Edit, 2018: so you might have arrived here because I’ve posted up a new mix of the DW theme. Good. Thanks. This post was all about my original take, back in 2015. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for geeky details on the most recent mix.
Yes. This year, I finally made my own version of the Doctor Who theme. People who know me will realise this has been a long, long time coming.
Whisper it, the Doctor Who theme is actually a very cheesy piece of music. It’s brilliant, catchy, sure. But note for note? Cheeeeesy as hell. Any driving or haunting aspect to the tune relies on the quality of its production – luckily, the very first version from 1963 is probably one of the most brilliant pieces of popular electronic music ever made.
And the original production is, for the most part, purely electronic. In terms of ‘live’ musicianship it featured one, maybe two instruments: a single plucked string which served to make the upper part of the bass rhythm, and (some argument here) perhaps a melodica, a blown keyboard that supported the main melody with an organ-like undertone. But even these acoustic sounds were slowed down or sped up to the required frequency, mixed onto precise lengths of cut-up magnetic tape, then stitched together. The 1963 Doctor Who theme is a copy-and-paste masterpiece.
Meanwhile all the other noises you hear on that original are generated by electronics. Not synths, and not even ‘musical’ technology per se, but instead gear intended to line-test BBC recording equipment by emitting various boring, constant tones. The arranger Delia Derbyshire and her assistant Dick Mills interfered with these basic boxes, pushing them to make intriguing hissings and wobbles, recording them through multiple sources, doubling and fattening them up, making them rhythmic. The final assembly sounds human but disconcerting. Somewhere between transmission error, tribal beat, and weird hymn. The genius of that collaboration between Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic workshop, intentional or otherwise, was the combination of approaches: the cheesiness of the composition made it fun, and the otherworldly production made it scary. Scary + fun = Doctor Who.
Over the years the official retakes on the theme have waxed and waned around those 4 or 5 basic elements, subtly changing the harmonics of the lead melody, adding washes of sci-fi glitter (1967) sometimes losing the distinct bass rhythm altogether (2010). There’s been a Giorgio Moroder-ish thumpalong (1980) Braveheart drumming (2007) an apocalypse of bad techno-jazz (1987) and a startling and brilliant combination which took samples from the original and mixed them up with a full orchestral blowout (2005). The current version is one of the more curious. It features tubular bells, a dressage shuffle and an Emerson Lake & Palmer synth taking the lead line. I’ve always wondered about combining my favourite aspects from all these versions to make my own, to fuse the kind of drive and power that the modern TV series needs with something I’ve begun to miss – the warped mystery of that very first arrangement. Scary + fun. So I tried. Here’s the result.
As much as possible I wanted to make this using copy-and-paste, retuning single notes, rather than playing melodies on keyboards. Seemed appropriate. There’s only three sounds from the ‘63 original: the hissy burble that closes the track, the low chord that supports the middle eight (generated on something Derbyshire christened the ‘Wobbulator’) and a tiny touch of the original bassline running throughout for what I’d like to think of as moral support. But otherwise –
The two basslines are made pretty much entirely from piano recordings. Given that the TARDIS sound effect is a yale key scraped up and down some piano strings, I thought it would be fun to reference TARDIS noises in the rhythm – scratching, hitting, pushing against the strings, letting them ring out. The raw recordings were then manipulated using an iPad app called Borderlands Granular, in random fashion, giving me a whole bunch of twisted and groaning sounds to drop in and out. It was also used to make the electro stutters that fall off the bassline in triplets.
The cyclical static hisses from the original are hinted at using a software instrument called Geosonics, which allows you to construct playable instruments from samples of field recordings by Chris Watson. In this case it’s the sound of wire fences in the Australian outback. I edited some mechanical patterns I liked and just let them run throughout the track, in the same independent, phase-in-and-out of rhythm way the static hisses do in the ‘63. The same wire fences also provide the Dominic Glynn-ish distant metallic screeches.
Finally… the lead melody line is generated from scratch, following the techniques Derbyshire and Mills employed… or at least as much of them as I could dig up. It’s a couple of sine waves with portamento swoop in between certain notes. These are then fed through a tape delay unit to give them the characteristic wow, flutter and stutter. And then fed through the delay again, and again, and again, allowing them to fuzz up. Because for me the Doctor Who melody is at its strangest and strongest in the versions of the late 70s, when the master tapes of the theme had been copied and sub-mixed so many times that those oo-weee-ooos had begun to seriously distort, and at points almost sounded like something dubalicious by Lee Scratch Perry:
Putting this together what really struck me was that it was very, very easy to make any individual aspect of Grainer’s composition sound appallingly bad. There’s a fiendishly thin line between homage and fromage. My respect for anyone who’s ever attempted to re-arrange this music went through the roof. And I understood why, when the series returned in 2005, Murray Gold had initially wanted nothing to do with re-imagining it. Delia Derbyshire set such a high standard, it leaves you wondering what else there is to achieve, so it’s amazing that faced with that obstacle Mr Gold came up with the best take on the tune bar the original. Throughout, I kept returning to Derbyshire’s version, listening to it over and over – still, after 50 years, sounding like a lucid dream.
Thanks for listening. Or indeed reading, if you got this far. Sure, I’m a geek. But come on: I’m a happy geek.
Edit 2018: well, I couldn’t keep away, as predicted. Listening back to my first version it sounds… well… really rather Goth. Sort of 4AD-ish. As well as being astonishingly deficient in treble — probably as the result of mostly being mixed on trains, using headphones. I think I was pushing the ‘scary’ at the expense of the ‘fun’, and I might have got a little too wrapped up in the theory of it all. So in late 2017 I began tinkering with another version, this one:
And this time I resolved to create a livelier mix that reflected more of my musical interests right now; also, responding to the fact that there’s most likely going to be a new arrangement of the theme this year. I wanted to throw in some Ben Frost-y stuff and some buzzy synths. But I didn’t expect it to end up this huge-sounding, quite frankly. I must be in a bombastic mood for the new year.
For the most part it’s still based on the materials assembled for my 2015 version. The piano is placed more prominently as a melodic element in the bassline, rather than just an emphasis to the rhythm. Most of the 1963 samples from previous version have been ejected, leaving only the original bass. The melody has been subjected to even more degradation and space-echo delay, for a real hauntological kick. And the bigs news is the addition of something I NEVER thought I’d use for this job: a drum machine. It’s a Sonic Charge Microtonic, for anyone interested, and it’s doing something redolent of Murray Gold’s 2010 arrangement — just much more fucked-up, syncopated and jittery.
The hardest thing to find a handle on? The classic cliffhanger sting: the descending shriek that signalled the end of episodes from 1970 onwards, and was sampled wholesale into the opening titles from 2005:
In the end I just gave up. There’s not much improving on the original. Certainly all other embellishments and cover versions have fallen short of the mark to my old ears.
And if you think I couldn’t get nerdier, think again. Here’s a list of other references for the truly lost:
The opening and closing basslines are beefed up with a Prophet 5 bassline I called ‘Sylvesterbass’ as it bore a strong resemblance to the one used in Sylvester McCoy’s winky title sequence.
Much of the rhythmic push in this version is down to a sample instrument called SIGNAL by Output audio, beloved of Kanye West. You’ll also hear it providing the distorted chords in the mid-section.
The use of a break in the bassline when the melody first comes in is, I reckon, unprecedented. Kick me to bits on twitter if you disagree. I’m not scared. I write for Big Finish now, I’m constantly being re-educated. Those guys have mad facts.
Another addition: a string ensemble, echoing Murray Gold’s string ‘runs’ in the versions from 2005 – 09. But they’re pretty tense and dark, focused on one note at a time. They become more prominent in the final middle 8 section. I was very pleased when these worked out. They’re the sonic equivalent of the rug that ties the whole room together, dude.
Overall: someone described the last version I did as being full of audio ‘lens flare.’ This new one’s still distorted as hell, but now the distortion’s in the service of a sense of fun, I hope, rather than just making you think your speakers might have broken.
Thanks for listening.