Towards the end of 2014, the Radiophonic Workshop released an album.
This was unusual for two reasons: first, because the Workshop – the BBC sound effects unit that brought the alien soundworld of synthesisers and tape machines into British living rooms for four decades through its work on programmes like Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and Tomorrow’s World – had closed down 15 years previously. Even when a gang of former members got back together in 2009 to form an eccentric and hugely popular live ensemble, with a combined age of over 300 and no TV commissions to be getting on with, a new album seemed unlikely.
The other unusual thing about Radiophonic Workshop is that you won’t have seen it in the shops. The reunited Workshop, comprising seasoned studio tinkerers Dick Mills, Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell along with archivist Mark Ayres and percussionist Kieron Pepper (formerly drummer for The Prodigy), recorded the album at Real World, the residential studio owned by Peter Gabriel, and released it at the end of 2014 through Society of Sound, an unusual scheme operated by the studio in partnership with the high-end speaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins.
For £33.95 a year (or free for B&W customers) subscribers get access to all the albums in the Society of Sound catalogue at lossless, 24 bit quality – equivalent to plugging your headphones straight into the desk before any compression or mastering takes place. So far the albums available include performances of Shostakovich, Berlioz and Brahms by the London Symphony Orchestra, a 50-minute exploration of subliminal messages by acid house originator A Guy Called Gerald, and an orchestral version Laura Mvula’s Sing To The Moon recorded at Abbey Road, where B&W provide the speakers. The acts are chosen collaboratively by B&W and Real World, which also functions as a label and as the headquarters of Womad festival. The audio files are so enormous – between 500 and 600Mb for an album – that they aren’t even supported by iTunes, which perhaps seems strange given that one of B&W’s best-selling products is an Apple-approved iPod dock. If you want the tracks on your iPod, you can download them in Apple Lossless formats, but essentially these releases are for self-styled connoisseurs of sound; audiophiles, in other words.
“We never ventured out from our ivory tower in Maida Vale, we were just locked in and told to get on with the programme”
Real World Studios occupies a renovated water mill set in rolling countryside a few miles from Bath; the Bybrook river rushes through a weir at the edge of the grounds and surrounds the huge main studio, known as “the big room”, in a placid moat. Musicians hole up in this secluded spot for days or weeks at a time with room and board laid on, and by all accounts it’s an ideal place to get creative, as Workshop member and master tape manipulator Dick Mills recounts. “My immediate reaction when I walked into that big studio with the wonderful view of the millpond and all that business was ‘I feel inspired’,” he tells me. “They said, oh, that’s a good sign, and I said yes – you could have a really good train set in here!”
In fact, Mills was soon packed off to a back room where he and a young studio apprentice got to grips with a couple of tape machines. “But with my time lapse of being retired for over 20 years, I didn’t know how to plug them up to a mixing desk. The engineer came in shaking like a leaf, so I said what’s the matter? He said, ‘Well, I know that that over there is a tape machine, and there’s two of them, cos I’m quite bright – but I don’t know how they work and how you aim to use them’! But we had a magnificent afternoon doing things, and at the end of the day he said, ‘That was as near damn it to a masterclass as I’m likely to get.’”
Given full rein over the big room and more synths, gadgets and machines than hands to play them on, the Workshop was marching to its own tune for the very first time. “We never ventured out from our ivory tower in Maida Vale, we were just locked in and told to get on with the programme, and did they want it good, or did they want it tomorrow? We were always working to deadlines,” says Mills.
“But it was delightful to see people piece [the music] together, and expect to arrive at a conclusion but not be quite sure how the hell we were gonna get there. So it was very much – well, I hate to use buzzwords, but it was very much organic. It sort of developed by what happened, and then it developed into something else, and we ended up with quite a few minutes, or probably a couple of hours, of material.”
The album is as quirky and charming as you’d expect from a former TV sound effects lab, ranging from tongue-in-cheek sci-fi pastiche to ambient, textural improvisations, alongside versions of older compositions like Delia Derbyshire’s “robot hymn” ‘ZiwZih ZiwZih Oo-Oo-Oo’ and, naturally, an epic three-part Doctor Who suite. After a few months of being available only to Society of Sound members, the album is now expected to get a wider release. It’s a disarmingly good deal: B&W and Real World give musicians the opportunity to make a record that would never otherwise have been viable, plus access to one of the best studios in the country, and at the end of a three-month exclusivity period the artists can do what they want with the results. While Society of Sound effectively funds the project as a major label would, it doesn’t retain ownership of the recordings or dictate the next step. But with corporate patronage of the arts increasingly coming under the microscope, from the big money deals behind TV and advertising syncs to Red Bull’s tightening grip on the dance underground, you may wonder what’s in it for the companies throwing money at the project – and is there a catch for the artists?
B&W’s brand director Danny Haikin says he doesn’t see Society of Sound as advertising for their products. The British company, which was founded by 1966 and still makes some of its covetable, sculpture-like speakers in Sussex, barely needs advertising – if you’re ready to drop a few thousand pounds on a pair of speakers, you’re likely aware that B&W have what you need. But the problem for Haikin is that once they’ve taken several thousands pounds from a customer in exchange for a piece of kit that’s designed to last a lifetime, they don’t tend to hear from them again. Society of Sound, he explains, is the company’s way of creating some extra value for customers; a special club.
“Society of Sound came about to create an archive of truly exceptionally produced music,” says Haikin. “We did that primarily to give something really valuable to thank our customers for their patronage – bearing in mind we have never really advertised extensively, so what success we have experienced has been largely due to the fan base we have been fortunate enough to create. Fortunately one of those fans happened to be Peter Gabriel,” who helped them to build an eclectic archive of music via Real World.
The project is also intended to give musicians a chance to work on an idea they wouldn’t ordinarily have the facility to explore, as Laura Mvula did with her orchestral album, recorded with Dutch ensemble Metropole Orkest at Abbey Road; the luxurious, string-laden overhaul is especially suited to all that top-of-the-range equipment. And while classical music has long been audiophile territory, Will Gregory’s Society of Sound project flips the script completely by translating Bach, Handel and Messiaen for an orchestra of Moog synthesizers.
“These instruments were designed to be expressive and have a very musical interface”
The Goldfrapp producer is the most recent artist to have been resident at Real World, working on an album with Portishead’s Adrian Utley, harpist Ruth Wall, Adding Machine frontwoman and solo artist Hazel Mills and several other West Country-based composers and musicians, as he explained over lunch in the studio’s in-house kitchen. “The idea was to try and play music that people like Wendy Carlos were doing in the late ‘60s – not as a studio project, but to actually play it live. Because after all, a lot of the music that she was interpreting was music to be played live,” says Gregory.
Like most orchestral instruments, the Moog is monophonic – it plays a single voice, or part, at a time – and when arranged on stage with each synthesizer separately amplified, the Moog orchestra functions much in the same way as its acoustic equivalent. “It came from the idea that these instruments were designed to be expressive and have a very musical interface, and therefore you would get so much more doing it that way than you would by just layering them up in the studio, which is what was originally done,” he explains.
Gregory’s interest in the particular qualities of analogue sound and acoustic recording, alongside the Radiophonic Workshop’s natural affinity with the most essential properties of sound, might suggest that they share in common an audiophile’s ear when it comes to home listening. Are they picky about how they play their own records?
The best fidelity is “not always the same as the best music,” reckons Gregory. “If I’m listening for high quality of sound then no, I don’t think iPods are so useful, but obviously if you’re listening for musical ideas, if you want to be able to get access to things quickly, that’s great.
“The most hi-fi recording tends to be jazz and, dare I say, easy listening. Some of the Blue Note records have that quality, and of course a lot of classical music tends to be uncompressed – or at least compressed to the point that you can’t hear that it’s been squashed at all. It depends slightly on what you’re going for.”
The way we hear music can be as much down to our talent for listening and the way our brain perceives and interprets sounds as the quality of our hi-fi. “For example, I remember growing up with The Beatles and I can remember all the parts to ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt Pepper, and I listened to that again the other day and the backing vocals are out of tune, the tuning is terrible, it’s out of time – but I don’t remember any of that, because when I was listening to it as a non-professional music maker what was coming across was the melodies, the ideas, the lyrics. And that would come across on a Fisher Price kids’ [radio]. But funnily enough I had an experience with My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, which is a fantastically detailed record, where I first heard it on some crappy domestic system when I was a student and then I heard it again later and literally got twice the information out of it! So certain things do need that depth, otherwise you are missing stuff.”
Mvula is more strident about the importance of sound quality. “The soul of a record goes deep, and when it’s compressed to high heaven it just doesn’t cut it,” she tells me. “That extra bit of effort makes all the difference!”
Quizzed on his own listening habits, Mills describes himself as “an audiophile that keeps an ear open for things, let’s put it that way.” Sadly, something happened to him a year or so ago that “rather makes a hash of the whole thing”, he adds: “It doesn’t matter how many loudspeakers people put up or invent or arrange, I lost one side of my hearing overnight coming back from Colorado on a plane.” With a hearing aid that redirects sound into his working ear, he’s still able to get all the audio information around him, but “sitting me down and saying ‘look at the stereo effect on this’ just doesn’t work. I just get mono shoved into my head one way or another.”
I decide to put my own ears to the test and ask B&W to show me the difference between a studio quality, 24 bit recording and an MP3. Inside a bespoke listening room at the company’s Clerkenwell headquarters, Haikin skips through tracks from various genres to see how I fare. When we reach some songs I know, the difference really is astounding – the whooshes and drones in Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music For A Film’ sound like jumbo jets taking off – but it’s the speakers doing most of the work, of course; their punch and clarity makes a joke of what I’ve got in the corner of my own living room. But given that many Society of Sound subscribers will already own B&W speakers, they’re used to this quality – so what can 24 bit sound offer that they don’t already get? Haikin puts on two versions of The Jam’s ‘Mr Clean’ for me to assess, but frankly I struggle to detect a difference – at a push, I’d say they seem to occupy a slightly different space in the room.
No matter how expensive your speakers are or how many megabites your record collection takes up, there’s one variable that’s much harder to control. Everybody hears things differently, evidently – how else can you explain the popularity of Clean Bandit? – but listening is also a skill that can be nurtured and developed.
“I was having a discussion with a friend who was saying that with all of her friends, the more they were into professional music, like conductors or composers, the more shit their hi-fis tended to be,” muses Gregory. “There was this kind of link – your shit hi-fi doesn’t matter because you know what the music is doing, and you can sort of build the missing ingredients back in.”
In the B&W listening room it’s the opposite problem: even the tracks I’m familiar with seem to contain so much extra information they’re almost overwhelming. Listening is often characterised as a passive activity, with music as a backdrop to make us dance or cry, or just wash over us, but digesting a track exactly how it was envisioned and originally heard in the studio is a much more active pursuit.
Still, while few of us own hi-fi equipment as fancy as B&W speakers (the priciest of which reach well into five figures), there is a growing feeling that we’re demanding better quality in all aspects of our set-up, whether it’s replacing our tinny iPod earbuds with expensive headphones or rekindling a love of vinyl. As download speeds increase, high-quality audio streaming will surely soon become as normal as watching Netflix in HD; Spotify already offers 320kbps audio to its paying customers, and offerings like Tidal, the streaming service recently bought by Jay Z, should nudge the industry forward even more. Though it’s a niche proposition still, it looks like the Society of Sound project is just one part of a growing patchwork of offerings that could eventually bring us back to the pin-sharp standards put forward in the heyday of the soon-to-be-obsolete compact disc. And that just leaves us with our hearing to sort out.