Via Chip Collection comes a charming documentary on the production of the 1980 remake of the classic Doctor Who TV theme, by BBC composer Peter Howell. You have to enjoy seeing the Yamaha CS-80 and ARP Odyssey in action. It’s also striking to me how accessible these keyboards made their synth parameters, in contrast to the vast majority of modern synths — either hardware or software. You could really just dial up sounds. (Getting it perfect on multi-track tape, though, took 5 1/2 weeks, though they amusingly have Mr. Howell mime playing along with the polished end take.)

Giving all the credit to Ron Grainer seems a little unfair; while Grainer composed the melody, most of the features of the Doctor Who theme itself were in fact the work of gifted pioneer Delia Derbyshire. Whereas Howell could actually play parts live, Derbyshire had a much harder task: painstakingly piecing the sounds out of repeat passes of tape, with only the simplest test tone generators and processors to produce sounds. Ironically, I think there was a far greater gap in the way synthesizer sounds were produced between 1963 and 1980 than 1980 and 2007, even if Howell brags about a “very modern synthesizer” that can play “8 notes at a time.” It’s cheaper now, but programming most synth patches hasn’t changed in the least. In fact, the CS-80 had more accessible hardware for programming, and never had to contend with OS X updates. Out of tune slightly? Erm, yes … but that’s cool, right? (Better add that to your software emulation. I’ll make no argument for superiority of value or weight. And I’ll make myself feel better by routing through some digital effects.)

See my two year-old roundup, though many of the sound links are now broken:
Doctor Who Theme: Behind the Scenes, Hear the Themes

  • BassTooth

    thank god for automation.

  • Stabilizer

    This clip of Delia in action makes me A) Grateful for all the tech I have to hand and B) Gutted that I have all the tech I have to hand.

    Take note of the early beat matching.. Delia for DJ pioneer status!

  • Peter Kirn

    That's great. This calls for a second entry.

    I have to say, there were some fantastically talented people at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop all around, and over several generations of producers. Now that equipment isn't such an issue any more, perhaps what we need are so impromptu radiophonic workshops of composers and sound artists and musicians. :)

  • Niall

    I remember the Saturday morning I first saw/heard the title sequence with the new Howell music; the older brudder and I were gobsmacked by how aggressive and rocking it sounded. I've got nothing but admiration for the Workshop's many, distinguished luminaries {and am thrilled to see Daphne Oram finally getting the recognition she deserved when she was alive}, but Peter Howell always stood out for his rocking synth tunes. He was like the Radiophonic Jan Hammer, I guess.

    The workshop deserves a full week of CDM coverage, IMHO, even if it's not very digital at all. If you haven't heard those compilation CDs {or ten-inch vinyl on Rephlex!}, the library cuts or those fantastic _Dr. Who_ soundtracks, like Malcom Clarke's astounding "Sea Devils", you're missing out large.

  • Niall

    Now that equipment isn’t such an issue any more, perhaps what we need are so impromptu radiophonic workshops of composers and sound artists and musicians.

    Checking one's ego at the door and jamming as often and as with many different people as possible is a great start. I sometimes wish I could grok software solutions as well as I do hardware ones; traveling would be a lot easier and leave hands free for six-packs.

  • Niall


    C'mon, give us a means to edit, already 😉

  • Ronin

    Fantastic find- it was nice seeing how it was actually composed.

  • d mullins

    Regarding Grainer's composing the theme (this is from wikipedia, so you know, grain of salt and all):

    "Grainer was so impressed with Delia Derbyshire's electronic realisation of his score (which remained the standard version of the Doctor Who theme for 18 years) that he is reputed to have said on hearing it, "Did I write that?". He also offered to split his royalty with her, but this was prevented by BBC bureaucracy."

  • Guy

    Cool…interesting and inspiring.

    Give us some more…please


  • Stabilizer

    @d Mullins…

    – On first hearing it Grainer was tickled pink: "Did I really write this?" he asked. "Most of it," replied Derbyshire. –



  • Carl Lumma

    Awesome! I loved this as a kid. Still do. Great to see how it was done. Of course the original theme was even more amazing in some ways. I remember thinking as a teenager that it couldn't be that old. I'm also quite fond of the Orbital remix of that one. -Carl

  • time lord

    I'm inspired every time I hear old Radiophonic work and as I grew up in the UK many of the themes to (mainly) kids shows came out of their studios.

    Don't forget to check out the white Noise album that Delia was involved in.

    I can't say where I got it but I do have the multi track parts of the original Dr Who theme, and when you break it down to each individual element it sounds absolutely amazing.

  • furiousball

    Holy moly, thank God for automation envelopes, sequencers, and all the other doodads these folks inspired!

    • Tomer Feiner

      In fact, even Peter Howell was thankful when they became available – According to an interview I read, until the mid ’80s, at the end of every work day, after most employees went home, Howell would lean next to a tape recorder in his studio in the RW and say into the mic: “Attack – 4, Decay – 2, Sustain – 5, Release – 3…” and so on.

  • Niall

    Don’t forget to check out the white Noise album that Delia was involved in.

    Not just Delia, but David Vorhaus, and Brian Hodgson, too. White Noise was the Radiophonic supergroup.

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  • Ryan

    At the same time Derbyshire almost gets too much credit as she was ably assisted by many people at the Radiophonic Workshop. Add to that a lot of what people might think are Derbyshire creations were always part of the score created by Grainer. Derbyshire herself said that Howell's version was closer to the original Grainer score than hers.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Ryan: Yes, but my sense is the general atmosphere at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was collaborative. And certainly Derbyshire was one of the major wizards, technologically and artistically. Part of what was innovative was that there was the kind of collective activity there, though, so I don't think this diminishes either her importance or the essential nature of cooperation there.

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  • vlad

    what settings does peter use to make the bom ba bom sound and do they work on the cs80 v-vst synth?

    • Tomer Feiner

      It’s probably one of the “Funky” presets – And he played it in an unusual manner compared to later (and also earlier) themes – Even the main bassline had 2 layers (nearly every theme, including Howell’s, has yet another bassline layer, that adds grace notes to the bassline before swooping up to play the note of the pattern). – See here:

  • http://themakingofthedrwhotheam robert o'brien

    to who it may consern please could you bring back the making of the dr who theame becourse i like it so much also i like the way thay do it all so please please bring it back i dont know why it was taken off in the first place

    it was so good

    thanks rob xxxxx

  • Synth lover

    the TARDIS sound is making with a frontdoor key stroking on a piano snare