Inside the Collection

Beginning Electronic Music- Tristram Cary part 2

Please note this post is part of a series. For part one of the Tristram Cary story, see here.

By 1962 Cary was not the only composer including electronic and concrete sounds in their work. In 1957 Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe began developing what they called “Radiophonic” sound for broadcasts of drama from the BBC Third Programme. Their works included Samuel Beckett’s All that Fall and Giles Cooper’s The Disagreeable Oyster (both 1957).[1] Then in 1958 the BBC established their Radiophonic Workshop at Maida Vale, London, where the main technique at this stage was tape manipulation and editing. Oram left the BBC in 1959 to set up her own studio and develop a synthesiser that used hand-drawn waveforms on film to control the oscillators.[2] The BBC proved to be one of Cary’s main employers and he produced several commissions a year for them. From 1960 he contributed to several BBC educational programmes on contemporary music for which the Radiophonic Workshop produced some of the music.

In 1962 Delia Derbyshire joined the BBC. About this time there were Ferrograph tape-recorders, a WWII period outside-broadcast (O/B) sound mixer, a reverberation chamber and a wobbulator which (although originally mechanically swept) consisted in an oscillator swept by a second oscillator. It was an engineering test instrument but here will be the beginnings of voltage control. Another batch of tape recorders (now Philips machines) with editing blocks and remote start controls were added about this time. There was also a set of 12 oscillators, each of which could be independently tuned, and whose outputs were switched by a 12 key “keying unit” that fed the selected oscillator to a type of valve amplifier known as a “variable-mu pentode” in which the gain (amplification) of the valve was controlled by an external voltage source which had adjustable attack and decay timing and thus functioned as a voltage controlled amplifier (VCA).[3] Cary built himself a Transient Waveform Modifier which was a set of four amplifiers based on similar devices, [PHM: 2009/83/2]. To be discussed in a coming blog.

Tristram Cary in the Fressingfield studio, operating his double ring modulator.

It was Derbyshire who realised Ron Grainer’s original visual score for the title music for Dr Who, developing the sounds that so many of us grew up with, and thereby introducing electronic music to the generation for whom it was all so influential. Cary’s role in Dr Who was in making some of the incidental music for several early episodes, including the introduction of the Daleks. The Dalek’s voices were made by Brian Hodgson using a ring modulator built from a pair of transformers with a ring of four diodes between them.

Also in 1962 Cary decided to move out of London. He bought a farmhouse, “Wood Farm”, in Suffolk, where he stayed until 1974, and around mid-1963 re-established his Fressingfield studio in an out-building. He abandoned the disc cutter for more tape-recorders and assembled the studio from devices that he eventually built into a wall of electronics in racks and a minimal patching and switched selection control panel with a six channel mixer. There he built several pieces of equipment that the Powerhouse Museum now has in its collection. These are a voltage controlled oscillator and an envelope shaper, and will be discussed in following blogs.

The main oscillators, control panel, and tape-recorders in Cary's Fressingfield studio.

Around this time (c.1960) Peter Zinovieff, the son of Russian émigrés to Britain, and whose hobby was electronic music, began to buy waveform generators, noise generators and other stuff from the war surplus electronics stores in London. He also bought a couple of tape-recorders and started making electronic sound with this gear, building a crude sequencer using telephone relays.[4] He had met Daphne Oram and she taught him how to assemble sounds into music. He later worked with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop forming the group Unit Delta Plus who played live electronic music at the Roundhouse in London, among other activities.

Around 1965-6 Zinovieff met David Cockerell an electronic designer who had already designed a ring modulator and a voltage controlled oscillator.[5] In 1967 Zinovieff bought a pair of DEC PDP8s which he intended to use to make computer music. As the PDP8 was not in itself powerful enough to do direct tonal synthesis it was coupled to a variety of analogue devices (VCOs, VCFs, etc) which could produce tones, thus creating a hybrid system in which the computers generated control voltages for the analogue components.[6] With Cockerell’s technical support, Zinovieff began to assemble the PDP8s into a computer-driven sequencer to control the proposed system for the production of sampled sound (an idea that came from the ideas of musique concrete) which was to consist in a block of filters and oscillators. Cockerell took charge of the engineering in Zinovieff’s studio in 1968. Meanwhile in 1967 Zinovieff met Tristram Cary and in 1968 the three of them set up Electronic Music Studios (EMS) to run the PDP8 lab and build the instruments necessary with which to compose electronic music.

Cary had been appointed director of the Electronic Music Studio at the Royal College of music in 1967 and had a studio built, which was ready to use in September 1968.[7] Cary’s students at the RCM included Laurence Casserly and Howard Davidson. Earlier that year (January 15, 1968) Cary and Zinovieff produced what may have been the first electronic music concert in Britain.[8] As well as works by Cary and Zinovieff it included compositions by Ernest Berk, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and Ivor Walsworth, George Newson, Jacob Meyerowitz and Alan Sutcliffe.[9] Sutcliffe had written a stochastic music composition on an ICL computer and recorded it to paper-tape, which he and Zinovieff then realised as ZASP on Zinovieff’s PDP8 in this concert.[10]

A little earlier Robert Moog had proposed the use of voltage control in a paper to the 1965 Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention in New York.[11] It wasn’t actually a new idea, for example a wobulator or sweep frequency generator could be built using voltage control, but Moog used an exponential control ratio and this meant that a change of one volt in control voltage produced an exponential change in the frequency and thus you had a one volt per octave control system. From there, a keyboard controlling the frequency of the oscillator was a simple thing. Not that many of the early electronic composers were at all interested in using keyboards. But that option did make Moog’s synthesisers trendy in popular music.

[1] Darren Giddings, “Concrete Mixers, The story of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop”, 2003. []. See also Wikipedia on Desmond Briscoe [] and Wikipedia on the Radiophonic Workshop []

[2] This is described in Steve Marshall, “Graham Wrench: The Story Of Daphne Oram’s Optical Synthesizer,” Sound On Sound, February, 2009. Available at     

[3] See “Derbyshire Electronic Music Pioneer” , and Ray White (2004). BBC Radiophonic Workshop: An Engineering Perspective, chapter 2 []

[4] Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, Analog Days: The invention and impact of the Moog synthesizer, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002, pp.280ff.

[5] Ibid., p.285.

[6] Tristram Cary, Illustrated Compendium of Musical Technology, London: Faber & Faber, 1992, p.100.

[7] Lawrence Casserley, “Reflections on Ten Years of Electronic Music at the RCM,” RCM Magazine, vol.75, no.3, 1979

[8] Francis Routh, Contemporary British Music: The Twenty-five Years from 1945 to 1970, chapter VI, The Contemporary Scene. Available at

[9] Ibid.

[10] Michael Kassler, “Report from Edinburgh,” Perspectives in New Music, vol.7, no.2 (Spring, 1969) p.178. Kassler is reporting on the IFIP ’68 conference.

[11] R.A.Moog, “Voltage Controlled Electronic Music Modules,” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, vol.13 (1965), pp.200-206.

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