Weeeeoooo … EEEEEoooowhoooooooo ….

The theme song to Doctor Who is an ur-masterpiece of electronic music. When it came out in the 60s, the swirling, flanged tones must have sounded positively extraterrestrial. Even in today’s world of electronic music, they’re still quite unique; I’ve tried emulating some of those sounds with analog filters and utterly failed. In fact, I always wondered precisely how the engineers created such a weird-sounding tune.

Now I know — courtesy this excellent site that tells the story of the song’s creation! An excerpt:

The swooping sounds were created by manually adjusting the pitch of the oscillator to a carefully-timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds were created by filtering white noise to “colour” it, as were the “bubbles” and “clouds”. Examination of the original makeup tapes suggests that one of the two bass lines alone is a “concrete” sound, a plucked string sample. [snip]

Now the fun really started. They had all the sounds, all the notes, and now had to create the music. So each individual note was trimmed to length by cutting the tape, and stuck together in the right order. This was done for each “line” in the music - the main plucked bass, the bass slides (an organ-like tone emphasising the grace notes), the hisses, the swoops, the melody, a second melody line (a high organ-like tone used for emphasis), and the bubbles and clouds. This done, they ended up with a number of lengths of cut tape with the individual parts on. Most of these individual bits of tape, complete with edits every inch, still survive.

Chunks of the original tape still survive?? Now I’m going to spend years restlessly combing Ebay in hopes of finding one.

(Thanks to Music Thing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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