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Radiophonic Workshop live: back in time with the future

Members of the influential electronic music grouping have left the fastness of their studios and taken to the road, performing classic tracks alongside new compositions

Many lives, faces and years ago, a small group of pioneering academics, engineers, mavericks and eccentrics made music and sounds the likes of which mere mortals had never heard before. They worked mostly individually amid an array of technologies both old and – at the time – new in a strange building somewhere in the Maida Vale constellation. The fruits of their labours reached a wide audience, but the true value of the work was only full appreciated by obsessives and enthusiasts – often strange young men – who were similarly removed from the world, listening in the safe confines of their bedrooms.

Today, members of the Radiophonic Workshop (RWS) are performing their music live to audiences that include the grown-up versions of the people who once rarely set foot outside their doors. So far this year, Workshop stalwarts Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell, Roger Limb and Dick Mills, with composer and RWS archivist Mark Ayres and drummer and percussionist Kieran Pepper, have performed at a variety of venues, including the Glastonbury and Camp Bestival festivals and the University of Chichester, which hosted a day dedicated to the history and legacy of the ‘group’.

Where once they made music and sounds as individuals, these technicians-cum-musicians are now playing together, using modern computer programs, keyboards and sequencers to perform tracks that were originally painstakingly assembled on quarter-inch tape, tone generators and early synthesisers. Old technology has not been left behind completely, with two Tascam reel-to-reel machines playing a prominent part in the show. A stereo 32 is for pre-prepared clips and loops and a four-track 34 “occasionally plays in some quad premixes”, according to Ayres, who is musical director on the tour and also triggers illustrative video clips. “We’d use Studers if we could carry the things,” he adds.

The RWS is performing a mixture of tracks from a variety of BBC productions that benefited from its involvement, including The Changes, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (both Kingsland), The Body in Question (Howell’s vocoder-based Greenwich Chorus), Out of the Unknown and Doctor Who, the last two highlighting the enduring influence of Delia Derbyshire. There is also new material that will feature on the group’s forthcoming album and a version of Telstar, written and originally produced by another electronic music pioneer, Joe Meek.

As befits something that was not originally conceived to be performed live, the RWS shows are mixed front of house by an engineer with a studio background. Mark Phythian started his career at Amazon Studios in Liverpool in 1983 and later went freelance. Phythian was introduced to Paddy Kingsland by producer-mixer Danton Supple at the Workshop’s 2009 gig at the Roundhouse in London. “He asked me to help them with their live shows,” he says. “The Radiophonic Workshop was the reason I became an engineer but I said I didn’t do live sound. Paddy said, ‘You’re an engineer and you know how our old stuff sounds.’”

This convinced Phythian, who says the FOH mix is “fairly easy to do” and everything “worked out well”. This relative ease is, he says, because “much of the hard work has been done in the pre-mix stage”. The RWS has taken advantage of modern software to prepare and playback many of the layers of sound that characterise its music.

A Behringer X32 digital console is used on-stage in conjunction with Peter Howell’s Mac, running MainStage, to premix all the group’s on-stage synths, tape machines and other sources down to stereo groups, witch are fed to the front of house desk. Ayres’ Mac, loaded with Logic and handling the 5.1 surround feeds, busses through the Behringer, which is also used to feed personal monitor mixers, connected through a Mark of the Unicorn interface. Ayres says he also does “a bit of onstage mixing” as part of the performance.

FireWire is used for interfacing the digital parts of the show through two stage boxes, with feeds delivered for any processing such as equalisation, dynamics, reverb and overall level control. So far on the tour, Phythian and the RWS have been working with the front of house desk and loudspeaker rig provided at the venues. “Essentially, the main audio is done on Peter’s and Mark’s Macs,” he says. “If I had everything on separate faders on the FOH desk it would be a nightmare. I still have to do quite a bit of fader riding, though.”

The Logic program is used to control the surround aspects. Phythian says this is only a “small area” of show, although what does feature makes a strong impact. “It’s more like a big hi-fi,” he explains, “with more stereo in the front and wispy or punchier bits in the surrounds. It’s all about creating an experience.” The cinema convention of a centre channel comes into play during the performance of Kingsland’s Brighton Pier from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which features video and dialogue from the second episode of the TV series (in which the pier in question is clearly identified as being at Southend-on-Sea, Essex).

Ahead in time and space for the Radiophonic Workshop is the idea to bring in a second X32 desk for front of house mixing and the long-awaited album. In the meantime, the Regeneration Tour continues and made a pre-Christmas manifestation at BFI Southbank for a 5.1 celebration of the group’s contribution to TV science fiction.