Monthly Archives: May 2009

Radiophonic Workshop, Roundhouse.

A hushed reverence awaited the reunion of BBC Radiophonic Workshop members for a night of nostalgia and retro electro at the Roundhouse last night. (If you’re not familiar with the work of the RW one of the sound effects units of the BBC, it was created in 1958 to produce music and effects for radio drama and later TV. The music and the people who worked here became pioneers of electronica.)

A blue light danced off the mirrorball as the chaps came on in lab coats, a suitable gesture to the boffins of the RW past. In the introduction we heard how it finally closed in 1998 (40 years later) to boos and hisses and that Liz Parker did switch the lights off on her way out.

We were taken on a swirling, rumbling, beeping tour around some of the RW’s favourite contributions to TV and Radio, as well as homage to well loved former members – for Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills even came on with Delia’s green metal lampshade and they had some great visuals to accompany compositions such as Ziwzih Ziwzih 00-00-00 (watch a clip here)! They also paid tribute to John Baker, Daphne Oram, Desmond Briscoe and Maddalena Fagandini (who joined from the BBC’s Italian Service) amongst others. The guys were supported by ‘their carers’ a full brass section, percussion (inc. some huge kettle drums), guitar, sax and drums.

The chaps from Room 13 (Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Dick Mills and Mark Ayres) took it in turns to introduce favourite mixes and concoctions that sounded awesome in the Roundhouse, accompanied by a backdrop of animations of some of the best titles and intros such as Quatermass, Micro Live, Hitchhikers and also some of the education/kids themes.

For a bit of fun, Peter Howell introduced us to the vocoder and proceeded to treat us to a version of the Greenwich Chorus and Paddy quipped that the ‘Swirly’ continuity music, was really called Shirley after the lady who had commissioned it. They also played Reg, the original B-side to the Doctor Who theme tune.

Of course the crowd expected some Doctor Who and we were in for a treat! The guys started off with an amazing rendition of Delia Derbyshire’s version, that filled every part of the roundhouse and made it shake with it’s swirling sweeps, swoops, bubbles and clouds – my poor camera couldn’t even begin to record, through a melange of different scores and some excellent old footage. This finally made it’s way into a fantastic take on the Doctor Who theme tune that became a mega prog-rock stomping rendition.

For the final part of the concert we heard an awesome version of Astronauts, which rocked the Roundhouse and they when Dick Mills called them back out for an emotional encore, they gave us a rocking rendition of Radiophonic Rock.

These guys, certainly gave an inkling into how much great stuff has been produced by the Radiophonic Workshop over the years and the passion at which they crafted renditions of the compositions clearly showed that they weren’t stopping yet. Although getting on a bit now, the guys are still playing and composing, a lesson to some who feel that creativity and innovation belongs to the younger generations.

It’s a great pity that Birt decided that the RW wasn’t cost effective as it was clearly worth its weight in gold. The techniques and creativity that came from the Maida Vale Studios sowed the seeds of electronic music in the UK. Closing the RW was a real waste of talent and possibilities for the BBC to carry on with its pioneering work in this field, and I feel the BBC should certainly rethink its policy and how it might reinstate or recreate this fine and original cornerstone of the BBC.

Incase you might be interested, here’s an article I wrote in praise of Delia Derbyshire for Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging to raise awareness of women in technology, in March.

Five Days at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on YouTube

Alchemist’s of Sound part 1 on YouTube

‘The trouble with the future is that you never fully know about it until you’ve passed it…’ Roger Limb


Rasmus Lerdorf talk at the BBC

Yesterday, Backstage was really lucky to have the opportunity to have Rasmus Lerdorf over for a talk. If you don’t know Rasmus, he’s credited with creating PHP and has been at Yahoo! for 7 years.

Rasmus took us back to 1993 and gave us an intro into PHP and it’s uses – it was a mixed level talk because some of our developers are new to PHP and asked me if they could have an intro, so soz hardcore PHP peeps who were expecting a bit more of a hardcore talk.

Rasmus Lerdorf at the BBC

Rasmus Lerdorf at the BBC

I haven’t sorted out all my notes properly as I’m presently at Open Hack 2009, but here’s some of my notes from the Q&A session as they were really interesting, apologies if I typed any of these answers incorrect or got the wrong end of the stick – Rasmus let me know!

Q: Alex asked about back to front controllers…
A: Rasmus: they have a Zend framework – but they’re very slow, as the code has to be evaluated.

Q: Dan: what’s the deploy process at Yahoo!?
A: Rasmus: We have a central package database to ask what package versions are available. What ever you pick it makes sure it picks the files automatically so they’re not half written in the cache.

Q: In terms of source control how do you organize that?
A: We started with CVS but we’re mostly Subversion with Git and we build Wine packages and people work in small groups. We have a central control team called ‘the paranoids’ and we have a code ferret that looks for things. We look for patterns and red flag things.

My goal recently has been to push things developed towards an open source form
You should treat all projects and document like they were open source for the guys who are new to something


Q: Rendan – Staging servers?

A: Rasmus: People make their own processes – Yahoo! is a company of 35 companies so you will get different processes in different areas. Some of the code will be horrible and you’ll have the desire to pull it apart – it’s tricky as you don’t want to rock the boat – i.e. it’s weird but it works for them. There are no central services

Do we use different languages for different parts of Yahoo!?
PHP is the default and so is C++ Fireagle was built in Ruby on Rails, but it’s now in Ruby – Delicious was in Perl for years but is now in PHP. Seven years ago we decided to write everything in PHP, we needed to do this as we had 4 different code bases in Singapore and we had all sorts of coders writing different code. We had to make some hard decisions – even where other code would have been better than PHP we had to do it to standardize everything.


Q: Any drawbacks to using PHP?
A: Rasmus: We may have to revisit it, but not in the next 3-5 years – maybe if I leave!

Q: Yoafv: PHP has had its problems in the past – will PHP be used more for unit testing in the future?
A: Rasmus: Yes, there’s simple test written buy a guy in London, but problems are a separate thing. I keep things very simple – there are some very strong opinions but I don’t want to get into any battles – PHP is a part of a larger system but you get to decide what you test.


Q: Your opinion on Ruby on Rails?

A: Rasmus: Anything I say about Ruby ends on Twitter and blogs and I get people calling my wife – I wish people didn’t care so much about what I think on Rails – the scaffolding is a quick way to write code but the scaffolding doesn’t help you – it’s okay for a weekend project but not good for scaling.

Ruby is good but I don’t have any love for the Rails bit and you also have the problem of finding enough people to write it. I don’t like programming but I like solving problems – with PHP it’s really easy to code and it’s really easy to find coders – it’s a bit harder to do that with other languages when you need to find 2000 developers.


Q: What different types of developers do you have?
A: Rasmus: We have front end guys – they get better and better – the front end engineering team has been beefed up over the last 5 years and you have the back end guys but within that you have the front end back end and the back end back end guys -who write the C++ stuff – there’s 3 distinct groups!


Q: Do you have any recommendations on serving personalized content whilst making the service more dynamic?

A: Rasmus: We don’t serve a single static page at Yahoo! – from ads to personalized data we use good code, it has good latency – we work backwards – you build it so you hit the numbers, it’s not impossible if you throw effort at it. It’s all customizable with news, comics, content, mail etc – not doing it to save money doesn’t make sense.


Q: How do you manage the dependencies?

A: Rasmus: We have this new thing called Wireless (?) which is a framework building many content services and it also does benchmarking – from these little blocks.


Overall it was a very interesting talk, whatever your views on PHP. I was especially interested in the questions people asked, I filmed the event & I’ll put some video up later. Thanks Sophie at Yahoo! for helping make this possible 😀