MCM Synthesises Dr Who Instrument

Saturday, 28 March, 2015

In a move that will delight Doctor Who fans, the restoration of a rare Electronic Music Studios (EMS) 100 Modular Analogue Synthesiser has just been completed at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM). It’s an exact replica of the synthesiser used to create sound effects for the original BBC series!

The Synthi 100 was shipped from London to Melbourne in 1973 and became the centrepiece of electronic music in the University. Senior MCM Technical Officer Leslie Craythorn, who started work in 1925, dedicated the next 12 years of his job to helping students understand how it worked and what it could do.

Those 12 years included editing a Vinyl LP of electronic ocean waves, beeps and UFO sounds performed on the instrument by Peter Tahourdin. Craythorn told the ABC that this is a great example of composers of the era focusing on “pitchless, beatless music” and is exactly the reason synthesisers like the EMS 100 were created.

When the BBC Radiophonic Workshop took over delivery of the instruments in the 1970s they had their own composer, Malcolm Clarke, use one to add sound effects and incidental noises to the Doctor Who series being aired at the time.

Unlike most analogue synthesisers that run electronic signals straight through the instrument to the speakers, with the user changing the settings as they go, the EMS 100 is modular. Modular synthesisers send signals through a variable series of gates or ‘modules’ depending on the sound the user wants to create.

Only 30 modular Synthi 100 models were ever built, with 16 of them now in the Conservatorium’s collection.

In the 1980s the EMS sunk into obsolescence beside its preferred digital counterparts and was kept in storage at the University for the next 20 years.

“Digital synthesisers became popular very fast… analogue music got left behind and hadn’t run its time yet,” said Craythorn.

To restore it back to its original glory, he had to individually remove each of the 184 dials and 84 circuit cards and soak them in an ultrasonic bath. He estimates that the instrument is currently just above 90 per cent operational, with the rest of the work to be completed before a planned concert at the Conservatorium in March.