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Inside the Audio of Doctor Who

By Kevin Hilton. Through the years, galaxies and countless adventures, Doctor Who – the character and the TV series – has changed and been reinvented.

Doctor Who first appeared in 1963, bringing travels through time and space, scary monsters and groundbreaking electronic music and sound effects to Saturday afternoon television. The adventures of the alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey ran until 1989. After a failed attempt to revive the character in 1996, the series was successfully relaunched in 2005.

The revival has entered its eleventh series with a new Doctor. This thirteenth incarnation has attracted a huge amount of attention and speculation: This is partly because, for the first time, the character is a woman (played by Jodie Whittaker); and partly because a new lead writer and executive producer—Chris Chibnall—is now in charge.

Also new to the team is composer Segun Akinola, who has rearranged the instantly recognizable signature tune and written a score that relies more on electronic instruments than orchestration. The theme, written by Ron Grainer, has gone back to its electronica roots and features elements from the original realization by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Audio may not be as obvious as it was back then, but it still plays an important part in the production, particularly with 5.1 surround. Sound designer/editor Harry Barnes oversees the audio team and sets the overall aural style of Doctor Who. Barnes joined the show in 2014 for the first series featuring the twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), replacing original sound effects editor Paul Jefferies, who was retiring from the BBC.

“During the handover, Paul showed me all the historic effects for villains such as the Daleks and the Cybermen and everything he had created since,” Barnes says. “Over the three Capaldi seasons I did, I got my head round it all and introduced my own elements.”

With the coming of a new Time Lord and show runner, Barnes says he had the opportunity to put more of his own designs into the show. The most significant of these were the interior sounds for the Doctor’s ship, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space). These correspond to the new design for inside of the craft, which changes for each regeneration.

“I’ve done a lot of film work and I thought the interior sound could be more cinematic,” Barnes says. “It’s a lot heftier than it was, but I remembered what Paul said to me—that the TARDIS responds to what is going on inside it. I’ve kept true to that, but added more guttural elements. When the Doctor first walks into the TARDIS, there is a low-end boom throughout the scene, with treatments of the original effect and treated breathing. I wanted to make it more living, and think of what the TARDIS’s role is in each scene.”

Something that won’t change, though, is the cloister bell, which is an integral part of the TARDIS interior. Similarly, the TARDIS take-off and landing effect, although, in its full form, it is an example of electronic sound as musical composition. This was created for the first-ever adventure 55 years ago by Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop. Hodgson famously scraped a key down the bass string of an old piano, slowed down the recording and added echo and noises from an oscillator.

Unlike Jefferies and some other members of the audio team, Barnes is freelance and based in London. “For my first series of Doctor Who, I lived in Cardiff for eight months,” he says. “Now I work in a room at BBC Elstree [just outside London] and only go to Cardiff for the mixing.” Barnes uses Avid Pro Tools Ultimate software on a Mac Pro running a HD native card, all linked to a Digidesign (Avid) 192 I/O interface. Monitoring is through five Genelec 8040A loudspeakers—without a subwoofer—and a Blue Sky Bass Management Controller.

Barnes says he pushed for 5.1 surround mixes on the last series of the Peter Capaldi era, which can be seen as part of his more cinematic style. Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” features some dramatic 5.1 moments, including when one of her three new companions, Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) encounters a portal from another world. The sound for this visual effect begins in the rear surround channels and is brought round to the front.

The Doctor usually has company while traveling; in recent times, this has typically been one companion, in the form of a capable young woman, with other characters occasionally coming along for the ride. This new series features three companions, as did the early adventures of the First Doctor (William Hartnell) in the ‘60s. Joining Ryan are his step-grandfather Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) and probationary police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill). This enlargement of the regular cast posed some problems for production mixer Deian Humphreys.

From his arrival on Doctor Who in 2012, during the time of the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), Humphreys went with the convention of miking every speaking actor in a scene. “I started with a Sound Devices 788 recorder,” he says, “which allowed me to mix eight mics and have ISOs. When I read the scripts of this series, I saw the biggest change was having three companions. With the people they bump into through the stories, that meant the track count was getting bigger and we needed more ISO tracks.”

On shoots, Humphreys has two mic booms, each with a Schoeps SuperCMIT shotgun. These have a two-channel output: a processed SuperCMIT signal on Channel 1 and an unprocessed (CMIT) signal on Channel 2. “I record both, which means one mic takes up two ISOs,” he explains. “That meant the four main characters took up eight channels before they met anyone else.” More capacity has been added by Humphreys using two 788s—one solely for 10 radio mics (Audio Limited TX2040s with Sanken COS-11 capsules), which feeds into the main recorder taking the outputs of two booms, plant mics and any other inputs. Humphreys tries to get all the dialogue from the booms, which are swung by Tam Shoring and Chris Goding, with the radio mics as “safety blankets.”

Doctor Who Travels With Sound Devices

In this way, Humphreys tries to ensure that dialogue editor Darran Clement has as much material from the shoot to work with. Clement started out on Who during tenth Doctor David Tennant’s tenure, as did Matthew Cox, who handles ADR and creature sound effects. While the intention is to use as much location sound as possible, ADR (automated dialogue replacement) plays a big part in Doctor Who production, both for dealing with any technical problems on the location recordings, inserting additional lines and adding treatments to the voices of actors playing aliens and creatures.

Cox says there is a balance between making a voice sound otherworldly and still being intelligible: “It’s more difficult processing dialogue because you have to understand the words. The script calls for something that can be understood, but also be convincing enough so we know it’s some kind of alien.” When it comes to less articulate monsters, which growl or hiss, Cox says he either gets a crowd actor to makes noises or does it himself.

Based at BBC Cardiff, Cox uses a wide range of plug-in processors to achieve the different effects required. “We’ve probably got more plug-ins than we need, but that gives us a whole lot of tools to play with,” he says. “I’m really liking Krotos Dehumaniser at the moment. We also use pitch shifting, Vocoders and delays. For robots and computers, I go back to the Waves Doubler, and their MondoMod is good for growling creatures.”

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Cox comments that the intention is to keep ADR, in terms of replacing lines, to a minimum. “Deian does an amazing job and maybe 85 percent of the show uses production sound,” he says. “But because this is science fiction and sometimes scenes are shot in the center of Cardiff, we have to get rid of any extraneous background noise. The TARDIS can also be quite difficult to record in because it’s made of wood. There’s also a need for exposition sometimes, so lines are added during scenes when an actor is facing away from the camera.”

Most of the audio team is used to creating sounds for things that do not exist in reality. In contrast, this is re-recording mixer Howard Bargroff’s debut series of Doctor Who and his first foray into science fiction. Most of his credits are for serious drama, including Broadchurch, which was created by Chris Chibnall and featured Jodie Whittaker. Bargroff says Chibnall and his co-executive producer Matt Strevens took him to dinner to discuss the new look of the show. “They said it was getting a new aspect ratio, which is more like feature films but looks amazing on mobile devices. To go with this the brief was to make the sound as big as humanly possible. Big screen, big sound.”

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Pre-mixing is at Bargroff’s Sonorouspost room within Goldcrest’s Soho audio facility. This is done in a single Pro Tools HDX2/Mac Pro system, despite there being what Bargroff describes as a “pretty healthy track count,” including approximately 500 voices. “It’s close to maxing out the machine,” he says. The final mix takes place in Cardiff, also on HDX.

Bargroff’s monitoring system is a PMC Twenty 22 rig, but he also uses a Samsung TV screen with integral loudspeaker to ensure the mix sounds right for television. Doctor Who has been mixed in 5.1 since the early days of the revived series, although it has not always been transmitted in the format. Surround has featured on DVD releases and cinema screenings of selected episodes. Bargroff says the series is mixed for 5.1 and stereo, plus matrixed LtRt. Episode four of Series 11, “Knock Knock,” had both a 5.1/stereo version and one in binaural, mixed by Darran Clement in BBC Cardiff’s dedicated 3D sound studio. At this point, there are no further plans for any binaural or immersive audio episodes.

Either way sound is still with the Doctor and her companions, even in space.