Doctor Who's sonic pioneers to turn internet into giant musical instrument

The Radiophonic Workshop has always broken new sonic ground, from the Doctor Who theme to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now they’re at it again – this time using the internet as a musical instrument.

A performance of Latency will take place at a special online event on 22 November using a technique inspired by lockdown Zoom calls. The band includes composers from the original BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which created soundtracks for most BBC shows from the 60s to the 90s and influenced generations of musicians from Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield to Aphex Twin, Orbital and Mary Epworth.

The idea [of playing the internet] reflected our time,” said workshop member Peter Howell. “We’re all subject to the internet now in a way that we never thought we would be. And Bob and Paddy came up with an idea that is literally using what we’re all relying on for a creative purpose, using something that we’ve all taken for granted but in an artistic way.”

Bob and Paddy are Bob Earland and Paddy Kingsland, who have been trying to work out how to make music together while being forced to stay at home during lockdown. Bands and orchestras have struggled to perform live online during the pandemic, and most have pre-recorded shows because it is almost impossible to synchronise instruments in different locations.

The internet has an unpredictable natural lag, or latency, caused by the milliseconds it takes for electrical signals from one computer to reach another, as anyone using Zoom has experienced.

The trick that Earland and Kingsland discovered was that they could extend the internet’s delay from a few milliseconds into several seconds. Instead of trying to play at the same time, the Radiophonic Workshop will play one after another – in sequence, rather than in parallel.

“We had the bright idea of using that latency to make a loop of music,” Earland said. “The sound gets sent to someone, and they add to it, and it keeps going round. So you’re not relying on everyone being on the same clock.”

Roger Limb, who began his career as a TV announcer and once found Marc Bolan outside his BBC Maida Vale studio listening at the keyhole, said: “What I enjoyed was waiting to hear what I’ve done on the previous round, coming up in about five seconds, listening to it, and then reacting to myself.”

Howell, who is also a lecturer in film and TV music, said: “It does feel like live playing, it’s just that every person has a little bubble of time in which they’re playing live.”

The performance comes the day before 23 November, the anniversary of the first transmission of Doctor Who in 1963 which is also Delia Derbyshire Day, in honour of the Radiophonic Workshop’s leading light, who created the sound of the show’s famous theme tune.

Derbyshire, who died in 2001, would have recognised the internet latency technique since she created echoes and sounds using reel-to-reel tape machines.

Kingsland, who created most of the sounds for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio plays, said that although Derbyshire, who studied maths and music at Cambridge, was often portrayed as very intellectual, she was also intuitive. “She was very accomplished using the gear, the old tape machines. And she was very good at the things that happened by chance, the happy accidents.”

Derbyshire’s reputation as a pioneer of electronic music has continued to grow. Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes premiered at the London film festival last month, and BBC4 will revisit her work in a forthcoming documentary about the Doctor Who theme.

An archive of her recordings – which she often tried to destroy but were rescued by her close friend and colleague Brian Hodgson – is now at the University of Manchester.

“She grew up in Coventry during the war, and she told me the sounds she heard as a child were clogs on cobbles and air raid sirens and bombs dropping,” said Mark Ayres, the Radiophonic Workshop’s archivist. “And she tried to make something beautiful out of that kind of sound for the rest of her life. It’s rather magical I think.” Paul McCartney agreed. The Beatle sought out Derbyshire and Hodgson, to ask her to do an electronic backing track for Yesterday.

Although that didn’t come off, she did ask McCartney to make what Ayres described as the only remaining unreleased Beatles song.

“Delia was very involved in the [1960s] rave scene – she had been working with Yoko Ono,” Ayres said. Derbyshire asked McCartney to contribute some music to a happening at the Roundhouse in London.

“At the end of one of their sessions at Abbey Road, Paul McCartney reminded the band they were supposed to do this piece for this rave.” John Lennon gave a salty response, but they set the tape running, Ayres said.

Members of the Beatles at Abbey Road studios in 1967.
Members of the Beatles at Abbey Road studios in 1967. They produced a piece for the Radiophonic Workshop team. Photograph: David Magnus/Rex/Shutterstock

“They basically ran around the studio hitting things and swearing. After 15 minutes, they stopped the tape and sent it off. And that was Carnival of Light.”

The tape was retrieved afterwards. “We know that the tape still survives, but it’s in Paul McCartney’s possession. And I think they’ve all listened to it a couple of times and decided that’s the best place for it.”

Latency will be performed along with other Radiophonic Workshop compositions on their YouTube channel at 8pm on 22 November in support of Delia Derbyshire Day and The Girls’ Network.