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Adventures in space, time and sound

Doctor Who, the longest running science fiction programme in the world hit the big 50 this month. Fans looked for previous incarnations and favourite villains but also hoped the sound design would do justice to the show's history of innovative audio.

Even hiding out in the furthest reaches of the universe or history was probably not enough to avoid the fact that this November marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. And any recluses would know the Time Lord was arriving because of the insistent, electronic grinding noise made by his craft, the TARDIS. This also underlines the importance sound has played in the programme since the first episode was broadcast on 23 November 1963.

The anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, brought together three Doctors – current incumbent Matt Smith, his immediate predecessor David Tennant and veteran actor John Hurt as a previously unseen incarnation of the character – and gave a nod to this heritage.

The opening featured both the original titles and theme music, composed by Ron Grainer and arranged electronically by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

This creative process was seen fleetingly in the BBC drama about the early days of the show, An Adventure in Space and Time. Derbyshire (played extravagantly by Sarah Winter) was shown trailing lengths of tape round the Maida Vale studios and demonstrating how the TARDIS sound was made, although it was her unmentioned colleague Brian Hodgson who created it by scraping a house key along piano strings, slowing down the result and then processing it.

The TARDIS effect featured heavily in The Day of the Doctor, with three Time Lords each using his craft to help save their home planet of Galifrey. From its revival in 2005 the number of tracks used for action sequences and atmospheres has grown considerably. “Audience expectation has got higher through the sound in movies like Transformers so we keep trying to innovate and add to the excitement of the script,” dubbing mixer Tim Ricketts comments.

Ricketts says the growing use of CGI in Dr Who to have computer graphics and holograms in the background of scenes calls for atmos effects underneath the main dialogue has added to the amount of track-laying required. “The sound has really moved on since 2005,” he explains. “Then we were archiving 8 to 10TGb Pro Tools sessions but for the anniversary programme it was 66.6Gb, which was scary,” he says.

Doctor Who is produced in Wales and Ricketts and his audio colleagues – including sound effects editor Paul Jefferies and Foley editor Jamie Talbutt – work in facilities at Broadcasting House in Cardiff. Ricketts mixes on a 24-fader AMS Neve DFC desk, which is connected to Pro Tools over MADI.

Surround sound has also influenced how the audio is prepared and mixed. Ricketts says that eight years ago only the final mix for DVD release was in 5.1. “These days there are foreign sales with 5.1 effects and M&E as well as stereo WAV,” he observes. “So now we set up for 5.1, which has added a few more Gigs on the disks we use.”

The Day of the Doctor was shot in 3D and broadcast simultaneously both on TV and in cinemas round the world on 23 November this year. Standard episodes of Doctor Who are mixed in five days. Ricketts had two weeks for the longer anniversary show but says there was the pressure of finishing by 12 October so all the deliverables could be made ready for international distribution.

BBC Wales has a Dolby accredited dubbing theatre to ensure the finished mix sounded right, and because he was aware it would be heard in 1500 cinemas worldwide, Ricketts took it to Dolby’s headquarters in Wooton Bassett and played it in the preview theatre there. The show was also prepared in accordance with the EBU R128 loudness standard, using Nugen monitoring software.

Ricketts says working with 3D was more complicated in terms of laybacks; the Pro Tools system was linked to an Avid ISIS storage system, which in turn gave access to the stereoscopic video footage. He comments that this allowed him to think about what sound sequences to concentrate on to add to the “3D-ness” of the visuals.

A standout, blockbuster-style example is when the Doctor’s arch-foe, the Daleks, are blown out of a painting that is in fact a portal to another time and place. Ricketts highlights a more subtle scene between John Hurt and Billie Piper, who appears as former companion Rose Tyler, albeit in the form of a machine interface. The two are in a shack in an alien landscape, with the sound of wind and cicadas in the background.

The episode featured several sequences shot on location, with audio recorded by Deian Humphreys. Dialogue editor Darran Clement praises Humphreys for the overall quality of his recordings and in particular being able to place small wireless mics where they won’t be seen but will get the best signal. “We try to use as much of the original track as possible, partly because it’s not easy to match a performance in ADR, particularly when actors have been playing off each other,” Clement comments.

Clement prepares the dialogue, using a range of plug-ins to deal with any problems. He explains that CEDAR is used for broadband noise reduction and the iZotope RX3 for de-humming, de-clicking and dealing with lip smacks. For what he describes as the “middle ground” he employs the Waves WNS noise suppressor.

ADR editor Matthew Cox works alongside Clement and logs and then records whatever needs to be re-recorded. He also works on some of the creature effects. In Day of the Doctor he used mashed up kiwi fruit and bananas to provide the gloopy, somewhat sickening shapeshifting sound of the Zygons. The voices of these creatures were performed by Nicholas Briggs, who is also, with his trusty ring modulator, the voice of the Daleks.

Briggs appeared briefly in An Adventure in Space and Time as Peter Hawkins, the voice artist who first uttered the Daleks’ battle cry of “Exterminate!”. The drama was the first project to be mixed in Molinare’s newly refurbished 7.1 dubbing theatre. Tracks were laid up on a Pro Tools 10 HDX2 system and mixed by Nigel Squibbs on an Euphonix S5 Fusion. Squibbs acknowledges that this “may sound like overkill for such a project” but as it was produced in 5.1, the equipment “allowed for spectacular dynamic variations”.

Sound designer Tony Gibson says that Delia Derbyshire “was always in my mind when I was designing the sounds”, adding that what she created at the time with the equipment at her disposal was “incredible”. Gibson applied various modern plug-ins and applications to emulate some of that equipment, as well as having access to the Radiophonic Workshop sound effects, supplied by archivist Mark Ayres. “I was able to recreate and sample those to be used in the show to make it as authentic as possible but keeping the modern quality of them,” Gibson says. He adds that dialogue editor Roger Dobson worked with crowd artists to shoot “a lot of ADR” that went behind the studio and set sequences to give them “an authentic feel”.

With the knowledge and notorious nitpicking talents of the devoted Doctor Who fans, that was probably a wise move.

Watch The Day of the Doctor
Watch An Adventure in Space and Time