity off-air recording, illustrates the willingness of Soft Machine to experiment with electronic effects in their musical sphere.

In my last program we looked at the techniques and facilities used in the modern recording studio. In this program were going to find out how musicians set about using them during the recording session. We invited the Soft Machine to collaborate with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and to create a piece of music especially for this programme. So now you are invited to sit in on the various stages of the production sequence. The first thing is to get everybody together to investigate the equipment in the Radiophonic Workshop, and that is where we are now. It’s quite a large meeting; there are the four members of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt the drummer, Hugh Hopper, bass guitar, Mike Ratledge, keyboard, and Elton Dean, alto saxophone. Then there’s Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from the Radiophonic Workshop, and sound technician Paddy Kingsland and myself, I’m going to produce the piece of music, and produce the program, David Epps.

The idea is to decide on the musical material to be used and what electronic effects can be incorporated into the piece. Also we need to decide on the method of recording, so the best use can be made at the sixteen track facilities at Olympic Sound Studio. At the moment the group is listening to its taped sound samples, in fact, you may have noticed a snatch of Doctor Who music a moment ago. After this they’ll be investigating some of the equipment. And I know one of the things that will interest them is the VCS3 Machine, or the voltage control studio. This is a fairly small but extremely versatile piece of equipment. It produces sound from oscillators. It generates a wide range of effects trough its interaction of its three basic sounds: The Sine Wave, The Square Wave and this which is called Noise (all demonstrated sequentially). Using these an unlimited number of sounds can be produced, much in the same way that colour’s can be blended from the primaries red, yellow and blue (demonstrated example). In addition of course pitch can be varied, by slide or step. And the various characteristics of a sound, its attack and decay for instance, can be modified by the Voltage Control system. The possibilities in fact seem endless. All this investigation will obviously take some time, so we’ll brake off now until we’ve finished experimenting here. And then I’ll ask David to talk to the group, to find out what effects they’ve decided to use.

David - You’ve decided on what piece to use. I believe it’s even got a title. Robert, what’s it called?

Robert - It’s called Eammon Andrews. It was conceived as a link piece, between numbers, that’s how it started out.

David - You play long pieces with links in between.

Robert - We used the name Eammon Andrews as an affectionate, but we hope, witty reference.

David - Now its original shape, was what, what sort of structure, Mike?

Mike - The structure hasn’t changed that much. It started off with a very simple tune in 5/4, then used to have a passage in 9/8, which then goes back into the reprise of the tune. We’ve included the 9/8 section in the beginning, as well as in the middle, to give it some kind of shape and form.

David - And you used to use how many instruments?

Mike - Three

David - So for this you’ve added the sax.

Mike - Yeah

David - Right. Now wondering around this afternoon you’ve seen all kinds of equipment, and I believe you’ve come up with three things you want to use in the new version, Mike.

Mike- Mine is playing the keyboard through the VCS3, with two tones tuned an interval of a tri-tone.

David - Well let’s listen to that first


David - Now Hugh, you’ve chosen a rather different device, in fact one where the frequency or pitch of the note is changed. I better explain what happens first. If I understand it right, the original sound is altered in pitch, either up or down, and at the same time the sound of it changes. So that when this is used in conjunction with the delayed tape echo, the treated sound gets fed round and round and round in a circle and it sets up a sort of spiral of sound. So every single note you play you get this spiral effect.


Hugh - The actual effect doesn’t really sound like a bass guitar at all. You get a lot of high harmonics coming off. It’s difficult to play the original because you hear all these different notes coming off of it. I suppose you would get used to it eventually.

David - Elton, the same with you, saxophone with a different sort of frequency shift device.
Elton - Yeah, one doesn’t have to play very much with it going on. It does the work for you, and on this piece with a long bar you get the phrase at the beginning of the bar. The machine will do the work for the rest of the bar.


David - Well, we’ve obviously got plenty of new techniques and sounds in this new piece, so I better leave you all to think about them before the next session, which is down at Olympic Studios next Wednesday.

(the program resumes with music under speech)

David - As you can no doubt hear we are down at the studio. Let’s just find out what stage we have reached with the creation of this piece of music? Mike.

Mike - So we got the basic structure straight, and the areas that we’re going to leave free so that we can add electronic effects afterward. And the basic structure is very simple to allow for a kind of maximum use of the facilities we’ve got after we put down the basic track.

David - The basic track will consist of what?

Mike - It’s a very simple tune. It starts off with virtually acoustic bass, and piano, for which the electronic sound is going to modified later on, and more and more electronics are brought into it until it builds up, and then the tune comes in, which is in a different time signature, 5/4. It then goes into a freer area which is again in 9, comes back into the tune again, then ends up on this riff.

David - Have you formulated any ideas on what sort of distortion or electronic effects you’re going to use yet, or are we still working on ideas?

Mike - Well at the moment we’ve got various procedures that we know we’re going to use and maybe more will come up once we got the backing track done and the electric effects we want to use. I mean it might not work out so we’ll have to write something else. Things always get suggested when you are recording that won’t get suggested when you’re sitting around thinking about it.

David - Fine then, so we’re going to put the rhythm tracks down now. That’s drums, bass, organ. Anything from the sax or wind instrument at all? (inaudible group comment) Nothing yet that’s an interesting point (chuckles) So we’re going to start recording, on sixteen track, splitting up the instruments, drums, bass and organ. Let’s listen to what they’re going to put down first of all.

(The Soft Machine then performs Eammon Andrews, but the performance breaks down one minute later, and the band members discuss the arrangement. The performance resumes, but again breaks down as band members resume discussion regarding direction.)

David - We’ll obviously iron out these problems in due course. So when we’ve recorded a good rhythm track that everybody is happy with, I’ll play you some of it.

(the music resumes briefly)

David - It took 30 minutes to record this track to our satisfaction, and we used a layout as follows; track 1, bass drum; track 2, top kit drums, track 3, bass guitar; track 4, the VCS machine; track 5, electric piano. Now the next stage is to add a second bass line using a frequency shift device, then on another track we’ll add the saxophone on a different frequency shift. We demonstrated this effect at the Radiophonic Workshop you remember. When we reach this stage, I’ll play a section to you. The group will have heard it all of course, and then you can hear what they think about it. Here’s the first mix.

Now that you’ve all heard both the basic rhythm track, which I think you were very happy, and also the first mix with the bass and the saxophone added. It would be quite interesting I think to hear what you think about them. I rather sense that the mix isn’t what you’re after, Elton.

Elton - I didn’t like the bass track, it was sort of irrelevant to what was going on from the basic track.

David - Any reason why you don’t think it works?

Elton - Well it’s not (unintelligible), it was the way it was used probably more than anything else.

David - Hugh?

Hugh - Well in fact the trouble is that the actual notes that were being played by the bass are in strict time, and when you had the tape delay put on to that it delayed everything by a certain amount which produced on the top of the basic rhythm track a very sort of weird rhythmic thing. And there are certainly delays on the higher harmonics, you couldn’t really hear anything. It just became a mudded sound; it lost all the basic rhythm of it.

David - So what you want really is for the time of the delay to be altered for you and it would be easier then to play against it

Hugh - Yes, and I think the bass should be simpler phrases. At the time we did very similar phrases to the first basic track which is quite, quite a full rhythmic thing. And I think in the future we must do a much more simple thing.

David - Mike?

Mike - I agree, I think that was the problem, apart from the physical difficulty of actually having to play something and hear something completely different in the cans (headphones).

David - This takes a lot of getting used to?

Mike - Yeah.

David - Robert, it didn’t really affect you, but what did you think when you heard it?

Robert - I like the bass effect very much when I heard it on its own. You know I like to use something like that, that effect on the bass, but in a different way. When I heard the basic track, but together… they weren’t, you know…

David - Yes, putting the effect against the basic track, so you’ve got to match somehow and these two didn’t.

Robert - Yeah that’s what I thought.

David - Well there’s plenty more to do this afternoon then, so perhaps we’ll break for lunch, and start again at 2:15.

David - One of the things that came up in discussion over lunch was the VCS machine effects. It was thought we might be able to make some alteration in the electronic treatments, so it would help to blend them with the live treatments. Also, Hugh would like to improve the sound of the bass guitar, and add a rhythmic bass figure at the beginning of the piece using the frequency shift device. Mike wants to reinforce the tune by adding another track using the VCS machine again. And finally, Elton has several ideas for his saxophone track, stimulated by hearing the playback. So we’re now going to add these tracks. We’ll start by improving the bass sound. You’ll hear me adjusting the sounds of the bass and drums. OK Hugh let’s run the new track and hear you new bass sounds.

(one minute of music)

After this, for the introduction, we overdubbed the bass using the frequency shift device, and reinforce the tune on the VCS. Then we put down two new saxophone tracks as an alternative to the original take. One using the phase shift, and the other via the VCS, which is operated by Robert. Altogether we took about three hours to complete this overdubbing. But before hearing this let’s listen to what the group thinks of it.

Robert - I’ve always liked this unfinished piece, melodically, this piece of material. I wasn’t happy with the range of sounds available to us to play it, which is why I thought it was a good idea to use it here, because we’ve never have found out a way to fully realize what the potential of our material is. So now we’ve got a much more dense sound and now to explore the rhythmic interest of the effects, and having the saxophone on it too, as opposed to having it a trio piece. I think if we could do it live like this, this would be the way I’d actually choose to do it.

David - Hugh and Elton, your effects didn’t come off the first time. Do you feel it’s now how you would like them to sound? Hugh.

Hugh - Yeah, I think it’s much better. In fact I ended up on the first section, the introduction, just playing a very simple figure across the basic rhythm, but it was a style of figure that you actually hear the delay coming off, and it didn’t actually conflict too much with the basic track.

David - You’ve really got to plan ahead a lot to make the texture quite sparse from your point of view, cause you know that it’s at least going to be doubled if not more by the machinery you use.

Hugh - Yeah, I think it’s important to have somebody in the control box all the time, as one of the group, which will cause a difficulty if we’re all playing in the studio. But the way we did it, in fact Mike and Robert listened and checked out how it sounded.

David - And Elton when you played an enormous amount seemed to be added by the machine. Do you find this difficult to do?

Elton - No, I quite enjoyed putting it on. In a fashion it does work, If I’d been playing in thin images I don’t think it would’ve worked.

David - Can you predict to a certain extent what the combined sound is going to be after a time?

Elton - Umm, after a time, I’d have to spend much more time with the actual machine, got to learn it more. As it was it was more off the cuff than anything else.

David - Mike, how do you feel about any future plans? Can you make use of this sort of equipment and does it in fact extend you and inspire you?

Mike - I think it’s like any area of sound, you know, you can use them and you can use them well, but it takes a long time to familiarize yourself with the techniques, enough to actually not be victimized by the machinery that you’re playing with. I think in this case we were lucky, in it just about worked, but obviously if we’d had more time and we got to know the machine better, what we can do with it, it would have been a much more satisfactory result. And I hope we can, you know, use the equipment later on and get to know it.

Robert - Yeah, I’d say it worked. The possibilities of the machine are enormous and we knew we wouldn’t possibly be able to really do it justice on a sort of vast scale. All we could do is choose certain things that we had time to really familiarize ourselves with. Within that framework I was very happy with it.

David - I think we’ve all found this an extremely interesting project to work on, and I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing the group at work. Let’s end this program then with the final result of all our efforts. The first complete performance of the Soft Machine piece, Eammon Andrews.

[The Soft Machine Sound - An electronic Acoustic Experience Examined - published in 2009 by Henie Onstad Art Centre and Reel Recordings].